To say that Irish whiskey is experiencing something of a revival is pretty much an understatement. We will probably not see the level of distilleries return to where it was in the 1800s, when more than 2,000 distilleries were reputed to have dotted the landscape; but it certainly seems everyone now wants a piece of the Irish action.
With the main four, Jameson, Bushmills, Tullamore and Cooley, already in the hands of large companies, the revival Ireland is experiencing is really coming from a craft ethos echoing the boom time grassroots movement in the United States. This does not necessarily equate to poor quality or small ambitions, with most of the current crop of start ups ebullient about the market and looking to punch above their weight.
There is certainly plenty of movement with companies aiming to capitalise on the growth, with some returning to their roots. One big piece of news is that we might in the near future see a return to distilling in Dublin with the Teeling Whisky Company. Whiskey from the capital used to be such a revered thing many years ago, more popular than Midleton whiskey, it is exciting to think there could be a renaissance.
Also with Alltech reconnecting with distilling in Ireland and Tullamore on the brink of opening a new distillery in the town, provenance of place is fast becoming a watchword in Irish whiskey. The big battle ground at the moment, and the place where Irish whiskey is seeing some of its biggest growths is in America.
Figures released by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States show that Irish whiskey climbed 24 per cent to 1.7 million nine-litre cases last year.
In contrast, Scotch single-malt whisky sales increased around 9.5 per cent to 1.4 million cases. Clearly Irish whiskey is taking the lead back from Scotch in the U. S. territories. Surely all good news for the Irish economy, especially when you consider that Irish liquor exports amounted to about €1 billion in 2010.
There are three main projects starting up that will be worth keeping an eye on; these are the ones that have provenance and are clearly in the game already.
A return to Dublin
The Teeling Whiskey Company
Founded by former Cooley employees Jack Teeling and Alex Chasko, the Teeling Whiskey Company has ambitious plans and some serious whiskeys in its arsenal.
It launched its first Irish whiskey last year called Hybrid, which comprises single malt whiskey from Cooley Distillery in Ireland and single malt whisky from Bruichladdich in Scotland. The two have been blended in oak barrels for eight years.
However the company plans to release a series of premium aged products aimed at offering consumers new experiences and sensations of Irish whiskey.
Jack takes up the story: "I have some parcels of mature stock, some very old, and some maturing. As part of a brand offering I wanted to try to broaden the category of Irish whiskey.
"I see what we are offering is a ladder of discovery for those who have not really explored the Irish whiskey category, or even for people to find new levels of enjoyment in the blends and single malt categories.
"We intend to release several whiskies including a premium blend matured in rum casks. With the other whiskies we have, we will be aiming for the white noise space in the mature age category; a 21, a 25 and 30 Years Old." More excitingly than this, Jack has signalled his intent to return distilling to Dublin by building a distillery in the city at some point in the near future.
He explains: "There was a John Teeling who was distilling in Dublin around 1782. Dublin whiskey was once a really big thing. Distilling is coming back to urban locations, and a medium sized site would be perfect, but I want to make sure I have the brands so that any production can then just plug into. People are looking for the next whiskey, the next flavour and we need to keep the category going."
The Teeling whiskeys
Nose: Minimal at first then starts to open out. Boot stores, seashore, tar ropes and fishing boats. Quite minerally.
Palate: Smoke at first, then it moves to drying leaves. Plenty of sweet fruity elements with mango and passionfruit.
Finish: Smoke and juicy fruit sweets.
Cask Strength, Pre Rum Cask Finish 46%
Nose: Sweet, popcorn, candy cane and toffee wrappers. Poached pears in Chantilly cream.
Palate: The sweetness comes through with some leather notes. Clean. There is a freshness to this. Water ramps up that sweet edge.
Finish: Swift and clean then juicy.
21 Years Old (Cask Strength) 1991, Pre Sauternes Finish 57.5%
Nose: A little soot, wet coal tar soap and the sweet exotic fruits, mango and orange peel.
Palate: Sweet at first then the smoke unfurls and dries leaving pineapple and soft fleshy fruit.
Finish: Ends with smoked meats, air dried ham thinly sliced.
25 Years Old (Cask Strength) 1987, Pre White Burgundy Finish 53.1%
Nose: Very complex, a little mint, leather gloves, fruity wine gums with a little sherbet liquorice.
Palate: Waves of flavour, toffee pennies and fruit pastilles then the oak shows its hand with vanilla, creme patisserie and a decent grip.
Finish: Long, juicy and malty.
Bringing whiskey home
Alltech and Carlow Brewery
Another project to get off the ground and on stream is American distiller Alltech and its partnership with renowned craft brewers Carlow Brewing Co.
The company, which already produces Bourbon at its distillery in Kentucky, flew Vendome made stills from Louisville to Ireland and is expecting to have its first Irish whiskey ready in about three years time.
Master distiller and chief engineer Mark Coffman said the move was partly taken by the increase of interest in Irish Whiskey. He added: "It is in part, but it is important to note Alltech president and founder Pearce Lyons wants to bring back home to Ireland what is part of his heritage with his family roots being coopers. Then once it was announced that Beam Global had bought the Kilbeggan Group (Cooley's) we ordered two stills from Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Louisville, Kentucky so that there could be another independently owned distillery in Ireland."
As the partnership grows with Carlow, Alltech is also keeping an eye on the future.
