Clonakilty Distillery head distiller Paul Corbett.
This St Patrick’s Day, Irish whiskey distillers across the Emerald Isle will toast to another year of exceptional sales growth, as they profit from what has been described as a “global renaissance” of their spirit.
Boosted by the trend towards premiumisation, Irish whiskey became a $1 billion business in the US in 2018, according to figures from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
The positive figures have led to a surge in investment in the industry in recent years. In 2013, there were just four Irish whiskey distilleries; this year has already seen the Dublin Liberties and Clonakilty Distillery become the 22nd and 23rd respectively – and at least six more are due to open before the year is out.
Dublin Liberties, which is majority-owned by UK-based Quintessential Brands, opened its €10 million facility last month.
The distillery is said to combine traditional distillation practices with the latest in modern technologies, and features a natural spring water source on site, which is used in the distilling process. On the heels of the inauguration, the team has released three new single malt expressions: Murder Lane, Keeper’s Coin and King of Hell.
“Dublin Liberties Distillery is set to push the boundaries of Irish whiskey through quality innovation,” said Quintessential Brands global marketing director Sinead O’Frighil. “This will be achieved by being highly explorative with our finishes and blends for example, providing consumers with something they haven’t seen before from the Irish whiskey category.”
The business aims to meet the demands of consumers who want to move up from entry level in whiskey and explore what else is on offer. And thanks to its smooth and easy-to-drink characteristics, Irish whiskey is fast becoming the tipple of choice among many drinkers in their 20s.
The Dublin Liberties recently released three new single malt expressions: Murder Lane, Keeper’s Coin and King of Hell.
“Younger consumers like to explore and experiment, and some of the new innovations in whiskey, including ‘flavoured’ whiskies, are driving accessibility and democratisation of the sector,” added O’Frighil.
“Historically, the whiskey sector was represented by a few large players, who established Irish whiskey’s reputation, but as consumers look to something new and different within Irish whiskey, new opportunities evolve for emerging quality brands on the scene to win consumers’ favour.”
Growth in whiskey innovation
Irish whiskey sales exceeded 10.5 million 12-bottle cases last year – the first time the category has broken the 10-million-case barrier since before prohibition in the US in the 1920s.
While the US dominates exports, volume growth has also been strong in Germany, Canada, Russia and Australia.
For Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) head William Lavelle, the “global renaissance”, as he calls it, of the industry is thanks to the “exceptional” craftsmanship and product innovation of distilleries.
“We are seeing significant innovation in the use of different casks to finish Irish whiskeys,” he said. “This is giving consumers a rich variety of unique Irish whiskey products, which is driving interest in the category and boosting sales.”
He added: “In additional to oak, casks made of timbers such as chestnut and acacia are being used. Casks previously used for wine, beer, rum, cider are being increasingly used, in addition to the traditional ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks.”
County Cork-based Clonakilty Distillery, which inaugurated its new facility last week, uses ex-port, Bordeaux and cognac casks. Its Single Grain whiskey expression features a nine-year-old grain finished in Bordeaux casks, which is said to give flavours of strawberries, honey and wood spice.
Clonakilty distillers slowly cut whiskey from cask strength to bottling strength over two weeks – a gradual reduction that leads to a smoother finish.
Clonakilty Distillery inaugurated its new facility in County Cork last week.
Alongside distilling innovation, Michael Scully, founder and CEO of Clonakilty Distillery, draws attention to the business’s maritime location and commitment to heritage.
“We are a family-run maritime distillery, growing our own barley on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean on the south coast of Ireland and maturing our whiskey in our own warehouse on a cliff edge 200 feet above sea level,” he said.
After opening its visitor experience, Clonakilty is now looking to take advantage of the surge in tourist numbers to distilleries across the island.
In 2018, 923,000 people visited Irish whiskey distilleries – a 13% increase on the year before. The IWA said the figures show that the industry is “well on track” to reach target visitor numbers of 1.9 million by 2025.
Despite the positive figures and impressive growth, whiskey makers may be up against fresh challenges depending on the outcome of Brexit. The Irish whiskey industry currently operates with seamless cross-border supply chains and an all-island geographical indication. But the IWA has warned that a disorderly Brexit could result in a two-tier industry with different trading realities for distilleries north and south.
Meanwhile, there are also concerns surrounding a reduction of the value of the pound as a result of Brexit, leading to a decrease in tourist numbers from the UK and Northern Ireland.
To overcome a potential drop in visitors, Clonakilty has made its whiskeys available for home delivery in the UK and the US, and Michael Scully remains upbeat about the year ahead.
“We already directly sell our whiskeys in the US market in New York, Florida, New Hampshire, Washington DC and Maryland, as well as Ireland, Germany and Italy,” he said.
“Over the next 12 months, we would expect to consolidate these markets, sign up distributors in most European countries and double our presence in the US. It’s going to be an exciting journey.”
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2019