How Irish Whiskey Became Blended (Part II)

Irish Whiskey, Irish wit

For those interested to follow this question of how modern Irish blended whiskey originated, this link to a debate in 1954 in the Dáil, or Irish Parliament, will illuminate many aspects. A private member’s bill, finally withdrawn, was introduced to favour the creation of a State-sponsored corporation to produce patent or grain whisky to blend with pot still Irish for export, especially to America.

The members discuss many aspects raised or alluded to in my Part I and add further useful perspectives, addressing notably:

  • the history of the main Irish distillers’ antipathy to blended whisky
  • the reality that American and world markets wanted a lighter, blended article
  • difficulties faced by Irish distillers during the war when barley was short and whisky exports were in the main disallowed by law
  • pros and cons of changing the minimum age then required for sale of Irish whisky in Ireland (five years)
  • the advisability of altering existing industrial alcohol facilities in Ireland to produce potable patent whisky

In the result, the distilling industry in Ireland adopted blended whisky after 1954 through its own efforts, initially for export to North America and finally for home use.

For those who read an early version of my Part I mentioned, it now includes additional hyperlinked sources, further discussion on Irish coffee, and a more nuanced reference to pre-WW II blending of Irish whiskey.

Most members participating in the 1954 debate accepted the commercial utility of creating blended whisky production while trying to promote sales where possible of the traditional pot still article. I infer from the article that some blended whisky was already being sold in America by a small distiller or blender (not named), but it is also clear that the main distillers – Jameson and Powers – were traditionalists only slowly being wooed to the desirability of introducing a blended form of their famous whiskey (as they ultimately did).

There was also an interesting Dáil debate in 1950 when a law was passed to legislate a definition of Irish whiskey, commendable in its brevity. You may read it here. That law clearly allows blended whisky to be called “whiskey” in Ireland as indeed Great Britain, America and Canada had determined earlier for their whisky. Method of distillation was not material, in other words.

The definition of Irish pot still whiskey was more limited, but without any attempt to specify percentage or type of cereals used except for malted barley being necessary for saccharification:

… spirits described as Irish Pot Still Whiskey shall not be deemed to correspond to that description unless they have been obtained by distillation solely in pot stills in the State from a mash of cereal grains such as are ordinarily grown in the State saccharified by the diastase of malted barley.

I suspect “ordinarily grown” was meant to exclude corn, or maize in other words. It is interesting to compare this flexible definition to the current EU technical standard for the use of the term single pot still whiskey, which is rather more specific. See this summary of the current rules by legendary distiller Barry Crockett on the site of Irish Distillers (Pernod Ricard), owner of Midleton distillery in the town of the same name.

There is some controversy in Ireland whether this definition is at odds with the historical record and too restrictive, in particular viz. the emerging group of craft distillers. We are aware of it and it is an interesting issue, but beyond our scope here.

At the end of the day, good whiskey, as good beer, wine, or cider, should raise a beneficent smile. Indeed a sharp wit can do the same, even without ethanol’s spur.

An example is provided in the 1954 Dáil debate mentioned above.  In a verbal peregrination on the true Irish whiskey, Seán Francis Lemass (1899-1971), today regarded as a founding father of Ireland, stated:

Many years ago I tried to do some trade promotional efforts for Irish whiskey in Canada. I thought it might be easier there because there was a Government monopoly in whiskey in some of the Canadian States, but we found there was a very bad whiskey exported from Belfast with more shamrocks, round towers and greyhounds on the label than you would see in the whole of Connemara. It had so prejudiced public opinion against Irish whiskey that you just could not get them to look at Irish whiskey.

As they say, ouch – on a couple of scores.

Note re image: Image above, sourced from the Wellcome Collection, is entitled “An Irish greyhound standing in a mountainous landscape. Etching by J. Scott after P. Reinagle”. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

(See our Part III to this post which immediately follows).