Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to this weeks’ Letter from Ireland. It’s a lovely crisp, sunny morning here in County Cork as I write. I do hope the weather is treating you kindly wherever you are in the world.
I’ve just poured a cup of Barry’s tea for myself – I do hope you’ll join me now with a cup of whatever you’re having, as we start into today’s Letter from Ireland.
Do you like the taste of Irish Whiskey? Maybe you like it in a “Hot Toddy”? Or as a nice smooth base layer in an Irish Coffee? As a young(er) fellow, I served my time as a barman in Michael Barrys’ pub in Douglas, County Cork. Each evening, a few different “auld fellows” would come in and take their regular stools at the bar. The order of the day was normally a pint of stout (or a half pint if their bladders weren’t up to it!), but all of them had a “drop on the side”.
This “drop”, or “half one”, was a half-measure of Irish whiskey. Some would take it with a jug of water, some with ginger-ale on the side – and some more would simply tip the whiskey into the creamy head of their newly poured pint. The height of drinking efficiency.
During this time, the 1970s, the choice of Irish Whiskeys was at it’s lowest for centuries. You had a choice of brands called “Powers” or “Paddy” – or maybe “Bushmills”, “Jameson” or “Hewitt” if you were feeling a little more exotic. But, Irish whiskey was clearly dying out with these auld fellows – and the feeling was that it might soon be gone.
The English word Whiskey comes from the Irish “Uisce Beatha” (pronounced “ish-ka ba-haa”) – literally meaning “Water of Life”. It is believed that the process for distilling whiskey was introduced into Ireland around 1000 AD by Irish monks who were already familiar with this distilling process which was used for perfumes on the continent of Europe. Shortly after, these monks also introduced the distillation of whiskey to their monasteries in Scotland. Those monasteries were cold places!
Over time, the smoother whiskeys of Ireland were considered much superior to Scottish whisky and for a number of centuries, Irish whiskey was the most popular spirit in the world. By 1900, about twelve million cases were shipped from Ireland around the world.
But then we had prohibition in the USA, the Irish war of Independence and a series of economic and supply shocks that reduced the manufacture of Irish whiskey all the way down to 500,000 cases by the time my “auld fellows” were knocking back their drop from the bar stools of Mick Barrys. In the meantime, the whiskies of Scotland – “Scotch” – had gone in the opposite direction. The number of Scottish distilleries increased – along with the quality and demand. And then something happened.
Since about 1993, Irish whiskey has become the fasted growing spirit drink in the world with the backing of the big conglomerates. Both the smooth-blended whiskies (such as Jameson), as well as local whiskies that have a unique character of their own, have driven this charge back onto the shelves of our pubs and off-licences. It looks like we’ll be back to our previous high of 12 million cases by 2020. But, I also think there is an interesting parallel story behind this resurgence of Irish Whiskey – and it is a personal opinion.
You know how we often chat about the catastrophic decline in the population of most Irish counties between the census of 1841 and the census of 1961? In a lot of counties, the population was reduced by two-thirds due to famine and emigration. This was a time when many of your own ancestors left these shores for a better life.
By the late 1800’s, Ireland was just starting to regain a sense of Gaelic identity – an identity that had been beaten down and forbidden for many centuries. Today, Ireland is a young country – not yet one hundred years as an independent nation. It has taken many decades to develop both a confidence in our abilities and a pride in our heritage – without feeling that we have to ask someone elses permission first.
I feel that only since the 1990s, have we regained a proper sense of national identity and confidence about where we stand on the world stage. As we looked back, we realised what a rich culture and set of traditions we possessed. This slowly building realisation and confidence has started to produce many examples of a resurgent Irish spirit, including the rebirth of the Irish Whiskey industry. What do you think?
So, no matter what your opinions on alcohol, whiskies – or the correct measure for an Irish Coffee – I wish you “Sláinte” and many years of health and happiness!
Slán for now – Mike and Carina : )
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