What you should know:
- Irish whiskey used to be way more popular and successful than Scotch in the 1800s.
- Unfortunately, and ironically, Irish independence cut off the market for Irish whiskey in the UK, and precipitated the loss in demand for Irish whiskey. By 2010, there are only 4 whiskey distilleries in Ireland.
- Since 2015, Irish whiskey has enjoyed a 13% year-on-year growth in sales. In 2021, there more than 32 whiskey distilleries in Ireland.
- We explore why this is the case. From its light-tasting and easy-to-drink flavour profile, to the exciting variation of styles in Irish whiskey, to well-adjusted marketing to millennials.
- If you are new to Irish whiskey, check out our recommended bottles!
In the minds of international consumers, whisky has in living memory been strongly associated with Scotland. At times, the word Scotch has been taken to be synonymous with whisky.
More recently, however, the Scottish dominance of the whisky market is beginning to be threatened by a serious (and historical) rival – the Irish whiskey. Sales figures and industry data suggest that Irish whiskey is beginning to chip away at the market share of Scotch and bourbon, giving them a serious run for their money.
How did this happen? We shall discuss a number of factors. That said, we should bear in mind that Ireland’s relationship with whiskey had started long before 2010. Let’s begin from its lowest point – the decline in the 1900s.
The most popular brands of whiskey include Powers, Midleton, Redbreast, West Cork, Tullamore D.E.W, Dingle, Knappogue, Connemara, Bushmills, J.J. Corry, Yellow Spot / Green Spot, and Teeling (Image Source: Forbes)
Ireland had always been familiar with whiskey
Although the most expensive whiskies today tend to be Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey was much more popular and deemed more valuable in the 1800s. Back then, Irish whiskey could be sold at a premium of many times a bottle of Scotch.
In 1887 when historian Alfred Barnard chronicled The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, he visited 28 Irish distilleries and found that they were very large and advanced at that time.
Irish whiskey also took up 70 percent of the world whiskey market! Two out of every three bottles of whiskey sold in London were Irish, and even in Scotland, Irish whiskey outsold Scotch whisky.
The famous Redbreast brand of whiskeys was first released in 1903 by a major spirits distribution company, W&A Gilbey. The spirit was distilled in Jameson’s Bow Street Distillery in Dublin- one of the powerhouses of the Irish whiskey industry (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Unfortunately, the Irish whiskey industry slowly declined starting from around 1919. Ireland won independence in 1919, and this cut off demand of Irish whiskeys from the rest of the cities markets in the what remained of the British Empire.
At the same time, the US passed the Volstead Act which officially enforced the Prohibition, destroying Irish whiskey’s largest market.
To make matters worse, the Irish government saw the whiskey distillers as pro-British Unionists, and was minded to impose heavy taxes on even the domestic sale of whiskey.
The Irish government even imposed a limit on exportation of Irish whiskey at half of pre-war levels.
The Irish tricolor was only adopted by the Irish Republic in 1919 and used during the Irish War of Independence between 1919 and 1921 (Image Source: Irish Mirror)
The above events essentially destroyed the competitiveness of Irish whiskey. At the same time, Scottish distilleries began to recognise the importance of marketing their whiskies, and began building powerful international brands.
Thus goes the decline of the Irish whiskey industry. In 1887, there were 28 Irish whiskey distilleries. By 1972, only 2 whiskey distilleries remained in Ireland.
Today’s resurgence of Irish whiskey
Much has changed since 1972. Recent data since 2015 has shown that the Irish whiskey category has enjoyed a 13% year-on-year growth in sales in the United States. This outpaces the growth for US whiskey, Canadian whisky, and Scotch.At present, the market for Irish whiskey is about half the size of Scotch in the US.
There has also been a sudden boom in the number of Irish distilleries according to the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA)’s data. There were only 4 operational whiskey distilleries in Ireland in 2010. As of April 2021 today, there are over 32 operational whiskey distilleries.
How did this happen? There are several inter-related factors.
Irish is lighter and smoother
One reason that people in the 19th Century Birmingham preferred Irish over Scotch is its lightness and smoothness, so that no ice is required (Image Source: Peaky Blinders TV Series)
The first factor that sets Irish whiskey apart from Scotch or bourbon is the fact that Irish whiskey (generally) has a much smoother texture and cleaner taste. Irish whiskey has none of the smokiness of Scotch, and has a much lighter flavour profile than American bourbon.
