How Irish Whiskey Became Blended (Part III)

Between 1955 and 1959 in the Irish Dáil, numerous exchanges attest to the growth of blended Irish whisky, as an item of export, to America. Yet as we shall see, some of that blended whiskey was already being sold in Ireland. From 1955 the blended category was being increasingly produced by the major distillers left in the country. There were three by my count still operating in the south ca. 1960. Bushmills, plus the affiliate Coleraine, were left in the north.

There must have been enough aged Irish grain whisky for this purpose. There could be multiple uses for it earlier – to fortify sherry or port-type wine, for gin, for bulk sale to other countries – but anyway it seems the component was available. I have not found any discussion that an aging period had to expire before bottling and sale of blended whiskey could proceed. This 1955 debate, and this 1959 one, are useful bookends to understand the shift that occurred from ca. 1950 when an obdurate group of Irish distillers – admirable in their way – cavilled from blending their rich, waxy, fruity wine of the grain.

As this account on the Gapwines site confirms, British retail magnate Isaac Wolfson bought Bushmills Distillery after WW II but it continued to be managed by its former owner, the Belfast-based Boyd family who started as wine and spirits retailers. Wolfson quickly expanded sales to the U.S. What was he selling? U.S. ads we have been able to check between, say, 1937 and 1957 refer simply to Bushmills whisky eight or nine years old, type not specified. If it wasn’t blended whiskey from the outset, that must have changed by the late 1950s, we think.

However, this 1997 issue of the trade magazine Night Club and Bar states (snippet view but clear) that Black Bush, the premium blended version of Bushmills, was developed at Antrim, home of Bushmills, in 1934. It recites the well-known specification, 80% malt, 20% grain whisky. Hence, the Bushmills sent post-Prohibition to America even before grain whisky was produced at Antrim may have been Black Bush, or some of it, vs. an all-malt Bushmills.*

Two indices presage Bushmills’ later ramp-up, including internationally, of blended whiskey: a 1944 American news story from Belfast, which reported “Irish” distillers intended to send blended whisky after the war to meet American tastes as determined from U.S. soldiers’ requests for “Scotch”, and this April 1954 story in the Advocate which stated Bushmills was building a grain whisky plant. It was the first grain whisky, the Irish-American organ reported, since Dunville in Ulster ceased that business 20 years earlier.

The same story states blending firms in the north – non-distilling independents, surely, but likely also Bushmills itself – had previously obtained supplies “outside”. That probably meant the Republic where two plants were producing it or Scotland (what labelling issues may have ensued, I cannot say). 

Hence, Bushmills might have supplied America from the mid-1930s with Black Bush, but in any case had in-house capacity by the late 1950s. As is well known, both a Black and less costly White Bush were heavily marketed in North America once the whisky renaissance got underway.

To access the 1944 story, use this Fulton search interface, and insert GI Calls for Scotch in search box. It is the second citation, from a Schenectady, NY newspaper. The first citation, from North Tonawanda, is the same story but edited to take out the most important part. The full report ends with an eloge for pot still whiskey, rather contradictory to the earlier paragraph that calls for a milder, blended article to be exported to Americans, but this is journalists not fully understanding what they were reporting.

The 1944 story is interesting as coming from Belfast. As we know, the Irish Pot Still Distillers Association did not initially want to adopt blending; so who were the Irish distillers so anxious to blend after WW II apart Bushmills, clearly? We think it possible the idea was northern initially, with the south signing on under pressure finally from the Irish government via Coras Trachtala Teoranta (CTT); see my Parts I and II in that regard.

The important thing is that some Irish distillers wanted to get on the blended bandwagon again, i.e., after the 19th century experience with it that withered especially in the south by WW I. And this was years before the CTT got going. The CTT didn’t reinvent the wheel, the concept was always there in Irish distilling circles, Republic or Six Counties. The return to it was perhaps inevitable given the evident, global appeal of non-single malt Scotch, even in distant America, but still CTT’s role was vital, hence my drawing attention to it.

Irish whiskey enthusiast and memorabilia collector Charlie Roche wrote us after our first two Parts appeared to send some useful items, for which we thank him here as well. The first is from October 12, 1954, a story in the Maryborough Chronicle of Queensland. It appeared to all evidence only in Australia, but confirms that Gilbey’s Crock o’ Gold, a blended Irish whiskey, was being marketed that year in New York and further, had been available for some years at the bar of “Shannon [airport]” where Americans had taken to it.

Gilbey was the British gin distiller and blender with 19th century roots in England, and had an Irish branch. Gilbey was famous for gin but also had produced blended Scotch whisky successfully and clearly now Irish as well. Gilbey, today part of Diageo, originated as well the all-pot still Redbreast, name and formula now owned by Irish Distillers at Midleton.

It may be noted Riley was a blender, not a distiller of Irish whiskey or at least pot still Irish, to our knowledge, but helped get the ball rolling, surely. It sounds like CTT was campaigning to blenders too, as the Australian story notes briefly that it encouraged development of this brand.

