Friday, March 17, 2017

Irish Whiskey: The Revenant

In conjunction with St. Patrick’s day, I would like to celebrate all that is going on with Irish whiskey these days.

The Irish invented whisky.  For a very long time the Irish dominated the whisky business over everyone, including the Scots.  In the mid-1800s there were 88 licensed distilleries producing more than 100 million liters annually, and Irish whiskey was the largest spirits category in the world.

The Irish really stepped on their - well, messed up in an embarrassing manner - in the middle of the nineteenth century when they pooh-poohed the newfangled patent still, which ironically was perfected by one of their own, Irishman Aeneas Coffey.  This type of still was widely adopted by the Scots for the high-volume, inexpensive production of grain whisky for blending with malt whisky in order to produce a whisky that had a more general appeal.  The new blended whisky left pure pot still whisky in the dust.  The Irish whiskey industry took another big hit compared to Scotch whisky during American Prohibition.  The Scots were more accommodating to bootleggers than the Irish.  So in the absence of real Irish whiskey there was much bad homemade whiskey made that claimed to be Irish whiskey, damaging the reputation of Irish whiskey.  By the 1970s, Irish whiskey sales had shrunk to two percent of that of Scotch whisky.  Thirty years ago, there were only two distilleries in Ireland and they were both owned by the same company.

Beginning in earnest ten to 15 years ago, Irish whiskey has been mounting a comeback.  For the last ten years Irish whiskey sales have been the fastest growing of all brown liquors, growing 131% compared to 13% for Scotch whisky and 56% for bourbon.

That's a nice growth in sales volume, but as late as 2013 Ireland still had only four distilleries.    You can see a plethora of brands of Irish whiskey on the market, but they are largely different labeling of combinations of the same stuff from just a few distilleries.

That is all just beginning to change, and greatly.  We are about to see a tremendous increase in variety from Ireland.  At my last count there are 21 Irish distilleries producing whiskey and nine others under construction.  Irish whiskey, like Scotch whisky, must be matured for at least 3 years, and the bulk of those working distilleries have not been producing whiskey for that long yet.  In a few years we will see whiskeys from this wave of new distilleries coming of age to a point where it can be sold.  In addition, the laws governing production of Irish whiskey provide more latitude for experimentation than the laws for production of Scotch whiskey, meaning all of these new distilleries have the potential to produce very innovative and different products.

Looking at it from the outside, it looks to me like the Irish whiskey scene has recently gone from fast growth to explosion.  Possibly after watching the Japanese, the Indians, and even the English and the Americans produce new whiskies that can successfully compete with the Scots not only in the whisky market, but even on the palates of connoisseurs, the Irish have decided that enough is enough and they have decided to reclaim their legacy.  It looks to me like the entire country of Ireland, from individuals in bars to the Irish government, has collectively and recently decided to mount a ferocious comeback in the whiskey world.

The Scots have long had the well-established Scotch Whisky Association to represent the interests of Scotch whisky producers.  There was no corresponding organization in Ireland.  Finally in 2014 the level of interest specifically in Irish whiskey was found to have reached a level that a new Irish Whiskey Association could be formed.  My current issue of  Whisky Magazine has a large "Irish Whiskey Magazine" insert.  My next to most recent issue of Whisky  Advocate magazine has Ireland on the cover and feature articles relating to Ireland and Irish whiskey.  The brand new  Irish Whiskey Magazine, the world's first publication devoted to Irish whiskey, published its inaugural issue this past winter with the hearty endorsement of the Irish Whiskey Association.  (Founder and Editor-in-Chief Serghios Florides has graciously offered free shipping and a 25% discount to up to 100 people who refer to this offer in my blog.).  Blogs and news publications are filled with articles about the resurgence of Irish whiskey.

The tidal wave of developments in Irish whiskey is on the horizon and approaching fast, and it will be exciting to see the coming impact on the whiskey world made by an entire country that already has whiskey in its DNA and is hungry to reclaim its lost glory.

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