Raise a glass to in­no­va­tion

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - FOOD & DRINK IRELAND -

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 him is Tommy Keane, GM, Mi­dle­ton Dis­til­leries; the Jame­son Her­itage Cen­tre in Mi­dle­ton has wel­comed more than 2.3 mil­lion vis­i­tors since open­ing in 1992.

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.

Bill Lin­nane re­counts the unique her­itage be­hind Ir­ish whiskey’s epic suc­cess

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