A brief history of Irish whiskey

The comedian Ed McMahon once said “God invented whiskey to prevent the Irish from ruling the world”. Round these parts, we take that as a compliment

Kilbeggan Whiskey, way back when
Kilbeggan Whiskey, way back when

Some drinks are easy to trace. Tea comes from leaves; picked and dried on vast plantations. Wine brings to mind dry, crumbling soil, big fat grapes hanging heavy on the vine, and we’re told as children that milk makes its way to breakfast from generous herds that roam grassy plains.

Whiskey, though, is where the mystery lies.

The Water of Life

At the back of most of our minds, there are hints of how uisce beatha (the Water of Life) begins its journey to our glass. There’s something vague about oats, a nagging image of big copper vats, and that cosy scene in a dimly lit cellar where wooden casks collect dust and barely balance on each other.

Outside of those snapshots, we’re in the dark.

The liquid scientists at a certain Westmeath distillery are the light.

For a distillery that claims to be the oldest of its kind in the country, you’d imagine that history is an important word at Kilbeggan. And you’d be right.

A sip of the past

Some of the “big copper pots” (pot stills) have been working here for 180 years. The mill wheel, brought back to its former glory, is a slow spinning Catherine wheel of red; swooping and sloshing into a foaming Brosna River. In 2017, the drink itself will have been in production for 260 years.

It’s rare that you get to taste something that has taken over two-and-a-half centuries to perfect.

A word of advice for that first sip – let it linger.

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Taste test

Rachel Quinn at Kilbeggan Distillery has a useful metaphor to describe the drink that has made the town a place of liquid pilgrimage.

“Like most Irish people, Kilbeggan is easygoing and approachable, but with its own distinctive style.”

There you have a clue to the charm of whiskey – it has a character.

This isn’t a mouthful of mass-produced whiskey; hands have felt the barley, noses have been lowered into the pot. Today’s Kilbeggan has reached us through years of dedication.

“On the nose, it's clean, fresh, hints of citrus, honey, lemon - a little grainy,” explains Rachel. “To taste, it has a traditional smooth Irish whiskey flavour, the smoothness as it goes down the throat and all of the flavours you get on the nose. And the finish... long, smooth and satisfying.”

The great debate

Football, the weather, hurling, politics, TV, the weather again – there’s plenty to debate at the pub. One particular topic of conversation has endured over generations: Is adding water to whiskey sacrilege or sense?

While we have Rachel’s attention, we dare to ask:

“Yes, there’s much debate on this. As far as we are concerned, it’s a complete personal preference! Our Master Distiller Noel Sweeney enjoys his Kilbeggan with a little water, as he says a little water helps to open the nose of the whiskey.”

It will take another 250 years to find an end to that particular debate.

If it does, we reckon Kilbeggan’s wheel will still be turning.

Whiskey Chasers

Where else on the island of Ireland can you follow your nose and find whiskey? Here's where:

Bushmills Whiskey Distillery, County Antrim

A home to allied soldiers during WWII and offering accommodation that is the very definition of traditional, a tumbler of whiskey and a turf fire in this place is the perfect way to top off a day on the Causeway Coast. Oh, and the distillery here is over 400 years old.

The Jameson Whiskey experience Midleton, County Cork and Dublin City

Jamseson is a byword for great Irish whiskey and the same is to be said of their distillery tours. In their Dublin home, the tours end with a selection of whiskey cocktails,  while in Cork  you get the full package of singers, dancers and late night craic (they make a wicked Irish Coffee in the Malt House there). 


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