Whiskey sector can boost tourism and help Ireland stand out in global market
Yesterday's St Patrick's Day is regarded as the start of the tourism season in Ireland. We have many attractions for visitors, but when it comes to showcasing and promoting whiskey as an attraction we're behind the curve, even though it's one of our best known products overseas.
Almost 1.5 million tourists visit Scottish distilleries every year - that's around one fifth of all tourists who visit the country. In Kentucky the bourbon trail has been going for nearly 20 years and forms a key plank of the state's tourism strategy. They've even registered The Bourbon Trail as a trademark.
In the 1800s Irish production accounted for more than 60pc of all global exports of the spirit, but we're only starting to see the potential of whiskey tourism.
Roughly 600,000 people visited distilleries in Ireland last year. At our new Teeling Whiskey distillery in Dublin, which opened 18 months ago, we have welcomed 175,000 visitors so far.
What attracts visitors is authenticity and vibrancy - having distilleries with visitor centres rather than the other way round.
People want to see a working distillery with a real product made for a real market and audience. That allied to our rich heritage is an attractive offering.
Moreover it creates jobs and helps the sector grow its share of a rapidly growing and lucrative market, especially in the US.
Since 2002 sales of premium Irish whiskey in the US have grown seven-fold. Sales of super-premium whiskey have risen a staggering 3456pc. That growth is forecast to continue in the high double digits for the foreseeable future.
The US market is by far the largest for exports. Annually it consumes four million 9-litre cases of Irish whiskey - in Ireland we consume 600,000 cases per year. The growth hasn't just been in the US, there has also been strengthening in large mature markets such as France, Germany and the Nordics as well as a rise in new markets in central and eastern Europe.
According to some forecasts, global exports of Irish whiskey will hit 12million cases by 2020 and double to 24million cases by 2030. Separately over €1bn is expected to be invested in Irish distillery projects.
There's still a lot of potential. Ireland accounts for only around 4pc of whiskey exports globally. Scotland is the dominant force, with Scotch exports worth €5bn annually - a quarter of the UK's total food and drink exports. Still, it's worth saying that Ireland is the fourth-largest exporter of whiskey in the world and second-largest in the EU. It shows that there's a lot to play for. At Teeling Whiskey we have been successfully doing that for years and prospects are positive.
After decades of decline, Irish whiskey has been a star performer in the export market. Perhaps it was the years of underperformance married with the taste profile and history of whiskey that made it the perfect gateway spirit for drinkers.
All of this helps explain why Dublin is experiencing a renaissance in whiskey production. In recent months we've had the re-entry of Diageo into the sector and across the country new distilleries are opening up.
Our distillery in Dublin was the city's first for more than 125 years. We've been part of the Irish success story and are in the process of doubling our workforce in the US due to ongoing demand. Success cannot be taken for granted. We've had global dominance and it slipped away. For many, nothing represented the demise of Irish whiskey better than the last Dublin distillery's stills running cold in 1976.
Creating a tourist industry around distilleries is one way to promote the sector. We welcomed the launch of the whiskey tourism strategy last year, which aims to attract two million visitors a year by 2025.
We are in the middle of a cyclical long term up-trend, but we should learn from the past and ensure we don't become arrogant, thinking that what has gotten us here over the last 20 years will be enough to keep modern consumers interested for the long term.
The stats out of the US show there is a growing interest and need for alternative Irish whiskey offerings to cater for the modern generation of drinkers who are not as brand loyal as previous generations and are constantly seeking new tastes and ways to express themselves.
We need a range of strong independent producers who can complement the larger multinational players who dominate the industry.
Jack Teeling is the founder and MD of Teeling Whiskey