Irish Whiskey Pt. 14: The Undertaker That Kickstarted the Irish Whiskey Industry // McConnell's

Who helped bring Irish Whiskey to the world? It wasn't Jameson, Power's or Roe

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Show Notes

The names of Jameson, Roe, and Powers all have a special place in the history of the success of the Irish whiskey industry. But none of them had the power and influence in the 18th century to take their whiskey around the world.

This week, we'll meet that man who almost ruined Irish whiskey's reputation, while also setting it on a path to the massive success it would enjoy in the 19th century. Plus, I'll share my experience on my first day in Belfast at the McConnell's Sherry Cask whiskey launch


The Undertakers

Since the days of Henry VIII, and his declaration of his kingship over Ireland, the Irish had been under some measure of control by the English. The Irish Parliament began with the power to legislate and levy taxes. But the English worked in the background to keep some measure of control. And their man in Dublin would be the Lord Lieutenant, chief governor over Ireland, it was up to him to call the Irish Parliament into session. But by the 18th century, after the Union with Scotland, the Crown turned its attention to having more influence over Ireland. In 1720 the British Parliament passed the Dependence of Ireland Act which subordinated the power of the Irish to legislate under that of the British and gave the British House of Lords appellate control over Irish courts. 

This act strengthened the growing division between Anglican’s who became known as the Protestant Ascendency and the dissenters, made up of Presbyterians and other non-Anglicans. The Roman Catholics, who were the majority, still had no say in government. 

Because the British MPs had no skin in the game, Ireland soon floundered under their control. The British needed boots on the ground and decided to find some friendly voices in the Irish Parliament. Known as the “Undertakers,” these Irish legislators' job was to undertake finding support for the Crown’s positions. And in return they were given status, wealth, and growing influence with London. And the system seemed to be working for a while. But soon a frustration developed. It seems the Lord-Lieutenant, who was requesting all of these favors, never seemed to be in Dublin. And in fact, when George Hervey, 2nd Earl of Bristol held the post in 1766, he never once set foot in Ireland. This absentee landlordism started to get under some people’s skin. 

Greed and a thirst for power was no longer driving these people. The next Lord Lieutenant George Viscount Townshend was told he needed to go to Dublin and live there. That way he could exert his influence and regain the control that was slipping away.

But Townshend didn’t like having to answer to those in power and wanted to pick his own people to support him directly. The Undertakers began to rebel. And when they voted down a money bill and a military bill backed by the Crown, Townshend knew he had to find a better way to gain control over these defiant Irish politicians.

And it just so happened that the move he would make set into motion a series of events that would have a major impact on the future of distilling in Ireland. A longtime country of ragtag artisan distillers, Townshend would unknowingly plant a seed that would help foster the development of today's Irish distilling industry. 

The King of Ireland

Born in Dublin, in 1738 and a graduate of Trinity College, young John Beresford was a man on a mission. After passing the bar at 23, he was elected to the Irish House of Commons later that year. Although he officially represented the people of County Waterford, in reality, he was seeking to fast track his career as a member of the Undertakers, so as to gain favor with King George III and William Pitt the Elder's government.

His skills as an orator were unquestioned and his administrative abilities among the most impressive of his age. When Lord Townshend arrived from London, it didn't take long for Beresford to make an impression. Within a year, Townshend saw Beresford an ally and recommended him to the Irish privy council.

Townshend had been making aggressive moves to reform Irish policies and reorganize its political structure - and in 1770, with the support from Britain’s new Prime Minister Lord North, he dissolved the Irish board of revenue. In its place, he created an excise board and customs board and placed his own men as overseers, including John Beresford at Customs.

And the young Beresford went right to work. But within months, he was distracted by the sudden resignation of the speaker of the Irish House of Commons, John Ponsonby. And for the ambitious Beresford, this  too important a post not to lobby for. But his benefactor Lord Townshend became nervous about the greedy way Beresford was scooping up power, thinking his own power as Lord Lieutenant might soon be challenged by the young upstart, and so he was passed over.

Licking his wounds from his first major setback, Beresford was also experiencing difficulties at home, as his first wife passed away, leaving him to manage five young children. He shifted his focus to family and his mission to establish a new Custom’s House in Dublin - a project that would raise much controversy, but that would end up helping earn free trade concessions between Ireland and the British Empire. It would also result in the building of one of the finest Custom House’s in the world. 

