No spirits category is dominated so completely by one brand as Irish whiskey is by Jameson. Yet that may soon change. Irish whiskey is one of the fastest-growing spirits categories in the U.S., according to drinks market analyst IWSR. Over the past five years, volume sales increased at a 13.4 percent compound annual growth rate. IWSR forecasts the category will continue to grow in the coming years.
To give the category a sense of context, the Irish whisky category is about half the size of Scotch in the U.S. Nearly 4.9 million 9-liter cases of Irish whiskey were sold stateside in 2019, generating $1.1 billion in revenues for distillers, according to data from the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS). In comparison, 9.5 million 9-liter cases of Scotch whiskey were sold in the U.S. last year, driving revenues of up to $2.4 billion.
The major returns on this healthy sales growth continue to be enjoyed mainly by Jameson. In 2019, the Pernod Ricard-owned triple-distilled whiskey enjoyed an 80 percent market share of the Irish whiskey category in the U.S., according to Impact Databank.
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But things are changing in Ireland. In the past 10 years, the number of distilleries operating in the country increased eight-fold. Far from trying to imitate the style that’s brought Jameson such success, those distilleries are embracing historical styles and leaning into uniquely Irish distilling techniques. Their bottles offer higher-end alternatives within the Irish whiskey category, at a time of increased premiumization within all spirits categories.
If ever there was a time for Irish whiskey to outgrow its one-brand reputation, it is now. So how can Irish whiskey producers achieve this?
The Irish Distillery Boom
In 2010, there were only four distilleries in Ireland producing and selling Irish whiskey. By December 2019, the number of operational distilleries had increased to 32, according to the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA).
This renaissance has been the defining story of Irish whiskey over the past decade. The ability of these distilleries, and the dozen or so others that are still in the planning or construction stages, to operate profitably will surely be the factor that proves whether Irish whiskey can continue to grow as a category.
But such rapid expansion also suggests that judging Irish whiskey’s potential based on current sales data is a somewhat flawed science. By law, all Irish whiskey must age for at least three years before release. Many newer producers may wish to release longer-aged, more premium offerings. Given that more than half of Ireland’s current distilleries began their operations in 2015 or later, we have yet to experience their real impact on the sector. And it’s in the premium-plus price segment where those that have already come to market have had the biggest impact.
“The new ranges on the market are more premium than the incumbent products, which is driving continued interest in the category, resulting in value growth outpacing the volume growth,” says Adam Rogers, IWSR research director, North America.
That value growth is outpacing volume increases seems to confirm that consumers are increasingly “trading up” with their purchasing decisions. It would also suggest that distilleries planning to introduce premium-plus bottles can further disrupt the market.
“Last year alone, there were over 30 new Irish whiskey brands launched in the U.S. market at a premium-and-above price point,” says Conor Neville, Tullamore D.E.W.’s U.S.-based brand ambassador. “With an influx of new quality offerings, we’re starting to see a growing shift in consumer assumptions of the category and how it can be enjoyed coupled with a willingness to trade up.”
The Diversity of Irish Whiskey
A few descriptors relating to production techniques and Irish whiskey’s perceived style are commonly used to describe the category. Irish whiskey is triple-distilled, blended, and approachable or smooth, it is often said. It makes sense that these are the often-associated terms, given that they describe Jameson to a tee. But historically, the category has offered much more than just approachable blends. Now, the nation’s pioneering new distillers and well-established brands alike are looking to the past to drive future innovations.
Four whiskey styles can be produced in Ireland: Blended, single grain, single malt, and single pot still. Of those four, single pot still is the only uniquely Irish offering, and it’s one that many modern distillers are embracing. By law, this pot-distilled style must contain a minimum of 30 percent each malted and unmalted barley. Up to 5 percent of other cereals such as oats and rye are also permitted in the mash bill.
Several other distinctions within all four styles make Irish whiskey ripe for innovation. Distillers can alter their single malts’ flavor profiles, for example, via different distillation methods (double-distilling versus triple-distilling), processes like cask finishing, and the types of wood used for maturation. (Unlike Scotch or bourbon, Irish whiskey does not have to age in oak vessels.)
“Distilleries and producers have been experimenting with [these styles and processes] to develop new and interesting offerings,” says Donal O’Gallachoir, co-founder of Glendalough Distillery. “This has been significant, breathing life into the category and offering U.S. whiskey drinkers real choice while on their Irish whiskey journey.”
Indeed, Glendalough is a fine example of one producer embracing Ireland’s diverse range of whiskey styles. Its Pot Still Irish Whiskey is finished for up to a year in virgin Irish oak casks, made from trees felled by the distillery. The distillery’s Double Barrel single grain whiskey spends most of its maturation period in used bourbon casks before it’s finished in Spanish oak oloroso barrels. Meanwhile, Glendalough’s 17-year-old single malt is aged 15 years in ex-bourbon barrels before a two-year finishing period in Mizunara oak sourced from Japan.
Tullamore D.E.W. is the second-best-selling Irish whiskey in the U.S., according to IWSR data. This brand has found significant success with its Caribbean-Rum- and Cider-Cask-finished blended whiskeys, as well as its range of age-statement single malts. Bushmills and The Tyrconnell are two examples of other established producers offering aged expressions in the single malt category.
Pernod-Ricard-owned Redbreast, a longtime standard-bearer for the single pot still category, added a Lustau-cask-finished expression to its permanent lineup in 2016. Redbreast also offers increasingly aged pot still whiskeys, including 15-, 21-, and 27-year-old expressions.
Younger brands that do not have access to their own aged stocks — or choose not to source aged whiskeys from other producers — are innovating in different ways. For example, Brown-Forman-owned Slane Irish Whiskey offers a blend of malt and grain whiskeys aged in three different types of barrels: Virgin oak, seasoned American whiskey, and oloroso sherry.
