Monday 21 August 2017

Raise a glass to the making of a Trend!

As a plethora of new brands and bottles appear on bar shelves, whiskey has replaced gin as the drink du jour. This revival of uisce beatha is not just a celeb-led fad, however - it's part of an effort to restore Irish whiskey to its former glory, as our reporter discovers

Photo: Prizefight Whiskey
Photo: Prizefight Whiskey
The Teeling distillery
Fighting Irish: New brand Prizefight Whiskey

Chrissie Russell

Last year we were drowning in a sea of gin. From craft products and G&T Easter eggs to increasingly bewildering garnishes and dedicated hotels, 2016 was without doubt the year of gin. Now it's whiskey's turn to take the limelight.

At a glance that might look how drinks trends go. One year, a liquor is 'in'; the next, it's time for another beverage to take centre stage. Take a few high-profile celeb endorsements: Zayn Malik declaring himself a Jameson fan; Dakota Johnson revealing those saucy sex scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey were aided by downing shots of whiskey. Throw in a few 'style bible' forecasts and add a sprinkling of new brands, and, poof, you've spirited up a new must-have drink of the year.

Added to the long-established labels like Jameson, Bushmills, Paddy and Powers, and younger names such as Teeling, Glendalough and Cooley, are a flood of new labels that have come on stream in the last few years - Writers Tears, Prizefight, and Roe & Co to name but a few. In June, Slane Irish Whiskey was released as a partnership between US producers Brown-Forman and the Conyngham family of Slane Castle Estate.

Irish whiskey is booming. Sales have increased by over 300pc in the last 10 years with 'the water of life' now accounting for more than one third of all beverage exports from Ireland and valued at €500 million per annum. But the back-story to this trend is a lot more complex and a lot less spontaneous than you might assume. Moreover, it's (hopefully) here to stay.

The Teeling distillery
The Teeling distillery

"Exports of Irish whiskey have also grown dramatically," says Miriam Mooney, head of the Irish Whiskey Association and senior executive at the Alcohol Beverage Federation Ireland (ABFI). "We expect whiskey sales to increase strongly in the coming years and to reach a figure of 144 million bottles by 2020, before doubling to 288 million bottles by 2030."

Yes, there are elements of changing consumer tastes fuelling the trend. Research has shown that millennials are very keen on 'authentic' products like whiskey. In particular, young female drinkers, fed up with being 'infantilised' by sweet, fruity cocktails, are driving the demand for whiskey-based mixed drinks. On a global level, America is leading the revived thirst for whiskey - or 'whisky' as they spell it in Scotland - prompted by some savvy marketing from the people at Pernod Ricard for Jameson.

But the experts would argue that, rather than being a product of ever-changing trends, what's happening in Irish whiskey now, is merely a long-awaited return to form.

In the late 1800s, Irish whiskey was the world's largest spirits category, with 88 licensed distilleries in operation. Then a combination of factors - Prohibition, temperance, grain shortages, war - directly and indirectly created a catastrophic effect on the industry. By the mid-1980s, just two licensed distilleries remained in operation. Until as recently as 2013, that figure stood at just four.

Today, there are 16 working distilleries in Ireland and 15 more with planning permission. A boom, yes, but put in the wider historical context, it's a slow move towards re-establishing a neglected sector of Irish industry.

Tucked away in the rolling Co Down countryside is Rademon Estate Distillery, launched by husband-and-wife team David and Fiona Boyd-Armstrong in 2012. When you enter the main building, there's a heady aroma of alcohol in the air and, at the far end of the warehouse, a gleaming copper still is busily whirring away, creating the multi-award-winning Shortcross Gin. Somewhere (I'm not to be shown where), an unspecified number of barrels have been resting since August 2015, containing the distillery's first batch of whiskey.

Fighting Irish: New brand Prizefight Whiskey
Fighting Irish: New brand Prizefight Whiskey

The Boyd-Armstrongs are being remarkably coy about the specifics of their new venture. One would have thought the remarkable success of Shortcross would have earned them a certain presumptuous confidence, but whiskey, it transpires, is a very different beast to gin.

"What we've learned is that not everything goes to plan and while you can control some things to a certain point, there are certain things that are out of your power," laughs Fiona. "It's different to gin, where there's so much you can control."

Taste-wise, all they'll confess to aiming to when the barrels are opened (something that could happen as early as next August) is a whiskey which will reflect its sense of place, a "very elegant, complex spirit that conveys the passion that has gone into it".

Offering something unique, high-end and with a sense of heritage is key to the new wave of craft whiskey products. The phrase 'differentiate or die' lies at the heart of successful branding.