When Townshend retired, Beresford would gain another position, as customs and excise would once again merge together. Beresford had always had an interest in the art of distilling and he felt perfectly suited to the job of organizing and optimizing the revenue collection of the excise. The trade had been in chaos ever since the Irish Parliament put its foot down in 1761, forcing the registration of stills. 

To many, the problems surrounded the illicit poitín trade, but to John Beresford, they were the least of the troubles. He said, "the private distillers of this country are a set of the poorest and most wretched people in the country. No man has been known to make a fortune by that trade." No, it wasn’t the small farmer distillers that bothered him, it was those who were making a good business out of flaunting the laws - distillers who, if they joined the ranks of the honest, could make good steady revenue for the Crown. 

His first step was to have an organized and educated team of excise agents. Upon first inspection, he was appalled at the lack of knowledge in his workforce. No wonder the crafty distillers had been able to find ways to circumvent the law. Sure the tools of the trade were still less than precise, but a good understanding of the distillation process, the tools and techniques used, and the ways to holes in the system that would help his revenuers think on their feet and do critical thinking to spot possible deception.

The second step would be to greatly reduce the number of distilleries and foster the growth and legitimacy of the larger distillers. In this way, his workforce of agents wouldn’t be spread so thin, and a more honest system would evolve - allowing Irish distilling to join the ranks of the other emerging industries with large growing concerns. This philosophy would later inspire Alexander Hamilton, some 3,000 miles across the Atlantic, whose excise tax would lead to the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. In Ireland, it would help plant the seed for the modern Irish whiskey industry. 

But the final touch to his master plan would come from his ally across the Irish Sea in London, Prime Minister Lord North.  

The Law

Embroiled in a war with France and her own former colony in North America, the British government was in dire need of tax revenue. And with a lack of manpower, the simpler the collection, the better. Whisky had turned into a lucrative source for this revenue, but covering all of Scotland as well as England was a hard task. The Highlands were especially difficult with so many small farmer distillers spread out across the north country. The solution, it seemed, was to move from taxing actual output of spirits to calculating the potential output of a still and taxing based on that. 

The change in the law inspired John Beresford, who put together a revenue bill focusing on this new way of taxation. And under his new title as Chief Revenue Commissioner he could implement his plans of bringing Ireland out of the artisan distilling of the 17th century and into the 19th century with a burgeoning industry of large scale distillers. 

To do this, he encouraged distillers to increase their outputs by offering a rebate 3% for 500 gallon stills and 6% for 1000 gallon stills. The plan seemed to be working. His records showed a decrease from 1,212 licensed distilleries in Ireland in 1779 to 246 in 1780 with many of those remaining being of the mid to large size distilling operations. Granted, the almost one thousand distillers that disappeared from the tax rolls were likely distilling illicitly, but the cost of chasing them wasn’t worth the little bit of revenue they’d bring in. And, they didn’t fit his grandiose plans for the industry anyway. And the Lord Chancellor was pleased because tax revenues were increasing.

The best part was that revenue amounts were becoming predictable. Licenses had been amended to create a fixed fee, based on a stills potential output over a 28 day period. He was self assured that this new system would keep the stills humming and distillers would see the light and play by the rules.

The Unintended Consequences

But for all of his genius in understanding the distilling mechanics, the strength of having intelligent agents in the field, creating models of revenue, and finding ways to thwart deceptive techniques - Beresford lacked street smarts and an empathetic nature. As the King’s man, he was completely consumed by function and desired outcomes. And he failed to take into consideration the side-effects generated by adding a human element to market manipulation.

For the 18th century Irish distiller, nothing was certain. And this addition of a tax burden was bad enough, but now they were being told, whether they used their stills or not, they were going to have to pay for their potential output. 

And while it might be nice to know your tax burden each month if you did plan to turn your distilling into a business, what if they had a bad harvest or severe drought and couldn't run their stills at maximum capacity? Or what if they had a family member or worker get sick, reducing the ability to produce that month's output? Where would that extra revenue come from? Or what if the demand for their whisky dried up and they couldn't sell enough to meet the tax burden? Whether a small, medium, or large distilling operation, one bad month could put their family and or business in jeopardy. And like any business, there are capital requirements to pay suppliers.

