RAISING IRISH SPIRITS

PHOT0/JOHN MONTANA


It’s said that on one day of the year we’re all Irish. But these days, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t the only time things Irish are being celebrated. Celtic pride has spread as far and wide as the far-flung Irish themselves, often putting the country and its people in the news. Today, Ireland has the fastest-growing economy in the European Community. Its culture and music are becoming mainstream in countries around the world, and Irish pubs appear to be proliferating in major cities throughout Europe and North America. The Irish, in fact, saved civilization, according to historian Thomas Cahill.


It’s no wonder so many people claim ancestral ties to an O’Connell, O’Brien, Kelly or some other Irish clan come St. Patrick’s Day.


While Cahill claims that Irish monks rescued the world from interminable Dark Ages, some of the long-lasting contributions the Irish made to civilization include the inventions of whiskey and cream liqueurs.


WATER OF LIFE

In days before refrigeration, food often could be a little “off,” leading to an upset stomach. Alcohol, a natural antibiotic, served a useful purpose as a digestive aid. So, when 6th Century Irish monks first made grain alcohol with an alembic (a type of pot still originally used to make perfume by the Moors), the resulting beverage was called uisce beatha, or “water of life.”


Now, Irish whiskey is enjoyed on its own merits. Though volume is relatively small (with the category representing just 0.2% of total distilled spirits consumption in the U.S.), the category has seen steady growth nationally in the past decade despite a decline in brown goods sales overall. That growth (the top six Irish brands were up 6.5% nationally in 1998, according to Adams Liquor Handbook, and that growth continued in 1999) has encouraged distillers to introduce new products recently. Sales have also been positive in the control states, with the 12 months ending in September 1999 registering an increase of 10%.


The number of distilleries in Ireland fell from nearly 2,000 in the late 1700s to essentially two in the 1960s. Since 1966, most Irish whiskey brands have been produced either by the Middelton Distillery in the south or the Bushmills Distillery in the north. Independents, like Cooley, have sprung up in recent years to offer a number of new brands.


“Interest in whiskies is growing, and people’s knowledge and understanding of whiskey is growing,” said Larry Kass, group marketing manager at Heaven Hill. “We’re in a great discovery phase of Irish whiskey. They’ve been out-shouted for years by other whiskies.”


Indeed, Irish whiskey sales are growing not only because of interest in all things Irish, but also because of their accessibility, which makes them appealing to U.S. consumers.


Because of the way they’re made, Irish whiskies are considered to be much smoother than other types of whiskey. Irish whiskies are made from a combination of malted and unmalted barley. The malted barley is dried in closed kilns, unlike Scotch whisky which is made with malt dried over open peat fires, giving it its characteristically smoky taste. Most Irish whiskies also are distinguished by the fact that they’re triple-distilled in copper pot stills instead of twice or even once in the faster column still as other whiskies are.


Distillers and importers are playing up that smoothness to broaden their consumer base. “In the Irish whiskey category, there are two segments where the volume lies,” said David Dorsey, vice president and brand general manager of Scotch and Irish whiskies at Brown-Forman. “One consists of older, middle income, college-educated men of Irish decent. They account for 60% of the volume and they’re very loyal to brands. We don’t want to offend them, but to get to newer drinkers who may include Irish whiskey in their portfolio, we need to send a lifestyle message.”


Bushmills is capitalizing on the opportunity by tying the brand to another product younger consumers have popularized — coffee. This winter, the brand is twisting the Irish coffee concept with materials that support the theme “Not your average Joe.” In the summer the theme will change to “Cooler than your average Joe.” The brand expects the program to tie in with a major coffee company.


The brand also is pushing recipes for drinks like the “Bushfire” shot in on-premise accounts to raise awareness and help drive off-premise sales. Also in the works is a new ad campaign that will likely break in May.


Jameson, too, is trying to break out of the mold. “The category has traditionally focused on its Irish heritage,” said Jeff Agdern, Jameson brand manager at Austin, Nichols. “Consumers in the U.S. have not been exposed to the tremendous quality of Irish whiskies. The new outlook on Jameson is to position it as a premium spirit, not just an Irish whiskey versus Scotch whisky.


Jameson isn’t abandoning its Irish heritage, but sales promotion and public relations programs will be refocused along the theme of the new ad campaign, “What’s the rush?” Brand displays leading up to St. Patrick’s Day will encourage consumers to celebrate at their own pace. A mail-in offer lets consumer send away for a home party kit that includes T-shirts, hats, inflatables, buttons, drink recipes, games and songs.


Beyond St. Patrick’s Day, Jameson will focus on getting consumers to enjoy life. Off-premise accounts will be supported with a sweepstakes that offers consumer a chance to win “the world’s most unrushed vacation.” On-premise accounts in key markets will get visits from massage teams to encourage people to meet with friends and relax after work instead of fighting rush hour traffic.


Tullamore Dew also is looking to markets with large numbers of target demographics, 30-year-old males familiar with whiskies. “It’s a big opportunity for us to increase distribution,” said Liam MacHale, brand manager at Allied-Domecq. “We’re not going back to our older consumers. They already know the brand.” New print ads incorporate features of Ireland, like one that shows a rugby player, but focus on brand attributes with the tag “tough country, smooth whiskey.”


Smaller Irish whiskey brands are leveraging consumer interest in high-end spirits and unique products such as single malt Scotch, single barrel bourbon and 100% agave tequila.


Heaven Hill, one of the few independent U.S. distillers, likes to tout the fact that the two Irish whiskies it imports — The Tyrconnell and Kilbeggan’s — are produced by Cooley, an independent distiller in Ireland.


The Tyrconnell also has the distinction of being a pure pot still single malt whiskey. Heaven Hill is positioning it as a step up from traditional Irish whiskies and an alternative to single malt Scotch. Kilbeggan, a moderately priced, light blended Irish whiskey, has found its strength in non-traditional markets such as Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. Both brands will have retail p-o-s support for St. Patrick’s Day.


The big distillers also hopped on the specialty product bandwagon several years ago. Bushmills Single Malt has grown to about 8,000 cases annually. Jameson introduced Jameson Gold last year, a blend of 8-to-20-year-old whiskies seasoned in sherry casks. It’s positioned between Jameson 1780 and the high-end Middleton Rare. This year, Jameson is promoting a limited edition 15-year-old pure pot still “Millennium” whiskey in numbered bottles.


Other specialty brands include Cooley Distillery’s Connemara, a peat-smoked single malt; Knappogue, a single-malt, single-cask whiskey; Bunratty an Irish poitin (also spelled ‘poteen,’ pronounced po-cheen), which is a fiery home-brewed style Irish whiskey; and coming in February, Clontarf.


Distilled and marketed by the team of former R&A Bailey execs who launched Boru Vodka, Clontarf will be available in three versions — classic blend, deluxe blend and single malt.


CREME DE LA CREME

Almost as Irish as whiskey, though a relatively new category, Irish creams have become a real tradition during the holidays and are now starting to make inroads as a more all-occasion cordial.


For the most part, as Baileys goes so goes the category. With 54% of the Irish cream category, Baileys tends to influence not only sales of creams in general, but other liqueurs such as Kahl

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