The Great Whisk(e)y Disruption of 1830


The Irish claim that they were the first to distill whiskey, on the basis of a report from 1405. (Annals of Clonmacnoise stating “A.D. 1405. Richard Magrannell Chieftain of Moyntyreolas died at Christmas by taking a surfeit of aqua vitae. Mine author sayeth that it was not aqua vitae to him but aqua mortis.”)

The first Scottish record dates to 1494, although, to be fair, it isn’t linked to anyone dying from it.

(I heard all this from Mark, the gent in the picture – who conducts a tasting and tour at the Whiskey Museum in Dublin)

Today, the world over, we drink Scotch whisky and except for occasionally choosing Jameson in an Irish pub – without any reference to whiskey type, you’ll notice – most people don’t even know that Ireland makes whiskey. Quick, name three brands of Irish whiskey… see, I didn’t think so.

aeneas coffey

The main reason for that is an Irish gentleman – Aeneas Coffey – who patented an improved version of the continuous still in 1830 and revolutionised the whisky (and indeed, the broader distilling) industry. Ironically, while he was Irish and first took his design to the Irish distilleries who were using pot-stills at the time, most of them refused to adapt because they felt the quality of whiskey from a triple pot-still distillation was better. Coffey took his technology to Scotland, where most distilleries adopted it to produce whisky in a more economical way, which made it affordable and accessible. The Scottish whisky industry took off, their spelling for whisky became standard and Scotch is now synonymous with whisky. The Irish went from a peak of 412 distilleries of which the largest – Rose – produced more whiskey than all of Scotland to a mere 21 today, while most whisky drinkers around the world can probably name more Scottish distilleries than that just off the top of their heads.

Coffey’s invention – or rather, innovation, since he improved on earlier versions of the continuous still – led to him being compared to Henry Ford with the mass production of the automobile.

It’s funny how reminiscent the lack of interest from the Irish distilleries is of things that happen in the business world today. If you’ve ever run a startup that seeks a new way of doing things and the initial reaction from a lot of people is that it will never work, then think back to the Irishman who drove the disruption of the whisky industry by the Scots. And if you’re feeling particularly down about it, perhaps sample some of the output of said whisky (or whiskey) industry – the Irish make some really good whiskey too, so don’t hesitate to try Bushmills, Powers, Teeling, Knappogue Castle, the Irishman and others. Don’t expect to find them at your friendly neighbourhood Irish pub though, or even in duty free – the sign of how much that disruption cost them is how difficult it is to get Irish whiskey outside Ireland, nearly 200 years later.

What’s the lesson here? It’s the same old one I keep repeating, I’m afraid – if you say no to new ideas, you run the risk of one of them disrupting the industry, and your business. That doesn’t mean you have to entertain every crackpot who shows up at your door, but it does mean you have to attract everyone with a new idea to show it to you first and find ways of trying out as many of them as possible.

And the other lesson? Also an old one – disruption doesn’t have to be digital. This one is clearly analog, apart from being nearly 200 years old – which suggests that perhaps it’s time for the Irish to disrupt the industry right back!