The only way to ensure survival was to distill more than the calculated 28 day output of the still. That way, they would have excess non-taxed profits to carry them through the hard times. And with no rebates to the small to medium size distiller, this new tax law almost seemed to be encouraging them to do it. 

But this search for excess profits soon became a habit. Over production became the norm. Then, as they started seeing this over production as a way to lift their status in life, greed took over and distillers started finding any way possible to squeeze every shilling they could out of a still. For some, the need to protect themselves soon turned into fat profits.

Stills all over the British isles started ramping up production. The combination of cheap grains and excessive charging every week soon gave way to shallower stills for even faster distillation and round the clock distilling. 

And the spirit began to suffer. Fast distilling means less copper contact, which means sulfates remain in the whisky. In addition, fast distillation was creating foam in the system that was clogging up the worm coil, so large amounts of soap was added to the distillation to control the problem. Quality had truly lost out to quantity and the reputation of Parliament Whiskey fell through the floor. Ironically, if you wanted honest distillate, you had to look to illicit poitin.  

You may ask, if distillers were being monitored by excise agents, how did they get away with this? Bribes. Whiskey had been weaponized. If a distiller wanted to escape paying the revenue, the agent would get a kickback. If a distiller wanted his neighbor out of business, he could use the excise to plant illegal hooch on their property. The black market now not only had illicit poitin, it also had gallon after gallon of cheap rotgut Parliament whiskey. A 20 pound fine was introduced for any town where an illicit still was found, but this too led to stills being planted and fines hitting townspeople who had played no part. The hope was, neighbors wouldn’t want to endanger their neighbors, but revenue dodging had become more about sticking it to the government, than worrying about a fine.

Eventually word made it back to the excise office of the rampant overcharging of the stills, and they responded by increasing the revenue required from each still by increasing the anticipated charges, which only made the distillers distill even faster.

The result of all of this - the first generation of the Irish whiskey distilling industry had been weaned on the hard realities of industrial capitalism and taxation to the detriment of the art and craft of distilling. Quality and safety be damned. It was every distiller and revenue man for himself. And tax evasion became the norm.

It's easy to see both a love and hate relationship between Beresford and Irish distilling. His policies did much to destroy the quality of the spirit. But he also helped open new markets between his Custom House and his relationship with the English would increase the whiskey trade with the British Empire.

But in no way had lessons been learned. And over the next decade taxation tinkering would take on a life of its own.

Ruining a Spirit

For the Undertakers, 1783 would see a major hit to their power. In 1775, when the Americans went to war with Great Britain, the Irish Parliament began showing support for the revolution. Frustration with increased British power led to the repeal of the 1720 Irish Declaratory Act. With Ireland grabbing back some of their power, and England wounded by wars with America and France, the British Parliament decided to turn their attention to Scotland and the gin trade. 

In 1784, they introduced The Wash Act to raise revenue by taking advantage of the growing distilling prowess of the Lowlands. They established a Lowland and Highland line in Scotland and gave what they thought were advantages to the Scots for the production of spirits for the London gin trade. Up to this point, Scotland had never exported her spirits, but London distillers were having a hard time keeping up with demand and stirring some distilling activity in the north seemed like a good idea.

Meanwhile, Beresford again would increase the rebates to large distillers, moving to an 8% rebate for 500 gallon stills and 16% for 1000 gallon stills.

What Parliament hadn’t anticipated was the competitive nature of Lowland distillers. To them, the creation of the Highland/Lowland line had given their northern neighbor’s a perceived advantage. Not only did Highland distillers not get visits from the excise, they also only paid a flat fee for their stills, just like the Irish. The reason for the hands off approach by the excise was because there were too many Highland distillers and most were too small to fool with. And trying to send revenue men throughout the Highlands looking for stills felt like an impossible task. 

To resolve the complaint,  in 1786, the Lowland Licencing Act shifted the Lowland distiller’s from paying by actual output to an estimated output, just like Ireland and the Highlands.

They unleashed a lion.

The Haigs and Steins led the charge, building saucer-like stills that could be charged 24 hours a day with faster and faster outputs. Soon London was drowning in Scottish new make - angry London distillers lobbied Parliament for a solution. They had played a game of picking winners and their own trade was falling part.

