When it comes to Irish beverages, the ayes have it.
By Michael Sherer
Ah, January. The winter doldrums. The busy holiday season is over and all we have to look forward to is the Super Bowl (if you’re a football fan), Valentine’s Day (if you’re a romantic) and St. Patrick’s Day (if you’re Irish).
It’s said that everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. Could be that people are angling to wear those “Kiss me, I’m Irish” buttons. Or more likely, it could be that people just want a taste of one of the extraordinary spirits that hail from the Emerald Isle. The fact is you don’t have to be Irish to enjoy Ireland’s bounty.
Ireland may be small, but like most countries it’s known for many things, Irish whiskey, Irish cream and stout among them. Guinness and Baileys, for example, are two of the most widely recognized and biggest brands in the world. Irish whiskeys such as Jameson are gaining back the respect and awareness they once had.
Jameson is re-introducing 1780 as Jameson 12-Year-Old.
Many people’s perception of Ireland is that of a quaint land of leprechauns and shamrocks. The real Ireland, however, has become tremendously popular. Ireland has had one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe for several years, and it is now a hot vacation spot for people from around the world.
“About 50% of the Irish population is under 25,” said Jeff Agdern, group director for Irish and single malt whiskey at Pernod-Ricard USA. “Unlike previous generations, they’re staying in Ireland and creating a cool pop culture there.”
Those who do emigrate are taking Ireland’s culture, both old and new, to other countries.
“All things Irish continue to be hot,” said Larry Kass, director of communications for Heaven Hill Distilleries. “It’s an international trend. I think there are more Irish pubs in Italy than in Ireland.”
When discovering Irish culture, of course, more and more consumers are experiencing spirits that are a part of that heritage.
Whiskey, in fact, has its roots in Irish culture. Anyone who appreciates a sip of good bourbon, Scotch, rye or Canadian whisky owes a debt of gratitude to the Irish monks who first distilled “uisce beatha” in the middle ages. Ireland is still home to the world’s oldest licensed distillery.
Though the island nation once boasted more than 2,000 distilleries, Ireland’s distilling industry almost disappeared entirely at one point. The combination of a British trade embargo and Prohibition in the U.S. put most Irish whiskey distillers out of business. When Americans developed a taste for imported whiskey, it was for the Scotch that U.S. servicemen drank while stationed in England during WW II.
Now, however, Irish whiskey is growing faster than any other whiskey style. The category, though the smallest among all whiskies, grew more than 11% nationwide in 2001, according to Adams Liquor Handbook 2002. In the control states, the category gained 6.7% for the last 12 months ending August 30, 2002. As awareness grows, it’s poised for continued growth.
“Consumers are recognizing that Irish whiskey is a premium product,” said Alan Lewis, senior vice president of sales and marketing at C&C International (the company that owns Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey, Irish Mist and Carolans Original Irish Cream; the brands are imported, distributed and marketed in the U.S. by Allied Domecq). “It had a bad reputation as a harsh, hard-to-drink whiskey. Consumers are now learning that it’s even smoother than Scotch because it’s triple-distilled.”
This month, Bushmills is releasing a new 21-year-old single malt, finished in Madeira casks.
Triple distillation is just one reason many consider Irish whiskey more approachable than other styles. Most Irish whiskey is made with barley that is dried in kilns instead of over open peat fires, making it less smoky than Scotch or bourbon, too, which is aged in charred oak barrels (though many Irish whiskies are finished in bourbon barrels). And most Irish whiskies are blends, giving a master distiller the ability to create a particular taste profile. That approachability is one of the reasons Irish whiskey is gaining ground.
“For the last five to seven years a lot of people gravitated toward white spirits,” Agdern said, “but there’s been renewed interest in the past few years in whiskey brands, cocktails like Manhattans, bourbons, single malts, deluxe blends and Irish. Jameson, and Irish whiskey in general because of its taste profile, is very attractive to younger drinkers coming from white spirits. It’s an easy switch.”
Popularity of Irish culture and the growth of Irish pubs here in the ’90s helped raise awareness of Irish whiskey.
“The Irish pub concept is like the Mexican restaurant concept in the ’80s. They’re not chain-owned, so it’s easy to talk to owners,” said Joe Chrastina, brand manager for Tullamore Dew at Allied-Domecq.
Irish whiskey’s appeal to younger drinkers, however, is moving it out of Irish pubs and into the mainstream.
“There was a huge proliferation of Irish pubs in the ’90s,” Agdern agreed, “but we’ve gone beyond that. We’re on the first steps of what could be a lot of growth for Irish whiskey. It’s more mainstream now, not just something that sells during the holidays and on St. Patrick’s Day.”
New Irish Expressions
One indication of the interest in Irish whiskey is the number of new expressions that have hit the market recently. Like distillers of small batch bourbons and single malt Scotch, Irish distillers are experimenting with their products and beginning to introduce new products.
Tullamore Dew continues to try to draw more attention to the brand.
Some of these are products that have been around for some time but simply haven’t been available here. Red Breast, a well-known brand in Ireland, was introduced here in 2001 by Pernod Ricard. Only 400 cases were available. This past year, volume was double that, and is expected to rise again this year.
Tullamore Dew launched a 12-year old product a few years ago, which has won awards for best Irish whiskey in the International Spirits Challenge (1999 and 2000) and the International Wine & Spirits Competition (2001).
Bushmills, which already has 10-year-old and 16-year-old single malts, is bringing out a 21-year-old single malt finished in Madeira casks. Available in February in limited quantities, the rare whiskey is aged first in bourbon casks and then sherry butts before being finished.
Jameson has built a new facility at its Midleton distillery in part to experiment with new products. Several are in the pipeline already.
Connemara, from Preiss Imports, is another Irish whisky that’s been on the market for several years with pot still and cask strength versions. Knappogue Castle, from Great Spirits, and Clontarf, from Harbor Industries, are other examples of the different expressions beginning to come out of Irish distilleries.
The category driver, though, is still Jameson. The brand will continue its high-profile “Rush Hour” advertising campaign to open up Irish whiskey to a wider audience. For St. Patrick’s Day, Jameson is producing a party mix CD featuring all Irish bands like the Cranberries.
LEADING BRANDS OF IRISH WHISKEY
IN THE CONTROL STATES
Jameson (includes 1780)
Pernod Ricard USA
Pernod Ricard USA
Allied Domecq Spirits, USA
Pernod Ricard USA
Pernod Ricard USA
Pernod Ricard USA
Total Leading Brands in the Control States
Total Irish in the Control States
(*) Last 12 months data ending 8/30.
Source: Adams Beverage Group Database from NABCA data.
Jameson is leveraging music in other ways, too. The brand is working with top radio stations in markets like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to co-sponsor the “Jameson Jam” concert series. Radio listeners have the chance to win free tickets to concerts featuring local bands in small, intimate venues. The shows offer good sampling opportunities.
In addition, Jameson is re-introducing 1780 as Jameson 12-Year-Old to highlight the brand’s aging.