The Stories, Journeys, Myths, and Legends of Irish Whiskey
PART 1: Introducing Irish Whiskey travelers of the past and present
Listen to the Episode
"This is Whiskey Lore"
Oh if feels good to say that again. Thanks for your patience. And do I have a great season lined up for you!
Join me as I introduce you to the journey of a 19th century explorer who, much like myself when I went to Kentucky for the first time, was looking to discover the whiskey industry. He will be one of your guides on this tour through the history and mysteries of the thing we call Irish Whiskey.
We'll go back to its origins, see its triumphant rise, and learn about what caused its devastating fall. We’ll meet rebellions, kings, inventors, drinks, distillers, heroes and villains, and we’ll dispel a few myths along the way.
Welcome to Season 6 of Whiskey Lore Stories!
LISTEN ON YOUTUBE
“We left Glasgow on our voyage to Dublin in somewhat boisterous weather, and were agreeably surprised on reaching Greenock to find the sea calm and the atmosphere clear. As we steamed slowly from the landing stage, the rays of the setting sun illumined the hills, giving to the banks of the Clyde a more than usually striking appearance. On nearing the sea, our voyage became still more interesting and pleasant, the clearness of the night enabling us to see with great distinctness the various islands and bold headlands of the coast, which during our course were successively passed. As soon as the outline of these had faded away, the twilight melted and blended into the soft darkness of a summer’s night, and we appeared to sail straight out into the horizon.”
These are the words of Alfred Barnard, a man whose talents of fifty years were about to be forgotten and replaced forever by the reputation he would earn through one epic journey.
His craft was as a writer, Barnard’s works would appear in a periodical called the Harper’s Weekly Gazette. And one day in 1886 he would propose to his editor an ambitious trip that would yield a series of articles. The focus? Alfred wanted to provide “a familiar description and history of all of the Whisky Distilleries of Great Britain - from Scotland, southwest to Ireland, and back across the Irish Sea to England.
This fascinating journey, one that whisky lovers then and now could only imagine in their wildest dreams, is made most curious by the fact that Barnard freely admits that he is no whisky expert. In fact, he begins his book with a plea to the distillers he met for leniency, and to expect errors. He also suggests that his book not be judged for its literary quality, describing it as “simply a run through the Distilleries, with an endeavor to give descriptive sketches upon each in more or less detail.”
But as each article is consumed by the reader, one can’t help but notice the attempt at elegant prose through the vivid descriptions he gives of the landscapes and the people he encounters. He also shows his passion for the legends and lore that surround these distilleries and the distilling legacies that built them. Yet, after spinning a personality around each of these distilleries, he suddenly gets down to business and takes us through the mechanics, process, and business side of each. While somewhat dry in nature, to the whisky historian, this information is invaluable. It is a true glimpse into what made whisky tick during the boom years of the 19th century.
So, what contemporary reader from Barnard’s era would be interested in such articles?
Well, at the time of writing, the whisky industry stood as the largest revenue generator in the entire kingdom. Scotch whisky had seen 17.9 million gallons of whisky produced in a single year, with Irish whisky wasn’t far behind creating 10.6 million gallons worth of brown spirits with 100 less distilleries than their Scottish neighbors. So people interested in Britain’s economic growth would surely be an audience. But there were also blending houses, distributors, and global markets that could gain insights into these individual distilleries and that would surely be impressed by the scope and diversity in the industry. Barnard also states that his wish is “to stimulate an interest in the art of distilling…and to aid in demonstrating…that good whisky, as a beverage, is the most wholesome spirit in the world.”
Many of the distilleries he visited no longer exist. Others have been reshaped, renovated, or rebuilt. Most of the distilleries, whether they exist now or not, provided little record of their activities at that time. So for the modern researcher, random log books, stray receipts, or random accounts by a visitor to the distillery would be the only way we knew anything about them. Most of the people who worked in the industry had no idea that future generations would have any interest at all in their day to day operations. So most of 19th century whisky history has been left as a mystery filled with many holes, legends, and questionable details - that is, save this one shining work, by a writer of little renown, who took the time to stumble through a few distilleries, finding his sea legs, and then developing a document that historians from now until the last drop of whisky is distilled will hold dear as one of the greatest whisky resources of all time.
Barnard’s Irish Adventure in a Modern World
What I absolutely love about Barnard’s work is how he weaves, if sometimes awkwardly, the history, legends, and lore of the places he explores. In many ways it reminds me of my first journey to distilleries of Kentucky. I didn’t become aware of his writings until after my second trip to Scotland, yet when I picked it up, I felt like what I had experienced in traveling to distilleries in 2018 wasn’t that different from what Barnard experienced in 1886 and 1887.
Oh the logistics were different. There were no airplanes, ride shares, or automobiles to drive around back then. Access to these distilleries would have been complicated and sometimes slow and laborious. Sure there were trains to speed from town to town, but then coaches or horse drawn taxis would be required to reach distilleries that were off the beaten path.
And some elements of the distilleries definitely would have been different. There were no fancy visitor’s centers back then. In fact, even the historic pagoda’s that adorn the top of many Scottish distilleries were still locked in the creative mind of their originator Charles Doig, as a solution to malt house smoke. And many of the distilleries back then were self-contained businesses employing coopers, coppersmiths, millers, and farmers, whereas many of today’s distilleries outsource some or all of these processes.