Kilbeggan serves innovation through the grains used in its mash bills. Its single pot still release includes 2.5 percent oats in the recipe, which has a much more noticeable impact than the figure suggests. The distillery also offers a Small Batch Rye that includes roughly 30 percent of the spicy grain in its mash bill.
“It’s innovating combined with a true history — taking note of what we’ve done in the past and carving out a new avenue for growth,” says Michael Egan, Kilbeggan’s U.S.-based brand ambassador. “Irish whiskey was once the Rolex of the global whiskey industry and today we’re making that comeback.”
(Other younger brands, such as Conor McGregor’s Proper No. Twelve Irish Whiskey, have primarily stuck to the Jameson blueprint, though the success of Proper Twelve cannot be overstated as a factor in the continued expansion of the overall category.)
Irish Whiskey Association
Another notable development within the past 10 years has been the formation of the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA), which was established in 2014.
“It’s immensely important on a number of fronts,” says Alex Conyngham, co-founder of the Slane Distillery. ”Firstly, category protection — and by that I mean defining the standard of Irish whiskey, upholding that standard, and protecting it internationally.”
Another essential role of the organization is the promotion of the Irish whiskey abroad, Conyngham says. Part of that role as a marketer has seen the IWA drive to boost tourism in recent years. While that revenue stream is currently not an option, it’s a shrewd move if other categories are anything to go by.
Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, recently told me how important the Kentucky Distillery Trail had been to the “bourbon boom” of the last two decades. Distillery visits create a legion of “ambassadors” for brands, who are likely to share their experiences with friends and family and remain loyal to those brands when making future purchases, he said.
The scores of newly opened Irish distilleries have proven adept at catering to this. There are now 19 different distillery tourist experiences across the country. And those efforts are already bearing fruit. Last year, a record-breaking 1 million tourists visited Ireland’s distilleries. “North America remains the top market of origin for visitors to Irish whiskey distilleries, with tourists from the U.S. and Canada accounting for 34 percent of all visits in 2019,” according to the IWA.
This is an important distinction, as the U.S. remains by far the largest market for Irish whiskey. In 2019, America accounted for more than 40 percent of volume sales, according to IWSR data. Irish whiskey sales in the U.S. are nearly nine times greater than those in Russia, the category’s second-largest market.
The Influence of Spirits Conglomerates
Another promising sign for the future of Irish whiskey is the number of notable spirits conglomerates in the space. Pernod-Ricard is the most important in terms of its market share, being the owner of leading brands Jameson and Redbreast. Proximo Spirits, which is a part of Jose Cuervo, has Bushmills and The Sexton. Bacardi owns a minority stake in Teeling, which became Dublin’s first new distillery in 125 years when it opened in 2015. Beam Suntory counts Kilbeggan, Connemara, and Tyrconnell as part of its international portfolio, while William Grant & Sons owns Tullamore D.E.W. In 2017, two years after selling Bushmills to Jose Cuervo, Diageo announced its new premium blended Irish whiskey, Roe & Co.
Conyngham, whose Slane Irish Whiskey brand was acquired by Brown-Forman in 2015, says being a part of a larger spirits company has multiple benefits. His distillery is able to source its American whiskey and virgin oak casks directly from its parent company — the only leading American whiskey producer that owns sawmills and cooperage facilities.
Past this, Conyngham says it’s the expertise a larger brand offers that’s been most helpful. From a strategic standpoint, being part of Brown-Forman has eased access to the American market and its complex three-tier distribution system. The company has also shared expertise on things like how to grow Slane’s range over time, when to introduce new products, and how to keep them in line with the core brand.
Bartenders’ Role in the Rise of Irish Whiskey
One conversation that’s played out in the success of other whiskey categories has been the role of bartenders. While Irish whiskey isn’t associated with well-known classic cocktails, that hasn’t stopped bartenders from experimenting with it.
“There’s a huge chance to develop Irish whiskey through the cocktail program in the same way that bourbon started getting really popular through cocktails,” says Shane Mulvany, a (currently furloughed) bartender at New York’s Dead Rabbit. Mulvany says that Irish whiskey’s approachable profile, and the sheer number of different styles on offer, makes it a “malleable” cocktail ingredient, and one that is attractive to bartenders.
One such option they might turn to is The Sexton. A non-age-statement single malt, the whiskey is crafted with versatility in mind, says the brand’s master blender, Alex Thomas. The whiskey’s bold flavor profile, she says, allows it to be enjoyed neat or in a range of cocktails from the Old Fashioned to Whiskey Sours to proprietary bartender creations. “Whichever way you want to drink it, The Sexton allows you to — which isn’t normal for [traditional] single malts.”
The Future of Irish Whiskey
Everyone contacted for this article said the next five to 10 years will be among the most exciting in Irish whiskey history. All predict the category will not only broaden as more brands come to market, but also deepen as established brands introduce new expressions.
Some are betting on the future of cask finishing and oak-alternatives for maturation. Others highlight single pot still, the cornerstone of Irish whiskey, as the future of the category. The number of age-statement single malts will also increase in years to come, they say. And so, too, will conversations surrounding its viability as a better-value alternative to those produced in Scotland.
Indeed, as a category, Irish whiskey not only stands somewhat geographically between America and Scotch but also ideologically. Its approachable flavor profile, recent resurgence story, and myriad styles are comparable to bourbon. With Scotland, it shares a lengthy heritage and lineage unrivaled in the rest of the world.
Clearly defining all that Irish whiskey offers may be the biggest challenge for the Irish Whiskey Association in the coming years. Producers will be tasked with delivering on that message. If both succeed, the days of Irish whiskey’s reputation as a one-brand category should be consigned to history.