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  • Distilling Discoveries

    The history of booze is murky at best, with different tipples discovered independently in different parts of the ancient world.

    Beer and mead are perhaps the most obvious example, as simply leaving a bowl of porridge or some watery honey exposed to the elements can result in spontaneous fermentation from airborne yeasts.

    There were many astonishing discoveries in the far-flung corners of the globe of a euphoric dizziness from an accidental concoction that spontaneously fermented, with some of the earliest traced back to the so-called cradle of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia.

    News rarely travelled beyond the neighbouring village when the fastest mode of communication moved at the speed of the camels in a trading caravan, so a delightful mead or beer might be famous in one village, but unheard of in the next valley over.

    Distilled beverages came along much later in human history, so it is easier to pin down the origin of a particular spirit. The earliest written evidence of distillation was found engraved on stone tablets in Mesopotamia that were a little over 4000 years old, with actual production likely even older than that.

    The first commercial users of distillation were the mad scientists of those bygone days, known as alchemists, who were trying to transform lead into gold. While they never succeeded in their gold-digging efforts, they were able to create perfumes and tinctures like none the world had seen before, through distilling out different compounds from source ingredients.

    The art of distillation remained firmly ensconced in perfume and medicinal production for centuries, but since the early alchemists were mostly from booze-eschewing Arabic countries, distillation did not find its way into widespread recreational libations until the early 1400s.

    Eventually, the secrets of distillation were brought to Western Europe by wayfaring Irish monks, who quickly set about making what they called aqua vitae, or the water of life.

    In its typical fashion, the British crown quickly set upon a method of sticking it to the Irish by enacting heavy taxes on whiskey production, which just as unsurprisingly was widely ignored outside the few British garrisons and strongholds on the Emerald Isle.

    It took a few more centuries, but the whiskey industry in Ireland is said to have gone legit in 1608, when King James granted a distillation license to the Old Bushmills Distillery. Tax evasion still ran rampant until the 1770s, when harsh new excise taxes forced all but the largest distilleries out of business, or perhaps just out underground into the illicit market.

    By the early 1800s, Dublin was firmly established as the industrial powerhouse of whiskey production in the UK, feeding not only the domestic industry but shipping to the far-flung corners of the British Empire.

    Over the next century, Irish Whiskey began a slow decline, with the two leading factors attributed to the invention of the column still in the 1830s, followed by the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s.

    The Scotch Whisky industry was almost unheard of at the time, and served only the Scottish domestic market with little export capacity. However, unlike their Irish counterparts who were dedicated to their traditional pot stills, the Scottish distillers adopted the newly invented column still with great enthusiasm.

    Column stills, also called patent stills, Coffey stills, or continuous distillation stills, were much more efficient than the older pot stills, and lent themselves to more industrial scales of production, at the expense of a less flavourful spirit.

    In short order, the Scottish Whisky industry had surpassed their Irish cousins, quickly growing to the dominant player in the world markets, a position it still enjoys today.

    The Irish Whiskey industry continued to decline in the 1900s, with the dark days of American Prohibition blocking access to their single largest export market from 1920-33, soon followed by the Anglo-Irish Trade War of 1932-38 blocking exports to the entirety of the British Empire.

    The Irish Whiskey industry finally began a resurgence in the 1980s, which has been picking up speed ever since. Since the dawn of the new millennium, Irish Whiskey production has been growing at close to 20% annually, with many defunct distilleries being recommissioned, and new distilleries built to meet rising demand. Put down that boring old Jim Beam or Johnnie Walker and try an Irish Whiskey today!