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My Handcrafted Opinions on Whiskies, Distilleries and Other Related Stuff

It is St Patrick's Day weekend so an Irish blog entry is required and it turns out that I have quite a lot of Irish ancestry.  I knew my mother's family, Bradley, came to England from Cork in the early 20th century.    What I didn't know until I did some family research in 2011 was that my father's family also came from Ireland.  The Seaton's (originally spelled Seton) moved from Aberdeenshire, Scotland to County Tyrone, Ireland in the late 1600's and my great great grandfather James came over to Staffordshire in England in the late 1840's, added the "a" to Seton and we became Seaton.

 

That connection got me thinking about Irish whiskey and the run of bad luck that nearly wiped out the Irish distilling industry.  I think it can be summed up in six different events in relatively short time period, approximately 100 years that hurt the Irish whiskey industry and more often than not benefited the Scots, and changed the industry forever.

Number one was the invention of the Coffey continuous still in 1832 and the ability to make the lower cost grain whiskies.  Up until then both Scotland and Ireland made whisky in pot stills.  The Irish clung to the tradition of pot still distilled whiskey and disputed if the product of the continuous still was even whiskey.  The Scots embraced the Coffey still  (though not while it was running – ouch) and eventually won the argument "what is whisky?"  The irony is that this critical component in the eventual downfall of the Irish industry, the Coffey still, was in fact invented by an Irishman.

The 1850s saw invention of blending of whisky, commonly credited to Andrew Usher, a Scot, who began mixing the pot still single malts and continuous still grain whiskies to produce a lighter, consistent and more accessible spirit.  When the Phylloxora beetle affected French vines and wine and brandy production reduced significantly in the late 1880's it created a new market for whisky that the new lower cost, consistent and more approachable Scottish blends subsequently exploited and filled. Without Scottish blends perhaps the Irish pot still whiskies would have filled that void and been the replacement for brandy?

Number three was the introduction of prohibition in the USA in 1920.  The USA was huge natural market for Irish whiskey with so many Irish people transplanted to the new world after the hardships of the 1700 and 1800s and Irish was the most common imported whisky in the USA before prohibition.  It is also important to note, and often forgotten,  that the Temperence movement that led to prohibition in the USA was also strong in the UK and Ireland which in turn also reduced demand in those home markets and led to legislation including limiting the sales of alcohol, increasing costs of production and restricting pub opening hours.   The Irish whiskies had more to lose than the Scots from the Temperance movement in the 1920s, and if Prohibition had not happened then I think it is likely Irish would have remained the imported whiskey of choice in the USA.

Number four was the winning of Irish independence in 1922.  The problem was this victory came with a loss of access to British Empire markets post independence, again a gap the Scots were well positioned to fill.  As the debate around Scottish independence and the value of a United Kingdom is again in the news, this raises the question if Scotland had been independent and had no access to English, Empire and Commonwealth markets would the thriving Scotch industry be the same today or would we have had an English or Welsh whisky industry fill this demand or would the Irish, competing on a level footing, been more successful?   Was being part of the UK the best thing that could have happened for the Scotch whisky industry?

Number five was the great depression that began in 1929.  After all the restrictions on sales due to temperance, the loss of access to British and Commonwealth markets the last thing the Irish whiskey industry needed was a global depression to further depress sales.   Unfortunately that is exactly what happened.

The final blow, number six, was the outbreak of World War II in 1939.  Wartime is very disruptive to trade when you are an island and have to ship your merchandise over U-boat and mine infested oceans.  In addition, prior to the invasion of Europe in 1944, many of the US troops were based in the UK (Ireland chose to remain neutral) and the whisky of choice in the UK, for all the reasons above, was Scotch.  So the returning GI's at the end of the war had acquired a taste for Scotch further solidifying the US market in favor of the Scots.

So much for the luck of the Irish when it comes to whiskey.  It is a tremendous achievement and testament to the product that it even still exists, and I for one am really glad it does, maybe that's in part due to my Irish genes.

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