Irish Lost – The sad history of Irish distilling’s “Ambassador Brands.”

Take each of the better-known Irish whiskey brands: Jameson’s, Powers, Paddy’s, Tullamore Dew. Pour them into separate glasses, swirl them round and breathe in. You will immediately be engulfed in as much Irishness as a potato- and mutton-laden Irish stew.

All four whiskeys have markedly different characteristics as one would rightly expect from a land which, only a matter of 200 years ago, boasted some 2,000 legal and illegal distilleries. Yet these ambassador brands, Jameson’s, Powers, Paddy’s, and Tullamore Dew today come from the same stills of the same distillery in County Cork and mature in the same, massive warehouses. Of course, it was not always so.

No nation has been unluckier with its national spirit. The cruel way the forces of war and commerce ganged up on it over a 20 year period in the early part of this century is nearly unbelievable.

From a commercial perspective it was bad enough for Ireland’s legal distillers that their country’s communities had been thrown into turmoil in 1916 with the Irish War of Independence. But things worsened drastically when civil war racked Ireland between 1919 and 1921. To compound matters, the industry was brought mercilessly to its knees by the British Government’s Trade embargo with the new Irish Free State, which not only cut off their markets in England, Wales and Scotland but throughout the entire Empire as well.

Their only hope of expanding trade was with the new world, but at the very same time the U.S. Government had voted to impose the most draconian drinking legislation in the history of the first world with the Volstead Act. And just years after that was repealed, fate dealt yet another near-fatal blow, with trade slumping universally following Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

Had not this extraordinary catalogue of horrors befallen a single industry there is little doubt the bottle of Jameson you see in your liquor store would still have been Dublin distilled, hailing from the opposite banks of the Liffey to Powers, just as it did a century ago. Tullamore would have thrived as one of Ireland’s centers of distilling. And Paddy’s would remain the only whiskey from Midleton in Ireland’s deep south.

Instead, by the 1960s the number of non-grain distilleries in all Ireland had been whittled down to four, each suffering from chronic under-funding, loss of confidence, and lack of development. They had seen blended Scotch whisky take an uncompromising hold of world markets. Woefully short of the financial resources to effectively battle their own corner, they decided to merge and fight together as one.

History dictates that when mergers take place, closures and redundancies follow. Irish whiskey proved no exception. And all this came at a time when the intermittent closures of distilleries were almost the accepted norm.

The second world war took its toll on one famous Dublin distillery, Jones Road, which shared with Mortlach in Scotland’s Speyside the unusual dual distinction of being built on the very site of a battlefield which had seen the monarch-led slaughter of an invading 11th century Danish army, and were purveyors of top-notch whisk(e)y to boot. In 1954, Tullamore Distillery shut down for good. North of the border distilleries had fared little better with the demise of Dunville’s (1951), Comber (1953), and Coleraine (1964) although grain distilling was carried out there for 14 more years.

So, when did Jameson and Powers really lose their once fiercely-fought individuality? The merger between those two with Cork Distilleries, owners of the Paddy’s brand, took place in 1966. The first casualty of the merger was John Jameson, whose enormous but aged Bow Street distillery closed in 1971. Production of their whiskey was transferred, with a wonderful touch of the Irish, across the bridge named after the country’s legendary temperance zealot, Father Mathew, to Powers’ John’s Lane distillery.

Four years later, the workers at the old Cork Distilleries’ Midleton plant went home from the ancient buildings holding the fermenters and stills and, the next morning, filed through the same gates to clock in at the purpose-built distillery next door. Within twelve months production likewise ceased at Powers and all distilling in the Republic was now carried out at Midleton.

It is a sad tale. The Jameson Distillery, for sheer size alone, was one of the wonders of Dublin. Its crumbling buildings still standing today give some idea why. Much of Powers, in the shadow of the imposing Christchurch cathedral, has been lost, although the front, the elegant Counting House, is now the city’s Art College. Just behind it, high on a pedestal, is the creation of copper that once constituted the great distillery. This is not a student’s sculpture: these are the tarnished green remains of the massive pot stills which once gurgled and hissed as a truly remarkable spirit gushed into the receivers.

