Irish whiskey is still high-proof strong after so many years of double-digit growth. More than riding on the coattails of American’s infatuation with whiskey, Irish is enlarging the demographic, bringing new consumers into the fold with its easy drinkability and mixability and now intriguing geeks with more nuanced and complex expressions of the Irish spirit. With sales and acquisitions, premiumization, building and expanding distilleries and setting up educational centers, the category is evolving, maturing and planning for long term.
“Irish whiskey is selling so crazy over the past couple of months that we are out of some labels — can’t get them anymore,” says Edward Mulvihill, Director of Sales and Marketing at Peco’s Liquors in Wilmington, DE. He cites Jameson 12- and 18-Year-Old as examples of high consumer demand, as well as the highly allocated Jameson Black Barrel. “That’s selling like crazy,” he says. His customers are also excited about the return of the Paddy and Powers brands to the Delaware market.
“Whiskey is contributing almost all of the value growth of the total spirits category, and Irish is also showing the biggest growth rate within the whiskey category,” points out Sona Bajaria, Irish Whiskey Brand Director at Pernod Ricard. The company’s Irish portfolio includes category leader Jameson, as well as Redbreast, Powers, Midleton and Paddy. New to the U.S. market are two single pot still expressions — Redbreast 21-Year-Old, the oldest variant from this label, joining Redbreast 12- and 15-year, as well as the rare, small-batch Green Spot. The company is also distributing Jameson’s Select Reserve Black Barrel nationally.
“Irish is moving very well in our store,” says Mark Fetter, General Manager at Argonaut Wine & Liquor in Denver. Although Jameson is still the number-one seller, the high-end whiskeys such as Redbreast and Midleton are also moving well. “We don’t promote Irish whiskey much, but we still sell the heck out it.”
From the Newsroom
Major news broke in the category in late 2014, when Diageo reached an agreement to sell Bushmills to Jose Cuervo Overseas, with a net payment of $408 million to Diageo. The deal is part of a swap with Casa Cuervo, giving Diageo full global ownership and control of Tequila Don Julio, — including early termination of Cuervo’s production and distribution agreement of vodka brand Smirnoff in Mexico. Bushmills is the number-two player in the U.S. market, with 8000,000 cases sold in the year ending June 2014 and net sales of £75 million. What the ramifications of the change in ownership will be and how it will impact the Irish whiskey category remains to be seen.
A new player with a long pedigree is Irish Mist. Campari America’s whiskey-based honey liqueur of the same name spun off a straight whiskey brand. Irish Mist Whiskey was launched in select markets in 2014, with an SRP of $28.99. The whiskey is a blend of four-year-old liquids that have been triple-distilled and aged in American oak casks.
Irish has had an uptick in sales, reports Joe Fisher, Spirits Specialist at Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, MA. “It’s still not a barn-burner, competing with Scotch, Bourbon or American whiskeys in general. But it definitely has had an increase.” Tullamore Dew is selling well, as is a new product, a Poitin (or white Irish whiskey), from newcomer Glendalough. What’s held Irish whiskey back in the past, posits the retailer, was that only a few distilleries were putting out the various brands, with only limited promotional support. That’s starting to change.
In Ireland, a number of companies are breaking peat on construction of new distilleries. Depending upon whom you talk to, a baker’s dozen or more projects are planned over the next couple of years.
“Our biggest news is the grand opening of our new distillery, which opened in September and brought Tullamore Dew back home to the town of Tullamore in Ireland,” says Category Marketing Director Lisa Pfenning. Parent company William Grant & Sons invested over $15 million in the facility; initial capacity will be 1.5 million cases per anum, with scope to increase that significantly over time. The distillery, says Pfenning, “is a testament to being a family-owned company, which invests in its brands for long term.” The grand opening was commemorated with a special bottling of Phoenix whiskey, a small batch of just 2,014 bottles. The new plant is currently distilling pot still and malt liquids, and expansion is in mind to eventually distill grain whiskey, according to Pfenning. Tullamore Dew will be releasing some new expressions in 2015, she adds.
For its part, Irish Distillers recently finished an expansion of its facilities at the Midleton distillery. “The expansion was the biggest in our history,” Bajaria says. The company is also planning to improve its bottling plant at Fox & Geese.
Breaking ground on a new distillery in Dublin is The Teeling Whiskey Company. The company was founded by Jack Teeling in 2012; his family has a heritage in the whiskey business dating back to 1782. Late last year, the company introduced its third release, Teeling Single Malt, which bottles whiskeys aged up to 23 years and matured in Sherry, Port, Madeira, white Burgundy and Cabernet wine casks. “Our new Teeling Single Malt proves Irish whiskey can have big, bold flavors that appeal to single malt drinkers without losing its distinctive Irish identity,” says Jack Teeling of the premium release.