"It's a very difficult market to break into and it's not the big brands that we're up against," reveals Michael Walsh, head distiller at Dingle Distillery. "The market for blended Irish whiskey is well established and well serviced by the big brands like Jameson." At Dingle they produce only Single Malt and Pot Still whiskeys. "We're offering something new for people who are looking to explore further, not just in the quality of our distillate but also the quality and verity of the casks we use."

Dingle started work on its whiskey in 2012, releasing the first batch of Dingle Single Malt in November 2016, to rave reviews. But while the whiskey was resting, the stills were in action, producing Dingle Original Gin and Dingle Distillery Vodka.

By law, any spirit sold as Irish whiskey has to be aged for a minimum of three years. Frequently, creating a premium spirit will take even longer, with the added insult that 2pc every year - the so-called 'Angel's Share' - evaporates into thin air.

With gin being so much speedier to produce, it begs the question: was the gin trend merely a placeholder while we were waiting for whiskey to come of age?

"Producing gin and vodka has certainly helped to keep the lights on while we wait for the whiskey to mature," admits Michael at Dingle Distillery. "But both products are far more than simply a means of generating cash flow and we've been very proud of their success.

"Yes, on one hand, it probably is canny to produce a few different products, as it might help to keep the doors open if any of the products go through a slump in popularity - but ultimately all the products must be self-sustaining."

Fiona at Rademon seems insulted by the idea that Shortcross was born out of anything other than a passion for gin. "Anyone thinking it's a 'placeholder' hasn't been here at midnight when we've been working," she says emphatically. "Gin is not an easy option. Those sort of comments come from people who've never been on a distillery floor or appreciate the work that goes into making gin."

The sheer volume of money that's being poured into Irish whiskey is evidence, too, that its backers don't see it as some fleeting fashion. Between 2010 and 2025, it's expected that a wide range of investors will put over €1bn into Irish whiskey distillery projects. Drinks giant Diageo has returned to the sector, investing €25m in its new Roe & Co distillery at St James's Gate. Pernod Ricard recently committed a further €10.5m to boosting production at Midleton Distillery.

In its 'Vision for Irish whiskey' document, the Irish Whiskey Association revealed ambitions to grow trade across the whiskey sector, but specifically with regard to tourism. The aim is to make Ireland the world leader in whiskey tourism by 2030 - a feat that will have a knock-on effect on employment, infra- structure and revenue. But realising whiskey's potential will require State support. "Government should prioritise Irish whiskey investment, providing the maximum amount available under European grant aid rules, and to match the funding available to start up distilling operations in Scotland," stated the document.

Certainly, from the sizeable list of 'funding supports' published on the ABFI website to guide would-be whiskey makers on accessing cash, it seems this need is being recognised. One relatively recent and popular option is the Employment Incentive and Investment Scheme (EIIS). This enables investors to commit up to €150,000 in certain companies, providing up to 40pc tax relief. Many distilleries have qualified under the scheme, making investing in whiskey an attractive option. Teeling's Great Northern Distillery has secured some €12.5m under the EIIS scheme; West Cork Distillers and Nephin Distillery have likewise benefited.

At Dingle, they decided to get creative with raising revenue. "We could have maybe taken investment from a number of different sources," says Michael. "There has been a lot of interest and indeed investment in Irish whiskey from various big players in the drinks industry, but we wanted to remain independent."

They set up an investor scheme called the Founding Fathers programme, selling off 500 casks of their first whiskey and, in doing so, earning themselves working capital "without selling off any proportion of the company or having to take large loans from banks".

Alongside their own money, Rademon Estate Distillery secured start-up funding from Invest NI and Down District Council. Their foray into whiskey-making has earned them an additional £50,000 grant through Invest NI's R&D Boosting Business scheme. This autumn, they open doors on an impressive new visitor centre at the distillery - which has the added tourist appeal of being located in the heart of Game of Thrones filming country. It's already generating calls of interest.

Since Fiona and David are resolute that it'll be quality, not economic pressure, that dictates when their whiskey is launched, the tourism aspect of their venture will provide a much needed source of revenue.

Almost all the money generated by sales at Rademon, run by a small team of eight, goes back into creating the product. Fiona wryly displays her empty pockets when asked about their marketing budget. When you're creating a premium product on site and not merely "buying in brown liquid from a third party", there's not always the money for sleek marketing campaigns she says.

