The renaissance in Irish distilling in recent years has been little short of remarkable. Back in 1987 when John Teeling established Cooley, that was Ireland’s third drinks distillery and first independent producer in over 100 years. The industry has grown rapidly since then, and there are now 38 operational distilleries in the country with more under construction.
More to the point, some of the whiskeys and gins produced by this new generation of distillers are now recognised as among the best in the world.
This is very much a case of going back to the future. Back in the mid-19th century Ireland had 88 licensed distilleries, producing more than 100 million litres of whiskey every year, making Irish whiskey the world’s biggest spirits category at the time. However, a combination of events including world wars, prohibition in the US, disreputable bootleggers and trade wars led to the industry’s demise and by the mid-1980s Irish whiskey’s share of the global market had fallen to just 1 per cent.
The late 1980s marked the beginning of Irish whiskey's comeback with the establishment of Cooley and the takeover of Irish Distillers by Group Pernod Ricard.
The growing popularity of Irish whiskey worldwide attracted international attention, and Diageo, William Grant & Sons and Jim Beam took a slice of the action by acquiring Bushmills, Tullamore Dew and Cooley respectively. Bushmills has since been sold on to Tequila Cuervo La Rojeña.
Among that new crop of new kids on the distilling block is the Dublin Liberties Distillery. Founded by international company Quintessential Brands in 2017, the distillery opened its doors at 33 Mill Street in the heart of Dublin's historic Liberties district in February 2017.
“When we opened in 2019 it was Ireland’s 22nd distillery, there are 38 now,” says Lisa Doyle, brand activation and commercial manager with Quintessential Brands Ireland.
“That’s fantastic for the category. A lot of it is about Irish whiskey globally, which has seen 140 per cent growth over the past 10 years. It reached 12 million cases globally last year, but we’ve still got a lot of catching up to do on Scotch. Even in 10 years’ time we won’t have enough supply here in Ireland to meet global demand. The local market can seem a bit saturated with all the new whiskey brands, but global demand is what it’s all about.”
McAllister Irish Spirits founder Gareth McAllister agrees.
“Irish whiskey was so dominant 100 years ago. It had 60 per cent of the market and that collapsed to 2 per cent. It has started to come back again since the early 1990s. It’s at 6 per cent now and growing year after year. It’s the fastest growing premium spirit in the world. There is a real renaissance happening.”
It will be some time yet before the first whiskey from the Dublin Liberties Distillery will be ready for market. “You need three years to produce Irish whiskey, and we only produce single malt and that takes at least five years,” says Doyle.
Nevertheless, the company is marketing its Liberties Whiskey range using liquid sourced from other Irish distillers and finished by its own master distiller.
“We started our e-commerce service March and apart from Jameson we were the first distillery in Ireland to deliver whiskey to your door. You can purchase our Liberties Whiskey Range directly on our website www.thedld.com, where we currently offer a complimentary Tuath Irish whiskey glass with our Liberties Copper Alley, Liberties Murder Lane and Liberties Keepers Coin.
"Liberties Copper Alley is also available in Dunnes Stores, The Celtic Whiskey Shop and James Foxes. The Dubliner range is also available in SuperValu, Dunnes Stores and Tesco. "
And members of the public have the opportunity to be part of the story. “We launched a founders’ cask programme last year,” she says. “Our initial introductory offer sold out in a few weeks. We have made our founders cask programme accessible for anyone who is interested in investing in Irish Whiskey. Our programme includes maturation for up to 10 years.”
McAllister Irish Spirits is also offering a cask programme. “We are building a whiskey and gin distillery in Ahascragh just outside Ballinasloe,” says McAllister. “We are using an old mill complex dating back to the early 1800s. We are preserving it and maintaining the original structure.
“It will also be a tourist attraction with an area dedicated to the history of the old mill. It will be an eco-distillery powered by renewable energy in the same way as the original mill was. We will adopt a circular model with no fossil fuels used.”
Labour of love
The new distillery is as much a labour of love for McAllister and his wife Michelle as it is a business venture. “We are very much a team,” he says. “I’m a chemical engineer and I’ve been building chemical plants around the world for the past 30 years. I’m also a whiskey enthusiast. Michelle looks after the gin end of the business.”
The distillery will open in 2022, but it has already launched its first products using sourced liquid.
“Our whiskey brand is called Clan Colla and the gin is called Xin Gin,” says McAllister. “We are taking pre-orders now for shipments in May. We have also launched our founders’ cask programme. People can book and purchase their own cask and they can customise it as much as they like within reason.”
Owners can customise the spirit by choosing liquids and the wood to mature and finish them, he says.
“We will have pot still, single malt and a blended whiskey. People can choose to bottle it under their personalised label after five years or continue to age it and add value to it as it matures.”
He believes the proliferation of Irish distilleries is good news for everyone.
“The more the merrier. It can only help the industry grow. Irish whiskey sales are set to double by 2030. Not many industries out there are growing that fast.
“People are realising there is more to Irish whiskey than the main brands they had become accustomed to. They want an alternative to Scotch. In Asia there is a lack of awareness of Irish whiskey, but once they taste it they love it. That will be our main target market.”