“The rise of new and proposed distilleries speaks to the demand for Irish globally as it continues to make its place within the whiskey segment,” says Mara Melamed, Senior Brand Manager for Whiskey at Beam Suntory. “We are the Beam Suntory family now, and that’s been great for us.”
The diverse Irish portfolio will benefit from Suntory’s global influence and distribution channels. The 2 Gingers is the fastest-growing Irish whiskey, says the brand manager; from its Minnesota pub origins, the brand went national in 2014. Kilbeggan is benefiting from the Best Kept Secret in Whiskey campaign and a signature cocktail, the Irish Boxer, which leverages the growing cider category. Kilbeggan grew 43% in dollar value and 40% in volume, according to Beam Suntory.
“We carry every label we can because Irish whiskey is growing in Texas like it is in the rest of the country,” notes Jim Detmore, Liquor Buyer at Spec’s Wine, Spirits, Finer Foods, a Houston-based retailer with over 150 locations. About 70% of that business is currently from Jameson. However, Detmore thinks that with the proliferation of new expressions, especially the pot still whiskeys, it will win over more single malt drinkers. “As Scotch prices continue to skyrocket, some consumers will switch over to Irish whiskey,” he predicts.
Broadening Irish Appeal
Some observers believe that the Irish category is widening its range of expressions and variants to suit more palates and fit more drinking occasions. Consumers delve into the category via straight-forward, easy-drinking whiskeys then geek out on the more sophisticated offerings. And mixologists and home bartenders are shaking up the spirit in more cocktails.
“Irish whiskey is sweet and smooth, with easy drinkability that invites the adventurous to explore the category,” says Pfenning at Tullamore Dew. “And the complexity of a brown spirit keeps them intrigued.” The brand’s marketing focus remains on its biggest segment—men in the 21-30 age range. “However, a lot of women becoming interested in brown spirits and Irish in particular,” Pfenning says.
“At Julio’s Liquors, we are seeing two different customers. The first consumer is buying Jameson, but doesn’t know much about Irish,” Fisher says. “Then there is the consumer who knows whiskey, who is searching out the other expressions. The Bushmills, John Lane, Redbreast, Green Spot, and Tryconnell. They’re real fans of whiskey.”
Beam Suntory’s portfolio is diverse with a number of Irish brands and many options to appeal to consumers, Melamed points out. The range includes the single malt Tryconnell, the peated Connermara with smokiness similar to Scotch, and single-grain Greenore, with a corn flavor profile that may appeal to Bourbon drinkers.
As for 2 Gingers, “we call it the ‘Converter,’” Melamed says, because it converts newcomers to the Irish whiskey category. “It’s also genderless, because both men and women drink it,” she adds, “and because you can drink it year round, we call it ‘season-less.’” Marketing efforts are built around a core drink strategy, with the Big Ginger and the Skinny Ginger cocktails, which consumers at sampling programs find more approachable than straight whiskey.
“Redbreast, Powers, Midleton are Green Spot are single pot still whiskeys, which is exploding and is positioning itself long term with the premiumization of the Irish whiskey category,” explains Bajaria at Pernod Ricard. Consumers may start with Jameson, then trade up or trade over to other whiskeys in the portfolio. “Redbreast has gained a cult following. You will see more innovation in this area from us. Whiskeys like that lend expertise to the category and appeal to the discerning whiskey drinker.”
Other Avenues to Try
Some consumers are led to the Irish category by the novel or the sweet. Poitin, an un-aged spirit (a white whiskey if you will), has been notorious as Irish moonshine for centuries and now a few, more refined examples are breaching our shores. Flavored expressions, a blazing fireball in the overall whiskey category especially among young legal-age drinkers, has only a few adherents in Irish—so far.
“Poitin is a novelty, but it received a much better than expected turnout when I featured it on a Whiskey Wednesday,” marvels Fisher at Julio’s Liquors. “Most people don’t know what it is.” Part of the success of that promotion, which featured Glendalough Poitin, was that the brand rep not only showed how sippable the white whiskey was, but offered easy-to-make cocktails.
At Peco’s Liquors, Mulvihill is hesitant to take a chance on poitin because sales of domestic white whiskeys weren’t as strong as anticipated. “White whiskey is a departure from what most drinkers like about whiskey – the color, caramel, vanilla and spice notes you get from wood,” he says.
Bushmills was one of the pioneers in Irish flavored whiskeys with the release of Bushmills Irish Honey in 2012. Now Pernod Ricard has joined the fray with Paddy Devil’s Apple and Paddy Bee Sting. “The flavored whiskey category is growing significantly, which appeals to both new and existing consumers, probably in the early stages of their whiskey journey,” Bajaria says. “The young consumer that’s into flavored whiskeys is always looking for something new and different, and finding a way to appeal to them remains at the top of our list.” She also hinted that Paddy may add another flavor in the near future.
