Make no mistake: the Irish were the world's first distillers of spirits. This is not to denigrate anything Scottish; the Scotch whisky experience is as complex and rewarding as that of Irish whiskey. But be it known that the people of Ireland were distilling whiskey at a time when the Picts, the predecessors of the Scots (who came from Ireland in the first place), were still smearing their bodies with blue paint and stealing cattle in the Lowlands.
In 1608, in County Antrim in what is now Northern Ireland, the first legal distillery was born on the banks of the River Bush. The fact that it was called "Old Bushmills Distillery" gives ample indication that the making of whiskey had gone on for some time in the village of Bushmills.
Fire destroyed the Old Bushmills Distillery in 1885, gutting all but one building. The loss was devastating. But the world needs whiskey, and the entire complex was rebuilt and operating within three years. In 1897, the distillery announced a special issue for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee: ten thousand bottles of its Pure Old Malt whiskey.
Two other great Irish distilleries were established in Dublin, Ireland's capital, in the late eighteenth century. John Jameson & Son in 1780, and Sir John Power & Son in 1791. Jameson is now the best-selling Irish whiskey in the world. By the end of the 1800s, it is estimated that more than four hundred registered brands of Irish whiskey were available in the United States alone.
But the greatest of threats to pot-distilled Irish whiskey was homegrown, born in the mind of Aeneas Coffey of Dublin. For many years, Coffey had been an exciseman, rising eventually to become inspector general of excise. After he resigned from government service in 1824, he put his wits to work and invented what became known as the Coffey still. This remarkable invention allowed for continuous production of grain spirit that was just shy of pure alcohol. It remains nearly unchanged in design to this day.
Today, we are comfortable with blended whiskey, with the single malts, and with the assurance that we can buy and savour fine Irish whiskey, the best that Ireland has to offer. The divine distiller has done, and continues to do, his part in blessing us with Irish whiskey. The Irish, with their music and their stories and poetry, have conquered our hearts, and with their usage beatha (water of life) they have banished our thirst.
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