The solution was a death penalty for most Scottish distillers. The 1788 Lowlands License Act, forced Lowland distillers to apply for a license to sell their spirits in England. The kicker was, once they applied for the license, they would have to wait 12 months before they could enter the market. The smaller Lowland distilleries folded.

Yet the year off from distilling didn't dissuade Lowland distilleries like Cannonmills in Edinburgh, who went from charging their stills 25 times a day in 1793 to over 90 times a day toward the end of the decade. Eventually there were only a dozen or so distilleries left in the Lowlands and half were owned by the Haigs and Steins. But the great reduction in distilleries helped to keep Scotland from further punitive action. In fact, the very act of allowing the massive number of charges a day, made the Haig's and Steins almost untouchable.

The Haigs and Steins wouldn’t only dominate the Scottish market, they also got a foothold in Ireland. John Stein of Kennetpans Distillery had taken over the Marrowbone Lane Distillery in Dublin in 1780 and built another on Bow Street around the same time. In 1788, wanting to get away from the craziness of Scotland’s distilling ban, his niece Margaret Haig talked her husband John into taking over the General Managership of her uncle’s Bow Street Distillery. John Jameson would do such an incredible job with the business, that by 1805, he took full ownership of the distillery. John and Margaret’s son William would take over Marrowbone Lane in 1800.  Out of the Haig’s and Steins would come the Jameson dynasty. 

The Legacy of John Beresford

For all of his tinkering and manipulation, the benefits of John Beresford’s reign as Commissioner of the Revenue likely outweigh the problems he created. The seeds of a distilling industry had been planted and nurtured. And his friendliness with the English Crown and Parliament would pay great dividends as the two countries eventually forged a bond in the Irish Acts Of Union. 

He would see strife in his later years, as a fierce competitor arrived in Lord-Lieutenant Fitzwilliam. Worried about Beresford massive influence and power, he was Beresford “‘was filling a situation greater than that of the lord lieutenant himself, . . . he was virtually king of Ireland’” He implied that Beresford was corrupt. And while Beresford was liberal in handing out patronage, and had accumulated many enemies, he was for all intents and purposes an honest, if ambitious man. Still, Fitzwilliam would remove him as Commissioner of the Revenue in 1795. A war of words ensued and then Beresford went to London to lobby for Fitzwilliam’s ouster, which happened not long after - proving Fitzwilliam’s fears. It would be Beresford who would negotiate the terms that would bring free trade of Irish whiskey to the British Empire. 

By the way, if you’d like to learn more about the Haig’s and Steins history - its a fascinating one, I promise you, go back to Season x and listen to the episode about George Washington’s distiller James Anderson - another victim of the 1788 distilling death penalty that led John Jameson to Ireland and James Anderson to George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

And now, on with my journey…


Getting into Belfast proved to be even easier than I had imagined. I walked for maybe 10 minutes to get to the bus stop from my B&B, thinking in my head if I needed to be on the northside or south side of the road to get the bus going into town. For a dyslexic, there is a lot of thrusting your hand in the air trying to remember which is left and which is right. I walked up to the bus stop and there was a kiosk that easily spit out a one day ticket for me for, what I think was 1.40. Within minutes, what is called The Glide picked me up and took me down the busy Newtownards Road down to St. George’s Market. I loved the look of the place, constructed from dark reddish brick, sporting the skills of its 19th century architects. 

It started drizzling rain as I made my way up Oxford Street and soon I was looking to my right and seeing a huge ceramic fish - the Salmon of Knowledge. Boy, this fish gets around! I pulled up my phone and looked to my Google Maps and realized, I could probably have saved myself some steps and a little dampness by just staying on the bus a little longer. No bother, it was good to get out and walk.

I made my way to the Dark Horse pub where the event was to take place, passing by a building that said Old Bushmills on the side. I wondered what that might have to do with Bushmills. When I got into the alley, I saw people gathered outside another establishment - it was the Duke of York, a pub I had been told I must go see. But it was about 15 minutes until the event at the Dark Horse was to begin, so I wandered in the open door.

