How prohibition in the USA crippled Irish drink companies

The introduction of the Prohibition Act in 1920s USA played a significant role in the Irish whiskey industry and how it exists today. Here is how prohibition in the USA affected Ireland.

Wondering how prohibition in the USA affected Ireland? We’re here to tell you everything.

Up until the early 1900s, Irish whiskey was the dominator in the world’s spirits industry. Still, due to circumstances beyond the industry’s control, the industry was almost wiped out. In recent years, Irish whiskey has gradually climbed the ranks of the spirit world. However, it will take some more time until it surpasses its historical peak.

One of the driving forces behind the decline in Irish whiskey production was the introduction of the Prohibition Act. This is how prohibition in the USA affected Ireland.

What was prohibition?

Prohibition was the nationwide ban on the sale, manufacture, and import of alcoholic beverages in the USA. The Prohibition Act was enacted under the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Lasting in most American states from 1920 to 1933, however, some states, such as Mississippi, continued enforcing this act until 1966.

Enforcing prohibition was quite tricky. It led to a rise in the illegal production and sale of liquor and speakeasies. During the era of prohibition, there was a massive increase in gang violence and crime, which contradicted some of the reasons for which the Prohibition Act was introduced. 

The USA before prohibition

In the early 1800s alcohol usage was almost three times what it is today, it is estimated that the average U.S. adult downed the equivalent of 7 gallons of pure alcohol a year as opposed to today’s estimates of 2.3 gallons per adult. However, it is believed that today’s levels of drinking surpass those just before the Prohibition Act was passed.

An Ireland before prohibition

How prohibition in the USA affected Ireland was that before it came into force, Irish whiskey used to be the most popular of all whiskeys.

In the early 20th century, Irish whiskey was one of the most popular types of whiskey in the world. In Dublin, the distilleries and breweries accounted for 40% of employment in the area. While the Irish whiskey industry had a 70% share in the global spirits market.

The lost century of Irish whiskey

Wondering how prohibition in the USA affected Ireland, only Bushmills and Middleton survived the devastating sales.

As the Republic of Ireland became free from British rule, the distilleries lost connections with British colonies. The Republic could no longer export to Canada, which would become crucial during the era of prohibition. This proved advantageous to Scotch whisky producers as they were free to ship bottled product to Canada, which was then illegally re-exported to the U.S.

There was a gap in the U.S. market where Irish whiskey once was, this gap became filled with locally produced fakes consisting of questionable ingredients. American consumers then began to prefer Scotch whisky as it was of better quality.

Prohibition devastated the Irish whiskey industry, causing many distilleries to close. Following the Scotch mode, Irish whiskey consolidated, which involved the closing down of smaller independent distilleries and uniting its efforts in the two main distilleries in Middleton and Bushmills.

How prohibition in the USA affected Ireland

Wondering how prohibition in the USA affected Ireland, Irish whiskey sales fell apart.

Until the Prohibition Act ended thirteen years later, the Irish whiskey industry suffered and continued to suffer well after it ended in 1933. Ireland produced an estimated 12 million cases of whiskey per annum from 88 licensed distilleries before prohibition. It went from being this immensely successful business to being almost entirely wiped out due to external factors.

Thousands of Irish people employed in the whiskey-making business lost their jobs, following the consolidation of the distilleries. Many of the smaller family-run distilleries lost their businesses, and the Irish whiskey market had just two distilleries; New Middleton Distillery in Cork and Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim.

After prohibition ended, the Irish whiskey market was too devasted. It lacked the stocks to meet the new and now legal demand for whiskey. This is where the Scot’s managed to leverage their stores and gain a prominent position in the American whiskey market.

Irish whiskey today – the whiskey renaissance

How prohibition in the USA affected Ireland is that it truly formed a whiskey renaissance these days.

Although in the years from the mid-1930s to the 1980s, the Irish whiskey industry has struggled, it has had a massive resurgence in popularity and gained prominence in the last forty years.

Today there are more than 25 distilleries in operation and a further 24 under construction in Ireland, directly employing 1,000 people. Thankfully, whiskey sales have soared from the all-time low of 200,000 cases per annum to 11 million cases in 2018. At the centre of this whiskey renaissance is Jameson, which is the world’s best-selling Irish whiskey, selling a whopping 7.3 million cases in 2018.

This year marks 100 years since the implementation of the 18th Amendment to the U.S Constitution, the Prohibition Act. It is expected that 2020 is the year in which Irish whiskey sales will surpass its peak sales of 12 million cases, which is hugely important for the industry.

Although prohibition greatly affected Ireland, in particular the loss of the majority of the whiskey distilleries, the industry has recovered, and the Irish whiskey industry continues to grow!

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Aoife O'Mara is a travel-hungry 21-year-old from East Clare. Having returned from a gap year in Melbourne, she discovered a newfound appreciation for the place she calls home. Now studying communications and media production in Griffith College Dublin, she is also writing for the university's magazine. When not dreaming about future trips and adventures, she can be found petting dogs, exploring Ireland's lakes and rivers, and taking photos.