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Agri-business: Irish whiskey – back where it belongs?


The days of hot sunny weather have gone for the foreseeable future

The days of hot sunny weather have gone for the foreseeable future

The days of hot sunny weather have gone for the foreseeable future

Irish whiskey is reported to be the darling of global wine and spirits markets, with top-end whiskey brands experiencing 20pc annual growth in countries such as the US.

The Irish Spirits Association claims that across the category, the figure is still as high as 14pc and, more importantly, consistent for nearly five years.

The whiskey boom has sparked a €400m investment rush into whiskey distilleries around the country.

The biggest players by far are still the big four of Jameson, Bushmills, Powers and Tullamore Dew, but it's likely that there will be up to 15 other whiskey distilleries operational in Ireland within the next three years.

In some ways, this just puts Ireland back where it was supposed to be in the global whiskey stakes.

At the turn of the 1900s, Irish brands such as Powers, Bushmills and Lockes were by far the most popular whiskeys in key markets such as Britain and the US.

Irish output dwarfed that of Scotland, by a factor of 50 to one.

But a series of events hammered the sector that had employed thousands. Firstly, the Scots adopted the more efficient 'column still' method that allowed them to produce cheaper whiskey than their Irish competition. In this case, the Irish had no one to blame but themselves, given that they turned their noses up at the innovation, even though it was pioneered by Irishman Aneas Coffey.

The next blow was out of the Irish whiskey manufacturers' hands.

Prohibition in the US effectively killed whiskey sales in the US for 13 years until 1933.

By the time that ended, Dev's economic war with Britain was ravaging demand for whiskey in our other key market.

Most whiskey manufacturers went to the wall during this period, while a few held on by their fingertips. Old Midleton Distillery only produced for two weeks during the whole of 1930.

The Scots weren't long in picking up the slack and the legacy of that period is still evident today.

While Ireland might be gearing up as many as 16 distilleries to take advantage of the current boom, Scotland currently has 108 whisky manufacturers. Their €3.66bn of annual sales dwarfs our €568m.

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From an agri-sector point of view, these comparisons are significant.

While an estimated 60,000 tonnes of Irish barley are used in whiskey-making, the Scots use 620,000 tonnes.

"We're working on the basis that domestic barley demand will be double its current level by 2020," said Irish Spirits Association chairman Peter Morehead.

"Remember that a doubling of the grain requirement will also result in a doubling of the spent grains that will be available for animal feed," he added.

Indeed, Mr Morehead's bullish predictions that Irish whiskey production will quadruple by 2030 make the immediate projections look conservative.

However, Irish Malting Company CEO Dick Walsh is not so optimistic about a big uplift in the demand for barley from Irish farmers.

"If I had a fiver for every inquiry that I've taken from people looking to set up their own distillery and brewing company over the last few years, I'd be a very rich man," he said.

"The biggest problem is that there is a five-year lead-in, and most businesses don't have pockets deep enough to absorb that.

"Even if they do get going, they are only going to be doing 1,000 tonnes of malt a year. That's not going to make a big difference really," said Mr Walsh, who handles about 30,000 tonnes annually for both breweries and distilleries.

His competitor is Boortmalt, which handles approximately 95,000 tonnes of barley for Irish drinks manufacturers.

It also operates in Scotland, where demand is growing at half the rate of Irish manufacturers. "Our Scottish plants are completely flat out and we have seen a 20pc increase in the amount of malt that we are supplying to Irish whiskey distillers since we bought this business in 2010," admitted Boortmalt's deputy CEO David Wilkes.

"But we believe that diverting some capacity away from both the beer market and exports will allow us to cope with any of the forecasted growth without having to increase the capacity of our Athy plant."

However, the malting boss was upbeat about the role for Irish farmers in this business for the long term.

"While the rain patterns in Ireland don't always suit the growers, it does mean that Ireland is a very stable supplier of our key ingredient.

"That counts when we see droughts happening in lots of other regions that have been strong suppliers over the years. I think that local supply is also going to be key for the distillers' brands into the future," he said.

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