John McKenna pours himself a glass and settles down with a good book, about whiskey
The Whiskeys of Ireland, by Peter Mulryan (O’Brien Press)
Peter Mulryan’s book is an excellent guide to Ireland’s whiskeys, ancient and modern.
Just as importantly, Mr Mulryan’s book is a splendid social history of Ireland, viewed through the prism of the distiller’s art.
The story has the shape of a glass: it descends from the lip, goes right down to the base, but then shoots up once again to get to the lip. Ireland, in other words, once owned the world of whiskey. And then it lost that position, steadily, surely, agonisingly.
Yet today, strangely enough, Ireland is putting itself in a position where it might – might, could, maybe – again become a major player amongst the mega-brands that dominate whiskey drinking throughout the world. New distilleries are patiently making whiskey, and fashioning it for the way the world now wants to drink whiskey: booze with a narrative, a story, with a USP.
The irony here is that Ireland, once upon a time, had all this, and had it in spades. The country was littered with distilleries, owned and run by Irish families, who employed hundreds not only in the huge distilleries themselves, but in ancillary industries.
And then they lost it, with one catastrophe after another – but especially Prohibition and the ‘Economic War’ with England – driving nail after nail into the coffin of Irish whiskey. Even Northern Ireland could not escape the malaise: in the mid-1930’s the board of Dunville’s Royal Irish Distillery in Belfast, whilst still showing a profit, voted to close the company. Chapters 7 and 8 of the book are entitled ‘Decimation’ and ‘From Bad To Worse’.
And today? Today Irish whiskey is dynamic. Powered by the global success of Jameson, and powered by extraordinary characters like the legendary John Teeling, Irish whiskey is in demand. It’s an amazing story, and Peter Mulryan tells it well. Quite how he got the time to work on this new edition is remarkable, given that his day job, these days, is fashioning the very lovely Blackwater No 5 Gin. We should all be grateful he found the time.