The Irish Whiskey Boom

A WFB special investigation

Irish whiskey

Credit: Rey Lopez


This could be the busiest week of the year for Anne Anderson. As Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, Anderson met with President Trump at the White House just yesterday. Then it was off to Capitol Hill where she met with her fellow Irishman, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, followed by the Friends of Ireland luncheon, followed by a St. Patrick's Day reception back at the White House. And all this while the taoiseach (Ireland’s prime minister) Enda Kenny is in town.

So I consider myself fortunate to have spotted Ambassador Anderson a few weeks ago at (where else?) an Irish pub. Her petite excellency showed up at the Dubliner—sans security—to help celebrate the launch of Dubliner Irish Whiskey’s limited release 10-year-old single malt. I confronted the ambassador about the most pressing issue of the day: The skyrocketing demand for Irish whiskey in America. (What? You thought I was going to ask about immigration? Brexit?)

According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, supplier sales for all spirits in 2016 increased 4.5 percent to $25.2 billion. Volume grew 2.4 percent to 220 million cases. As a subset, American whiskey—bourbon, Tennessee, and rye—experienced higher revenue growth (7.7 percent) and volume (6.8 percent). Irish whiskey, however, is a different story: Volume is up a whopping 18.7 percent. Revenue increased by almost 20 percent. It is the fastest growing spirit in the United States. But why?

My search for the truth led me on an unforgettable journey to three Irish pubs and a sampling of numerous Irish whiskies. (I can’t quite remember how many so I guess parts of the journey were, in fact, forgettable.) And it all began with the ambassador.

Anderson gave three reasons. "First of all, we have a lot of Irish Americans," she said. "We have a very big base here. There are nearly 40 million Irish Americans," whereas Ireland’s population is just under 5 million. "Secondly … there are so many Americans now who are visiting Ireland. There has been a real explosion in American tourism to Ireland, and they’re getting a taste there, they like it, and it leads them to experiment when they get back." Finally, she said, "It’s a specific taste. People don’t want just a generic experience. They want something that’s more tailored. So they’re experimenting more, and they’re intrigued by the variety of craft whiskies that are emerging in Ireland…. They’re interested in something local, authentic, where they know about how it’s made—and that’s Ireland."

Who’s "they"? Millenials, of course. "I think Irish whiskey is like a gentle introduction to people maybe moving away from clear spirits or white spirits," said Darryl McNally, master distiller for Dubliner Irish Whiskey. Andrew Stewart, the brand’s vice president of marketing, agreed. "Irish whiskey is a lot smoother," he said. "An Irish whiskey tends to be a lot more palatable, especially to a younger audience, especially in the States, especially with the resurgence of American whiskies."

Cynics and snobs will be tempted to characterize this as a whiskey for beginners and that, when the drinker has matured, he or she can move on to more serious, more peaty Scotch. (Irish whiskey, with rare exceptions, is not peated. It’s mostly a blend of two or three whiskies, pot-stilled, and aged at least three years in wooden casks.) A better comparison is between pale ale and pilsner—not every great beer has to be an IPA. Sometimes you just want a cool, crisp lager without all the hoppiness, fruit, and spice.

"Irish whiskey has the ‘import’ mystique without the peatiness of Scotch," said David Ozgo, chief economist for the Distilled Spirits Council. He describes it as having "an easy flavor profile." But just how easy? At Ireland’s Four Courts in Arlington, Ozgo and I examined three kinds of Irish whiskey: Teeling, which was mild and pleasant; Jameson Caskmates, which is aged in stout barrels lending it an almost chocolatey finish; and 12-year-old Redbreast, a refined top-shelf whiskey that goes for $18 a glass in some bars. "Redbreast is the best," insisted our waitress in her thick accent. In fact, the Redbreast 15 Year Old just took the prize for best pot-stilled whiskey at the World Whiskies Awards, so she may be onto something. (Full disclosure: Our waitress was from Bulgaria.)

It is worth remembering, however, that about a century ago, Irish whiskey was the top-selling whiskey in the world. Over pints of Guinness at Georgetown’s Rí Ra pub and restaurant, Dale Crammond, the agriculture and food counselor at the Irish embassy, provided some historical perspective.

Distilling on the Emerald Isle began in the sixth century (monks making uisca beatha, or aqua vitae). But it wasn’t until the 19th century that Irish whiskey took off. "Between 1823 and 1900, the output of Ireland’s distilleries quadrupled," Crammond explained. The country went from having 40 distillers in 1823 to 86 distillers in 1840. At the dawn of the 20th century, Ireland was selling 12-million cases a year worldwide (compared with 3.8 million cases last year). It was, said Crammond, "the golden era" for Irish whiskey.

The decline is attributed to multiple factors. In 1830 Aeneas Coffey, a former inspector general of excise in Ireland, invented the column still—a breakthrough in efficiency (distillation was now continuous as opposed to pot-stilling, which requires constant emptying and cleaning). Many Irish distillers stuck to the traditional pot-still and were overtaken in production. At the same time, the boost in volume from places like Scotland led to a drop in whiskey prices. Then came the First World War, followed by U.S. Prohibition, which shut down Ireland’s largest whiskey export market. (Bootleggers often labeled their inferior products Irish whiskey, tarnishing its reputation.) And of course there were the internal crises, namely, the Easter Rising, the Irish War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War. By the early 1970s, there were but two Irish distilleries left cranking out a mere 400,000 cases.

The turnaround happened in the 1980s and early ’90s, when corporate giants like Pernod Ricard and Diageo acquired Irish whiskies, globalizing distribution. The current juggernaut of Irish whiskies is Jameson (owned by Pernod Ricard) followed by Bushmills (formerly Diageo, now under Jose Cuervo). According to Miriam Mooney of the Irish Whiskey Association, there are now more than 100 brands of Irish whiskey. "In 2013 there were just four distilleries in Ireland," he said in an email. "Today there are 16 in production and 14 in planning in 18 counties across Ireland."

Following lunch at Rí Ra with Dale Crammond, pub owner Des Whelan took us upstairs to show off his elaborate Whiskey Room, which boasts a staggering 340 whiskies. Whelan generously let us taste one of his favorites, the Redbreast Lustau Edition, finished in sherry casks. And while the Whiskey Room is closed in the afternoon, Whelan said it gets fairly packed in the evening—especially on ladies’ night. Yes, more and more of the ladies are drinking whiskey, which has long been a dream of the brown spirits industry.

Of course some fine ladies have been drinking whiskey all along. I am reminded of the Irish ambassador Anne Anderson, who stressed to me, "I’m a very prudent drinker. In small amounts, I prefer to take a small [glass], undiluted, no ice, just so that I can actually savor the taste of it. When I drink whiskey, this is how I prefer to drink it."

Did she find herself drinking more these days amid all the changes in Washington? "No comment!" she replied. And with that, we had another sip of uisce beatha.

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