The main objection raised to Irish whiskey in America is that it is not blended. The Irish distillers have made it clear that they consider their product the best in the world, and refuse to change from the traditional pot still method of distilling.
(From The Advocate, January 23, 1954).
1953 and all That
Most Irish whiskey today is blended. This means, a light-flavoured grain whisky, distilled to a high-proof in a column still, is blended with a smaller (often) amount of single pot still or single malt whiskey distilled to a lower proof, or both. Single pot still, formerly known as pure pot still whiskey, is a traditional Irish triple distilled whiskey using a mash of malted and unmalted barley and in the past, other grains (wheat, oats, rye) in varying, generally smaller percentages.
The main exponent of single pot still Irish today is Midleton Distillery owned by Irish Distillers (Pernod Ricard). Single malt is produced classically by Bushmills distillery in Northern Ireland, along Scots lines but is also made by numerous other distilleries in Ireland, Cooley’s is an example.
The Irish blended style is an analogue to Scotch blended whisky, Canadian blended whiskey, and broadly, American blended whiskey. For a good overview of Irish distilling today that focuses on whiskey types, this Forbes article from May 28 this year by Joseph V. Micallef serves well.
Now, if pure pot still aka single pot still Irish was the inherited form, whence the blended form? Blending in Scotland originated in the 19th century. Did the same occur in Ireland? Not in any way that, contrary to Scotch, became emblamatic, as all or most Irish whiskey by the early 20th century was pure pot still. Everyone is agreed on this, I believe.
What is less clear is how it became blended, or rather why. The answer lies in a series of news articles in the Irish-American press in 1953-1955. See my sources below in nos. 1-7, all from the Advocate, published in New York, which chronicled the tale.
In a nutshell, in 1953 Coras Trachtala Teoranta (CTT) commissioned a market study to determine how better to market Irish whiskey to Americans. Alan C. Russell, a marketing expert in New York, performed the study, delivering a report of 100 pages. (Now that would make fascinating reading, but we were not successful to locate a copy).
CTT was the (Irish) Dollar Export Promotion Board, a government body set up in 1951 and tasked with increasing Irish exports. See further details in this U.S. Bureau of Foreign Commerce publication from 1959.
What the Advocate records is that Irish distillers, there were five still in business then, were committed for quality reasons to pot still whiskey – they did not want to blend. But pressed by CTT and Irish legislators, soon they did. They sent initially the produce to America, introducing it later at home apparently in the 1960s.
The first export for the new blended form was contracted in 1955 (see no. 7), a satisfyingly large order that pointed to the future for Irish distilling. The first shipments appear to have gone over the following year, according to a trade publication of January 7, 1957 issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
CTT convinced the distillers to do this to increase their export business, to try to catch up with Scotch exports which were far ahead in the U.S. market. Indeed Advocate stories stated, sometimes ruefully, that blended Scotch had a respectable sale in the Republic of Ireland itself.
In the story below by Sean Cronin (no. 5), he states:
Irish domestic consumption takes most of the production—some 700,000 gallons. Scotch, of course, has been Britain’s greatest dollar-earner and only a relatively small percentage of total production stays at home. Why does Scotch control the whisky market of the world? Is it a better product? What’s wrong with Irish whisky?
Cronin then added:
Experts of the Irish distilling industry have traipsed across the United States and into Canada to find the answers. They think that as between the pure pot still Irish and the blended variety the latter is what the American whisky drinker wants. The reason they insist is because large numbers of Americans like ginger ale in their whisky. To the connoisseur this sounds like sacrilege but you don’t shake a fact by swearing at it. And whereas the blend and the ginger mix favorably the pure stuff wouldn’t deign to sit still in the same glass (or stomach) as the mineral.*
So, Irish pot still didn’t work well for mixed drinks; blended Scotch, by then the main form sent to the U.S., did. A further story in the series states Irish distillers hadn’t the capital to invest massively in advertising to switch American preferences to pure pot still. Ergo, turn Irish whiskey into a blend, to meet American tastes. That is the story these Advocate pieces tell if you read each one.
None of the stories, interestingly, refers to price. If a low pricing strategy played any role, we are unaware of it, although we suspect there was something about pricing in Alan Russell’s report to CTT. On the face of it, the decision to blend was a function of two factors: a) American taste, b) lack of distillers’ capital to market pure pot still nationally in America.
