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Why Irish Whiskey Is Experiencing A Resurgence


Tomorrow is St. Patrick's Day, which means parades, shamrocks and Irish whiskey. It's a drink that has come back from near extinction. As The Washington Post reported earlier this month, Irish whiskey went from 60 percent of the world's whiskey to just 1 percent in the 1980s.

CAROL QUINN: But even in the dark days, the distillers didn't just sit on their laurels. There was always the eye to the future and distilling for the future so that when the sales would go up, we would have the liquid in hand.

SHAPIRO: That's Carol Quinn, archivist for Irish Distillers. She says the drink's popularity has seen real highs and lows. It was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I.

QUINN: She was delighted with it. And at the time, it was known as uisge beatha - water of life.

SHAPIRO: And by the late-19th century, Irish whiskey had become a worldwide phenomenon.

QUINN: I have records here of the sale of whiskey in the 1890s in Hong Kong, in Mauritius, in Venezuela, all across South America. There really wasn't a corner of the globe that Irish whiskey didn't reach to.

SHAPIRO: But then two world wars and a trade war between Ireland and Britain shrank the industry. And in America, the drink developed a bad reputation during Prohibition when moonshiners passed off their swill as Ireland's famous drink.

QUINN: For a lot of Americans, their first taste of what they believed to be Irish whiskey was this horrible, burning rotgut. I mean, it was foul stuff.

SHAPIRO: Today Irish whiskey sales are once again strong thanks largely to Americans. The U.S. is the largest export market. If you raise a glass tomorrow, count yourself lucky. For decades, the Irish couldn't touch the stuff on the holiday. An Irish law prohibited the opening of pubs on March 17.

QUINN: From 1927 onwards when the Intoxicating Liquor Act was passed, St. Patrick's Day was a dry day here in Ireland. The pubs were forbidden to open, and they were forbidden to sell alcohol. So you can imagine going to visit the St. Patrick's Day parade in Dublin in the 1950s. And you're standing maybe on a rainy street, and you can't get a drop of whiskey anywhere for love nor money.

SHAPIRO: Nowadays the whiskey pours freely in Ireland on March 17. Slainte.


THE DUBLINERS: (Singing) Whack fall the daddy-o, whack fall the daddy-o, there's whiskey in the jar. Now, there's some take delight in the carriages a-rolling. And others take delight in the hurling and the bowling. But I take delight in the juice of the barley and courting pretty, fair maids in the morning bright and early. Mush-a ring, dum-a do, dum-a da (ph) - whack fall the daddy-o, whack fall the daddy-o, there's whiskey in the jar. If... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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