Distillers seek second golden age of Irish whiskey

High spirits: Strategy aims to grow global market share from 4 to 12 per cent by 2030

A bid to kickstart a second golden age of Irish whiskey will be launched by the industry on Tuesday when it publishes an ambitious plan for the sector.

Irish whiskey led the world in 1900, with 88 distilleries in operation - but a combination of events meant the sector went into decline and Scotch and bourbon took over.

Now the distillers are seeking to recover lost ground with the publication of the Vision for Irish Whiskey strategy.

It was drawn up by Ibec economists and the Irish Whiskey Association, a group of distillers who have come together to shape the future of the sector.


It says 26 new and proposed distilleries will open in the coming years, selling both niche and global premium brands.

The strategy says Irish whiskey is no longer about playing to the stereotypes of the “fighting Irish” or about spicing up an Irish coffee.

‘Highly rated’

“Irish whiskey has carved out its own niche in the global spirits market. Super and ultra-premium Irish whiskeys are among the most highly rated and scored whiskeys each year. Irish distilleries have won World Distillery of the Year awards three times in the last 14 years.”

Scotch has firmly established itself as whiskey’s world leader, exporting more than 90 million nine-litre cases a year, compared with Ireland’s 6.5 million cases.

Irish Distillers, now owned by Pernod Ricard, holds the largest market share here with its top brand Jameson accounting for at least 60 per cent of Irish whiskey sales.

The strategy notes Irish whiskey has been the fastest-growing premium spirits category globally over the past five years. Annual exports are now valued at about €365 million, up 220 per cent since 2003.

Bourbon exports

However, Scotch and US whiskey sales still dwarf the Irish figures. Scotch exports were valued at €5.2 billion last year, while US whiskey and bourbon exports were valued at €0.9 billion.

The strategy aims to grow global market share from 4 to 12 per cent by 2030 and to grow exports from 6.5 million cases to 24 million cases by 2030.

It says whiskey firms plan to invest more than €1.1 billion in their businesses in the next 15 years, but they are also seeking Government support to help new entrants and provide training and research.

Whiskey tourists

It also seeks Government support for the “necklace of distilleries and visitor attractions” around the State and says the number of whiskey tourists should grow from 600,000 to 800,000 in the medium term.

Bernard Walsh, chairman of the Irish Whiskey Association, says the potential for the sector is massive.

“There are over 130 Scottish distilleries that bring investment and employment into rural areas . . . There is no reason that Ireland cannot achieve similar success,” said Mr Walsh.

But it will have plenty of competition, and some of it is coming from non-traditional quarters. The World Whisky Bible named a Japanese whiskey as the best whiskey in the world for the first time this year.

Second and third places in the awards went to bourbons from the US, while the Redbreast 21-Year-Old was named best Irish whiskey.

Alison Healy

Alison Healy

Alison Healy is a contributor to The Irish Times