It's a loaded remark that reflects some anger brewing within the whiskey-making community. At both Dingle and Rademon, and many more distilleries, the whiskey is handcrafted throughout. All aspects, from grain to glass, are performed on site, with no third-party spirit involved. It's a lengthy process. Some of the new brands are taking a different tack - buying in older batches from third parties before adding their own maturation touches to produce a new blended whiskey, and sending it off to the shops.

The official view from the Irish Whiskey Association is that this is a 'long- established practice' that should be 'celebrated'. "They add diversity to the category and have a unique offering," says Miriam Mooney. "They are not simply repackaged. They may consist of boutique blends, of blended malts, Irish grain whiskey or Irish pot-still whiskey, or also experiment with different finishing."

Not everyone's convinced. "My personal view is that this is the biggest threat to any possible revival of Irish whiskey," says Michael from Dingle Distillery. "People looking to explore Irish whiskey are being greeted with a vast array of new whiskeys under different labels professing to have something 'unique' contained within, when in reality it is anything but. "You could find largely the same whiskey in any number of different bottlings, which could lead to potential customers getting a very narrow view of Irish whiskey - or simply a distrust of the product, which could turn people away before all the genuinely unique whiskeys come along from the new wave of distilleries. "I don't have a problem with independent bottles," he adds. "As long as it clearly indicates that this is the case."

David and Fiona at Rademon agree. "I think, for us, what needs to be protected is the term 'distillery'," says Fiona. "There are a lot of brands that are potentially mismarketed or misinforming the consumer. There needs to be greater control of 'what is a distillery'." David adds simply, "A distillery is somewhere where there's distilling."

There are other challenges ahead: Brexit, high excise duties - it currently costs more to buy Irish whiskey in Ireland than it does abroad - and the proposed Public Health Alcohol Bill, which could restrict marketing.

But refreshingly, in the areas where you might expect disharmony, relationships are cordial. There doesn't appear to be any negativity from the big brands towards the start-ups; the consensus seems to be that a strong whiskey market is good for all involved. Even the craft brewers - kings of the trendy drink label for so long - have accepted that a new kid is in town and, for the most part, they're focused on how best to use the new 'trend' to their advantage.

"We've got a great relationship with whiskey distilleries," says Andy Byrne, operations manager at Galway Bay Brewery. "There are plenty of breweries and distilleries sharing casks back and forth to experiment with different flavour profiles." One such success story is Galway Bay's Two Hundred Fathoms Imperial Stout, aged in Teeling Whiskey Barrels.

The recently launched Whiskey Mentoring Programme, which enables industry leaders to share their expertise on production, branding, marketing and licensing across the drinks sector, has had a resounding welcome.

"The fact we've put this programme in place shows drinks manufacturers, even those that are competitors, can work collaboratively to help develop Irish whiskey and work towards placing it on the global map for all to see," says Miriam.

Whiskey glossary

MALTED BARLEY:

Barley grains that have been soaked in water to force germination and then dried, in order to produce fermentable sugars.

SINGLE MALT:

A whiskey made from 100pc malted barley. In Ireland, these are most often - but not always - triple-distilled to give a light and smooth taste. The whiskey must come from one distillery.

POT STILL WHISKEY:

A style made exclusively in Ireland, these whiskeys are made in copper pot stills using a mix of malted and unmalted barley, and optional other cereals. The result is a spicier taste.

BLENDED WHISKEY:

Made from mixing a premium aged whiskey with neutral grain spirits (to add alcoholic volume) and other flavourings. This is the most common style of Irish whiskey. The whiskey used can come from more than one distillery.

BARREL AGED:

Whiskey aged in barrels, usually made from oak, which adds flavour and colour to the spirit. By law, Irish whiskeys must be aged for a minimum of three years.

GRAIN WHISKEY:

Whiskeys made from other cereals such as maize, wheat and rye. Most American whiskeys fall into this category.

SCOTCH:

Scotch whiskys use malted barley that was peat-smoked to dry it, to give it its signature taste. Scotch is usually double-distilled.

What's the difference?

VODKA:

This can be made from any spirit produced from a grain, such as wheat. It is distilled and filtered multiple times and mixed with demineralised water to produce a flavourless drink. It does not require time to mature.

GIN:

This can be made from any spirit produced from a grain, such as barley. The base spirit has a neutral flavour, which is then enhanced using juniper - present in all gin - and other 'botanicals' (fruits, herbs and berries) according to the individual maker's recipe. Once flavoured, it does not need maturation.

WHISKEY:

This is made from malted barley, or a mix of malted and unmalted barley with other cereals. It is usually triple-distilled in Ireland and must be barrel-aged for at least three years. High-end whiskeys can be aged for 10-20 years.

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