Irish Whiskey Pt. 9: The Story of the Scots-Irish // Echlinville Distillery
Many Kentucky and Tennessee distilleries give credit to the Scots-Irish for bringing us their whiskey. Who were the Scots-Irish and what impact did they have on American whiskey?
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This week, I'm going to go deeper into the background of the Scots-Irish. They are often credited with being the foundation of the Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey industries. It is something I've heard over and over at American distilleries - it is time to see if this statement holds water.
Plus, I'm on my way to Echlinville Distillery and will share my tasting adventure there as I continue my way through Northern Ireland and visit my 7th distillery on this epic journey.
Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore Stories." The full transcript is available on the tab above.
WHY DID THE ULSTER SCOTS LEAVE FOR AMERICA?
It would be a journey unlike any they could ever have imagined. 52 men, women, and children, huddled together through the most dreadful of conditions. Wind, rain, the incessant swaying of the boat, and worst of all, a severe lack of food and drinking water.
They had left the familiar quay of Larne Harbour, in County Antrim, on a boat barely suitable for their needs. But times were desperate and they felt an undying need to escape from a land that had never quite embraced them.
And little did they know, but on that fateful day in May of 1717, they would be the vanguard of a six decade migration that would see a quarter of a million of their neighbors pack up and leave the Irish shores of Ulster for the promised land of America.
The Catholics and Anglicans referred to them and the Ulster Presbyterians. But history recalls them as the Ulster-Scots.
LIFE IN ULSTER
The tale of the Ulster-Scots reaches back as far as Henry VIII and Mary, Queen of Scots with the creation of the Plantation system, whereby English and Scottish landlords were given lands in Ireland, with the expressed purpose of suppressing the Irish Gaelic influence by populating the land with British and Scottish settlers. It wasn’t until the reign of James I around 1613 that a large number of Presbyterian Scots made their way to the lands in Ulster. For the next decade and a half, thousands would arrive, with the first waves coming by way of assistance through the plantations, then another wave who arrived on their own and settled on any lands near the ports where they arrived.
As you can imagine, with such a large influx of settlers over a short period of time, things didn’t always go smoothly. In County Down, a new bishop arrived, appalled at the fraud running rampant in his diocese and its empty coffers.
His name was Robert Echlin and he was a Scotsman through and through. A graduate of St. Andrews, he was the son of Henry Echlin, the laird of Pittadro in Fifeshire and a man who had bravely defended Mary, Queen of Scots during her reign. It is likely this connection that brought King James I to move young Robert from the presbytery at Dumfermline Abbey north of Edinburgh to the position of Bishop over Down and Conor in Ireland.
Upon arrival, he went to work, looking to shore up the diocese coffers, rejuvenate his flock and their chapels, but most of all, he looked to stamp out corruption. He lobbied the king for a commission to look into the financial mess he had inherited. And through hard work, by 1629, he had turned things around and increased the annual revenue from 50p to 300p. He also attracted ministers to the area, almost half of them Scots, and at least ten from his alma mater at St. Andrews.
What was most curious about Robert though, was that he was a Presbyterian running an Episcopal diocese. And many of those ministers he attracted to the region were also Presbyterians that leaned toward Puritan ideals. It was a delicate balance, but somehow he kept passions in line.
But Robert wasn’t wholly pure himself. At points, he took advantage of his position by helping out his own son with a favorable land grant and somehow found enough income from his position to enrich himself with land holdings and the establishment of an estate on the Ard Peninsula. Still, this would never result in scandal.
Robert’s trouble began when Charles I ascended the throne in London. Echlin’s Puritan ways rubbed the king the wrong way and pressure was placed on him to reform his diocese into one that appeased the Anglican order. Robert tried to find compromise where he could, but under pressure from Bishop Laud of England, he was pushed not to ordain any minister with puritan or presyterian leanings. Echlin’s heart was with those men, but he couldn’t go against the powers of the church. And although he never spoke out against any of these men, he soon became an enemy.
