Maker of The World's Most Expensive Whiskey: Henry Stratford Persse (1769-1833)

I saw Johnny Drama this past weekend.  He said that he enjoyed the blog post on The Leviathan of Parsonstown, but wondered why I haven’t written about what my forefathers, and foremothers, drank.  “I mean, was it beer? Was it wine?  What was it?”

Well, Johnny, I’m sure that their tastes varied, just as yours do.  But a few months back I did read an article about the most expensive bottle of whiskey ever put up for sale.  Arkwrights Whisky and Wines, a distributor based in Wiltshire, England, was offering a bottle of Persse’s 25 year Old Pure Pot Still Whiskey, (which is now actually over 100 years old) for a cool £100,000, or a little over $160,000, depending on the exchange rate.  Because of the toll that the current recession has taken on my personal finances I reluctantly had to forego buying the bottle and settle for $1 Natural Lights at Vinnie’s Raw Bar.  With the money that I have saved I can order an appetizer and desert.

This very expensive, and unsold, bottle of whiskey was one of the last produced by Persse’s Galway Whiskey, a distillery that was started by Henry Stratford Persse in 1815.  (This Henry Stratford Persse was the great-grandfather of the American Henry Stratford Persse whom I wrote about in September. ) The distillery operated throughout almost the entire 19th century and was the largest producer of Irish whiskey outside of Dublin.  For many decades it was Galway’s largest employer and it’s output was exported to England and throughout the British Empire.

Henry Stratford Persse’s first distillery was located in Newcastle, Galway, and was later moved to Nun’s Island, near the banks of the Corrib, between O’Brien’s bridge and the Salmon Weir bridge.  In the years before The Great Famine of the 1840s, the market towns of Galway, Loughrea and Tuam were well supplied with grain.  The local economy hummed along as the Nun’s Island distillery grew, and farmers and traders earned top commodity prices.

The distillery continued to expand and be the largest employer in Galway throughout The Famine, despite the ever-increasing competition from moon-shine producers and the hugely successful temperance campaign of Father Theobald Matthew.  In 1838 there 213,000 taverns in Ireland.  By 1860 there were only 22 taverns in the entire country. The 1860s, however, would be a period of huge expansion for Persse’s Whiskey.  The distillery, now run by Henry Straford Persse’s grandson Henry Sadlier Persse had long supplemented its income with beer production.  Henry Sadlier streamlined the physical plant’s operations and, in a marketing coup, hired Patrick McDermott, M.P. for Kilkenny, to act as a sales representative in England.  The Galway Whiskey was introduced into the House of Commons bar and Persse’s adopted the slogan “Favourite in the House Commons”, which it emblazoned on posters, jugs, mirrors and a West of Ireland travel guide.

The turn of the century, however, marked the end of production of Persse’s Galway Whiskey.  The three largest Dublin distillers had combined their efforts and improved rail networks meant the end of Persse’s virtual monopoly in the west of Ireland.  By this time Scotland had surpassed Ireland as the spirit of choice for overseas drinkers.  Whiskey consumption in Ireland continued to decline and knock-off brands continued to spring up.  In 1908 the Nun’s Island distillery closed its doors for the last time.  By 1921, and the creation of The Irish Free State, all of the Persses had left Galway.   The old Nun’s Island building still stands and The King’s Head Bar displays Persse Galway Whiskey mirror.  And if you are willing to pay over $5,000 for a shot, an English spirits merchant can arrange for you to taste some of the best 100 year old whiskey around.

Henry Stratford Persse was my 4x Great Grandfather

Adam Lowe Martin (son of) - Allen Lowe Martin - Margaret Persse (daughter of) - Edwin Theophilus Persse (son of) -  Dudley Persse - Theophilus Blakeney Persse - Henry Stratford Persse