Why? This the result of how the Irish distil their whiskey.
During the distillation process, fermented barley/grain is placed in a giant kettle with a long neck that collects alcohol and other aromatic flavonoids and volatile oils to create the resultant spirit.
The more one distils the spirit, the more heavy compounds get filtered away, creating a lighter resultant spirit. While the Scottish tend to conduct distillation twice, the Irish tend to do so three times too make their whiskey sweeter, with a texture that is lighter and smoother.
I have heard of claims that Irish whiskey is less likely to result in a hangover because the extra distillation removes hangover-inducing compounds, including esters, tannins and other stuff that belong in a chemistry class.
We would venture to guess that this is also why many young female celebrities including Lady Gaga openly proclaimed their love for Irish whiskies. The triple-distilled (compared to Scotch’s twice-distilled) whiskey is a lot smoother and delicate compared to Scotch and perhaps most distinctively, are rarely peated.
Since Irish whiskey tend to have a lighter body, the spirit cannot withstand too much maturation in sherry casks, unlike say a heavier bodied Macallan. It is important that Irish distilleries do not overwhelm the natural flavours of the spirit with the cask.
It is therefore not difficult to imagine why a new whisky drinker would fancy a lighter-tasting Jameson, rather than a regular Scotch which may be a little spicier, dryer or smokier.
More cask experimentation
Would you be curious how a mizunara-matured Irish whiskey taste? (Image Source: Writers’ Tears Single Cask Whiskey)
Consumer excitement about Irish whiskey is also fuelled by a large variety of choices is offered. They’re spoilt for choice if they wish to affordably purchase an Irish whiskey with an unusual style or flavour.
This is because Irish distilleries engage in much more, and more radical experimentation in the process of making whiskies. From the use of different grains (eg unmalted barley, malted barley, corn or other cereals), to the use of different cask types for maturation, to the release related products.
The Irish rules on whiskey-making are more relaxed than Scottish rules which are more focused on tradition. The UK Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 require whiskies in Scotland to be matured for at least three years in oak barrels.
The Irish Whiskey Act 1980, on the other hand, only require maturation for at least three years in wooden barrels. The aging process for Irish whiskey is not limited to oak.
Image Source: Teeling Distillery
The result is an Irish whiskey industry with a bigger appetite for experimentation with different cask styles and different wood. Distilleries happily experiment with different styles and processes to develop new and interesting offerings.
This breathes life into Irish whiskey, and offering whiskey drinkers interesting choices while on their Irish whiskey journey.
Teeling Distillery is one example of a highly experimental and innovative Irish distillery. The distillery is eager to share that for a particular blend, it had used Hungarian Oak, chestnut wood, chinkapin oak and virgin Irish oak in its whiskey maturation process to add layers of complexity.
Meanwhile, Glendalough Distillery’s 17-year-old single malt is aged 15 years in ex-bourbon barrels before a two-year finishing period in Japanese Mizunara oak. Tullamore D.E.W. has found significant success with its Caribbean-Rum- and Cider-Cask-finished blended whiskeys.
Image Source: Liquid Irish
Another well received innovation from Midleton Distillery is their Method & Madness range with their unique maturation policies and ingredients used.
Take the above range for example. Unlike Scottish distilleries, Midleton Distillery released a range with 3 wildly different ingredients and styles:
- the first is a single grain whiskey (ie made from wheat, rye or corn) that was finished in virgin Spanish oak
- the second is a single pot still whiskey (ie made from 30% unmalted and 70% malted barley) that was finished in French chestnut wood
- the third is a single malt whiskey (ie made from 100% malted barley) that was finished in French Limousin oak which is normally used to age Cognac.
Interestingly, the French chestnut wood is said to impart rich flavours of sweet and sour fruits such as dried cherries and plum. The expensive French Limousin oak is known for intense vanilla-like flavour that it imparts to the spirit.
More recently, Bushmills Original has also released bottles finished in a range of different casks, including Caribbean rum casks, and American oak casks.
Experimentation with related product ranges
How do whisky producers pull in new drinkers who are uncomfortable with high alcoholic content of whiskies?
The answer appears to be to sell whisky liqueurs (they have lower-alcoholic content) with intriguing flavours that would attract the curiosity of both old and new drinkers.
