By Chris Middleton

Irish whiskey revolutionaries

Irish distillers stand accused of not adapting to column stills
Nothing can be further from the truth in this statement. An examination of the archives reveals the opposite. They were technology revolutionaries.

Since the introduction of continuous distillation in the 1830s ‘silent spirit’ increased its share as blended whisky, becoming the most popular style in Ireland as well as Scotland and North America. The antagonists called spirit made on patented continuous stills, silent spirit. Distilled at more than 60 Over Proof (+90% ABV) the flavour congeners were stripped out, whereas with traditional pot distillation many flavour compounds passed over at a lower proof (around 25 Over Proof or 72% ABV).

Akin to vodka, even after storage in oak casks, aged silent spirit imparted an ‘unwholesome’ and beige taste. However, when blended with pot distilled whisky the combination proved exceptionally popular, especially with English and Anglo export markets.

This new silent grain spirit caused great rancour amongst traditional Irish distillers, as it did amongst the Scottish and American whisky industries. Debates raged for years on purity and what is whisky. This matter would not be resolved until the end of the first decade of the 20th century when governments created the first regulations defining whisky.

Before continuous stills in the 1780s, Irish whiskey enjoyed a long head-start over Scotch. No sooner had capital investment poured into building large Irish distilleries the British Parliament in 1785 extended the malt tax to Ireland. In response, the distillers dramatically increased the amount of unmalted barley and oats into their mash bills to avoid or minimise the tax.

They were the instigators and revolutionaries who led the way...

As their malting kilns rarely were exposed to smoke, their whisky had little or no peet-reek character. Irish whiskey was born and began its development along a unique flavour path by distilling a lighter fruitier style of whisky to Scotch.
Back to those Irish whisky radicals and their continuous stills. This technological leap made whisky much more affordable; these lighter whiskies would lead to changes in consumer taste.

The Irish distillers embraced this new technology. By 1850 one fifth of Irish distilleries had continuous stills, compared to Scotland at less than eight per cent. Far from rejecting this new technology, the Irish quickly invested in this innovation. However, there was one group of distillers who resisted and did not welcome this advancement. They repudiated this flavourless silent spirit.

These were the big four Dublin distillers, the city’s whisky powerhouse: James Jameson, William Jameson, John Powers and George Roe distilleries. Since the introduction of Coffey stills, Dublin’s share of production had fallen to less than 40 per cent of Irish output by 1850.

They steadfastly shunned silent spirit, committed to traditional pot distilled whiskey, the style that had won them acclaim and allowed them to hold a dominant share of export sales. The Dublin distillers were dismayed their powerful agents had contracts allowing them to blend silent spirit with their pot whiskey and sell to the world as Dublin whiskey. To meet the competitive challenge of this lighter style of whisky in the 1860s, Dublin distillers shifted to start triple distillation, producing a lighter style to match the threat. They were distilled on large ‘bulbous’ pot stills, encouraged since the 1794 Act that set the minimum size at 500 gallons

It proved to be of no avail, as the Irish industry reached its apogee of 14.5 million gallons in 1890 with blended whiskey continuing to command the bulk of Irish sales.

The 1890s saw the Irish whiskey industry fall into long-term decline due adverse events. After the First World War, the Irish whiskey would suffer even greater declines. Especially when their major export market, the US introduced Prohibition from 1920.

The Irish distillers and inventors left a lasting legacy on the whiskey industry. Far from rejecting continuous distilling, they were the instigators and revolutionaries who led the way for Scottish, Canadian and later the Japanese to follow. America moved to the beat (or thump) of different distillation method.