The Irish have always been lucky. They’re not bothered by snakes (some guy named Pat banished them from the land). They can find pots of gold at the end of rainbows (if they can catch the pesky leprechauns that own them). And when their luck isn’t so good (think potato famine), they can console themselves with a wee dram of their own invention — whiskey.
Though still a relatively small category in this country, Irish whiskey is one of the fastest growing spirits categories in the industry. Sales have grown more than 60 percent in the past decade, posting double-digit gains for the past several years. Volume grew about 11 percent in 2001, and is expected to keep pace this year.
“I think the first reason it’s growing is taste,” said Jeff Agdern, senior brand manager at Austin Nichols. “Irish whiskey is the most approachable of all the whiskey styles, so consumers are more accepting and willing to put an Irish whiskey in the portfolio of brands they drink, based on the occasion.”
Irish whiskey brands, particularly segment leader Jameson, also have invested more in their brands in recent years. That has helped raise consumer awareness of the product. Austin Nichols now imports and markets Jameson, Bushmills and John Powers whiskeys and is prpeared to push Middleton and Red Breast, accounting for nearly 85 percent of category sales. But any promotion of Irish whiskey helps the whole category, according to Agdern.
Consumers, too, have been interested in all things Irish for some time. Ireland’s economy was one of the fastest growing in the European Community during the ’90s, attracting lots of attention and tourism.
“The hot Irish economy allowed people to come over here and open Irish pubs,” said Susan Overton, marketing director at Heaven Hill, which imports Kilbeggan and Tyrconnel. “The Irish Trade Board has been very active in promoting Irish products, and I think Americans in general have a real affinity for the Irish people.”
That affinity makes itself known in the gorwth of irish cream liqueurs as well. Carolans Irish Cream grew more thyan 10 % last year, and category-leader Bailey’s grew nearly 7 %.
Irish whiskey is still unique in many ways from other styles. As consumer interest in Irish whiskey and premium products has grown, Ireland’s whiskey industry has started to experience a renaissance.
Irish whiskey is traditionally distilled in pot stills, as opposed to the column stills used for Scotch and other spirits. Unlike with Scotch, the malt is not dried over peat fires, so it doesn’t have Scotch’s smoky characteristic. Most Irish whiskeys are distilled three times, then aged in oak for a minimum of three years, blended and bottled.
Like Scotch producers, however, Irish distillers make a number of variations on theme. There are now several single malts and even a peated single malt available here now.
“Within the whiskey category we’re seeing superpremium products getting more attention from the press and retailers,” said Larry Kass, group marketing manager at Heaven Hill. “As they get more attention and consumers become more educated, more products and packages are being introduced. The same thing that’s happening in other whiskey categories is happening in the Irish category.”
“Afficionados are moving around, trying lots of high end spirits, including Irish whiskey,” said Joe Chrastina, brand manager of Irish spirits at Allied-Domecq. A-D’s Tullamore Dew, for example, brought over a 12 year-old blend a few years back. The product has won several “best whiskey” awards.
Redbreast, a well-known pure pot still brand in Ireland, was introduced here last year “because of consumer phone calls asking for the brand,” according to Agdern at Austin Nichols.
Jameson put out a limited edition of Midleton Very Rare 26 year-old that has almost sold out. Bushmills is considering marketing a 21 year-old single malt here that’s already available in Ireland.
Other small brands are finding a warm reception here, too. Knappogue Castle is having great success with its vintage single malts, including “’51” at around $600 a bottle. Connemara peated single malt is finding a following, particularly among Scotch drinkers. And the team that introduced Boru Irish vodka a few years ago also launched Clontarf Irish whiskey in three styles, which are available separately or in a “trinity” pack.
Along with consumer interest in high end products, the big brands are really driving the category. Jameson continues to support a new ad campaign that kicked off in 2000 which has helped raise consumer awareness. On-premise support this year includes a push behind winter drinks like nouveau Irish coffees and the Jameson Sour. For St. Patrick’s Day, the brand offers a wide array of on-premise POS and merchandising materials such as hats, lights, T-shirts and more.
Bushmills, which hasn’t gotten as much attention in recent years, is being “reintroduced” at St. Patrick’s Day. A new campaign focuses on the brand’s heritage — founded in 1608, it’s the oldest licensed distillery in existence — and on-premise party kits include hats, shields and other materials with a Middle Ages theme.
Tullamore Dew continues its sponsorship of USA Rugby and also will frequent cigar shows and whiskey fests, using them as opportunities to sample its products.
On-premise efforts for Kilbeggan will feature new footed Irish coffee mugs and tabletents to support authentic Irish coffee sales.
