Irish whiskey: style and substance

Irish whiskey is a much talked about category at the moment and it’s easy to see why. In 2013 there were just four operational distilleries in Ireland but this has risen to 23, with the industry now supporting more than 350 jobs.

According to the Irish Whiskey Association, nearly a million people visited Ireland’s whiskey distilleries last year, an increase of 13.4% on 2017. It says the industry is on track to hit its target of 1.9 million visitors by 2025.

Global sales in 2018 exceeded 10.5 million cases, marking the first year Irish whiskey sales broke the 10 million barrier since before US Prohibition in the 1920s.

And it’s not just new distilleries that are growing the market. Brands including Bushmills, have cranked up production with investments to boost capacity and upgrade facilities. At least eight visitor centres are set to open in 2019.

So who is drinking all this whiskey? Are existing whisky fans buying into Irish brands, perhaps enticed by the lower prices? Or is the Irish whiskey sector doing a good job of drawing in new and younger consumers?

Chris Jones, managing director of Paragon Brands, says it’s a bit of both, although he says that Irish whiskey is doing a better job than Scotch in its contemporary approach with new brands.

He adds: “To some extent Scotch struggles to attract new and younger drinkers because it focuses too much on history and heritage, which doesn’t speak to younger drinkers who find that hard to engage with, whereas many Irish whiskeys, in the absence of heritage, are cleverly using strong branding and younger associations.”

As examples Jones says two of the fastest- selling whiskies in 2018 were Dead Rabbit, due to its association with the world-famous bar in New York, and Proper No. Twelve, which is owned by mixed martial arts champion Conor McGregor. The latter has just been launched into the UK market and the producer, Eire Born Spirits, claims Proper No. Twelve is the most followed spirit brand in the world on Instagram, attracting more than 575,000 fans in less than five months.

Jones said: “Both had huge social media groundswell, something Scotch has struggled to emulate. Only Diageo’s Haig Club seems to have managed this with Scotch.”

Paragon supplies The Irishman and Writers Tears from Walsh Distillery, and Dingle whiskey. Sales of both are good with strong consumer engagement, especially around the limited expressions and special cask finishes, the company reports.

As well as strength in consumer engagement Irish whiskey has the added advantage in that it is often sweeter in style than Scotch, while lower prices also mean brands can be more approachable.

On the flipside, for Irish producers one of the main challenges has been in trying to align its premium products with the prices some Scotch brands can command, but this is now starting to change.

Jones points to limited-batch releases and special cask finishes, which are now being “snapped up by savvy buyers who see real value in the quality of the liquid” and he says “the future is very bright for Irish whiskey”, with Scotch drinkers also increasingly adding Irish brands to their repertoire.

With two points of entry into the market – both from new and existing whisky drinkers – it’s no wonder spirits companies have been paying more attention to Irish whiskey.

Michael Vachon, co-founder and head of brand development at Maverick Drinks, says the company has been monitoring the category for a while.

He says: “We saw an impressive growth in awareness and sales, so we knew we needed to add an Irish whiskey to our portfolio.

“We are proud to say we now have one of the best. In January this year we announced our partnership with Teeling whiskey as its exclusive distributor in the UK and we couldn’t be more excited to get going.”

Vachon believes Irish whiskey has a “huge role” to play in the UK market going forward.

He says: “It’s versatile – it works in all manner of mixed drinks and it is great served neat. Irish whiskey can come in a range of styles, and brands are making these styles more accessible to consumers, which will, in turn, help to drive increases in sales in the future. Innovation is commonplace in the Irish whiskey category as it is bound by fewer rules and regulations than its Scotch colleagues.

“The Irish whiskey category is open to innovation in a way that Scotch is yet to reach. We have seen brands such as Teeling collaborate with craft beer brands to draw millennials into the category, as well as creating product ranges that help consumers explore the category, such as the Teeling Trinity, featuring a single malt, a single grain and a small batch blend.”

The future of Irish whiskey does indeed look rosy, but those in the industry don’t see this as a threat to Scotch. Instead it is helping to draw in new consumers while also giving more choice to existing Scotch fans.

John Vine, spirits buyer for Waitrose, sums this up when he says: “We have been monitoring the growth of both Irish whiskey and craft spirits and have seen UK consumers become increasingly open to both. The big players in the market have helped introduce discerning consumers to the Irish whiskey category and we feel that these consumers are looking to increase their knowledge of the category with smaller, more craft brands such as Teeling.”

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