Things came to a head in 1631, when Bishop Echlin was forced to suspend four ministers, including his friend Robert Blair. Blair went behind Echlin’s back and had the archbishop of Armagh James Ussher overturn the ruling. But Bishop Laud procured royal letters that put the ministers on trial for sorcery and other wild charges. Echlin defended them to the best of his ability, but ultimately was forced to depose them when they refused to swear an oath of conformity. Feeding presbyterian sympathies, they would find a way to be restored to their posts, but Echlin again would depose them. This was the last straw for Blair, who said of Echlin, he was once a gifted preacher, but he had been corrupted by power and materialism.
The whole ordeal would serve to break Robert and not long after when he fell ill, a doctor asked him what was ailing him. “Tis my conscience, man.”
Just months after his last tangle with Blair, he passed away.
A FOCUS ON AMERICA
Bishop Robert Echlin’s struggles with the crown would be a metaphor for the struggles of the Ulster Presbyterians.
Throughout the 17th century, Presbyterian Scots worked alongside French Huguenot protestants on work farms. They established their own schools and meeting houses and worshiped away from the prying eyes of the Anglican church. But everything they did, they did without the approval of the crown. Any power they had was tenuous at best. In fact, the only reason they hadn’t become a primary target of the crown was because of the heightened attention on the Catholics in the region.
But when Queen Anne ascended the throne, things would change in a hurry. Wanting to subdue the presybertian element, she began enforcing the Test Act. Under this rule, all office holders would have to take the sacrament under the rules of the Anglican church - otherwise they would have to give up their positions of power. If you didn’t, you were seen as a dissenter and stripped of your power. For presbyterians, who were about 40% of the protestent population, this meant their ministers would be excluded from overseeing weddings and funerals, yet they were still commanded to pay tithes to a church that did not support their beliefs.
This was tolerated for over a decade, until a severe drought in the region forced the hand of Ulster Presbyterians. They had to find a place that would allow them to worship, marry, and die without fear of religious reprisals. They had heard of the puritan successes around Boston and had long considered joining their brothers in the new world. But these were not rich people, most were peasants, tied to the landlords of the plantations. A trip across the sea seemed impossible, until their lands began to fail. Those that could not afford the journey, would enter into agreements of indentured servitude for a period of time in America, to earn their passage overseas. They had already suffered under the oppression of the landlords, how bad could a couple more years be?
THE FRIENDS’ GOODWILL
The Friends’ Goodwill was a small but sturdy vessel. To its passengers, it must have looked like a sparkling ship of gold, as it fed their dreams of better times ahead.
The journey was expected to be a couple of months and the ship was stocked appropriately for its 52 temporary inhabitants. What they didn’t count on was the ferocity of the icy North Atlantic. Not long after setting sail, the ship encountered a most incredible storm. The sting of rain burned their skin, lightning danced between sails, and waves menaced as they climbed higher and higher. It became far too much for the ship's passengers and many fell ill. It became a torture chamber of grief and sickness. To make matters worse, the storms were pulling this ship east and slowing its pace. As they passed their second month at sea, realizing they were only halfway to their destination, a quiet desperation set in, as they looked for any way they could to preserve their food supply.
It’s hard to imagine the feeling they must have had, when from the crows nest came a shout of “ship ahead.” It was a merchant ship traveling east and seeing the sorry state of the Goodwill’s passengers, they provided some of their supplies to help the immigrants reach their destination.
But after another month at sea, Boston seemed a distant dream, and passengers were grabbing anything possible to collect the little bits of rain they could for fresh drinking water. Rations of food were all but gone and dolphins and sharks became the only source of nourishment. It got so bad that the unthinkable was suggested - the drawing of lots to see who might be sacrificed for the nourishment of the whole. Thankfully, it never came to that. After four torturous months at sea, the small boat drifted slowly into Boston Harbor.