Yet just like me, I could sense his fascination with each distillery and how unique they really were. He seemed to relish the legacies and history he was learning about. And the people he met were not only amiable but also loved their craft and were willing to share every detail of it with him. These are the same things I experience with each distillery I visit. And so it is no surprise, after my 200+ distillery visits, that Barnard, after 129 distillery visits in Scotland seems ready and raring to go as his boat leaves for Ireland. Each distillery, an adventure and each country providing its own twist to the world of distilling.
So it might be a bit surprising to you, that when I started planning my own distillery adventure around Ireland, I hadn’t really made the connection to what Alfred Barnard and his companions had done 135 years before. Maybe its because it was just a slice of his total tour around Great Britain or maybe because I thought a booming Ireland would have had many more distilleries than there are today.
When the idea of an Irish whiskey adventure first came to me, it was late 2019 and my sister and I were checking out airfares for a possible trip to Spain. Of course, being a fan of aggressive travel itineraries, I thought, well if we are going overseas, maybe I should tack on an extra week and go discover the distilleries of Ireland. My quick web search yielded 12 distilleries. I began to see the makings of a quick and simple travel guide.
But then the unexpected happened - a pandemic - and one that looked to be rivaling the last century’s Spanish flu epidemic. Suddenly I found myself canceling all of my reservations.
It was a year and a half later before I decided to revisit those plans. I wondered how many distilleries had survived the pandemic and if there might be one I missed. To my utter shock and surprise, I soon found myself faced with 40+ names of distilleries that had suddenly popped up on the island!
This wasn’t going to be any quick trip.
Yet, as I researched each distillery, I found that many of them had no tours mentioned on their websites. Were they actually distilleries or were they just brands that were sourcing from somewhere else? I weeded out any brands that I didn’t seem to have any distillery plans or that were focusing only on gin or poitÍn, which I related to American moonshine and still found myself with around 40 distilleries. Yet many of them had stills but the plans for a visitor’s experience was still down the road a bit and many of them were sourcing whiskey while they waited through the 3 years required for their spirits to officially become Irish whiskey.
The whole industry seemed a mystery. Why was Irish whiskey growing so fast? What were these distillers making? Was it all going to be a series triple distilled Jameson and Bushmill clones?
And as I asked these questions, I realized that, not only did I not understand what was going on in the industry, I really didn’t know much at all about Irish whiskey or its history. Sure I’d heard things like - it was the biggest whiskey in the world in the 19th century but disappeared down to a handful of brands sometime in the 20th century. I’d also heard that Ireland is where whiskey originally came from. Then there were things like triple distilling and this idea that Irish whiskey had to be smooth. I’d seen a stray Irish whisky single malt on the shelf, was this just a renegade distiller that didn’t get the memo? And what was up with these styles like Single Grain and Single Pot Still? Were they official categories? What made them different? What grain were they using? And was this Single Pot Still whisky just a single pass distillation?
I needed to learn. And as I asked others and got the same puzzled looks that I gave when confronted with these questions. I was blown away, here was one of the most important centers in whiskey’s history that apparently the world had no clue about.
And that is when I finally made the connection to Alfred Barnard. Just like the people of his day, no one really had the opportunity to visit every single distillery in Ireland to get the lay of the land. His job was to introduce people to the industry in great detail for the very first time. And he would add a whole new dimension to the drams that were being created in these far off cathedrals of spirit.
And soon realized that my trip would be much similar to his and far different from the one I made to Kentucky some years before. Kentucky has had a Bourbon Trail for over 20 years, so I was able to secret shopper every distillery on my own dime - getting a true sense of the distillery tour experience. But in the case of Ireland, most of the distilleries are brand new and many of them aren’t open to visitors yet.
To tell the current story of Irish whiskey, I would have to meet the distillers and founders, taste the new make spirits behind the scenes, and walk through some dust and scaffolding using my imagination as distilleries prepared their future visitor’s experiences.
What I was about to embark upon would be a trip that would provide a glimpse into the birth of a new golden age of Irish whiskey.
And I didn’t get very deep into my travels before I realized that, just as in Alfred’s day, Ireland’s whisky story - past and present - is a treasure just waiting to be discovered.
Over the coming weeks, I’m going to take you along with me as I head north to Belfast, west to Donegal, down the Wild Atlantic Way, on to Tullamore and over to Dublin, so you can get a sense of the incredible innovation happening in Irish whisky today. But we’ll also follow the path of Alfred Barnard and his companions some 135 years ago, to revel in his stories and to meet the people and see the distilleries he saw so many years ago. In between I’ll be weaving the story of Irish whiskey, from its origins, to its triumphant rise, to its devastating fall. We’ll meet rebellions, kings, inventors, drinks, distillers, heroes and villains, and we’ll dispel a few myths along the way.
It’s time for me to share with you the width and breadth of an incredible spirit that just 70 years ago was all but forgotten by the world, but whose legacy serves a reminder of the spirit of innovation, the resiliency of a people, and the cautionary tale of pride before a fall. It’s time to give a long overdue Whiskey Lore Stories treatment to the story of the Irish people and whiskey that made them the envy of the world.
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
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.
And to ask questions about this episode and others or if you want to make some new whiskey history loving friends, join the Whiskey Lore Community on Facebook.
Thanks for your patience and support during my recent stories hiatus. I’m deep into writing my book on Irish whiskey, but there were just too many great stories I wasn’t going to be able to tell in that format - so where better than here on Whiskey Lore Stories. Make sure you hit that subscribe button so you don’t miss any of this season.
Thanks for listening! I’ll be back next week with our first stories. So until next time, cheers and slainte mhath!
For show notes, transcripts, and links to books and social media, head to whiskey-lore.com.
The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom by Alfred Barnard (c 1887)