Irish whiskey has had an extremely turbulent history; a serious of social, economic and political setbacks have resulted in the current state of the industry, in which there are only four distilleries operating in the entire country—compared to over 100 in Scotland.
Around the 11th century, Irish monks brought the knowledge of distillation back to Ireland from the Arab empire. They quickly modified the process from its original use (to make perfume) in order to produce a prototypical whiskey from their local grain (barley, oats and wheat). I imagine that in those days before central heating, a good shot of whiskey made the harsh Irish winters somewhat more tolerable.
Stills quickly cropped up throughout the country, and by the late 1700s there were nearly 2000 stills operating in Ireland—though over two-thirds of these were illicit and unlicensed. (The world's first licensed distillery, Bushmills, opened in Ireland in 1608; obtaining a license was expensive, however, and most distillers chose to ignore the law and sell whiskey illegally.)
The rampant production and consumption of illicit whiskey led to a series of anti-alcohol crusades in the 19th century, led by a Capuchin Friar, Father Matthew. Hundreds of distilleries were closed and many of the remaining distilleries packed up shop and left for more booze-friendly countries.
The 20th century brought another series of setbacks to the Irish whiskey industry: the 1916 War of Independence brought all distillation to a standstill, and afterward Britain's trade embargo on Ireland prevented it from exporting whiskey to any country in the British Commonwealth. The United States entered Prohibition shortly afterward in 1920, which destroyed Ireland's remaining export market. Then the Second World War caused a severe grain shortage that froze distillation once more.
After the war, Ireland's remaining distilleries were so beleaguered that they were forced to merge in order to survive, so in 1966 the Jameson, Power, and Cork Distillers merged companies and formed the Irish Distilleries. Bushmills joined three years later in 1970 to complete the monopoly—there wasn't a single other distillery left in Ireland.
For almost 20 years, Irish whiskey stagnated: all brands were made by the same company and the lack of competition allowed the quality to slip quite far. In 1987, the opening of Cooley Distillery—a fully independent and 100 percent Irish-owned distillery—marked the start of a new era. The Irish Distillers corporation, which had since become a subsidiary of the Pernod Ricard group, immediately tried to take over Cooley, but the buyout was thwarted by the Irish government. Since then, Cooley has launched a number of high-quality malt and blended whiskey brands, forcing Irish Distillers to follow suit and improve its own brands.
Irish whiskey is similar in composition to Scottish whisky: both have two main styles, single malt and blended. Single malt whiskies are made entirely from barley at a single distillery. Blended whiskies are made from a blend of grains, mostly barley with some oats and/or wheat, and they can also be blended with other whiskies, including those from other distilleries.
Where Irish and Scottish whiskies differ is in the drying process—to make Irish whiskey, the grain is moistened and allowed to germinate, after which it is dried before undergoing crushing and distillation. In Scotland, peat fires are traditionally used to dry the grain as it sits on a perforated floor, which allows the smoke to envelope the grains and imbue the whisky with a heavy, peaty quality akin to bacon fat and campfire smoke. In contrast, Irish whiskey production uses a kiln that does not allow the smoke to come in contact with the grain, so Irish whiskies are typically smoother and lighter, with cereal and malt barley characteristics (think green, vegetal flavours). In recent years, however, several of the Irish distilleries have experimented with making peaty whiskies in order to compete with the popular peaty single malt Scotches. These peated Irish whiskies are surprisingly delicious and, as an added bonus, are usually much cheaper than a comparable single malt Scotch.
Irish whiskey should be served in a glass with a wide mouth and no stem. Many people like to drink their whiskey on the rocks, though sipping it neat with a drop or two of water will enable you to savour its full range of flavours. V