Irish Whiskey – Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

There’s an obvious whisky/whiskey connection between Scotland and Ireland. When you’re over in Ireland, you could be excused for thinking Irish Whiskey was every bit as big an Industry as Scotch whisky, mainly because they drink their own whiskey, by default.

The ACTUAL fact is that Ireland only has four distilleries.  Bushmills in Northern Ireland and Middleton, Cooley and Kilbeggan in the South. Scotland of course, has about 100.

This is where the Irish are clever, you see. The have spun out many a brand from these 4 distilleries and with their slightly woolly descriptions about what constitutes a blend, or a ‘pot still’ whiskey, or a single malt whiskey, they also go on to lose a bit of this in the translation, to the extent that most drinkers are not really all that sure what they’re drinking.

This, ladies and gentlemen, might be confusing but it’s certainly a HUGE help in disguising the fact that there are only the 4 distilleries in the whole of The Emerald Isle. There’s a sort of blur between the truth, the legislative facts and the amazing ability of the Irish to talk things up.  And as I was to find out, in the World of Irish whiskey, the ability to talk things up is very valuable.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some AMAZING Irish whiskies and you only have to look at any recent Whisky/Whiskey Awards to see that Irish drams punch well above their weight. The rather excellent Redbreast (it’s a Pot Still Whiskey using malted and unmalted barley) is rather splendid and was something we enjoyed as an exemplar of a great dram, regardless of Country of origin. It’s made in Cork at the Middleton Distillery and is one of the new breed of Irish Whiskies which is making a name for itself.  Nope, there are some cracking Irish Whiskies, it’s just that a lot of the not-so-good whiskies are labelled ‘Pure Pot Still’ or ‘Irish Pot Still’ and various other things and they might very well be a blended whiskey containing other grains, not just barley. It’s a bit confusing to me, someone that knows a wee bit about it, so heaven knows what the casual visitor must think.

Here’s an example of the Irish ability to never let the truth get in they way of a good story. I visited the Jameson Whiskey Visitor Centre in Dublin, which is several hours drive from Cork, where they actually make the stuff. Okay, they make it clear that it’s NOT the distillery where they make the whiskey that you’re visiting but after this, things began to get a bit ‘abstract’, in that particular Irish way.

For instance,  I was somewhat amazed at a tasting at the end of the tour, where Jameson, this most Irish of spirits, was tasted against Johnnie Walker Black Label. The suggestion that Johnnie Walker is not very good because it is ‘smokey and a mix of all sortsa whisky from all over Scotland’  could be seen to be slightly playing with words, especially since at NO TIME during the tour did the guide suggest that  Jamesons was also ACTUALLY a blend. They did tell us it was all ‘from one distillery’ and they DID lay heavy on the ‘Pot Still’ chat, but they never once mentioned that this Whiskey was in fact bulked-up with grain Whiskey! It’s a moot point whether you think Johnnie Walker is any good or not but it’s certainly clever the way they portray Jameson as being superior, because they don’t have any other Irish distilleries to blend it with! Johnnie Walker, all kindsa stuff in it!

As a proud Scot I was also really keen to see a picture of the great man John Jameson, who came over from ALLOA IN SCOTLAND to form this most Irish of Whiskey companies. Sadly, or cleverly, which ever way you want to look at it, this isn’t mentioned anywhere and the crowd were quite surprised when I mentioned the fact that John was indeed a Scot, a Clackmannanshire man. In fact, in the very entertaining information video that you’re shown on the tour, Mr Jameson is revealed to have a lilting Dublin brogue. Yep, they like a good story in Ireland. and why should the truth get in the way of this good story?

Okay, the slightly negative aspects aside, the Irish sell their whiskey with pride and passion. Many bars have their own single malt in bottles and detailed tasting notes which they use as promotional material. The rather splendid Palace Bar in Fleet Street, Dublin has it’s own 9 year old Single Malt, made for them by Cooley’s and it’s a nice drink. Over and above this, it’s a real talking point and marks them out as Whiskey experts. They use it on their posters, beermats and on the printed whiskey lists they give drinkers, as a memento of their visit to this incredible Victorian drinking ‘Palace’. It’s a bar that any lover of Whisky/Whiskey should visit, because they’ve got loads of Scotch Whisky as well.

Along the road, in the heart of the Temple Bar district lies The Temple Bar itself. This massive bar should be a hideous tourist trap but it’s not and its hundreds of whiskies are available to view on colourful fliers, situated in polished brass leaflet boxes. Again, this is here to take away.

The beauty of these two bars is that they are amazing Whiskey Bars, right at the heart of the action and they are encouraging NON whiskey drinkers to have a go and try the local spirit. They are making Whiskey accessible, they have it on posters, on optics and available. On the nights I was there there were lots of people trying it who very obviously would never drink Whiskey again, but they tried it nonetheless. They were selling Irish Whiskey as something that SIMPLY HAD to be tried whilst in the country.

So what’s to take away from this rather splendid, too short, working break to Dublin? Whether you reckon Irish Whiskey is better than Scotch isn’t the argument. It’s clear that for a country with only FOUR distilleries, they’re pretty good at getting the word out. Scotland has TWENTY FIVE times the amount of distilleries but if your first visit to a Celtic Country was Ireland, you’d never know this. The other interesting thing is that they are looking to get even better at this. Because of the very nature of the boom/bust situation Ireland’s faced, there was mixed abilities, when it came to serving up drams. Some, like the very engaging barman called Damian who served us in the legendary Shelbourne Hotel, he was VERY good. He opened up the closed bar so we could take photos and really knew his stuff. Others, were not quite as knowledgeable, not native Irish but seemed to have a very friendly ‘nothing is too much trouble’ attitude.

