Raise a glass to innovation
We talk to the Irish whiskey producers whose exports have grown 300% in a decade, with new sales on track to double by 2020; plus, meet new innovators in craft beers and spirits.
The old adage of ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’ may not be true in all fields, but in whiskey it might just be.
With a history of distilling dating back to its first mention in the Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405 (the Scots’ earliest mention is 1494), we were the world’s greatest whiskey makers by the late 1800s, with distilleries dotted all over the country. But that changed — a combination of war, pestilence, famine and a simple changing of tastes saw us go into a period of decline that hit a low point in the ’70s and ’80s, with only two distilleries remaining on the island of Ireland — Bushmills and Midleton. We were an also ran in the world whiskey scene, with our neighbours the Scots having left us for dust.
Fast forward to the last six years: Through careful marketing — and our old friend ‘changing tastes’ — Jameson has rocketed to the fasted growing spirit brand in the world, and that rising tide of smooth Irish liquor has lifted a number of boats, with distilleries popping up all over the country. This is great news for the whiskey fan, but the wider effects will be felt in agriculture and tourism. In the short term, more distilleries means a need for more barley, more maltsters, and thus more employment. In the longer term, it will mean more tourists.
Whisky tourism is worth tens of millions to the Scottish economy — travel across a region like Speyside, where there are 50+ distilleries, and you can see how a coherent strategy has been built around whisky — there is even a walking trail you can take, bringing you through the hills from distillery to distillery. But they have had decades to draw a roadmap for tourism, while here our industry is still in its infancy, with a number of distilleries in operation, in the process of being built, at the planning stage, and some that are still trying to get beyond being a pipe dream.
Dublin has a number of distilleries at various stages — the merchant princes of Irish whiskey, Jack and Stephen Teeling, sons of the legendary John Teeling, who opened Cooley distillery and democratised whiskey by selling it direct to bottlers, have an incredibly slick operation in Newmarket Square. Alltech agrifoods billionaire Pearse Lyons has his eponymous distillery housed inside an old church in the Liberties, while a couple of hundred years down the road the former owners of Bushmills, Diageo are building a distillery within one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ireland — the Guinness site at St James’s Gate.
Also nearby is the Dublin Liberties Distillery, which has recently commenced construction.
Meanwhile, the longest serving whiskey tourism hub in Dublin, the Bow Street Jameson Heritage Centre, has re-opened after a massive €11m overhaul.
But Dublin doesn’t need a selection of distilleries to attract tourists — it is simply another string to the city’s bow. It is the distilleries spread across the country that need to join forces under one tourism vision.
Outside the Pale, the Jameson Heritage Centre in Midleton is the biggest whiskey tourism draw that Ireland has right now, bringing in hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. But what gives Midleton the edge over their Dublin wing is that they have the heritage, the history, and — tucked away behind it all — one of the most modern, efficient distilleries in the world. In recent years Midleton added another attraction — an experimental micro-distillery.
Ignacio Peregrina, the general manager at The Jameson Experience Midleton: “Since we opened in 1992 we have been delighted to welcome over 2.3 million visitors to Midleton. We’re always delighted to bring our heritage to life for new audiences and send people home as strong ambassadors for Irish whiskey. In the last 25 years, we’ve welcomed people from all over the world from Hollywood royalty, Kevin Spacey to Cork royalty, Roy Keane!”
Since opening in 1992 the Midleton centre has welcomed 2.3 million visitors, while last year it hosted 125,000 guests. Of the top four countries of origin for visitors, USA made up 25%; Germany 12%; Britain 11% and France 10%.
To the east of Midleton, along the Ancient East, lies Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city and home to Mark Reynier’s Waterford Distillery, one of the most impressive operations to set up here in the last five years. With his background (he resurrected Bruichladdich distillery on the Scots isle of Islay, then sold it to Remy Cointreau) he was able to buy an old Guinness brewery, and transform it into a state of the art distillery.
Reynier’s project differs from many others in its dedication to barley — he has been using barley from individual farms to distill individual batches of spirit, meaning you will be able to taste the difference from soil type to soil type, thus proving the concept of terroir. His project is one to watch — and having just secured another 20 million boost from investors, it has no signs of slowing down.
Not far away in the sleepy village of Cappoquin, Peter Mulryan has been creating award winning spirits under his Blackwater Distillery brands. A journalist, author, and whiskey expert, Mulryan is getting ready to move his operation to a larger premises in the nearby village of Ballyduff and, with that, to move to the next stage of his business plan — whiskey tourism.
To the west of Midleton is West Cork Distillers in Skibbereen, and beyond that, Dingle Distillery. Dingle was the vision of the late Oliver Hughes, credited as being the father of craft beer in Ireland after he set up the highly successful Porterhouse chain. Hughes saw opportunity in whiskey too, setting up Dingle before the current boom properly took off. As a result of his foresight, Dingle Distillery single malt is hitting the market at a time when all other whiskeys come from one of the other big three — Midleton, Cooley or Bushmills. Dingle whiskey, much like the town itself, is in a league of its own.
The process of creating whiskey is one of the complications to building an immediate tourism industry around it. First you need to build the distillery, distill your grain, and cask your spirit. Then you wait — while three years is the legal minimum requirement, anything between five and 10 years is the accepted minimum for the serious whiskey drinker — and thus, the serious whiskey tourist.
In order to draw tourists here in the same way Scotland draws thousands from across Europe, Ireland will need well-established and well-respected distilleries with quality output.
The casual tourist will be happy to visit one distillery on a trip to Ireland, the whiskey tourist will want more than that — they will want distillery exclusives — whereby the distillery sells a particular brand on its own premises and nowhere else — and to be able to visit a number of distilleries in one trip.
The Irish Whiskey Association has launched a document laying out its vision for whiskey tourism here, creating a whiskey trail from distillery to distillery so that when the plan comes of age in 2025, there is an accepted route for the discerning whiskey fan.
One thing is for certain — after decades of struggle, Irish whiskey really is back with a bang.
“Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit category in the world — growing 300% over the past decade — with the €505m worth of sales in 2016 on track to double by 2020.
Brian Nation, master distiller, Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard ( left), was the first person to individually bottle a 700ml bottle of cask strength whiskey in Cork at the launch of ‘Bottle Your Own’ in the Jameson Experience, Midleton, Co Cork. With...
Stephen Teeling and Jack Teeling of Teeling Whiskey Company, whose innovations include selling whiskey direct to bottlers. Their new visitor centre in Dublin is already proving popular with tourists.