Irish whiskey or Irish whisky? The story of an “e”. 

By Carol Quinn Archivist at Irish Distillers

In our archives in Midleton, I’m lucky to have a job where I see history brought to life every day. I do a lot of work searching and examining files relating to old copyrights and trying to establish timelines of historic dates of entry to worldwide markets. As I’ve been cataloging the archives, I’ve uncovered new stories, new facts and new imagery which have helped us to better understand our past and to shape our future.

Recently, after a conversation with a friend, I decided to do a deep dive on the origin of the e’ in Irish whiskey. This turned up another lovely story of the cooperation between old competitors that became allies to save the Irish whiskey category. Having managed the Irish Distillers archives in Midleton for the last few years I was not surprised to discover that right from the very start, the industry was always willing to put their differences aside and come together for the benefit of the sector.
Many people will automatically assume that it’s not Irish whiskey unless it’s spelled that way. However, contrary to popular opinion, Irish whiskey can be spelt both with and without an e’. Under EU law, for a product to be considered an Irish whiskey or whisky, production must take place on the island of Ireland and have a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40%. Famed for its light and silky mouth feel, Irish whiskey has great complexity of aroma with a range of flavours which could include fruity, honey, floral and woody notes.

The naming of whiskey dates back to the sixth century when the technique used to create Eau de vie, a French fruit brandy, was brought to Ireland. Thus, our beloved Uisce Beatha (Irish for water of life) was born. The production principles haven’t changed much over the years, which has led to the creation of products with an internationally renowned reputation. The factors that define Irish whiskey include this rich history and reputation, the unique production process, our natural factors, such as the water and climate, and the passion and commitment of the people who participate in the production process.

These factors are crucial to the Irish whiskey story. However, historically, a separation existed between distilleries in Dublin and the rest of the country. During the golden age of Irish whiskey in the 19th century, differences began to emerge between Dublin’s distilleries and distilleries elsewhere in the country. The Dublin Distilleries produced what they called City’ or Parliament’ whiskey, and referred to anything produced elsewhere (mainly Cork and Belfast) as Country’ whiskey. They implied that their produce was superior to the country stuff and to distinguish it and themselves, they always used an e’. They felt that being closer to the seat of government, they were subject to stricter regulations and quality controls and the use of the e’ allowed the customer to know the exact source of the product. Distillers outside of Dublin, including the Cork Distilleries Company who produced Midleton and Paddy, didn’t use the e’. Where you see exceptions to this on signs or pamphlets, it’s usually a printing mistake, rather than the distillery changing its mind. So, Jameson and Powers would have used the e’, Midleton, on the other hand, would not.

Above: (l) Midleton Whisky Label before the foundation of Irish Distillers (c) Jameson Whiskey label 1896 (r) John Power & Son Whiskey label 1886
Following two World Wars, economic tariffs and the reputational damage caused by counterfeit Irish whiskey during Prohibition, something had to be done to reverse the decline in Irish whiskey sales. The realisation dawned across the industry that, to future proof the Irish whiskey sector, these competitors would have to come together. Rooted in the philosophy that a rising tide lifts all boats, the renaissance of the Irish whiskey sector can be traced back to the formation of Irish Distillers in 1966 when Power, Jameson and Cork Distilleries came together.

In recognition of the shared history of passion and commitment to the industry, Irish Distillers decided to make the e’ universal across all their products. In a name, they unified the industry, whilst also setting the standard all other Irish whiskeys would have to meet. Now, under the umbrella of Irish Distillers, the shared passions for the sector could be more easily recognised at home and abroad. While Jameson and Power had been whiskey distillers since their foundation, the e’ first appeared on Paddy bottling in 1975, at first for export bottling only, but soon after it appeared on all bottles.

Above: Cork Distilleries Company whisky label 1868
The result of this change was immediately seen, and a new era of Irish whiskey was born. Consumers were delighted to rediscover the quality and distinction of Irish whiskey, whilst recognising the innovators thriving in the sector. So, consumers could say that it is not just the unique flavour that sets Irish whiskey apart from other spirits, but also the shared passion its people and the commitment to making it a future focused industry.