Sunday 26 March 2017

Why whiskey got so frisky Our cherished drink has seen its highs and lows but is now on an upward curve, writes John Costello

John Costello

The sober reality for Irish whiskey in the 1960s was stark. It may have been the tipple that had topped all others at the turn of the century, but it was down and out and desperately fighting for survival.

However, the former world champion has dragged itself back from the brink of extinction and is once again a global contender, the revival of its fortunes underlined by the recent sale of Cooley Distillery for €71m.

But while Cooley's sale is a prized coup for the sector, Irish whiskey has been the stellar performer in a drinks trade struggling with recession.

It racked up more than a 20pc increase in US sales last year and its growing popularity has forced Jameson, which has reached full capacity producing 3.4 million cases last year, to expand its Midleton distillery in Cork. This will see a massive €100m upgrade and the creation of 60 new jobs to double sales over the coming years. Back in 1970 it was selling a mere 300,000 cases.

Jameson, Ireland's top performer with 23 years of consecutive growth, manufactures almost 30 million litres annually and produces more whiskey every month than a typical single malt Scotch distillery does in a year.

"Nowadays, Irish whiskey is the only whiskey experiencing double-digit growth," says Iorwerth Griffiths, Irish whiskey expert and consultant.

"The best performing Scotch brands may be achieving single-digit growth, if at all. So the fact is there is a growing level of interest worldwide for Irish whiskey. This is because consumers who have been drinking single malts are now trying different things. This has been of benefit to both the Irish and American whiskey. Also, the sheer marketing spend by Irish Distillers has paid dividend."

It is this investment, according to author of the 2012 Whisky Bible, Jim Murray, that has helped Irish Distillers discover a previously untapped international following over the past 12 to 14 years.

Sales in the US account for more than a third of Jameson exports, while in the vodka-loving former Soviet Bloc countries, such as Russia, Ukraine and Poland, sales are running at double-digit growth year-on-year.

In these new markets Irish whiskey has been transformed into a status drink.

"Scotch is seen as a very serious drink," says Tim Herlihy, Tullamore Dew's US Ambassador. "There is this image that it is best sipped alone by the fire as you plot the downfall of your enemies. Irish whiskey drinkers on the other hand are younger, more sociable and tend to drink with friends. It is also a lot more versatile as a drink and can be drunk neat, with a chaser of beer, on the rocks or with a mixer, such as ginger ale. It is a lot more relaxed than Scotch."

It is this cool and glamorous image that has been carefully crafted by the marketing efforts of the likes of Jameson and Tullamore Dew as they conquer international markets.

"There are a lot less rules when it comes to drinking Irish whiskey," says Herlihy. "So it has become seen as the whiskey of choice for those new to whiskey. Irish whiskey in very popular in America with consumers aged between 25-35 years old. These form part of the new wave of whiskey drinkers."

Over 100 years ago there was a similar buzz around Irish whiskey. There were around 2,000 distilleries dotted around the Irish landscape and their produce was vying for the title of the world's most widely consumed liquor.

By 1900 it was the largest selling spirit in England and had a massive export market in the US. However, its supremacy was short-lived thanks to the ravages of war, economics and politics, which dealt a series of savage body blows that brought a great tradition and industry to its knees.

World War One severely disrupted production and shipping; Prohibition in the US in 1919 totally cut off the American market; while the struggle for Irish independence derailed exports to the massive market of the British Empire. As the Irish distilleries went into rapid decline the void was filled by Scottish distillers.

"Prohibition not only ended exports to America, but Irish whiskey got a bad name because it had become associated with the cheap bootleg whiskey being sold in the speakeasies," says Griffiths.

Suddenly, "Scotch on the Rocks" had become the drink of movie stars, while memories of the glory of Irish whiskey were rapidly fading. By the 1960s, exports of Irish whiskey had all but evaporated, and a decade later Ireland accounted for a mere 1pc of the global whiskey market.

"This is when Scotch became the generic term for whisky," says Herlihy. "This saw many brands disappear and distilleries close."

Soon the entire Irish whiskey industry was sold to the French firm Pernod Ricard, which focused on Jameson to spearhead the revival of Irish whiskey. While sales of Jameson soared, Bushmills was sold to Diageo and Cooley Distillery opened in 1989 to become the only independent, Irish-owned distillery. Ireland now only has three distilleries, compared to Scotland's 90.

"One of the key reasons behind the rebirth of Irish whiskey and its phenomenal growth is quality," says Griffiths. "Because the sector is focused on three distilleries, everything that comes out of Ireland is high quality. The same cannot be said for all Scotch."

But as sales of Irish whiskey soar, the Irish and the Scots are still arguing over who first invented uisce beatha. While we are confident in our belief it was the early Christian monks that learnt the secret art in Arabia circa 500AD, the Scottish believe Ireland's claim to be full of whimsy and myth. In 1494 there is written record of an entry in the Exchequer Rolls in Scotland of "eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae".

However, recent evidence could settle the age-old argument. Ancient writings dating back to pre-Christian times, on tanned reindeer skins discovered during excavations beside the River Liffey, contain an account of distillation from grain and water. This is 500 years before the Scots started swigging.

"It's very difficult to prove as the mists of time are very, very thick indeed," says Griffiths. "There is some evidence that the Irish were the first but what we call whiskey now is very different. So it would be almost unrecognisable and probably undrinkable to whiskey drinkers now."

But what is the difference between an Irish and a Scotch?

"The malted barley in Scotch whisky is dried over peat fire, and therefore tends to retain a lot of smokiness," says Herlihy. "Irish whiskey is also triple distilled (most Scotch is distilled twice) so it is a bit smoother and tends to be sweeter."

It is these key ingredients that are likely to see Irish whiskey continue its resurgence and become a success story that roared well beyond the heyday of the Celtic Tiger. "Regardless of impressive growth figures, there is still a need to help people understand when it comes to whiskey, Irish is simply the best. This is why Irish whiskey is not just making Irish eyes smile around the world once again," says Herlihy.

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