Unlicensed Stills

There were a few licensed distillers in the county, but none of them were at work in 1820 according to Dutton. In spite of the exertions of the excise officers unlicensed stills abounded. Dutton claims "that the unlicensed distillers added considerable quantities of vitriol, soap, etc., and set all the bad taste down to the account of malt dried with turf. "I understand", he adds "in Connemara, where whiskey is the staple, it is distilled from barley malt, or at least barley brought generally from the coast of the County of Clare, and that they never use vitriol; certainly the best I ever tasted was in that country; it was nearly without any taste of smoke, and comparatively mild, though just taken from the still; that kept for two years was excellent".

"The subject of poteen whiskey" writes Salaman in History and Social Influence of the Potato, "has more than a passing interest for, contrary to the general belief that it is manufactured from barley and malt, some at least in recent times, is and doubtless in the eighteenth century also was, distilled from potatoes. One may assume that in the poverty-stricken countryside of the period, the potato would have been used in preference to corn... The procedure is to expose medium-sized tubers to frost over several nights, then cut them into slices, soak in water indoors fro ten days with occasional stirring, strain the liquor off and add yeast. The 'wash' as it is now termed, is allowed to ferment; after an adequate time, it is carefully distilled without being allowed to boil. I owe this authentic recipe to a late very distinguished Irish friend, who obtained it direct from an exponent of the art".

Again Dutton remarks; "it has been computed that in Ireland there is consumed, of licensed and unlicensed whiskey, 3,650,000 gallons in the year; of this quantity of considerable share is drank in Connemara, where it is much the custom for all the neighbours to attend when a still is run off, and never quit the house until all is consumed, and another batch announced. The distillation of spirits from malt, was first practised in Ireland about the year 1590. Previous to this, a spirit was imported from France and England called aqua vitae, and from thence our whiskey was called Uisgebeatha, the water of life. The Irish had formerly a liquor called Piment, composed of wine, honey, cinnamon, ginger, and other aromatics, which was called by foreigners Irish rectar, and was highly prized by them".

Imported processes in the distillation of whiskey were introduced by various Scottish distillers who had settled in Ireland. The benefits arising out of the increased employment given by the increase distillation were more than outweighed by the pernicious effects of the growth of drinking. "Everything", wrote O'Driscoll, in Views of Ireland, was favourable to the growth of this manufacture; the very dissoluteness of the people - the very villainies of the tradesman - all the habits and propensities which would have choked and destroyed any other manufacture nourished and promoted this. Accordingly under all the weight and discouragement of a burdensome and unsteady excise, the manufacture has attained a height of towering prosperity, and created for itself a plenteous and splendid capital, and now, in the day of its triumph it feeds and fosters those vices from which it drew its early aliment".

Wakefield, in An Account of Ireland, Statistical and Political1812, affirmed that "Illicit stills afford a striking proof that a branch of industry may be extended and flourish without the aid of premiums. I am convinced that, whatever penal laws or regulations may be made, it is almost impossible to extirpate illicit distilleries from the truth, that they are erected in the kitchens of baronets and in the stables of clergymen. The mountains are covered with them, and they are to be met with in the very last place where an English excise officer would expect to discover them". Far more 'Queen's' spirit than 'King's' spirit was sold in County Galway. According to Wakefield "the law which imposes a fine of 50 on the townland, parish, or county according to circumstances, on the discovery of an illicit still at work therein, instead of answering the purpose for which it was intended, has produced a contrary effect, and acted as an encouragement to the erection of new ones. Many a still which was purchased originally for three guineas has been sold when burned out, for 50. Had a reward been offered to the parish officers for the discovery of stills, instead of subjecting them to a fine for one taken within their jurisdiction, they would have been as anxious to search for them, as they are now careful to conceal them from the officers of the revenue. It is a well known fact that the latter receive a more regular rent while the still is at work, than any landlord does for his land, and they often divide with the proprietor half the value of its sale by the receipt of the fine".


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