The part about Shannon is interesting, in particular. The received story on Irish Coffee is that Irish chef and bartender Joe Sheridan developed the concoction at Foynes Seaplane base on the other side of the estuary from Shannon, during the war. He was engaged at Shannon International Airport after the war, served it to San Francisco journalist Stanton Delaplane in 1951, who brought it to America and thence to national fame and beyond.

The Australian press story suggests to me Irish blended whiskey was in the coffee as made famous in America from Day One, even though in 1942-43 when Sheridan devised the mix, he would have used pure pot still whisky. As I speculated earlier, the comparative lightness of a blend may have contributed to the drink’s ultimate wide appeal.

What about introduction of Gilbey’s new Irish whiskey in the Free State itself? Good Cooking was an early Irish food journal edited by a husband and wife team, the O’Caseys. Their magazine, of excellent quality, lasted only a year – in 1958 – but contains much information of interest to food and drink historians. The Dublin Institute of Technology, which has a long-running culinary branch, has placed digitized copies on their site with the kind permission of the O’Casey heirs.

In the March 1958 issue appears what sounds like an advertorial for Gilbey’s Crock o’ Gold. Part of it, with pardonable Irish blarney, reads:

A great deal of thought and experiment by this very experienced firm [Gilbey] has gone into the creation of Crock of Gold. It is a lightly blended whiskey, partly liqueur [i.e., pure pot still], which the Americans especially have gone for in a big way, and big orders continue to pour in particularly from the area along the Western Seaboard. This blend has also made a ready appeal in Ireland. Most people here do not drink wine with their lunch because of its soperific effect, and the ordinary type of whiskey has the same result. More and more business executives and others who have to keep wide awake during the afternoon are finding this lighter blend a real blessing.

And so modern blended whiskey was being sold in Ireland before the 1960s or 1970s, periods sometimes cited for first introduction at home. The full-page piece, presumably originating with Gilbey, also states that sales were better on the Western than Eastern American Coasts, but this is not surprising. The big Irish-American communities in New York and Boston et al. knew the older form of Irish whiskey well – pure pot still. It makes sense it took time for the new blended form to make headway with them, vs. the more heterogeneous marketplace out West.

(Yet as I’ve discussed earlier, something as exotic as Manx Oyster Stout had a niche market in that same California – the State can be a surprising mass of contradiction!).

Finally, in the very first issue, January 1958, of Good Cooking, a recipe for Irish Coffee was included. It reads:

Heat stemmed goblet. Pour in jigger of whiskey or Irish Mist. Add sugar. Fill goblet with strong black coffee to within one inch of brim. Stir to dissolve sugar. Top off to the brim with whipped cream. Do not stir after adding cream.

Hence, only some five years after Stan Delaplane launched the craze in America, the recipe “rebounds” to Ireland for distribution locally, without irony or raised eyebrow. This may be the first published recipe for Irish Coffee in Ireland in a drinks- or cookery book, except for any publicity materials from the enterprising Gilbey. I’d think likely Gilbey gave the recipe to the O’Caseys, but can’t be certain.

What a pity Good Cooking did not continue! It was written with a warm spirit and evident high degree of intelligence. Maura O’Casey appears to have authored the text, her husband Ian did layout, design, and solicited advertising: see the first PDF listed (“2017”) for background on the couple.

There is much of interest in the journal. Maura clearly appreciated fish cookery, then overlooked as a datum of Irish cookery (“Fish are as good as a new product as far as many towns are concerned” – March 1958 issue). There are recipes from the Continent, from Ireland, from America, and beyond. Menus current and past are included as well, e.g., a dinner given to Ernest Shackleton (from Kildare) at the Savage Club, London in 1909. Numerous menus are reproduced from the Irish branch of the International Food and Wine Society, of which we have written considerable earlier.

Like many pioneers, the O’Caseys were ahead of their time.


*For what it is worth, a 1959 Practical Encyclopedia of Alcoholic Beverages, ed. Frank Haring, characterized whiskey from the Republic of Ireland as pure pot still, while describing the whisky of Northern Ireland as a mix of malt whisky and grain whisky. See here. There is always a time lag when such works are issued, especially at the time. One can see that this broadly described the position since Prohibition, and, we apprehend, probably since the 1908 Royal Commission on Whisky in the U.K. if not earlier.  This does not mean some blended whiskey wasn’t sold in southern Ireland in the 19th century and up to 1908 at least: the testimony of various witnesses at the Royal Commission including William Jameson makes clear it was, at the wholesale level (i.e., blenders would mix the two forms and supply it to the retail trade).

But at production level – what the distilleries themselves branded and sold – this basic distinction seemed correct, e.g., Jameson and Power’s did not sell at the time a branded blended whiskey. This is consistent with my findings. However, the distinction in Haring’s book was breaking down when it was published, due to the important work of the CTT, development of Crock O Gold by Gilbey, and export by the late 1950s of numerous other blended whiskeys to America from the Republic. That is the story in these posts: how that process occurred, and why.