This ad in an Ossinning, NY newspaper in 1956 shows a Murphy “blended whiskey” that is clearly the new type, choc-a-bloc with a seven year old Jameson that appears the old type. The price for the eight-year-old Murphy was slightly more than for the seemingly pot still Three Star Jameson. This suggests price was not a factor in deciding to send blended whiskey to America. That said, we have not undertaken a systematic price investigation based on late 1950s and 1960s trade ads.
Much of the Irish coffee craze in the U.S. in 1950s-60s appears to have relied on the new blended whiskey. A blend of Irish whiskey amusingly termed Royal Irish – a reflection on the insouciance of the American consumer? – was touted in California in 1958 as ideal for Irish coffee.** See, for example, this example in San Bernadino, CA.
Whether the outsize success of Irish coffee was reliant on this form vs. the more vigorous pot still is impossible to answer at this point. Certainly Irish coffee was publicised in America before the new blended whiskey was imported, but we suspect the lighter form made the mixture more palatable to more people.
All the above said, a review of 1930s-early 40s trade ads in the U.S. shows that considerable Irish whiskey was described as blended, see e.g., in nos. 8 and 9 below. I believe, however, this whiskey was not pot still or single malt blended with grain whisky, but rather a mix of Irish straight whiskeys, perhaps in some cases single malt and pure pot still.
One reason is, some ads state the advertised blended whiskey, Jameson, for example, was the same as that sold in Ireland. Another reason is that contemporary American standards of identity for whiskey required that Irish whiskey be described as a blend if it was a mixture of whiskeys.*** Say, for example, Jameson had mingled some of its own seven year pot still with similar whiskey purchased from another, or an out-of-business, distiller.
Jameson’s Irish American Whiskey, well-known to historians of Irish whiskey, was a combination of a young American straight whiskey and old Irish pot still first marketed in 1936, i.e., in the post-Repeal period. It was abandoned by WW II, probably due to the widespread availability by then of properly aged American straight whiskey. This 1936 ad for the product in Buffalo, New York shows the great hopes invested, vainly, in its future.
Clearly however, some Irish whiskey before the landmark decisions in 1953-54 was blended in the sense of containing column still grain whisky. Numerous references in literature on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th and early 20th centuries are to this effect especially in regard to exports, at least to England. This fed into the “what is whiskey” controversy and the pre-WW I Royal Commission inquiry that resulted in important regulatory decisions in Britain and North America including on how to label column still grain distillate where mixed with pot still. In a word if all made from grain it was entitled to the appellation whisky.
At the same time, from our survey, blending in this sense was in Ireland disfavoured in time and from ca. 1900 so-called “self” whisky (pure pot still in southern Ireland) became the main form produced and sold. All or nearly all of what was exported to America after Prohibition must have been 100% pot still, otherwise the tone of the Advocate series is inexplicable.
Yet we can’t rule out that some truly blended whiskey – grain whisky + single pot still and/or single malt – was sent to America in the 1930s. If so it was a progenitor of the CTT-inspired blended whisky that became popular in America and ultimately Ireland.
CTT was later absorbed into Ireland’s current Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In the 1950s certainly, CTT had an office in Manhattan and did a fine job promoting Irish exports of all kinds, including whiskey.
It is my conclusion that indirectly, a trade decision viz. the American market ultimately influenced the main form Irish whiskey would take in its homeland.
N.B. My purpose here is not to outline Irish distilling history over the period discussed or beyond, as such. I do wish to show, based on my research, that modern Irish blended whiskey has its origins in a plan to export a blended article to America hatched by the CTT and Irish legislators, one to which initially reluctant but finally compliant distillers of pure pot still whiskey signed on. I found this of note as normally, product innovation arises from business dynamics such as competition, or the introduction of new technology. The group of reluctant distillers was John Jameson and Powers in Dublin, and Cork Distillers, Locke, and Tullamore outside. Bushmills distillery in Northern Ireland stood in a somewhat different position as a single malt producer – no mashing of raw grains – but did share the pot still. In fact Bushmills would enhance its blending capability in about the same period, as I will discuss before long.
(See our Parts II and III to this post which immediately follow).