By Dave Eckert
It’s widely held that the Irish brought distillation to the British Isles, and until roughly the beginning of the 20th century, were the leaders in that category. The Irish ruled the roost with their huge pot stills, which gave Irish Whiskey unparalleled consistency and flavor. But the Irish dominance in the spirits world didn’t last. War, independence, and political changes shifted the power to Scotland, leaving Ireland with just one distillation company on the mainland and two distilleries in Northern Ireland.
Recently, though, the scales have started tilting back to Ireland. New investment, distilleries, and styles of Irish Whiskey have the Irish going toe to toe with their single malt and blended scotch rivals. Sales numbers bear the trend out. Recent sales of Irish whiskey in the U.S. have risen 12 per cent, passing the $1 billion mark for the first time. Annually, some 4.7 million cases of Irish whiskey are sold in the U.S., generating $1.01 billion in revenues. That compares to sales of just $74 million in the early 2000s.
I wanted to get a Kansas City perspective on this tremendous turnaround, so I visited with Shaun Brady of Brady’s Public House, George Vial an Irish Whiskey expert who leads monthly classes at Browne’s Irish Marketplace, and Kerry Browne, the fourth generation owner of Browne’s. Brady, Vial, and Browne have been on the front lines of the Irish Whiskey renaissance, amassing impressive selections of Irish Whiskeys at Brady’s and Browne’s. “About ten years ago we started the classes, and at that time, we struggled to find about 40 Irish Whiskeys available. Since then, we’ve grown to over 80 selections that we can get all the time, and that’s outside of special editions, one-offs, and rare stuff,” Vial told me. “Browne’s has one of the best selections of Irish Whiskey in the Midwest. You might be able to find a better price on Jameson’s at a large box store, but there’s no one to help you. Here, we can educate you and sell you Jameson’s if you like or get you into some really interesting up-and-coming Irish Whiskeys.”
For his part, Brady credits diversity, quality, and social media for the Irish Whiskey resurgence, and he sees no end in sight. “Before, it took a long time to build brand awareness, but now, you hear talk about a new Irish Whiskey being released and the information is all over the internet and social media,” Brady opined. “Plus, there’s so much more Irish Whiskey being made and imported to the U.S. We have more than 90 selections at Brady’s. According to the research I’ve done, that’s the biggest Irish Whiskey selection of any bar in the country!”
At Browne’s, a business that dates to 1887 making it the oldest Irish business outside Ireland, they embrace everything Irish, including the exploding Irish Whiskey scene, which they represent with a sense of pride and passion. “We can see the results in sales, but it’s not just the bottom line. Every day, we have people coming into the store asking about Irish Whiskey. We’re very proud to educate those folks and convert bourbon and scotch drinkers into Irish Whiskey drinkers, Kerry Browne, the current generation of Browne’s owners shared.
One of the biggest factors in the growth of the Irish Whiskey category appears to be drinkers’ desire to move up the ladder from entry level bands to “premium” and “super-premium” products. Since 2002, the premium and super premium whiskey categories have grown more than 11-hundred and 33-hundred percent respectively. Brady says he sees a bright future for those whiskeys and Irish Whiskey in general. “Like a lot of people who are “maturing” shall we say, I’m no longer drinking whiskey to get drunk. I’m drinking whiskey because I like the taste and experience, and I’m willing to pay more for that,” Brady stated. And, Brady says there are extremes. “They’re talking about releasing a 45-50-year-old Irish Whiskey from Middleton, 44 bottles a year over the next five or six years, priced at $40,000 a bottle. On the other hand, I’ll take the four-year old Kirkland Irish Whiskey, Costco’s Brand, which is worth every penny and $20 more!”
So, while there will likely always been stalwarts like Jameson’s and Bushmills anchoring the Irish Whiskey market, from Costco, to Browne’s, to Brady’s, you’ll find new and exciting entrants keeping he category fresh and vibrant moving forward. Slainte!