Irish whiskey is one of the greatest styles of whiskey in the world, and also one of the most ancient. Unfortunately, the 20th Century saw the decline and fall of the Irish whiskey industry. In recent years Irish whiskey has begun to make a comeback. Today, Irish whiskey is the fourth most popular style of whiskey in the world behind scotch, bourbon and Canadian whiskies.
The Rise of Irish Whiskey
Distilling technology came to Ireland earlier than many parts of Europe, probably brought over to the island by missionary monks. The first distillates were called uisce beatha, Gaelic for "water of life", which was eventually anglicized into the word whiskey that we use today.
Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was known to be a fan of Irish whiskey and had stocks of it delivered to her court, the start of making it a fashionable beverage in England. By the 18th Century, Czar Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725) declared, "Of all the wines of the world, Irish spirit is the best". By 1755, Samuel Johnson had put the word whiskey in his dictionary, commenting, "the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavour". In the 19th Century, Irish whiskey took its place as the most popular whiskey in the world, and, in the 1880s, after phylloxera had devastated the cognac crop in France, Irish whiskey became the world's most popular spirit.
The Rapid Decline of Irish Whiskey
A number of factors at the dawn of the 20th Century almost completely destroyed the Irish whiskey industry. The advent of the Coffey still allowed competitors to produce whiskey in a more cost effective manner. The Irish were slow to adopt the Coffey still (a type of continuous still) and clung to pot stills, a less efficient but more flavorful style of still. Additionally, Ireland's War of Independence from 1919-1921 interrupted the distiller's access to overseas markets, and once freedom from England was achieved, the English closed all access to their market. England had been the largest market in the world for Irish whiskey at that time. Next, the second largest market for Irish whiskey, the United States, closed its markets from 1920-1933 due to Prohibition. Even worse for the Irish whiskey industry was that during the Prohibition era, bootleg whiskey was often passed off as Irish whiskey, destroying its reputation and turning off an entire generation of Americans to Irish whiskey. Finally, World War 2 destroyed what was left of the Irish whiskey industry. After World War 2, only seven distilleries remained from approximately 160 in 1880. Today, there are only three distilleries left in all of Ireland (Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley).
The Savior of Irish Whiskey?
Could one simple drink save an entire industry from obscurity in the United States? San Francisco's legendary Buena Vista cafe may have done just that with their famous Irish coffees. Owner Jack Koeppler was served an Irish coffee at the Shannon Airport in 1952 and came home obsessed with recreating this drink at his San Francisco restaurant. With the help of travel writer Stanton Delaplane and the mayor of San Francisco, he finally recreated this drink successfully. With the Buena Vista serving up to 2000 Irish Coffees a day to tourists from around the country and locals, some would argue that Jack Koeppler single-handedly saved the Irish whiskey market in the United States by introducing people to the soft, sweet whiskey in his Irish coffees. Travelers would try an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista and then return home to wherever they were from and ask their local bartender or shopkeeper for Irish whiskey so that they could create the legendary Irish Coffee from the San Francisco legend.
Did the Buena Vista save Irish whiskey in America? While it cannot be proven conclusively, the Buena Vista has introduced the pleasures of good Irish whiskey to thousands upon thousands of people over the years.