MORE than a million tourists visited Ireland's distilleries last year, a record high, despite an unexpectedly sharp decline in US visits.
The number of distilleries across the island of Ireland with visitor centres has grown over the past year to 17 from 13.
At least two more - the Hinch Distillery near Belfast and The Shed in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim - are due to open this year. Several others have yet to open visitor centres.
The Irish Whiskey Association said the number of people who visited distilleries last year rose 10.5pc to 1.02 million.
This chiefly reflects growth in the choice and geographic spread of such attractions.
Four more distilleries opened visitor centres last year, including two in the capital: Dublin Liberties and Roe & Co; the Clonakilty in Co Cork; and the Powerscourt in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow.
While Americans and Canadians continued to account for most visitors - more than a third of the total - their numbers fell by 8pc from 2018, reflecting a decline in American tourist arrivals in the second half of 2019. "Recognising the disappointing fall-off in visitors from North America, we will be seeking to prioritise our promotional activities in the US and Canada, working closely with our state tourism agencies," said William Lavelle, head of the Irish Whiskey Association at Drinks Ireland.
"We will also continue to keep a close eye on the impact of Brexit on tourism figures," he said, noting that visitors from Britain to Irish distilleries fell by 2pc last year. While visitors from Ireland's traditional two core tourism markets declined, whiskey proved a magnet for a wider range of nationalities.
One in 10 distillery visitors last year came from Germany, while visits from France, and the Benelux and Nordic nations all grew.
Jameson's Bow Street visitor centre in Dublin remains by far the top attraction among distillers, attracting more than one in three visitors - many of whom pair that tour with a trip across the Liffey to visit the Guinness Storehouse, Ireland's perennial top attraction.
Near to Guinness is a growing cluster of boutique Liberties distillers, including the Teeling and Pearse Lyons distilleries, which opened in 2015 and 2017 respectively.