Irish whiskey is currently the fastest growing spirits category across the world, with people turning to whiskey from the Emerald Isle to fulfil their dram-dreams more and more each day. But where did it come from, and what precipitated such an incredible boost to the Irish whiskey market?
There has been growth in the whiskey market across all categories and for a number of years as new brands enter and as the incumbent brands, predominantly Irish Distillers, IDL, and Jameson push forward the latter are not resting on their laurels or taking their lofty position and market share for granted, but seeing it more as a platform for innovation.
With this increased demand and quest to try new and different whiskeys, from consumers who are savvy and more switched on, with a desire to explore and understand flavour like no generation before them, there has been a great increase in the popularity of Irish whiskey as a category itself.
Brian Nation, master distiller at the Midleton Distillery explains that, "Irish whiskey is experiencing a global renaissance, led by Jameson which has been driving the growth of the category for the past 29 years and continues to thrive in more than 70 countries around the world. Whiskey drinkers like the smooth taste, approachability and Irish personality of Jameson, but are also increasingly selecting our super-premium Jameson Black Barrel and Jameson Caskmates whiskeys as the category develops.
The cult of Irish whiskey is underpinned by a thriving base of new and planned distilleries that would have been unimaginable a decade ago – we have just seen the opening of Ireland’s 23rd distillery, and we look forward to seeing what these new players bring to the category.
It was Jameson who embraced the rise at the very beginning and invested more in their marketing and visitor experience. Jameson also produces local releases in the States and other key territories to show they can offer a local take on a global brand.
From here, smaller brands were able to piggy back on the increase in demand, and other IDL brands such as Green Spot and Redbreast have now started to sell to a wider global market than ever before, while also expanding their ranges to keep the conversation going, create new news and connect with different whiskey drinkers at different times.
Teeling Distillery was also a big driver of change, arguably it could be said that their single cask programme, along with their bold marketing and consistent, refined messaging nudged IDL to act and to rethink their approach to innovation. They have also crafted a cult following of very loyal fans and collectors who go far and beyond the realms of reason to add the latest or the most obscure single cask Teeling release to their burgeoning collections.
"I have been in the industry now for near 20 years and I have been extremely lucky to have been able to see first-hand the phenomenal growth enjoyed by Irish whiskey over this period. The roots of this growth started in Europe, in particular in France, but for the last 15 or so years Irish whiskey has truly been a US growth story… "The huge growth, however, has been clustered to just a handful of brands and what I find particularly exciting today is the seeds of true segmentation and evolution of a dynamic diversified Irish whiskey category, which we hope we are helping achieve. There are still huge opportunities for Irish whiskey as a new generation of whiskey drinkers around the world discover the quality and breadth of character and flavours,” comments Jack Teeling, founder and managing director, Teeling Whiskey.
Brands are focusing on the centuries of tradition imbued in the creation of Irish whiskey. Teeling, Roe & Co., Tullamore D.E.W., J.J. Correy, Pearse Lyons, the list goes on. These brands are all embracing the tradition and history of Irish Whiskey that has gone on before them.
"The triple distillation process tends to make Irish Whiskey soft and smooth, then the blending process balances out the sweet, spicy, or fruity characteristics. The Irish whiskey category and brands within it have rich, intriguing histories worth talking about, and more recently, both large and small Irish brands have been adding to the buzz by pushing the boundaries of the category, resulting in products finished in Chinese red wine casks, Stout, or in Tully’s case, XO Demerara rum,” says Freddie Vereker, brand manager, Tullamore D.E.W.
Some examples of note:
Jameson Caskmates was a harbinger of the new wave of whiskey innovation that is set to explode across Ireland and key markets around the world.
IDL also released the Method & Madness range, which has since expanded into gin, bucking the trend, and created a design icon as well as a fantastic range of whiskeys.
Waterford Distillery, owned by Mark Reynier, famous for his work at Bruichladdich, is also planning a new whiskey brand that will be a leader in innovation.
Teeling are also pushing innovation with the Kith & Kin expression, which is whiskey matured in Scottish stout casks, in collaboration with Innis & Gunn brewers.
"While new entrants to the Irish whiskey category will help drive the sector forward, maintaining quality will be a key pre-requisite for sustaining this growth for the long term. In response to the industry diversifying, the Irish Whiskey Association, in 2014, created the Irish whiskey technical file in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to clearly set out in law the specifications with which Irish whiskey must comply. We are confident that the technical file will ensure that high the standards in quality and consistency achieved during the past 40 years in Midleton will continue. As part of our commitment to leading the Irish whiskey renaissance we, along with other established distilleries, work closely with the Irish Whiskey Association on a production mentoring programme where we offer support to new distilleries in order to help maintain quality and consistency in Irish whiskey,” says Nation.
Assuming things continue to head in the predicted direction, Irish whiskey sales are set to skyrocket, with the cult of Irish whiskey looking like it will prevail, and brands set to invest €1.1 billion during the period of 15 years between 2010-2025.
Irish whiskey has struggled on, battling one crisis and issue after another for a century or more, and it finally seems to be pulling back some of the glory of its heyday. Since half the world claim that they are Irish in some form or other, maybe it isn’t even the whiskey that keeps them buying it, but the eternal need they feel to reassure everyone that they are actually Irish, even with a thick American/English/any other accent.
Jack Teeling had one final thought on the future of Irish whiskey, "I foresee the dynamic growth to continue across all key markets for Irish whiskey. However, I believe we will also see the start of a potential shake-out of pseudo-brands of Irish whiskey which have mushroomed over the last few years as whiskey drinkers and the trade realise there is nothing substantial behind them. I hope these will be replaced by new expressions of Irish whiskey from the many new distilleries, all of which are hopefully delivering true diversity in liquid and thus providing the vibrancy and energy the category needs to continue to be relevant for future years to come”.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. With Irish whiskey growing as fast as it is, especially since so many new brands are being established, innovation and flavour exploration will become more and more important to brands both incumbent and intent on chipping away at the loft market share of those who have been in the game for many decades or centuries longer than