The high end brands rely more heavily on bartender and waitstaff training and generating word-of-mouth wherever possible. Redbreast has done virtually no marketing, but word of its availability has gotten out. Knappogue Castle is sponsoring a few local charity events and experimenting with local market radio ads on classical stations.
Because consumers are interested in premium products and new things, it pays to promote Irish whiskeys just as you would any spirit you want to attract attention. The Bennigan’s restaurant chain, for example, has even incorporated Irish whiskey into its own positioning strategy.
“We wanted Irish whiskey to be a lead spirit to exemplify what we’re all about,” said John Beck, vice president of marketing for the Dallas-based chain. “It’s all part of our positioning to define Bennigan’s as a world-class tavern with great brands.”
Always known for its beer selection, Bennigan’s moved from a well-based promotional strategy to a premium-based strategy about three years ago. As part of the repositioning, it looked at premium Irish brands to carry, including whiskey and liqueur as well beer. It now stocks Tullamore Dew, Jameson and Bushmills Single Malt 10 as its well, call and superpremium brands.
“To avoid barriers to trial, we create sampling opportunities,” Beck said. On the drink menu, which features brand logos, that includes Irish variations on customer favorites. An “Irish Rita” features a shot of Tullamore Dew in addition to a shot of Cuervo 1800. Bennigan’s offers a regular Irish coffee with Jameson and an “Extreme” version that features Bushmills. The chain even offers an Irish version of a pina colada with Baileys Irish Cream.
The food menu, too, provides customers with exposure to Irish products. A featured top butt “Irish whiskey” steak is marinated with Jameson.
You don’t have to be an Irish pub to successfully sell Irish whiskey. “We sell an amazing amount of Jameson,” said Arnie Millan, owner of Avenue One, a French restaurant in Seattle. “We do nothing to promote St. Patrick’s Day and we’re packed.”
Stories are what sell wines and spirits, according to Millan. The more stories you know and learn about Irish whiskey, the easier it is to convince customers to try one.
So, use a bit of blarney this winter and see if you can talk your patrons into trying whiskey from the land where it was invented. It might just bring you luck.
Irish whiskey, in short, may be finally getting the respect it deserves. In his best-selling book How The Irish Saved Civilization, author Thomas Cahill credits Irish monastic missionaries for spreading literacy and learning across medieval Europe. Irish monks also found a different use for the alembic stills that had been used to make perfume in the Middle East since the fourth century. Distilling fermented grains, they discovered, resulted in a civilized drink they called uisce beatha (pronounced ish’-kee ba’-ha), meaning “water of life.”
The name, eventually anglicized to “whiskey,” wasn’t just a boastful reference to the drink’s function as a social lubricant. In the days before refrigeration, food was likely to be a bit “off.” Whiskey helped aid digestion, killing bacteria before it could cause food poisoning.
Whiskey’s popularity, as well as the knowledge to make it, spread first to England and Scotland, and is now distilled around the world. Each whiskey-making culture imprinted its own style on the process. Irish whiskey, however, remained the world’s most popular style as late as the 19th century. There were more than 2,000 distilleries in Ireland at one point, all busily trying to keep up with the world’s thirst for Irish spirit.
An English trade embargo on Irish whiskey and Prohibition here in the U.S. helped shutter most of Ireland’s distilleries. When Prohibition ended, there wasn’t enough product to fill demand, so Scotch producers stepped in. And when U.S. servicemen stationed in England during WWII acquired a taste for Scotch, Irish whiskey’s reputation and sales suffered even more.
In 1966, four of the five remaining Irish distillers banded together as the Irish Distillers Group. In 1972, Bushmills, the last holdout, joined the group, and almost all of Ireland’s famed whiskeys were made at one of two distilleries, the Jameson distillery in Midleton near Cork in the south and the Bushmills distillery in County Antrim in the north.
Traditional aged and blended whiskey isn’t the only spirit Ireland is known for. Distilling, like brewing and winemaking, became a family business over the years as monks passed on their knowledge to the peasants. Farmers often produced distilled spirits for their own consumption or for trade.
For centuries, the Irish distilled and consumed grain spirits, basically raw whiskey that hasn’t been aged or blended. When potatoes became a staple crop in Ireland in the early 1600s, many home-distillers began using them as well as grains.
Around 1661, however, England’s Charles II ordered a levy on whiskey and declared any unlicensed distilling illegal. Irish farmers hid their stills and kept on making moonshine. The home-brewed spirit quickly became known as poitin or “poteen” (pronounced “po-cheen'”), Gaelic for “little pot still.”
Several poteens are distilled commercially and distributed here in the U.S., including Knockeen, Pat’s Poteen and Bunratty Potcheen. Triple-distilled Knockeen even comes in three strengths — 120, 140 and 180 proof. The distiller recommends only drinking the 180 proof poteen with mixers.