An interesting product released by a relatively newly-opened Dublin Liberties Distillery is the “Whiskey and Honeycomb” liqueur. This is a blend of Irish whiskey, flavoured with honey and caramel, at 30 per cent ABV. This is well received by even non-whisky drinkers, and said to be excellent when paired with a cocktail.
Image Source: Toast Magazine New Zealand
Jameson has also experienced much success with its latest Jameson Cold Brew “Whiskey & Coffee” liqueur. The product is a blend of Jameson whiskey with cold brew coffee, at 30 per cent ABV. Each serving has about half a shot of espresso. Jameson recommends drinking it in a cocktail, or on the rocks, with tasting notes touting it to be of “toasted oak and dark chocolate.”
Image Source: Irish Distillers Company
If drunk in a cocktail, Jameson suggests mixing it with cola or making a “Jameson Cold Brewtini,” with two-parts Jameson Cold Brew, one-part cold brew coffee, and half-parts simple syrup. Fans of the product have suggested mixing it into a milky frozen cocktail, like an alcoholic coffee frappucino. Some others see it as an add-in for hot coffee to be enjoyed leisurely on a cold day.
Marketing towards millennials
Image Source: Esquire Philippines
Finally, the demographic supporting the growth of Irish whiskey is not to be forgotten.
The resurgence and growth of Irish whiskey is chiefly driven by the millennial demographic (currently between 25 to 35 years old). Millennials appear to take very well to Irish whiskey brands such as Jameson and Teeling.
The factors mentioned can explain why Irish whiskies appeal more to millennials. Millennials may prefer the lighter- and clean-tasting flavour profile of Irish whiskey. Millennials are also more open to trying experimental styles of whiskey, or even flavoured whiskey that Irish distilleries are happy to offer. However, marketing for Irish whiskey is also geared towards millennials.
Scotch drinking is still seen as something more male-dominated, high-brow and traditional, and tend to bring to mind an image of cigar-smoking old man on an armchair by the fireside with a shaggy dog. Scotch whiskies ask to be taken seriously and to be appreciated at formal single malt tasting classes.
Nick Offerman, the quintessential Scotch drinker (Image Source: Open Culture)
Irish whiskey brands, however, are perceived as something more affordable. Younger demographics are more comfortable coming to Irish whiskey and enjoying them as social drinks. Marketing of Irish whiskies is also more modern and fashionable.
Redbreast had recently introduced “Robin”, a talking bird as its official advertising mascot. It is clear that Irish distilleries take themselves a little less seriously than Scottish distilleries.
Say hello to “Robin Redbreast”, the chirpy talking mascot of Redbreast Whiskeys (Image Source: Irish Distillers)
A long runway ahead for Irish whiskey
Despite its phenomenal growth in the US and internationally over the past 5 years, Irish whiskey still currently represents less than 3 percent of the volume of all spirits sold. Spirits companies, however, are anticipating change to come are trying to keep up, acquiring Irish whiskey brands and spending on marketing pushes.
For instance, Diageo, the world’s largest spirits conglomerate, had entered the booming Irish whiskey market in 2017 by acquiring the Irish whiskey brand Roe & Co., and spent close to 20% more on marketing the Roe & Co. brand.
Are you a millennial? Or are you new to whiskies? If you haven’t already tried Irish whiskeys, you could be missing out on a new experience that could convert new comers into whiskey lovers.
There are many high quality Irish whiskey brands that are cheaper as compared to Scotch or Japanese whiskies. If you are in need of recommendations, please feel free to try some of our favourite (and seriously affordable) expressions:
Typical light-tasting Irish whiskey- From Midleton Distillery:
- Jameson Irish Whiskey (very easy to drink, perfect for new-drinkers and very affordable)
- Green Spot Irish Whiskey (slightly more complexity than the Jameson, still very accessible and affordable)
- Redbreast 15 Years Old (well-balanced, well-rounded and one of the most highly-rated)
Something slightly heavier- From Teeling Distillery: Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey- Rum Cask Finished (this one has more novelty in flavour than other Irish whiskies, with a full-bodied texture and intense tropical fruit notes)
For whiskey nerds- From Waterford Distillery: Any 2 or 3 bottles. Waterford Distillery’s barley is famously sourced from very specific geographies. Each bottle is intended to exhibit particular flavours specific to the terroir of the land from which the barley is harvested. To really experience the different terroir in each bottle, trying several different bottles in the same sitting.