By Jake Emen, Barrons, March 12, 2019
The growth of Irish whiskey seems to know no bounds. Sales of the spirit became a billion-dollar business in the U.S. in 2018, according to statistics from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). That includes a 10.2% year-on year-growth in volume, capping off an overall grand ascent since 2002 of nearly 1,000%.
The storied, historical category had long been reduced to a mere two distilleries: Midleton, representing Jameson and the vast range of brands housed under the Irish Distillers umbrella, and Bushmills. Today, the count is approximately two dozen, with at least another dozen distilleries on the way. That means the volume growth stems not only from gains by the major producers, but also by the changing face of the next generation of distillers intent on reviving their country’s spirit.
Distillation Back to Dublin
One shining example is that of Teeling Distillery, founded by brothers Jack and Stephen Teeling to resuscitate Dublin’s dormant distillation scene, as well as a family legacy extending some 225 years. “Teeling Whiskey began over 230 years ago and was reborn in 2012 when I set up the Teeling Whiskey Company with a vision of reviving our old family Irish whiskey trademark and returning to our roots with the opening of the first new distillery in Dublin for over 125 years,” Jack Teeling says.
The distillery has welcomed 400,000 visitors since opening in 2015. “Whiskey drinkers are definitely changing with more progressive-minded drinkers coming to the fore,” Teeling says. “These drinkers are constantly looking for choice, and for many years that choice was not available within Irish whiskey. However, this is changing and changing quickly, thus hopefully providing them the opportunity to rediscover Irish whiskey in a new, modern context.”
If Wine Has Terroir, Why Not Whiskey?
Two hours south of Dublin, Mark Reynier has brought an entirely fresh approach to whiskey to the forefront with his Waterford Distillery. After reviving Scotland’s Bruichladdich distillery in 2000, he’s now designed a distillery from the ground up in the pursuit of showcasing terroir, a concept that’s largely been seen as taboo by the traditional powerhouses in Ireland and beyond, including the U.S. and Scotland.
“Whiskey production is homogenized and made to be the cheapest possible, and I couldn’t believe our own distinct spirit was being produced in such an uncreative way,” Reynier says. “When I bought this place”—a former Guinness brewery he purchased in 2014—“I had a chance to start from scratch.”
The distillery has worked with 72 farmers, with 40 being used in a given year. Each farmer provides the distillery with the same amount of grain, with the variables being soil type and terroir, along with barley varietal, and the total collection including a proportion of both organic and biodynamic farms.
A single farm’s grain is then used for a full week-long production cycle. “For each farm, we’ve distilled the same volume and put it in the same proportion of barrels,” Reynier says. This allows for unprecedented baseline analysis and comparison, which can be seen not only subjectively, with taste profiles, but objectively, building a near-infinite database of information from every stage of the process, from sowing a field to aging the whiskey in the cask.
“Next year, we’ll release a compare and contrast series,” Reynier says, referring to planned side-by-side whiskey releases from two different farms. Other comparison bottlings will also be in the making, leading up to the brand’s unveiling of its core product, what Reynier refers to with wine terminology such as a grand vin or cuvee, blending together the myriad components of terroirs, barley varieties, and cask types to develop something singularly special.
More Names to Know
Situated somewhat between Teeling and Waterford on Ireland’s east coast is Glendalough Distillery. There, co-founder Gary McLoughlin believes a more diverse assortment of Irish whiskeys is key to the category’s current growth.
“The future of Irish whiskey over the coming years is extremely bright,” he says. “We will continue to see premiumization in the category, and over the next few years some trends will emerge through experimentation with different grains, distillation styles, the variety of oak used, and climates in different parts of the country to age the whiskey in.
North of Dublin in the grand setting of Slane Castle, Slane Distillery is now operational, and a part of the Brown-Forman portfolio. “It’s encouraging to see the level of innovation that’s coming out of the various new distilleries, including Slane,” co-founder Alex Conyngham says.
Conyngham also sees a sense of camaraderie among most of the new guard, which was perhaps absent when the category was only minded by a few monster corporations. “One really positive development is the level of support and cooperation that has emerged between different Irish whiskey distilleries and brands through the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA),” he says. “There has been a shift from distilleries being seen as just production sites to also becoming visitor attractions, and the IWA is currently working on creating a national Irish whiskey trail, which will help to raise the international profile of our national drink.”
Big Investments, Big Gains, Big Quality
Quality craft distilleries are always a welcome addition, but Irish whiskey’s latest investments also show the category’s continued potential. Consider Bacardi has become a stakeholder in Teeling, while Irish mainstay Tullamore D.E.W., owned by William Grant & Sons, now has its own standalone distillery as well, and spirits powerhouses such as Diageo and Brown-Forman have gotten involved. That adds to Pernod Ricard’s dominance with Jameson and Irish Distillers, and Beam Suntory, which has owned the Cooley Distillery, Ireland’s third of the modern era, since 2011. (The distillery had initially been founded in the 1980s by one John Teeling, yes, father of Jack and Stephen).
“The growth has attracted nearly all of the biggest spirit players in the world,” Jack Teeling says. With investment and expansion comes not only more distilleries, more brands, and a greater breadth of Irish whiskey styles, but also a recognition for the quality of Irish whiskey.
“The international reputation of Irish whiskey is deservedly growing as more consumers discover its approachable and flavorsome character,” Conyngham says. “This means there is a strong opportunity for growth and we intend for Slane to become part of that.”
The overall growth of Irish whiskey has been particularly explosive in the premium and super premium categories, with sales increasing by 1,106% and 3,385% respectively since 2002, according to DISCUS. I believe whiskey consumers and the trade are much more open and excited to see new expressions of Irish whiskey,” Teeling says, “so long as they are a good quality liquid with a compelling and unique story.”