Mark continued: "This is a very good partnership between both Alltech and The Carlow Brewing Company. I am sure we will need to address the needs of expansion and we should be considering a more permanent location in the near future. Something that will lend itself to be an area close to a tourist attraction." The company also plans to keep its wood policy in-house, with a supply chain of seasoned barrels coming from Kentucky. Interestingly, for the company's bourbons and now its Irish whiskey stocks, the casks will have been previously used for beer.
Mark added: "With one of our most popular beer products being Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, we are able to use a high percentage of these former bourbon barrels, after ageing our ale in them, for both our Pearce Lyons Reserve and now for setting down our Irish whiskey.
"We have found the ale has a unique taste with a slight sweetness that makes this a pretty attractive product."
Education also features high on the company's agenda with a strong link between its employees and the Brewing and Distilling course held at Heriott-Watt University in Scotland. The company also plans to hold a Craft Brewing and Distilling class in Ireland in the summer of 2013.
Return to roots
Another place where distilling is set to return to its roots is at Tullamore in Co. Offaly. William Grant recently announced it was to build a €35m distillery to secure supply for the Tullamore Dew brand it acquired three years ago.
The company has already revamped the visitor centre in the village.
Distilling stopped in Tullamore in 1954, Grants are expecting that the 58 acre Clonminch site just outside Tullamore town, will be up and running in 2014, handily marking the end of a 60 year dry spell of production in the area.
Grants will be hoping that with a distillery re-established at the town it can boost its provenance credentials.
Sales of the brand have already pushed up from 600,000 cases to nearly 700,000 as interest in Irish whiskey increases.
Other expansion plans, three new distilleries and a bottling:
The juggernaut which is Jameson looks pretty hard to stop at the moment. The market leader has a massive 70 per cent share of the Irish whiskey market in the United States. Worldwide sales of Jameson passed three million cases in 2010 and has been growing steadily ever since. Jameson can really take credit for refuelling interest in all drinks Irish and the revival of other Irish whiskey brands, all of which are eyeing up the American market.
The market leader is not keen to sit on its laurels and there are plenty of things in the pipeline. More potstill whiskey can be expected at some point and at the distillery the company is in the process of doubling capacity from 30 million litres of alcohol to 60 million litres of alcohol. To put this in context, this is the equivalent of three more Glenlivet's or Glenﬁddich's or about 15 more Bowmore distilleries.
The Northern Irish distiller is continuing to pump out high quality whiskey worldwide. Expansion plans are afoot here too. A spokesman said: “Three years ago production moved to 24/7 and a 10th still was installed. At the Old Bushmills Distillery we are continually expanding our maturation / warehousing complex and since Diageo acquired Bushmills in 2005 we have built (on average) a new warehouse every nine to 12 months.
“During the next year we are planning on distilling around ﬁve million litres of alcohol, currently we distill four million litres.”
The Belfast Distillery Company
A Belfast businessman and Lottery winner has vowed to build Belfast’s first whiskey distillery for more than a century.
Peter Lavery has announced plans to turn part of the former Crumlin Road Prison in north Belfast into a distillery.
The £5m investment will see the A wing of the listed building turned into a boutique distillery that will use his existing brands of whiskey, Titanic Whiskey and Danny Boy. There will also be a visitors’ centre, tasting room, bar, restaurant and shop. It is claimed the project could create 60 jobs.
The three pot stills, under the watchful eyes of distilling expert John McDougal, have been delivered and commissioned at the Dingle Distillery.
Owners, The Porterhouse Group, intend to distill an initial batch (earmarked for the first investors to be known as ‘the Founding Fathers’) of about 500 litres which will be held in casks for five years. The money raised will go some way to invest in a visitors’ centre. John McDougall, former head distiller at Springbank in Scotland, has been working as a consultant on the project.
John has distilled such Scotch brands as The Balvenie, Laphroaig and Tormore.
Not horsing around
Just before the close of 2012 the news came that another distillery has been earmarked for the South of Ireland.
A planning application has been submitted for Horse Island, just south of Cork. This is a private island owned by Adrian Fitzgibbon. His company Roaring Water Farm & Enterprises submitted a plan that comprises a mash and fermentation house, a still house and a visitor centre, a restaurant-cafè with a whiskey-bar and two warehouses.
The Irish Whiskey Society
Since the Society’s first informal gathering in 2009, it has expanded rapidly and its members are now often consulted by both distillers and media for their expert knowledge in all things whiskey related. Recently the Society marked a red-letter day in its development with the first society whiskey chosen by, and bottled for, its members with the guidance of Irish Distillers Ltd (IDL).
The bottling comprises an ex-bourbon barrel, which was filled with Midleton Distillery’s Single Pot Still whiskey and cask 1038 was placed in Midleton warehouse No. M09 on the 13th of January, 1995. Following more than 17 years of maturation, the whiskey was removed from the warehouse and bottled on the 17th of October, 2012. It was bottled at cask strength 55.2% ABV.
It is anticipated that having acquired Cooley last year, the American giant will focus on Kilbeggan as its premium Irish whiskey and raise its proﬁle globally.
How the Irish bubble burst
In the late 1800s, with more than 2,000 distilleries dotting the Irish landscape, the country’s whiskey dominated worldwide sales.
But catastrophe was to befall the lion’s share of these distilleries.
The U.S. prohibition in 1919 sealed off a major market, and the U.K. imposed draconian tariffs on the product when the Irish freedom movement began soon after. Both events effectively kept the spirit away from half the world. The final nail in the Irish whiskey barrel was Ireland’s neutrality in World War II. As Ireland stayed aloof, American GIs were stationed in Scotland and other parts of Britain and they fell in love with Scotch whisky.