Frayed nerves and shattered bodies, the passengers likely kissed the ground as they stepped foot on land. It was time to start again and soak in the spirit of this new land.
THE SCOTCH-IRISH IN AMERICA
Although little is known of the passengers of the Friends’ Goodwill, it is likely they received a friendlier greeting than the swarms of Ulster-Scots that soon followed. The winter of 1717-1718 was particularly harsh in Ulster. The drought and bad harvest was followed by an intense winter that included outbreaks of the flu and smallpox.
To compound the issues, landlords were charging what was called rack-rents on their tenant farmers. The word rack was a reference to the medieval torture device. In practice, the landlord would raise rates to an exorbitant rate so the farmer went from a small profit, to basically being a slave on the land.
In the spring of 1718, Reverend William Boyd was sent from Ulster to Boston to seek lands for Ulster-Scots. The royal governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire Samuel Shute welcomed his Irish guest and found his proposal ideal. Gov. Shute had been looking for a way to protect his colony from the French and native Indians. Half a dozen ships would arrive over the summer, filled with hope filled Irish.
Two of those ships were the Robert and the William, arriving in Boston in August of 1718. Part of the congregation of Rev. James MacGregor, they settled in Nutfield, New Hampshire. If the past winter in Ireland had been harsh, it had only partially prepared them for the intensity of the New England winter, they fought off starvation and held on until the spring. The Irish community would develop and soon the town would change its name to Londonderry and the adjoining community Derry, in remembrance of their homeland. It was here that the first spud was said to be planted in what would become the United States, thanks to seeds planted by Rev. MacGregor himself.
But the town would grow much more than potatoes. It would become one of the staging points for Ulster-Scots who would eventually move north to Nova Scotia and south to Pennsylvania.
The first wave that arrived in Pennsylvania from New Hampshire found a friendly advocate in an Ulsterman named James Logan. Holding post as the provincial secretary, he felt their bravery would be a godsend on the frontiers. He worked with William Penn to provide them land west of Philadelphia. They set up a community in modern day Lancaster County and called the settlement Donegal. But like Penn, Logan had become a pacifist Quaker and his countrymen soon became - those rowdy and defensive immigrants - and it wasn’t long before they wore out their welcome.
Likely their defensiveness had come from years of oppression and having to justify their existence. The years of schooling and worship among themselves had made them very private people - and trust was not something easily given to outsiders. Rarely did they mix with German and English settlers.
Yet it was likely the combination of the German immigrants' devotion to the rye grain and the Scots-Irish love for distilling that helped foster the development of rye as America’s first popular whiskey style.
Pushed from their homes near the cities of the east, the Scotch-Irish, as they were being referred to, took to the rugged, mountainous frontier. They would soon earn a reputation as squatters as they spread across lands they didn’t own. Even George Washington, who had secured lands through his military campaigns with the British, had to deal with the issue of Scotch-Irish squatters on his lands.
Then in the mid-1720s, a second wave of Scotch-Irish, fed up with rack-rents, made their way from Larne, Derry, Belfast, and Portrush to the ports of Philadelphia, Charleston, Baltimore, and New York. By the end of the decade, this wave had grown so strong that London finally took on the issue of rent abuse in Ireland.
The third great wave was brought on by a tragedy of epic proportions in Ireland in 1740. Thanks to the Great Potato Blight of the 1840s, the Irish famine of 1740 received less notoriety, but in many ways, it was its equal or worse. Droughts and a Great Frost killed off grain and potato crops and severely impacted the availability of milk and meat. Food riots ensued, including one in Drogheda where angry citizens climbed aboard a merchant ship headed for Scotland filled with oatmeal and tore the rudder and sails from the ship. In the end, it is estimated that nearly half a million Irish died in the span of a year - a disaster that was proportionally more insense than the Great Famine, which was spread over multiple years.