Argonaut’s Fetter demurs on the subject of flavored Irish whiskey. “Other than Fireball and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, flavored whiskeys are not making much of a dent in our market,” he says.
Looking Toward the Future
With no slackening interest in Irish whiskey and investment in capacities to meet that demand, the category seems set for a bright future.
Mulvihill is taking a wait and see attitude. “The demand is there for good quality whiskey, I just hope we don’t see a lessening of quality to meet that demand,” he says, adding, “Part of the interest for aficionados is hunting for those rare and allocated whiskeys.”
Pernod Ricard is doing its part to maintain high standards. The company has established an Irish Whiskey Academy at its Midleton distillery, offering half- and two-day courses to enthusiasts, Pernod Ricard employees, commercial partners, the media, bartenders and retailers. “We have an open-door policy at Midleton, where we work closely with these new distilleries and their distillers to ensure that the best whiskey is produced in Ireland,” Melamed says. “We think that protecting and maintaining the quality of Irish whiskey will help maintain the category as a whole.”
Fisher adds, “I think it is important for people who are buying Bourbon and Scotch not to forget about Ireland. For Scotch fans there are some great Irish single malts on the market and single grain expressions for the Bourbon drinkers. And there will be still more interesting Irish whiskeys when those new distilleries come on line.”
Cream of the Crop
The Irish creams category has much in common with the Irish whiskey segment, and yet they differ greatly. Most creams have a base of Irish whiskey; they share that commonality. But, while the whiskey has been booming in the double-digits, the creams category has a more modest yet respectable growth rate of 2.3% among the top 10 leading brands, according to The Beverage Information & Insights Group. The demographic for whiskey is predominately young males; the audience for creams is mostly female. And both categories have one brand dominating.
“In Irish creams, Baileys is still dominating that hand over fist,” says Joe Fisher, Spirits Specialist at Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, Mass. Other brands the retailer carries include Brady’s, Carolans, and St. Brendan’s. “Baileys I sell year-round; the other Irish cream brands do better in the winter,” Fisher says. “They fly off the shelves during the holidays.”
“Baileys is the number-one selling liqueur in the world and ranked seventh among all distilled spirits sold worldwide, enjoying a 70% share of the total Irish cream liqueur market around the world,” says Stephanie Jacoby, Diegeo’s Director of Liqueurs. The big news for the brand is the release late last year of the new flavor Baileys Cherry Chocolate. The modern update on the classic Irish Cream blends the flavors of luscious chocolate and ripe cherries for a new Baileys taste experience, Jacoby says.
“Cream liqueurs take up about as much shelf space as the Irish whiskeys,” notes Mark Fetter, General Manager at Argonaut Wine & Liquor in Denver. He too says that the biggest-selling Irish cream is still Baileys, but adds that Carolans and St. Brendan’s also sell very well. “It’s a viable category that’s doing pretty well for us.”
Imperial Brands is a newcomer to the creams arena. The company has partnered with the Irish dairy Kerrygold. The liqueur blends aged Irish whiskey, natural Irish cream and chocolate with an SRP of $19.99 for 750ml.
Also new, not a cream but rather an Irish liqueur, is a line of Kennedy Irish Whiskey Infusions from M.S. Walker. Crafted in West Cork, Ireland, a select blend of malts is steeped with various botanicals. Initial varieties include Original, Limed, Honeyed, Spiced and Chillied. Suggested retail is $22 for 750ml.
“Sales of creams and liqueurs generally pick up during the holidays,” says Edward Mulvihill, Director of Sales and Marketing at Peco’s Liquors in Wilmington, Del. “Baileys is our flagship; but we carry a number of other brands like Brady’s, Carolans and Irish Manor.”
“Baileys has always been a brand with strong female connection,” Jacoby says. The brand’s promotions are targeted at that demographic, including the ongoing “Cream with Spirit” campaign, expanded with a new holiday season TV and video spot called “Here’s To Us,” which invites women to come together and raise a toast. To encourage experimentation beyond sipping on the rocks, Baileys has designed a collection of what it calls “stylish shots,” pairing the cream with a base spirit and fun garnish.”
At Argonaut, “we see just as many men buying the Irish creams as women,” Fetter says He also notes that many people enjoy a shot of Irish cream with their coffee.
“Irish creams are more geared toward females, and Irish whiskey is geared more toward young males,” observes Jim Detmore, Liquor buyer for Spec’s Wine, Spirits, Finer Foods, a Houston-based retailer with over 150 locations. He attributes this phenomenon largely to the targeted advertising campaigns of these two segments. “Creams sell pretty well all year long,” Detmore says. “But I don’t see an explosion in sales with creams like I do in Irish whiskey.”