Irish whiskey sector poised to rebound after dip in sales

Volumes remained relatively stable even as travel retail sales fell 96.2% due to Covid

Irish whiskey sales proved resilient last year despite the Covid-related lockdown restrictions with volumes down 0.4 per cent to 11.4 million cases, compared with 11.9 million in 2019.

Even with the collapse in duty free and travel retail, as well as the widespread closure of bars and restaurants, volumes were down less than expected, with industry representatives expecting the sector to rebound more quickly than initially thought.

Prior to the pandemic, the industry was on track to break the 12 million cases milestone for the first time.

William Lavelle of the Irish Whiskey Association said, "11.4 million case sales in 2020 is a fantastic achievement for the Irish whiskey category and exceeds expectations in terms of what we initially thought was feasible during the pandemic."


He said the result was particularly impressive given that travel retail fell 96.2 per cent from 679,600 cases in 2019 to just 25,600 cases a year later due to restrictions.

“Last year we would have thought it might take three to four years to bounce back to our pre-Covid sales high. But, now, we can realistically target full recovery in the current year,” said Mr Lavelle.

Data from drinks industry analytics group IWSR shows whiskey sales in the US, the sector’s biggest market, held up at 4.93 million cases, down just 0.5 per cent on 2019.

Sales in Ireland were steady at 591,000 cases and increased 13.5 per cent in Britain to 531,000 cases. Other European regions to show growth were Germany, which was up 12 per cent; Poland, up 30 per cent; Ukraine, up 31 per cent; and Sweden, up 21.2 per cent. Farther afield, sales were up 139 per cent in Nigeria, albeit from a low base, with increases also recorded in China, Japan, India, New Zealand and Australia.

Jameson leads

Jameson remains the market leader with 7.6 million nine-litre cases sold last year, down from 8 million a year earlier. Tullamore Dew remained in second spot with 1.2 million cases, compared with 1.44 million in 2019. Sales of Bushmills fell to 744,900 from 822,300 over the year. Conor McGregor’s Proper No Twelve, which leapfrogged other well-known brands to become the fourth best-selling Irish whiskey globally last year, saw volumes double to 292,500 in 2020. Rounding out the top five brands was Kilbeggan, which overtook Paddy with sales of 168,100 last year.

Domestic sales of Irish whiskey rose 0.1 per cent with Jameson reporting a 1.6 per cent increase in volumes to 254,000. Bushmills was second with 76,000 cases, followed by Powers on 74,000, Paddy on 48,000 and Tullamore Dew on 16,000.

Irish Distillers chief executive Conor McQuaid said despite a difficult year, the Irish whiskey sector should be proud of its achievements last year.

“While we understand that it will take some time for some sectors to recover fully and reach pre-pandemic growth levels, we are confident that they will rebound and that the industry will emerge even stronger than before,” he said.

“Despite a ‘lost year of growth’ the whiskey business requires us all to take a long-term perspective, investing and laying down stocks today to mature for the years ahead. We will continue to support our partners in the trade and invest to support the rebound and remain extremely optimistic to the future for Irish whiskey both in Ireland and on the global stage post-pandemic.”

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist