The Irish Whiskey Renaissance
If you happened to be strutting down the streets of Venice, Genoa, Florence or some enlightened European city sometime in the 15th century, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of the greats. Botticelli or perhaps even Da Vinci, flitting about, drinking wine, doing art things and generally advancing the cause of human civilization. The Renaissance was a period of enlightenment that followed the darkness of the middle ages, a time when a solar eclipse ended up with someone being burned as a witch and depth in a painting meant a picture of a lake.
So, what, in the name of god, has this got to do with Irish whiskey? After decades of darkness, we are now seeing the rapid emergence of a thriving Irish whiskey industry. It brings with it, jobs, a boost to tourism and some absolutely delicious golden nectar.
Irish whiskey was once the most popular style of whiskey in the world, accounting for around 60% of global consumption at its zenith during the 19th century. There were distilleries and whiskey bonders in every major town in Ireland, we were the envy of our Scottish brethren. When people called for whiskey, they meant Irish. We were the toast of Kings and Queens, the choice of the discerning consumer, the whiskey of choice for great houses around the world. Irish whiskey was synonymous with quality and luxury, but, it wasn’t to last.
Along with prohibition in the US (our largest export market), our reticence to adopt new technologies, a trade war with Britain and our own governments lack of support for the industry, Irish whiskey went into a death spiral. Irish whiskey plummeted to a mere 1% of the global market, with the remaining distilleries being forced to band together in order to stave off total collapse.
A question I frequently ask when I host whiskey tastings in Ireland is, ‘what percentage of whiskey sold globally is Irish?’ i.e., if 100 bottles of whiskey are sold around the world, how many are Irish whiskey? The answers vary wildly and are usually overconfident to the point of being humorous. Irish people will regularly tell me that we must be 50% ,60%, or even 70% of the global market! In fact, that figure is closer to 10%. All this means is that there is space in the market for all the new Irish distilleries to expand into. We know that the other 90% of consumers around the world are already whiskey drinkers, the challenge is to convince them to buy Irish instead. The reason we overestimate the prevalence of Irish Whiskey globally is because 80% of whiskey sold in Ireland is Irish. In almost every part of Ireland there are now lighthouses and bastions of Irish whiskey, such as Dick Macs in Dingle, the Sky and the Ground in Wexford or the Thomas Connolly in Sligo town providing an impressive showcase of the best whiskey Ireland has available.
Thankfully for the industry, tastes have changed, we put our faith in innovation, we received large scale investment from multi-national companies, we got clever, we found our niche and now, like Gloria Gaynor, we are back. Many Irish distilleries have focused on sustainability and traceability which appeals to the modern consumer. We are not bound by the same restrictive rules when it comes to wood as the Scotch or Bourbon industries. This allows a unique opportunity to use a variety of wood and cask types which would not be permitted by our competitors giving us a unique selling point. Almost every multi-national drinks company now has a stake in Ireland in one capacity or another, be that brand or distillery, helping to expand brand reach and investing heavily in the tourism side of the business.
According to market data, Irish Whiskey has been one of the fastest growing global spirits categories every year for the last decade. We have seen new distilleries springing up with such rapidity its almost impossible to keep track. In 2010 there were only 4 distilleries, now we have around 38 with that number increasing on an almost monthly basis. We now sell north of 12 million 9-litre cases of whiskey every year, a high we have not hit since the early 1900s! We are projected to outsell our Scottish cousins by 2030 for the first time in living memory, it’s all going so so well.
You’re waiting for the, but, aren’t you? Thankfully, for now, there aren’t too many underlying factors which can derail this train. There are definitely questions around transparency and around what exactly should qualify as specific categories of Irish whiskey but that is far too nerdy and technical for this piece, which is intended as a celebration of success! We are most definitely succeeding, interest in the category has never been higher with investment pouring in from around the world and new Irish whiskey filling glasses globally.
In Ireland we are drinking more Irish whiskey overall, but some of the largest growth has been in the premium category. Growth of both established prestige brands like Midleton Very Rare and Redbreast as well as fledgling ones such as Dingle, Glendalough and Waterford has been nothing short of remarkable. The clamor for each new release or special edition seeing many of them sell out in minutes!
You need only cast a casual glance at the shelves in your nearest off license or supermarket to see the range of choices has increased massively in recent years. Choice can in some cases be paralyzing, the buyer’s remorse that comes with choosing a whiskey you don’t like or that perhaps is not to your taste can be substantial. It is impossible to keep track of the world of whiskey sometimes even if you’re an expert so there’s no shame in asking even the most basic of questions. Do not be intimated, ask in your local independent, check out online reviews or follow me on Instagram (@theprinceofpaddy).
We are on the Irish whiskey rocket ship and we’re hoping to ride it all the way to the moon!
WRITTEN BY MICHAEL COWMAN