Why Irish whiskey has Scotch running scared

It’s a very happy St Patrick’s Day for the Irish Whiskey industry in 2022 as sales soar around the world.

Irish whiskey has been experiencing exponential growth in recent years. Global sales broke the 13 million case barrier in 2021 for the first time ever – that’s 150% growth over the past decade. Sales rose to a record $1.3 billion in the US according new figures published by the Distilled Spirits Council, which said the spirit was the third-fasting-growing category by revenue last year behind premixed cocktails and tequila/mezcal.

In fact, the increase in Irish whiskey sales in the US last year was greater than the cumulative growth experienced by Scotch over the past 10 years. It’s predicted Irish whiskey will overtake Scotch in the US by 2030.

What makes those numbers even more remarkable is that there were only four distilleries operating in Ireland in 2010. Now there are 40, with more being built, some with visitors’ centres.

Australia’s Irish whiskey sales boom

Ireland also has set its sights on Australia as a key market in its battle for supremacy.

In 2020, Australia was the No.10 biggest export market for Irish whiskey – we sipped more than 247,000 cases of the spirit. While 2021 was a difficult year for exports to Australia, the category is expected to return to growth in 2022 as lockdowns end and tourism resumes.

“From 2016-2020, sales of Irish whiskey in Australia more than doubled to three million bottles [250,000 cases],” Head of the Irish Whiskey Association, William Lavelle, told Drinks Digest.

“It was the fastest growing of the four largest international whiskey categories on sale in Australia and we expect it will continue to be fastest growing category for the next number of years.

According to Endeavour Group, its customers shopping for Irish whiskey are really looking to the higher quality products and are starting to shop pot still and single malt from Ireland.

“The good news is that the number of brands and expressions available on Australian shelves is expanding rapidly – including in the premium and super-premium price segments – meaning Australian consumers have more opportunities than ever to discover the depth and diversity of Irish whiskey,” Lavelle said.

The increased supply of age-statement Irish whiskeys is being led by Bushmills Single Malts and Redbreast Single Pot Still.

Colum Egan, Master Distiller at Bushmills Distillery said: “Bushmills Single Malt is at the heart of everything we do. In 2021, we saw strong momentum for our core aged range, with sales growth far in excess of the global single malt category trend. The success of our second wave of Causeway Collection single malt, limited edition, prestige releases is a clear testament to consumers’ passion for Bushmills worldwide.”

Billy Leighton, Master Blender at Irish Distillers, said: “The Irish saying ‘an rud is annamh is iontach’ means that ‘the thing that’s seldom is wonderful’ and this is particularly true in the context of Irish whiskey, presenting a real opportunity for the industry as premiumisation continues to gather pace. More and more consumers are continuing to show their appreciation for our single pot still portfolio, led by Redbreast, the world’s most awarded single pot still whiskey, which had record volume growth in the first half of fiscal year 21 (+19%). We are confident that the quality and variety of our broader portfolio, coupled with the shift in consumer appetite towards more premium and super-premium Irish whiskeys, will continue to support growth around the world.”

St Paddy’s taste test: Sipping five of Bushmills’ best

Scotch versus Irish

So, what’s the difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, apart from an “e”?

Irish whiskey is generally regarded as having a mellower taste than Scotch whiskey, which comes down to the ingredients and production methods used.

Scotch comprises malted barley and water, while Irish whiskey is generally made from a yeast-fermented mash of malted cereals (corn, wheat, barley). Both spirits have distinct distillation processes. Irish whiskey is typically distilled three times, while Scotch is distilled twice.

This extra step results in a lighter drink with a smoother finish that makes it more versatile and means it is less likely to overpower the flavour of cocktails.

Speaking of cocktails, an Irish bartender favourite is the Tipperary (above), featuring Irish whiskey, green Chartreuse, sweet vermouth and Angostura Bitters.

4 Irish whiskey cocktails for St Patrick’s Day

The Irish revival

During the 19th century, Irish whiskey accounted for around 60% of total global consumption. Between 1823 and 1900, the output quadrupled as more than 1000 Irish distilleries shipped their products around the globe.

But in the 1920s, Prohibition in the United States and domestic conflicts that led to the end of British rule in Ireland in 1921, saw the spirit lose its two biggest customers, the US and the Commonwealth.

By the 1960s there were only a few distilleries left in Ireland and they amalgamated in 1966 under a parent company called Irish Distillers. At that point, Ireland produced less than half a million cases per year, compared to 12 million cases in 1900.

“We went from a situation where in the late 19th century, there were well over 100 distilleries around Ireland — 200 years later, there were only two distilleries left,” said Lavelle. “The industry was really on its knees.”

Pernod Ricard turned the category around in 1988, when it bought out Irish Distillers and kickstarted a new era for the spirit, leading to a turnaround in worldwide sales. Leading the charge for Pernod Ricard is Jameson, which has seen three decades consecutive years of growth and is the biggest selling Irish whiskey brand in the world. A record 5.8 million cases of Jameson were sold in the six months to December 2021, representing a 22% increase on the corresponding period in 2020, and the highest ever first-half-year volume of sales for the brand.

Many major drinks companies have taken a stake in the spirit in recent years and many craft distilleries are on the rise.

Brown-Forman opened Slane north of Dublin in 2017. It was the first distillery the American whiskey giant had built outside of the United States.

Diageo has also grabbed a piece of the pie, after exiting the market in 2014. The company sold its Irish whiskey brand Bushmills in 2014 as part of a deal to acquire Mexican tequila brand Don Julio. However, it re-entered the market in 2019 with Roe & Coe.

Bacardi also made its first foray into the category around the same time with the purchase of a minority stake in The Teeling Whiskey Company for an undisclosed sum.

Meanwhile, Beam Suntory owns Kilbeggan Distillery, the oldest licensed distillery in Ireland. Originally founded in 1757, it closed in 1954, but whiskey production recommenced in 2007.

Discover Irish Whiskey

In 2021, the Irish Whiskey Association launched the Discover Irish Whiskey campaign, featuring a range of member-developed online content aimed at highlighting the depth and diversity of the spirit, together with cocktail recipes and tips on food pairings.

Drinks Digest attended a virtual tasting as part of the Discover Irish Whiskey initiative last week, in the lead up to St Patrick’s Day on March 17.

It featured a welcome by William Lavelle, Director of the Irish Whiskey Association and Rosie Keane, the Irish Consul-General to Sydney. together with brand ambassadors and brand managers from Tullamore DEW, The Whistler, The Dubliner and Slane.

It was fascinating to hear more about their brands and the passion behind them. Tullamore’s Kevin Pigott noted that it filled his heart with national pride to walk into bars and see Irish whiskies on the shelf. He also said there was a shared spirit of cameraderie between distilleries.

“We’re not competitors, we’re colleagues,” he explained. “Everyone is rising with the tide – it’s very much about growing Irish whiskey together. It’s predicted we will overtake Scotch in 2030 – we all want that crown back!”


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