Giant steps: Irish whiskey

The world has suddenly woken up to Irish whiskey – but how is the sector going to meet the phenomenal demand? Gavin D Smith reports


IT WOULD BE SOMETHING OF AN UNDERSTATEMENT TO SAY THAT THE IRISH WHISKEY INDUSTRY HAS HAD ITS UPS AND DOWNS. When the great distillery-bagger and journalist Alfred Barnard toured Britain visiting every whisky distillery in existence during the mid-1880s, he looked over 129 in Scotland and 28 in Ireland.

Yet a century later Scotland still boasted 81, with 96 being in production by 1991, while Ireland’s tally had dwindled to just two. A complex interplay of economic, political and cultural factors led to the decimation of Irish distilling, and when John Teeling established his independent Cooley distillery in 1987 and broke the duopoly of Bushmills in Antrim, Northern Ireland, and Midleton distillery in the Republic’s County Cork it was considered momentous news.

With that in mind, consider the current situation, when seven Irish distilleries are active, from Dingle in the south west to Bushmills in the north east, while projections from the Irish Whiskey Association suggest that exports of Irish whiskey are set to double by 2020 and double again by 2030. 

Given such potential thirst, it is not surprising that IWA reports 15 new distilleries currently in development across Ireland, and it is estimated that more than €1bn will be invested in the Irish whiskey industry during the next 10 years.

The IWA was formed in April of last year and produced statistics showing Irish whiskey exports have grown by 220% since 2003 and are now valued at €350m. Last year, 6.2m 9-litre cases of Irish whiskey were exported.

In 2003, Irish whiskey made up just over 9% of beverage exports from Ireland, while that figure has now grown to more than 28% of total beverage exports. Turnover for the industry is almost €400m, with an annual direct domestic spend of €237m, and Irish whiskey sells in 77 countries, with the US, France, Germany, Russia and the UK accounting for almost 75% of total sales.

Notwithstanding all the ongoing distillery projects and new names and entrants to the Irish whiskey scene, the best-selling Irish whiskey globally carries one of the most historic names of the genre, namely John Jameson & Son. 

Owned by Pernod Ricard subsidiary Irish Distillers’ Jameson has recorded remarkable global growth during the past few years, with sales increasing from 3.17m 9-litre cases in 2010 to 4.7m cases last year, and the US accounts for some 40% of recent exports.

Irish Distillers has also invested significantly in the category of Irish single pot still whiskeys, intended to compete with single malt scotch and other premium spirits. In 2013 a new pot stillhouse was opened at Midleton as part of a €100m expansion project, and the range of single pot still whiskeys offered under the Redbreast, Powers, Spots (Yellow and Green) and Midleton labels has increased significantly. 

So far this year there have been two new releases – Redbreast Mano a Lámh, the first expression in the range to be matured solely in ex-oloroso sherry butts, and Midleton Dair Ghaelach, the only Irish whiskey to be finished in virgin Irish oak hogsheads.