Those that escaped to the colonies bypassed New England and made their way for Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Shenandoah region of Virginia. Because the king had proclaimed that all lands west of the Allegheny Mountains were off limits to English settlers, the Scots-Irish migration was halted at this point. A fourth wave would occur in the 1750s and the final wave would immigrate between 1771 and 1775. This last wave occurred when the Marquis of Donegal started a campaign of mass evictions, which led to 30,000 Ulster Prebyterian farmers and skilled linen workers, taking their trades to American shores.
As the Scots-Irish moved further and further south, they began to challenge the Royal Proclamation. Two longhunters William Bean and Daniel Boone took several scouting trips into the mountains of what would become Tennessee. They would name the creek nearby their campsite as Boone’s Creek and after Boone went off to explore an area that would become Kentucky, and it would be the Ulster descendant William Bean that would plant roots with his wife and son on the edge of Boone’s Creek - becoming what would be Tennessee’s first settler - although his Cherokee neighbors weren’t too happy about that fact.
And it is from here that the legends would turn from Ulster-Scot legends to that of the wild frontier settling Scotch-Irish of the Davy Crockett ilk. They would have their revenge on the British in their new homeland, encompassing a large part of the force that served as continentals against the British Redcoats. All of those years of oppression had finally spilled over into violence on a new continent and in the end, the Scots-Irish would come out on the winning side.
It’s hard to understate the importance of the Scots-Irish on the development of America, especially in Appalachia. Having grown up in Asheville, surrounded by the mountain culture of Western North Carolina, I can attest that their influences permeate local religions, the dialect, dancing, fiddles, stories, and music.
And then there is distilling. I don’t want to downplay completely the influence of the Scots-Irish on the development of Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, but my research has shown their influence was likely more indirect, than direct.
The first distillers on these shores were the Dutch in New York and likely the English. It would be nearly a century before the Scots-Irish made it to American shores. As I mentioned, their first influence was likely on the proliferation of rye whiskey distilling in Pennsylvania and Maryland, but they weren’t the only ethnicity distilling at that time.
The pioneers of Kentucky bourbon, the Beams were German, the Pottingers, the ancestors of Basil Hayden, Co. E.H. Taylor, and from what we know, the Peppers came from England, and Dr. Crow was from Scotland.
In Tennessee, Charles Nelson and George Dickel were German, Evan Shelby was Welsh, J.W. Kelly was from Waterford, Ireland, Jack Daniels was part English and Scottish, and Nearest Green was African.
In reality, most of the legends of the industry were anything but Scots-Irish. So where did this idea come from?
It is part of the reason I took up most of an episode helping to set a foundation of who the Scots-Irish really are. Too many people, including myself in a younger age, thought Scots-Irish was a catch-all term for both people from Scotland and Ireland. With that assertion, the impact of the Scottish and Irish becomes a much stronger narrative.
And it clouds more than just whiskey’s history. I literally saw in a history book the proud proclamation that Davy Crockett, Lewis and Clark, and Daniel Boone were all Scots-Irish. Yet Boone and Lewis are both half Welsh and half English, and Clark adds in some Scottish heritage. Of that group only Davy Crockett was truly Scots-Irish. See what I mean by lazy history?
There is also the connection to moonshine. And in this, the Scots-Irish did have a major impact. But while these moonshiners have been distilling for many generations in the hills, they weren’t necessarily the forerunners of the great American whiskey empires, most stayed tucked away in the mountains and hills making illicit spirits - staying private, like their immigrant parents and grandparents. It took Prohibition to drag them out of the shadows and into the nation’s imaginations as bootleggers and shiners.
Over the years, these hidden legacies have led to the creation of “legal” moonshine, and the history of whiskey has started to co-mingle with the stories of moonshiners.
So this is why I say, we need to rethink the idea that America’s whiskey industry was a direct result of the Scots-Irish influence. I hear that narrative over and over in American distilleries and have read it suggested as truth by Irish whiskey historians. It seems plausible, but the facts reveal something completely different.
