Giant steps: Irish whiskey

The second best-selling Irish whiskey after Jameson is Tullamore Dew, acquired by Scottish-based William Grant & Sons during 2010. The purchase looks to be a shrewd one, as global sales of Tullamore Dew have doubled to more than 850,000 nine-litre cases since 2005.

Grant’s commitment to the brand has been underlined by its construction of a new distillery at Clonminch, Tullamore, with the initial pot still phase having opened in autumn 2014. It has an annual capacity of 1.8m litres, and ambitious plans are in place to expand the distillery significantly, doubling pot still output in 2019 and adding a grain plant in 2021. The total investment will be in the region of €35 million.

As with Jameson, the US is Tullamore’s happiest hunting ground, though the 12-year-old Special Reserve expression is currently being promoted in the UK, and to celebrate the opening of the new Tullamore distillery a 55% abv travel retail exclusive bottling, finished in ex-oloroso sherry casks, has been released under the Tullamore Dew Phoenix banner.

One of the most significant changes in the established Irish distilling world during recent years has been the acquisition of the formerly independent Cooley in 2011 by Beam Suntory for $16bn.

The business consists of Cooley pot still and grain distillery in County Louth, and the historic Kilbeggan distillery in Westmeath. The latter is a popular visitor attraction, where a small-scale, consciously old-fashioned distilling operation was reinstated during 2007.

Reflecting on four years of Beam Suntory ownership, John Cashman, Irish whiskey global brand ambassador, points out: “There has been a change of focus under Beam Suntory. Third-party bottling was previously an important part of the business, generating cash flow. But now we need the liquid for projected sales growth, so that aspect has been scaled back.

“We’ve also decided to concentrate on four key brands/styles – single malt (Tyrconnell), peated malt (Connemara), single grain (Kilbeggan) and blended whiskey (Kilbeggan). Our key focus now is on Kilbeggan, it’s our big global brand. We’ve dropped the Cooley name and trade as the Kilbeggan Distilling Company. Kilbeggan blended Irish whiskey is our big one. We’ve created a family of Kilbeggan whiskeys, with the single grain formerly known as Greenore having recently been re-branded as Kilbeggan eight-year-old.” 

Kilbeggan Distilling Company’s latest releases are a Kilbeggan 21-year-old blend and a 22-year-old Connemara. The limited-edition Kilbeggan expression uses whiskeys matured in a combination of casks including ex-bourbon, port, sherry and madeira, while the Connemara comprises some of the oldest stocks held at Cooley distillery, matured entirely in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels.

Change of owenership

It is not just Cooley/Kilbeggan that has seen a change of ownership, as the Diageo-owned historic Bushmills distillery in County Antrim was acquired by tequila company Jose Cuervo last November, as Diageo exited the Irish whiskey industry, having owned Bushmills since 2005. The 250-year-old Mexican distiller agreed to buy Bushmills for $408m and full ownership of the Don Julio tequila brand.

At the time of the acquisition Juan Domingo Beckmann, chief executive of Jose Cuervo, said: “We are proud to announce our agreement to acquire 100% of Bushmills. This is the most important purchase made by Cuervo in its entire history.