Irish whiskey roaring back after decades of decline

July 4, 2022

Irish whiskey roaring back after decades of decline

Karen Gregory, a Oklahoma tourist, visited Dublin this week, inhaled a scent of malted barley at the Teeling Whiskey Distillery and chose a side in a hundred-year-old competition. “Definitely Irish. It's lighter and lighter. Scotch is too heavy.”

The crowd of visitors who happily sip on whiskey, whiskey cocktails and whiskey-infused coffee suggested that more people convert to the Irish side of a rivalry that has put two venerable traditions in a struggle for market dominance.

Ireland's distilleries won in the 19th century and accounted for more than 60 percent of sales in the United States before the disaster. The Irish ignored new technology, curbed exports under the US ban in the 1920s and got into a trade war with Britain. Scotland took its chance and increased global exports, establishing Scottish as a synonym for all types of whiskey.

“We fell from 60 percent to 2 percent in the United States, it's a trick,” said John Teeling, a doy of Irish whiskey producers. Then he smiled: “But I think we will go around the Scots at the end of the decade. It's going to be a big party when it happens. ”

After decades of quiet woe, Irish whiskey is roaring back. From just four operating distilleries in 2010, there are now 42 on the island of Ireland. Annual global sales have increased from 5 million boxes (60 million bottles) in 2010 to 14 million boxes (168 million bottles) last year, thanks to new offerings and younger drinkers.

Growth in the United States has been particularly strong, rising 16 percent last year to a record $ 1.3 billion (1.25 billion euros), according to the Distillered Spirits Council. If the trend continues, sales of Irish whiskey in the US – currently 5.9 million cans – will pass scotch, which has dropped to around 8 million cans, by 2030.

Globally, sales of scotch, 1.3 billion bottles, are still worse than its Irish rival, which sells 190 million bottles. “We're still just catching up after decades of underperformance when Scotch basically stole our breakfast,” said Jack Teeling, John's son and CEO of Teeling Whiskey.

It's a bigger game now – the global whiskey market has stood at $ 80 billion over the past decade but is expected to jump to more than $ 100 billion by 2024, according to consumer data company Statista. Japanese brands have also exploded in popularity, earning $ 340 million in sales last year.

Last month, the Irish government launched a € 750,000 “spirit of Ireland” campaign to promote Irish products in US bars and liquor stores. For Ireland's distillers, overtaking scotch in the United States would be a psychological boost and rectify a hundred-year failure in the world's largest market.

It would also underscore an ambition to challenge Scotch's enduring dominance elsewhere, including Britain. “Britain used to be a cemetery for Irish whiskey,” says John Teeling. “No longer.”

Celebrities have launched their own Irish whiskey brands, where the stars of the American sitcom It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia this week debuted a 15-year-old single malt to celebrate the show's 15th season. The former mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor launched a brand in 2018.

Popular culture flagged the revival of Irish whiskey a decade ago when the Jameson brand appeared in songs by Rihanna and Lady Gaga and in the television programs Mad Men and South Park.

“There was not a moment when the light changed and suddenly Irish whiskey became fashionable again,” said William Lavelle, head of the Irish Whiskey Association. – It has taken 30 years. The ambition and the strategy came together. “

Exports to Russia, the second largest market, have been halted, and Britain's dispute with the EU over Northern Ireland could cause disruption, but the future is bright, says Lavelle. “It's a renaissance.”

Ireland – like other countries – claims to be the home of whiskey. There is a reference to the drink in the Red Book of Ossory, a medieval manuscript produced in Co Kilkenny in the 14th century.

At one time, Ireland had more than 1,000 distilleries. In the 19th century, a cluster of producers in Dublin's Liberties district supplied large parts of the world.

But they avoided innovation – as a new kind of pot still – and shrank during the US ban and Ireland's trade war with Britain in the 1930s. Scotch whiskey – which omits “e” – filled the void with peatier, darker offerings. Ireland's traditionally smoother food gained a reputation for being bland.

In the 1980s, Ireland had only two distilleries producing a small fraction of Scotland's production. The turnaround began after French beverage giant Pernod Ricard bought Irish Distillers, which gave multinational power to its Jameson brand, and the Teeling family opened a new distillery and encouraged other newcomers.

The Irish experimented with new flavors, methods and cocktails – a level of freedom denied to Scottish producers, operating under stricter rules – and won over drinkers in the United States. However, some are still confused about terminology, which makes John Teeling shudder. “I've got people come up to me and say ‘your Scottish is lovely'.” – Guard

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