ON TO ECHLINVILLE
And after a nice meal and restful nights sleep, I was on my way out of Belfast, headed east towards two stops on the Ard Peninsula. I was in a bit of a hurry, so I did the unthinkable, I stopped off at McDonald’s for a coffee and a quick bite to eat. I was running a little late and that wasn’t helped by the lorrie that once again found its way in front of me. I decided, I wasn’t going to make it go faster by being frustrated and the scenery on this curvy seaside road was too nice to miss.
Once I reached the road that headed toward my next distillery, I was a little confused. I saw yellow gates, but no signage - one of the dangers of scouting Irish distilleries before they were 100% ready for traffic. I drove around wondering where the entrance might be. I ended up behind the distillery and I rolled down the window and asked a worker how I was supposed to get in the driveway. He shouted directions and I made my way in through one of the gates I’d passed previously.
The grounds I had just entered were actually once owned by Captain Charles Echlin, the great-grandson of Bishop Robert Echlin. He purchased the land in the 1730s and within a couple of generations a large Victorian Era mansion would be added. I found myself parking right next to it, as the large parking area was still under construction.
Now, to give you some background - the seeds of what was to become the Echlinville Distillery were planted in 2007, when Echlinville Manor and the surrounding lands were purchased by Shane and Lynn Braniff. They saw the potential in the land for a farm to glass distillery. Like other to follow, they would contact John Teeling and get a source for pre-distilled whiskey - that became their brand Feckin. But just like with Slane Castle Whiskey, when Teeling sold the Cooley Distillery to Beam Global, the source for Feckin dried up.
The time was right for them to start their own distillery. And this was well ahead of the curve. To that point, the only other craft distillery being developed was in Dingle. If Dingle was to be the first of the new breed of distilleries in the Republic, Echlinville would be the first in Northern Ireland.
But there was one problem. The last distillery to request a license in the north of Ireland did so way back when Alfred Barnard was on his famous trek around the island. Nobody knew what to do and licenses had to be created. And while Echlinville had their stills in place and could have launched around the same time as Dingle, they had to wait until the legalities were handled. It would be August of 2013 before their first barrel was filled.
But unlike many distilleries that look to launch their whiskey to the market as soon as it hits the legal age of three years, Echlinville wanted to wait until it was a whiskey of superior quality. They also wanted to do something that even almost all scotch distillers had gotten away from. They wanted to control every step of the process - from growing barley on the farm, to malting and milling the grain, to full distillation, to maturation, all the way through to bottling. With this control and no board of directors, they would be able to wait 10 or more years to release their whiskey and the goal was to sell it in vintages.
But to stay in business, distilleries have to generate revenue at some point. So they started looking around for a historic brand name to bring back. They looked no farther than Belfast, to one of the last distilleries to shut down - the Royal Irish Distilleries. What made this distillery fascinating is that they were one of the only Irish distilleries that didn’t shut down during the 20th century because they were failing or because they were purchased by Irish Distillers Ltd - instead, they just quit while they were ahead. The distillery was liquidated at a time when it was still profitable.
The brand that made them famous was Dunville’s. Started as a blending house Dunville & Co created their distillery in 1869 due to the product’s success. If it was a good enough brand to start one distillery, why not another.
A relationship was re-established with Cooley and longer aged spirits were purchased with the goal of creating a brand of exceptionally high quality to sell while they waited for Echlinville’s spirits to reach their desired age. Another historic brand Old Comber would also be acquired to represent their sourced Irish Single Pot Still whiskey.
As I sat in the front room of Echlinville Distillery with Jarleth Watson, I was amazed by how much research he’d done into me before I arrived. We spent a few minutes chatting about my James Bond adventure through Europe and comparing movie notes.
