Irish monks are widely considered the first in the world to have made whiskey, having seen the Moors in Morocco use copper alembic stills to create medicines and perfumes. The monks decided to copy the same system to make “uisce beatha,” the water of life. The term “whiskey” derived from the phonetic translation of “uisce” the Irish for water.
Today, Irish Whiskey is globally renowned as a product of impeccable quality. It was not always so. Irish whiskey began to develop international markets over 200 years ago and in the early 20th century, was the preferred choice of consumers in most countries, notably the US. Then came Prohibition, and with it, bootleggers replaced distilleries. Due to the pre-eminence of Irish Whiskey, bootleggers typically, presented their own bottled concoctions as “Irish Whiskey”. This destroyed Irish Whiskey’s hard won reputation for quality. As Irish Whiskey came to be associated with poor quality, its market position was taken by Scotch Whiskey, whose reputation had not been corrupted. For decades, the international customer base for Irish, was diminished.
That began to change by the 1970’s. By then, smaller distilleries had merged to form Irish Distillers, which critically, allowed high standards to be set and controlled. This stabilised reputation and created a path for others to follow. By 2020, there were over 30 distilleries in Ireland, with the smaller players not just capitalising on earlier success – but accelerating it through innovation. The net result is that the sector has grown dramatically, while retaining its shared reputation for quality.
We, the consumer now buy the product and expect perfection. Unlike most products, there simply is no tolerance for mediocrity – nor do we ever see that. How then does the distilling industry perform at such a high level of consistency? My colleagues at Chris Mee Group have some insight to that from working with the distillers, in our capacity as a safety provider. They see first-hand, the safety technology that sits behind the product. We salute the professionalism we see in the industry and are glad to contribute to it and to learn from it. When you see how well they do safety it is easy to see why the Whiskey is so good. Some examples of the challenges involved are:
Atex (short for “Atmosphere Explosif”). Alcoholic spirits, due to their ethanol content, can represent an explosion risk under certain conditions. Exceeding volume storage threshold of will require an EPD – or “Explosion Protection Document”to be completed outlining the measures in place to ensure safety, prevent explosions and meet legal requirements.
A fermentable is used to produce any alcoholic drink. Irish whiskey primarily uses barley. Bulk storage of any grain is an explosion hazard due to natural heat build-up and presence of dust. This also requires an EPD and a series of controls custom designed for the facility.
Process Safety: the focus here is the prevention of unintentional releases of chemicals, energy, or other potentially dangerous materials (including steam) during the course of chemical processes. Distilling presents many such risks, which must be properly mitigated and controlled in the manufacturing process to ensure safe operation.
Confined Space and ERT: Every distillery has its confined spaces – which can be particularly hazardous for maintenance and usage. We train people in Confined Space Entry and also provide onsite, standby Emergency Response Support to ensure maintenance crews can enter the spaces safely when needed.
Training: No matter how well designed the systems are, it counts for little if the people are not highly trained. Safety training in the distilling area covers a wide range including: process safety, machinery safety, chemical awareness, ergonomics, Fire and ERT, and due to the use of old legacy buildings, quite often asbestos training.
The next time you are lucky enough to have some Irish Whiskey, stop to appreciate the sophisticated product, made by experts, with passion and a little support from sophisticated processes.
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Chris Mee Group is a full service safety provider, providing specialised solutions to the Pharma, Construction, Manufacturing and Service Industries.
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