Saturday 23 September 2017

World goes Gaga for Irish whiskey

Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

IT may have taken half a century but Irish whiskey is finally loosening Scotland's vice-like grip on world spirit markets.

The combined impact of Prohibition in the US and World War Two handed Scotch whisky dominance of the world's premium drinks industry that it has never threatened to relinquish.

Until now that is -- thanks to a little help from celebrities such as Lady Gaga.

The acquisition of Irish Distillers by French drinks giant Pernod Ricard in 1988 saw attitudes change -- and key European, Asian and North American markets were carefully targeted for sales growth.

Over the past decade, the results have been astonishing. Such has been the explosion in demand, Irish Distillers last May launched a €100m expansion of its production facility in Midleton, east Cork -- to follow a new €100m ageing warehouse down the road in Dungourney.

From a point where 20 cases of Scotch whisky were sold for every single case of Irish, Jameson has now become the world's fastest growing drinks brand.

Jameson sales have soared by a whopping 750 per cent since 1988 -- and the label is now savouring annual sales increases of 15 per cent-plus on some of the world's most valuable drinks markets.

Jameson has also -- for the first time ever -- soared into the top 30 of the world's best-selling drinks brands. Last year, Irish Distillers sold 3.4 million cases of Jameson.

And the surging market sales aren't just confined to Pernod Ricard's Irish brands.

US drinks giant Beam last year agreed to pay €73m for Cooley Distillery such was its interest in tapping into the demand for Irish whiskey.

For the first six months of this year -- for the first time since the Thirties -- Irish whiskey outsold single malt Scotch on the US market.

Clever marketing may be part of the reason but strategic product placement must also take some credit.

A key placement of Jameson in one episode of the hit crime drama The Wire saw sales rocket in some US cities. Sales also spiralled after Lady Gaga described Jameson as "my long-time boyfriend".

But surging sales in other areas are harder to explain.

Irish whiskey sales have significantly expanded in parts of Eastern Europe and Asia. Some believe that the lack of historical issues from World War Two in these markets -- US GIs didn't return from these battlefields having developed a taste for Scotch unlike those who were stationed in the UK from 1942-45 -- has offered Ireland a level playing pitch to court newly-affluent consumers.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny -- with one eye on Ireland's 'The Gathering' tourism event in 2013 -- said that Irish whiskey would never again bend the knee to Scotch.

"So let the battle begin again with Scotch -- for my part I'll do what I can," Mr Kenny said.

However, Irish whiskey still has a daunting challenge to dethrone Scotch.

Earlier this month, UK drinks giant Diageo confirmed it was to invest €1.2bn in Scotch whisky production to 2017. Diageo -- which controls brands such as Johnnie Walker, Bells and J&B that, in turn, deliver 27 per cent of the firm's sales -- has also had soaring sales in Eastern Europe and the Far East.

Yet, irrespective of sales revenues, the re-emergence of Irish whiskey is something to be celebrated by its fans.

US analyst Rich Nagle, president of the Irish Whiskey Society of America, said its success in emerging markets is thanks to clever marketing and competitive pricing.

"Irish whiskey is about the simple enjoyment of a good drink with kindred spirits," he said with a wide smile.

Sunday Independent

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