Most if not all of the owners/head barmen and spirits experts we spoke to were very excited about the growth of Irish Whiskey and as we’ve seen before, when the Irish want to get the word out, they’re pretty good at it. Of course, the one-time ‘Celtic Tiger’ is much more of a pussy cat these days but I wouldn’t bet against them returning, with some vigour, to continue to punch above their weight, in the spirits World. Scotch, you’ve got to watch out!

To sum it up, any Nation which can have TWO places purporting to  be: ‘Dublin’s Smallest Bar’ are good at marketing things, great at hyperbole and fabulous at finding a unique ‘angle’ to hang their marketing hat on.

As one of the hugely entertaining locals of one of the places The Lotts Snugthat goes under the mantle of  ‘Dublin’s smallest pub’ said to us: “As smallest bars go, the one we’re standing in is feckin’ HUGE, but you came in for a drink didn’t you?”.

Yup, and we also bought him a drink AND he also took a couple of Euros off us, with his lottery-type, last-one-in-takes all ‘beermat game’. Obviously corrupt but just too funny and amusing to not take the most obvious of hooks. Write your name on a beermat and be amazed that yours isn’t chosen from all the other beermats from blokes in the bar. It’s a totally fair drinking game! Especially, as they let me play even though my beermat had a bit torn out of the corner. Doh!!

Dublin, what an entertaining City.





  • Mark Backhouse

    Your title sums up your article ,which perhaps due to ignorance, contain little truth.

    Scotch whisky, owned by the English, overtook Irish whisky sales shortly after WW2. This came about due to English sanctions. Long story.

    John Jameson left Scotland to a better system that allowed distillers control and success as apposed to Scotland where the law allowed the grocers to control the whisky supply and not the distillers. Grocers, such as, Johnny Walker, George Ballantine, James and John Chivas finally become the powerhouse in Whisky making in Scotland. John Jameson was a distiller and Ireland offered him the opportunity to succeed.

    It as also a strategic move by Pernod Ricard to promote JJ&S worldwide as apposed to John Powers and they never once considered that anyone would mind that JJ was a scot – it makes no difference.

    Irish whiskey is back on route to become the worlds biggest whiskey once again and in 50 years from now will have almost as many distilleries as Scotland. In its heyday, Iriland was home to over 200 distilleries.

  • Good points but your comment about our blog containing ‘little truth’ isn’t very fair! Jameson WAS a Scot and it’s difficult to get anyone to admit to this. Our blog is also FULL of praise for Ireland and Irish Whiskey! I’m looking forward to the times when Ireland has as many Distilleries as Scotland because that means the Celtic whisk(e)y connection will be succeeding, on a truly Global basis. Join us on Twitter @whiskyambass or on Facebook at TheWhiskyAmbassador, where we can continue this interesting debate.

  • Claire McGrath

    The short film shown at the beginning of the tour of the Old Jameson Distillery actually says “John Jameson came to Ireland….” Whenever anyone asks where from, they are always told he was Scottish – I actually revel in asking people why they think a Scotsman would have come to Ireland to learn distilling ; )

    I have to agree with Mark too. Until English sanctions (and prohibition in the USA) Irish whiskey was actually the world´s most popular whiskey – right up to the end of the 19th century. In fact, in 1880 Irish whiskey became the most popular spirit in the world after phylloxera had devastated the cognac crop in France.

    Oh and you left out the bit about whiskey having been invented in Ireland right back in the 5th century by Irish monks. Sláinte! : )

  • Damien McHugh

    Do not think you can define Whisk(e)y from a national perspective, I believe we are all so closely inter related that, it does not matter where the ‘water’ originates. More look at from a health viewpoint..

    Robert Swinhurst an Anglo-Irishman of the 17th century had to say about whiskey…

    “Being moderatlie taken, saith he, it sloweth age, it strengneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it cutteth flegme, it abandoneth melancholie, it relisheth the heart, it lighteneth the mind, it quickeneth the spirit…it keepeth and preserveth the head from whirling, the eies from dazeling, the toong from lisping, the mouth from maffling, the teeth from chattering, and the throat from rattling; …it keepeth the stomach from wambling, and the heart from swelling, the bellie from wirtching, the guts from rumbling, the hands from shivering and the sinews from shrinking, the veines from crumpling, the bones from aking, and the marrow from soaking. “

  • paddy

    I will agree with you the Irish love a good story but in the Jameson tv add they say he was from Scotland but Irish at heart plus the Irish wiskey industry is as big a Scotland they may not have the same amount of distilleries but Irish wiskey has surpassed Scottish sales in the U.s Ireland importing 1.7 million nine-lt cases an Scotland 1.4 million 9lt cases an in the 1800s Ireland had over 2000 distilleries

  • robert

    Paddy, I think your figures are comparing US Irish Whiskey sales vs US Single Malt Scotch sales. They are not including US Blended Scotch sales, which would tip the balance heavily in favour of Scotch.

    Ireland controls 3.5% of whisky market, Scotland about 60%.

  • Paul Teague

    When you consider that the very name SCOT means in fact ….Irish man taken from the Latin
    …..its a bit silly to talk about the Scots inventing whisky the art of disstilling came from ireland to Scotland NOT THE OTHER EAY AROUND !!! you only need to look at history to see that…. Unfortunately the Scots have a major hangup about items that are most associated with Scotland which are in fact
    …Irish ….like bagpipes …whiskey
    ….tartan …..etc etc

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