Whenever I host a Scotch whisky tasting, the one question that I can guarantee will always be asked is: “I like Irish whiskey. How is it different to Scotch?”
After offending both sets of Celts with a couple of golden-oldie jokes on the matter, the serious answers come out to play.
The challenge comes when finding a consistent way of promoting Irish whiskey as a category. With just four working distilleries across the entire island, each with their own style of production, it is hard to put your finger on exactly what Irish whiskey means from a flavour and production perspective. Explaining the difference between Irish whiskey and Scotch is not about amusing anecdotes, but a complex topic with an answer requiring forethought from the teacher and concentration from the student. For me, these differences are to be celebrated, extolled and promoted.
For the issue is this: from the triple distilled single malt whiskey made in the North at Bushmills down to the multiple output of liquid from the Midleton distillery in Cork using both malted and unmalted barley, with Cooley and Kilbeggan’s double distillation sandwiched in the middle, there is no one consistent way to describe the whiskey output from this isle.
"What we’re seeing here is positivity, growth and huge investment in Irish whiskey"
As proprietors of the largest distillery in Ireland, the enormous distillation plant at Midleton in County Cork, the role of cheerleader for Irish whiskey has fallen at the feet of Irish Distillers Limited (IDL). Seeing the successful growth and premiumisation of single malt Scotch Whisky worldwide, IDL has been developing a new category for premium Irish whiskey, which they call ‘Single Pot Still’.
Under this banner falls the Midleton, Redbreast, Powers John’s Lane and Green Spot whiskeys, all of which are produced in the same manner, simply from a mash bill made of malted and unmalted barley which is then distilled in a copper pot still. The differences in these bottlings comes from the cut point of the distillate from the huge stills at Midleton, as well as maturation in different cask types which are used in the overall construction of the whiskey.
Along with producing the Jameson blend, which has seen consistent growth in the last two years, the plan emerging from Midleton and IDL seems to be one of huge positivity for Irish whiskey. The distillery only recently expanded to a jaw dropping 33m litres per year, with plans afoot as part of a 100 million euro investment, to nearly double the capacity again.
Of course, this is driven largely by the growth of Jameson, one of the most significant brands worldwide in Irish whiskey, but certainly a push towards their new premium category will be key in underpinning the growth of this powerhouse of pot still production. This is already evidenced in the expansion last year of the Redbreast range and the introduction of Powers John’s Lane. Hopefully the consistently excellent but previously under promoted Green Spot product will see a renaissance and maybe even an expanded range of its own?
What we’re seeing here is positivity, growth and huge investment in Irish whiskey. Late last year Cooley Distillery was acquired by Beam Global for $95 million. You don’t spend that sort of cash without having a firm plan of growth for your recently acquired business. On top of this, the Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey brand was recently purchased by William Grant & Sons, who are planning a multi-million pound global investment in the range. For a company so focused of brand homes (visit Balvenie or Glenfiddich to see this), I wouldn’t be surprised if the rumours that William Grant are looking to put distilling roots down in the Emerald Isle come true in the near future.
It is reported that in 2010 the Irish whiskey category grew by 11.5 per cent. With the world softening to whisky of all geographical locations, flavours and styles and with investment in Irish whiskey production set to be on the increase, is it any wonder that Irish eyes are smiling... W