Beyond Beer: Respecting Irish Whiskey
In the United States, St. Patrick’s Day has become, sadly, more of a disrespectful parody of Irish heritage than a reverent celebration of one of the world’s great and most-enduring cultures. Some of the beverages traditionally consumed to mark the observance have done the holiday no favors. Where a pint of Guinness is a perfectly acceptable way to toast the legacy of the fifth-century clergyman, putting green food dye in a beer or ordering an “Irish car bomb” is not. The latter creation does a disservice not only to the beer, but to Irish whiskey as well. And Irish whiskey has trouble getting enough respect as it is. It’s always being overshadowed by the distilling activities of its nearest Celtic neighbor, not to mention what’s going on 3,600 miles away in Kentucky.
But, hopefully, all of that is changing, as the Irish tradition becomes the latest beneficiary of the whisk(e)y renaissance.
Believe it or not, over the past few years, Irish has posted a greater percent volume gain than bourbon and single malt Scotch. Last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), Irish was up 9.1 percent, versus 7.4 percent for bourbon and Tennessee whiskey (DISCUS groups those together) and 6.4 percent for single malt Scotch (blended Scotch, the bulk of the overall Scotch category, continued to struggle, losing 3 percent of its volume).
There is a major caveat embedded in those figures: If you were to look at the highest of the high-end price segments of each of those whiskey styles—classified as “super-premium”—bourbon and Tennessee grew a remarkable 19.2 percent and single malt Scotch gained 8.3 percent. Super-premium Irish whiskey grew a still-impressive 6.3 percent, but it actually bucks the spirits-wide “premiumization” trend (i.e.: drinkers “trading up” to higher-end brands) and experiences most of its growth spurt on the mainstream, everyday price tier known simply as “premium” (which is actually two levels below “super-premium”; there’s a price tier in between them known as “high-end premium”).
For one thing, that notion of premiumization is still extremely new to the Irish whiskey segment, whereas it’s actually what’s been driving growth of bourbon and single malt Scotch (think single-barrel or small-batch bourbon or a single malt Scotch that’s aged in, say, a sherry cask for 18 years). In Irish, it’s not hard to guess where most of its volume growth is coming from: a little brand called Jameson. It’s been growing between 13 and 15 percent the past few years in the U.S. and internationally. Not bad for a product that commands nearly two-thirds of the global Irish whiskey market. Being owned by the second-largest spirits marketer in the world, Pernod Ricard—not to mention having access to its massive marketing coffers—certainly has its benefits.
Though Jameson boasts such category hegemony, it’s actually helping other brands. It’s the gateway beverage that pulls drinkers into Irish whiskey. Many of those new to whiskey (maybe they’re regular vodka drinkers looking to challenge their palates a bit) often gravitate to Irish in general and Jameson in particular because the style and the brand are considered smoother and more approachable for newbies than Scotch and bourbon. Irish is typically distilled three times, while Scotch is usually distilled twice. (There are of course, exceptions on both sides. Kilbeggan and 2 Gingers are two notable double-distilled Irish whiskeys, and Auchentoshan is a famously triple-distilled Lowland single malt Scotch. )
Once Jameson has brought drinkers into the category, they start to get curious and explore what else the Irish have to offer. And that’s creating not just an opportunity for smaller brands, but also for new flavor experiences that push the boundaries of what modern consumers perceive to be Irish whiskey.
For one thing, the renewed interest in the spirit has prompted many enterprising distillers to go back to the country’s more artisanal, pot-still roots.
A style once called “pure pot still” was Ireland’s claim to fame a century and a half ago. In the 19th century, Irish distillers faced a tax levy on malted barley. The tariff did not apply to unmalted barley, so they started combining both the malted and unmalted grain. The resulting liquid was world-class and the style that defined the Emerald Isle tradition well into the next century—even Jameson, at the time, had been a “pure pot still.” Unfortunately, the style was all but abandoned—save for two exceptions, Redbreast and Greenspot—when the Irish had been usurped by the Scots, who were able to get their products to the market much more cheaply and quickly thanks to the advent of industrial column distilling. Dumping the pot stills also meant dumping much of the character the process retained. Column stills remove most of those nuances.
Luckily, “pure pot still” has started to make a comeback in the past few years. This time, however, it’s called “single pot still.” Single is a word that’s quite meaningful for most whiskey drinkers, so it’s a big help here. (Also, in the U.S., the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau frowns upon applying the word “pure” to products that aren’t considered healthful.)
Drinkers are discovering, through this resurgent style, flavor characteristics they didn’t think were possible in Irish brands. Many detect some intense spicy, gingery notes, as well touches of dark berries.
Single pot still offerings, of course, are a tiny fraction of a fraction of the whiskeys coming out of Ireland. But they’re an important step in refreshing the image of the country’s classic spirit, one that for too long has had to sit at the kids’ table while its Scottish and Kentuckian cousins got to dine with the adults.
This St. Paddy’s day, help Irish whiskey reclaim its rightful seat.