Much has been made of the Scotch whisky boom,but Irish whiskey is also in rude good health. Dominic Roskrow looks at the new kids on the block.
Irish whiskey finds itself in a good place right now. Not just in terms of sales but in terms of quality and product development too.Dave Broom’s recent series on the established players excellently captured the depth and breadth of thinking among whiskey makers in Ireland, and reflected the passion, commitment and dynamism in a country that a few years back seemed to have lost its way.Perhaps it’s because of the competition that Diageo’s purchase of Bushmills has injected, perhaps it’s the fact that Cooley has sharpened up its act. But it’s probably all about quality. At a recent Irish whiskey tasting in London there wasn’t one bad whiskey – and there was a lot of whiskey on show. Recent releases from Jameson’s have been outstanding, Bushmill’s has weighed in with the delightful 1608, and Cooley has a number of world class offerings, from the cask strength and peated Connemaras to the sublime Tyrconnell special finish range.Now there are two new kids on what is still a very small block, and they’re playing a crucial role in maintaining the national momentum: Wild Geese and Irishman. So who exactly are they?Wild Geese is owned by Avalon Group Inc and is being marketed and distributed by marketing specialist Protege, whose traditional strength has been in travel retail but is now establishing itself on the global stage with Wild Geese and American premium beer Route 66.The whiskey itself is distilled by Cooley and is being marketed in four guises – Classic Blend, Single Malt, Wild Geese Rare and Fourth Century Edition. The idea is to establish a super premium category of Irish whiskey and each whiskey is presented in stylish cubed decanter-style bottle.Unusually for Irish whiskey, the malt is doubled distilled in an extended distillation.“It’s a sort of slow cooking process,” says Protege’s business development a manager, Ian Smart.“The aim is to provide a special whiskey that is different to the competition and present it in a super premium way. The bespoke box used for three of our four whiskeys is specially made for Wild Geese.” The Hot Irishman is a company formed by acclaimed whiskey maker Bernard Walsh and his wife Rosemary, and it has launched two excellent whiskeys on to the market: Irishman Single Malt and Irishman 70.Of all the releases from these two new companies it is the Irishman 70 that most grabs the attention. It is a mix of 70 per cent single malt from Bushmills and 30 per cent pure pot still from Midleton: in other words, it contains no grain and is a new development for the Irish market.Walsh is clearly delighted with the progress his company is making and believes that Irish whiskey is heading back to where it belongs.“Once Irish whiskey dominated whiskey sales and while that will never happen again I think we’re heading in the right direction again,” he says. “Irish Distillers has done a fantastic job of keeping the standards up and being a guardian for Irish whiskey. But now it’s for the likes of us, Cooley and Wild Geese to make it a respected category again.“I have always been a fan of pure pot still, a lover of Redbreast.I’d love to see pot still whiskey reestablish itself around the world.” The sentiments about Irish whiskey are shared by Ian Smart, who believes that there is sufficient interest for a resurgence in Irish whiskey.“Irish whiskey is starting from a very low base and it’s going to be a long fightback,” he says. “There’s a big education job to be done to make people understand that Irish is the best whiskey – or at least comparable with Scotch.” The Irish whiskey industry could help itself by binning the sales shorthand. Just recently a friend sat through an Irish distillery tour where he was told that all Irish whisky is triple-distilled and all Scottish, double distilled, and that the difference between Scottish and Irish was that the former always used peated barley and Irish never did.But there’s room for optimism.“These are good times for Irish whiskey,” says Walsh. “And with so much going on all of us in the category can benefit. That’s what I hope will happen.” *Hot Irishman has appointed Coe Vintners as its UK distribution agency.
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