What perhaps makes this fall from grace all the more extraordinary was the fact that Irish whiskey was once the most popular spirit in the world outside rum. In the early 1870s brandy was in enormous demand. But when the Cognac region of France had been devastated by phylloxera in 1872, Irish distillers grabbed the chance to fill the gap. Irish whiskey was considered lighter and easier to handle on the palate than Scottish single malts. And for one brief, glorious period Irish whiskey was in demand in all four corners of the globe.

What set Irish apart was the fact that distillers did not exclusively use malted barley as was the case in Scotland. The mash was made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley with oats, wheat and rye also added. Nor by this time was the malt peat dried. The result was a mouthwateringly flavorsome whiskey, yet lighter than Highland by something to spare.

However, when Scottish blenders started mixing malt whisky with grain whisky made from wheat or corn and continuously distilled, Irish distillers began to feel the pinch. Unlike in Scotland where bottled whiskies had been made available early on, the tradition in Ireland, especially with John Jameson, was to sell by the barrel to merchants who then filled their own bottles and containers.

The trouble was, many had unscrupulously begun to doctor their whiskey with the cheaper grain spirit but without telling the customer. Irish distillers had long resented any grain spirit being called whiskey; loathed in particular the fact that they had no means of control over what happened to their whiskey once they had sold their casks, and refused point blank to have anything to do with producing their own blended whiskey. These merchants’ and innkeepers’ practices, increasingly giving Irish whiskey a bad name, were common throughout the British Isles. And even on the other side of the Atlantic it was all too easy to find “Irish” a long way removed from the delightful golden spirit maturing in Dublin warehouses.

One New York publisher even made a roaring trade issuing books on how to produce the stuff for minimum cost and maximum profit. The first, in 1885, showed Grade 1 Irish could be made by mixing 40 gallons of spirit with 5 gallons of Irish Whiskey, costing $1.40 for the lot. Grade 3 Irish was a straight cut of 22 1/2 gallons of spirit to 22 1/2 gallons of Irish whiskey, costing $2.75. If it was Scotch you were trying to create, then just add oil of birch cut with alcohol for phony smokiness. It was only a matter of a few years before an even cheaper Irish was on the market: 30 gallons of rectified whiskey, three quarts of paradise tincture, two ounces of catechu, ten drops of creosote and five gallons of water. Water of ammonia was optional. And only if you were going for the deluxe version.

But it was Irish distillers’ desire to guarantee the purity of their pure pot still whiskey which was to lead to their downfall. The Scots got on with marketing blended whisky, leaving Irish the heavier style and something of a dinosaur. By the 1950s some Irish distillers had switched their brands from pure pot still to blended, though many didn’t. Even Powers remained the real thing until they merged with their rivals and only then did it become a blend.

Today Jameson, Powers, Tullamore Dew and Paddy’s are each a blend. But at Midleton there are massive pot stills and finely tuned continuous grain stills to create a varying number of style of spirit. When blended together the differences can be quite startling.

For the international assault it was a matter of eggs and baskets. One basket was considered enough and the name they decided to promote was Jameson. If you are very lucky you might find their Crested Ten or 1780, the first supremely delicate, the second sherry rich and exuding a mustiness similar to the old Jameson of Bow Street days. Sadly, though, they have pitched safely with the ordinary Jameson brand designed to display an Irish lightness with definite, but controlled, pot still character unique to Ireland. Lighter, still are Paddy’s and Tullamore Dew.

But Powers is a quite different matter. It radiates the cut-glass clarity but brittleness of traditional Irish pot still. This is because only 30% of it is grain whiskey and of the pot still 60% of the barley used is unmalted. Other grains like oats and rye are no longer part of the recipe. The result, however, is an Irish blend in an echelon of its own. The bad news is that it is so difficult to find outside Ireland, where it stubbornly remains the country’s most popular whiskey.

Irish Distillers do produce a 100% pure unblended pot still whiskey called Redbreast, a 12-year-old which would find its way into the top dozen of any whiskey connoisseur in the world. But again, it is one Irish Distillers prefer to keep quiet about.

You cannot totally blame them for such a policy. Once, and not that long ago, Irish pot still whiskey, whether in blend or straight, was a spirit on the verge of international extinction. Like some story line from Star Trek, a dying race jumped upon the mothership Midleton to take them to a new colony to start afresh. They knew the journey would be a long one and whether they liked it or not they had to adapt to their new world.

The plan appears to have worked. Now let us hope the truly indigenous species, like Redbreast and Powers, will be allowed to flourish as well.

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