No, the ear-to-ear grin was because, like the rest of us at the Spirit of Sharing event, he recognised that the future for Irish alcoholic drinks is looking very bright indeed. Producers of poitin, aged gins, deliciously tart craft beers, and rich and sweet cream liqueurs were showcasing their products to more than 100 writers and bloggers, and, to use the modern vernacular, they smashed it.
But the core of the event comprised whiskey makers. Here in one room was the Irish whiskey industry in microcosm – its future, present and past lined up in perfect symmetry. Irish Distillers and William Grant’s Tullamore Dew representing the major players; Teeling and the Walsh Distillery representing the established new wave of Irish whiskey, and the likes of Blackwater and the Dublin Distillery looking forward to the next generation.
There was innovation in the shape of a cask-aged gin which bridges the gap between whiskey and gin, a wonderful Jameson aged in stout barrels, and a whiskey made with a mix of malted barley and corn and aged in both bourbon and Oloroso sherry casks.
This potent partnership of old and new is already producing dividends, with Irish whiskey enjoying considerable growth – and there’s much more to come. But it’s at something of a crossroads, and what it does next will be crucial as it moves forward. There are three points it must address: First, old and new producers need to work closely together. This is essential to grow the category overall and to ensure that the quality and identity of Irish whiskey is maintained.
Secondly – and linked to the first point – the bigwigs of Irish whiskey must not be too prescriptive when it comes to innovation and unusual whiskey styles. Already there have been mutterings from some of the new craft distillers that the Irish Whiskey Association is going down the same road as its Scottish equivalent, and restricting too tightly what can and can’t be called Irish whiskey. Ireland’s history is studded with examples of whiskeys being made in a number of styles and using a wide range of grains. It would be folly to restrict new producers from heading off into unusual territory. Protect the overall quality of Irish whiskey, sure, but don’t stifle diversity. Finally, Irish whiskey producers should steer a middle way through the two extremes of scotch whisky. On the one hand, some pretty ordinary and young Scottish single malts have been released without age statements and have attracted considerable criticism as a result. On the other there has been a trend towards pretentious super-premium whiskies in diamond-encrusted decanters commanding price tags running to thousands or even tens of thousands of pounds.
Irish whiskey has the opportunity to offer premium spirit at a fair price. Value for money doesn’t mean cheap, and the Irish products have every bit as much provenance and heritage that Scotland enjoys.
The Spirit of Sharing event suggests the Irish whiskey makers are getting it right. So far so good. No wonder the ambassador was smiling.