But it didn’t take us long to jump into whiskey and the history of the distillery, plus the farming that went on, onsite and the amazing experience they were planning for guests. Then I got a chance to taste some of the Dunville’s 10 and 12 year old whiskeys. I had told x I was a fan of GlenDronach and so he picked these out specifically for me to try. All I can say is that I was very impressed from the very start. I tried a 21 year old and told him, it that I had found GlenDronach 21 to be a bit too subtle, but this was a vibrant and engaging whiskey, full of fruit and lovely tobacco notes. After talking about their bottles and how they had mimicked the labels in just about every way, except for using the “e” in whiskey, we walked up to meet Graeme Millar, the distiller and Jarlath suggested he’d give me a 5 minute walk around the distillery to show me things - we got so deep into conversation that at one point he said - you came here to look at stills and you’re getting my life story. I didn’t mind at all. It was just another example of how passionate and engaging distillers can be.
This was the first distillery I’d been to that actually distills potatoes. I asked him if it was difficult, and he said absolutely. I thought, what would it be like to distill mashed potatoes? He said you have to crack the starch at a really high temp around 140c and sacrifice some of the enzymes to keep it liquid enough. He understands why most people don’t do it, but it says it creates a fascinating spice that reminds him of cinnamon candy.
When we walked outside, x took me over to the Echlinville Manor, Northern Ireland’s greatest architects Charles Lanyon.,an absolutely gorgeous Victorian estate painted in white and yellow. He said they had hopes of providing lodging here and maybe even an experience where you could produce your own whiskey - from farming it to letting it age 10 years to bottling it. Now that would be a once in a lifetime experience, and one that would definitely require some patience.
He showed me the fields where the barley is growing and talked about bringing the malt house on-site. He also showed me the building where the visitor’s center will be. It is a long way from complete and he says he hopes to see it open by the summer of 2023.
Their little black distillery cat followed us over from the future visitor’s center building to the warehouse, meowing loudly all the way. I think he saw someone new and wanted to make a friend. He was extremely friendly - and I’m sure he’ll have plenty of work to keep him busy once the malting house and all of its grain move to this part of the property.
We went through some barrels in the warehouse and I got a chance to taste a couple of the future Dunville bottlings. While in the still house, I also had a chance to taste some of the new make that ten or so years from now will be Echlinville’s vintage brand. It’s hard to judge completely because I was only tasting the first 1/3rd the hearts, but it definitely has flavor and was a nice and clean spirit.
Walking back, I saw someone from Copeland’s come to pick something up. Copelands was where I was heading next. It was great to see the two distilleries buddying up. X said that happened a lot, especially during the pandemic when they teamed with Branden at Killowen and Copeland to provide a large portion of Northern Ireland’s hand sanitizer.
Of all of the distilleries I’d visited so far, this is the one that I think will likely blow my socks off the next time I visit - it already is making an incredible impression.
Again, I could have stayed for hours, but my phone was buzzing in my pocket, alerting me to the fact I had just enough time to get to my next distillery stop. I thanked Jarlath and he gave me a handful of mini-bottles with samples to take along with me. I knew these would definitely be ones that I would carry through customs and wait to enjoy at home.
I turned on my GPS and started heading east toward a coast road. When I reached the town of Ballyhalbert, my blood pressure suddenly shot up. Road closed ahead?
Uh, could you be a little more specific? How far ahead, and how could I get around this to reach my next destination. I stopped the car and stared in disbelief. How was I going to get out of this mess?
Next time on Whiskey Lore, we’ll see how I worked my way out of this crazy situation. After giving Alfred and his friends a break, we will finally catch up with him at the Tullamore Distillery in 1886, and we’ll hear about terror off the Copeland Islands and how one man’s plan to sway public opinion was a piece of a puzzle that caused an empire to bring an end to a war - and I’ll finally reach Copelands Distillery and will learn how the distillery is honoring that legendary man.
I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore
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Production, stories, and research by Drew Hannush
If you can’t get enough whiskey history, make sure to check out my other podcast Whiskey Lore: The Interviews, where I turn the tables and let distillers, historians, authors, and distillery founders tell their stories.
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Thanks for listening! I’m your host Drew Hannush and until next time, cheers and slainte mhath!
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