Monday 1 October 2007

Classic Text Republished: Truths About Whisky

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the Irish distilling industry was fighting a losing battle. Irish whiskey was, at the time, held in high regard in its own country as well as in England and the rest of the Empire. Compared to peated, fully malted Highland scotch, Irish whiskey was lighter, smoother and more reliably consistent due to the mix of malted and unmalted grain in the pot still.

The distilling houses sold their product by the cask to middlemen and publicans who bottled it or served their customers straight from the cask. It was impossible for the distillers to ensure that the fine quality whiskey they shipped was the same whiskey the customer drank since unscrupulous dealers may have mixed the premium Irish drink with some cheaper spirit.

Enormous quantities of cheap spirit became available when an Irish excise officer, Aeneas Coffey, invented a continuous process for distilling spirit from grain. Not only was this inherently less expensive than the cumbersome batch process of the traditional pot still distilleries, it also produced a much purer alcohol that largely lacked flavour. Thus the Coffey (or patent) still could be fed with any grain, for example, imported maize, since this would have little effect on the taste of the output.

There was no strict, legal definition of "Irish" or "Scotch" whiskey, or even of "whiskey" itself so the way was open for a cheaper knock-off to come to market. A "blender" would take grain spirit (as the new spirit was called, or "silent spirit", somewhat disparagingly, since it had no voice of its own) and flavour it with a small percentage of genuine pot still whiskey. This would then be sold as Irish or Scotch to the unwitting public.

The powerful Dublin distillers were alarmed by the new trend. Their own whiskey was expensively produced and then sat maturing for years in bonded warehouses. The new grain spirit was not matured at all and was perhaps made in Scotland before being shipped to Ireland to be mixed with pot still whiskey and re-exported to England for sale as "Irish whiskey". These upstarts were trading fraudulently on the reputation that the Irish distillers had built over the past century.

Many representations were made by the industry to the government to impose standards on what could and couldn't be described as whiskey. To bolster their position, the four great Dublin distillers - John Jameson & Sons; William Jameson & Co.; John Power & Sons; and George Roe & Co. issued a book entitled Truths About Whisky in 1878 to plead their case.

Today, this historic book is very hard to come by and I know from my own researches that the National Library of Ireland has lost its own copy. Fortunately, a small Scottish publishing house, Classic Expressions, that specialises in reprinting seminal works on whiskey is producing a facsimile edition.

For the book to hit the presses again, the publisher needs 75 pre-orders. At the time of writing the number of orders stands at 49. So if you have an interest in the history of Irish whiskey you might like to add this to your bookshelf. And the sooner you order, the sooner I get my copy!