The interior of the place was beautiful. A throwback to the 19th century adorned in whiskey mirrors from long gone brands, dark stained mirrors, and red leather backed chairs that reminded me of my grandparent’s home. When I walked in Sarah from McConnell’s was there to greet me. If you haven’t heard my interview with her, her experience in the whiskey industry is maybe a little shorter than my own. But like me, her love of the history and the mysteries of the spirit brought on some kind of obsession to learn. She did a great job during the interview introducing the history of Irish whiskey and walking me through the history of the McConnell’s brand, which goes all the way back to 1776. 

Now, originally I had planned this trip for three weeks earlier. But thanks to a panicky Irish news source, I started getting nervous that there might be a kickup of COVID around Easter, so I pushed my plans out 3 weeks. If I hadn’t made that decision, I wouldn’t have been in town for this whiskey launch event and I would have missed one of the most memorable nights of my whiskey drinking life.

The party was fantastic. They were serving hors doveries, but they were quite tasty. I had a couple of drink tickets and had a couple pints of Guinness and then we had some of the Sherry Cask whiskey that was being unveiled. I was deep into conversation with several people from McConnell’s, people from the press, and several other guests. At one point, Sarah came over and told me some people were heading over to the Duke of York to attend a meeting of the Belfast Whiskey Club. Her partner Andrew walked me over.

We ended up upstairs in the club, again surrounded by whiskey mirrors, bottles, and chairs and before I knew it, bottles were being pulled out and I found myself included in a tasting event. Several of us sat in a circle, between couches and chairs, talking about each whiskey that was presented and giving them a score based on our own appreciation for them. I gotta say, for having never had a Paddy’s before it wasn’t my favorite of the evening. I gave it a 4, as I recall. Then we had a Sailor’s Home, a little better but still wasn’t hitting my personal palate quite the way I’d like. But the sips kept getting better and better. We had a Killowen that took me into the 6’s, then Talisker 8, which got me to 7. The next whiskey was a $300 bottle of Redbreast 16 cask strength finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks that was sold exclusively at the nearby Friend At Hand store slash whiskey bottle museum. On the nose I thought it was good, but the palate was incredible - the best Redbreast I’d had. I gave the nose a 7 but the palate a 9, so I went for 8. We finished with a Bruichladdich Port Charlotte, at least I believe it was - I think I was getting foggy by then. That’s when I asked, is this my own personal preference when I score? Leave it to me to ask what the rules are when we are at the end of the game. I love peated whisky - it was my winner of the night, taking a solid 9.

While the event was going on, I started to chat a bit with Paul x, the man in charge of Belfast Whiskey Week, then Brendan Carty of Killowen walked in - does that guy ever sleep? We all went downstairs and I ordered another Guinness and kept chatting until suddenly I realized it was 2 AM and everyone was starting to head for taxis. 

I said my goodbyes and then realized, I was really unprepared for how to get in touch with taxi companies. I’d become so used to just calling up a Lyft or Uber back in the states - and the busses had stopped running an hour and a half earlier. Then I got a wild idea that probably only comes to the mind of someone who has had quite a few drinks. I pulled up Google Maps, clicked on the pin where my B&B was and set it to walking distance. 44 minutes. I could do that! And the cool night air might actually sober me up a bit. I wasn’t thinking about the fact I was in an unfamiliar place walking through a city that had a rough past. I’d seen the place when I drove in and to be honest, I had no reservations about this walk. 44 minutes was just about right. I saw 2 people on that entire walk and neither of them looked like any kind of danger at all. When I reached my AirBnB, I laid down in the bed and was off to sleep in no time.

I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore. 

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life LLC

Production, stories, and research by Drew Hannush

And if you want to learn about McConnell’s and all the distilleries in Ireland and Northern Ireland or you want to draw up your own dream vacation visiting Irish whiskey distilleries - grab a copy of my new book Whiskey Lore’s Travel Guide To Experiencing Irish Whiskey, it features all the information you need to plan and prepare for an incredible trip to the Emerald Isle, including travel tips, and full profiles of 27 distilleries and information on 24 more that are on the way. Just head to whiskey-lore.com/irishbook for a quick link to Amazon or ask your favorite bookseller or distillery to order you a copy.

Thanks for listening! I’m your host Drew Hannush and until next time, cheers and slainte mhath!

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