Brewing and Distilling

views updated

Brewing and Distilling

The modern Irish industries of brewing and distilling took shape in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Prior to this period both beer-making and whiskey- (or spirit-) making were carried on at a mainly small-scale, local level. Whiskey was produced in small stills, both legal and illicit, often in one-person operations. Most beer was brewed by retail brewers—publicans who sold the beer they produced themselves. Whiskey became the most popular drink during the eighteenth century and remained so until the early nineteenth century, after which public taste shifted toward porter and stout, the stalwarts of the growing Irish brewing industry. By the end of the nineteenth century Guinness's brewery of Dublin was the world's largest, and Scotland had replaced Ireland as the world's leading whiskey producer.

Draconian excise legislation introduced in 1779 and 1780 led to the closure of many of the smaller legal distilleries, which in turn led to a huge upsurge in illicit distillation in the countryside and a concentration of the legal industry in larger distilleries in the cities and large towns. Use of illicit stills, which produced the colorless spirit poitín (or poteen), was widespread until the 1860s, when improved law enforcement, better-quality legal whiskey, and a shift to porter and stout consumption led to their decline; illicit distillation continued, but on a far smaller scale. In 1830 the distilling industry was revolutionized by the invention of the Coffey patent still, which allowed more economical production of increasingly popular lighter and blended whiskies. While the major distillers of Dublin and Cork clung to the old pot-still method, the Northern distilleries followed the Scottish lead by investing in patent-still production, prompting a shift in the Irish industry to the North: large-scale patent-still production, combined with superior marketing, ensured Scottish domination of international markets. By the 1920s, many of the leading Ulster distillers had been taken over by the Distillers Company Ltd. of Scotland and closed down, and Dublin (led by Jameson) and Cork (Cork Distillers Company) became the main Irish distilling centers in the twentieth century. Through amalgamation and improved technology and marketing, the Irish distilling industry regained a solid domestic foundation and international market presence.

The demand for whiskey waned throughout the nineteenth century because of increased prices, a successful temperance campaign, and the growing popularity of porter and stout. Since the mid-eighteenth century the small-scale Irish brewing industry had suffered from competition from the large British porter breweries. The decline was reversed toward the end of the century as brewing was reorganized into larger and more efficient units. Commercial brewers were growing in size and gradually displacing the formerly dominant retail operators. The larger-scale and more technically efficient Irish porter breweries, particularly Guinness of Dublin and Beamish and Crawford of Cork, rapidly overcame British competition and established brewing as a major Irish industry. Between the 1850s and the eve of the First World War output trebled; about 40 percent was exported. The extraordinary growth of Guinness's brewery was largely responsible for this. By the early twentieth century it was the largest brewery in the world, having managed to capture the expanding Irish market in the second half of the nineteenth century and to establish a crucial presence in the British market. About a dozen substantial breweries that catered to local markets managed to survive Guinness's domination in the twentieth century. The only two stouts to survive were Beamish and Murphy's, both brewed in Cork city. A key to their survival was the breweries' operation of "tied house" systems, whereby public houses in Cork city and county were owned or controlled by the breweries, providing a captive market.

Following Irish independence the number of breweries and distilleries decreased, reflecting economic hardship, new duties on alcoholic products, and restrictions on public-house licenses. Guinness remained dominant, aided by its huge export market, and brewing continued to be the country's leading industry primarily due to the Dublin brewery's success. The opening up of the Irish economy in the 1960s and shifts in consumer tastes changed the face of the industry. Guinness took over many of the last small breweries, while Murphy and Beamish were taken over by foreign multinationals. The three major Irish breweries extended their product ranges to include newly popular lagers and ales, primarily through trade agreements with foreign breweries, and the entire industry underwent extensive modernization. Stout is still the most popular beverage in Ireland, and Guinness still dominates the industry.

SEE ALSO Guinness Brewing Company; Industrialization; Industry since 1920; Rural Industry; Transport—Road, Canal, Rail


Bielenberg, Andy. "The Irish Brewing Industry and the Rise of Guinness, 1790–1914." In The Dynamics of the InternationalBrewing Industry since 1800, edited by R. G. Wilson and T. R. Gourvish. 1998.

Connell, K. H. "Illicit Distillation." In Irish Peasant Society: Four Historical Essays. 1968.

Dennison, S. R., and Oliver MacDonagh. Guinness, 1886–1939: From Incorporation to the Second World War. 1998.

Magee, Malachy. Irish Whiskey: A 1000-Year Tradition. 1991.

Maguire, E. B. Irish Whiskey: A History of Distilling, the Spirit Trade and Excise Controls in Ireland. 1973.

Ó Drisceoil, Diarmuid, and Donal Ó Drisceoil. The Murphy's Story: The History of Lady's Well Brewery, Cork. 1996.

Donal Ó Drisceoil

About this article

Brewing and Distilling

Updated About content Print Article