When James Joyce opined a century ago that “the light music of whiskey falling into glasses makes an agreeable interlude”, little did he realise just how agreeable it would ultimately become as an Irish export success story.
Exports from Ireland’s drinks industry continued to grow, driven in large part by demand for premium Irish whiskeys.
According to Bord Bia, Irish alcohol drinks exports were worth €1.25bn last year. The US remains the largest market, followed by the UK, Canada, Germany, and France.
Growth in the sector has been driven by continued double-digit demand in many markets, with Irish whiskey exports now valued at €620m and accounting for 42% all beverage exports.
Irish whiskey is sold in 135 countries and exports are expected to double to 144 million bottles by 2020. Jameson was the top Irish whiskey in US and across the world with sales of 6.5million cases in 2018.
In addition, Jameson scored its 18th consecutive year on the title’s Hot Brands in Impact magazine’s US list, delivering 9% growth in the market as an established brand over the same period.
Entering the top 10 marks a milestone for the brand, which has added more than 2.5 million cases and risen five places in the list over as many years.
“The fact that Jameson now sells more than any Scotch whisky bar Johnnie Walker further affirms the growing role and importance of Jameson and Irish whiskey on the global spirits stage,” says Conor McQuaid, chairman and chief executive of Irish Distillers.
Other regions, where the distiller is betting on future growth, include sub-Saharan Africa and India, which saw 40% and 50% growth, respectively.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council, the national business group in the US, premium and super-premium Irish whiskeys have soared. “This is an exciting time for whiskey hailing from the Emerald Isle, the category is on fire,” said its public relations director Maggie Quinn.
“It has a long and storied heritage as one of the first whiskeys, and that is attractive to millennials who are always seeking a backstory in their glass,” as she describes the marketing pitch made to American consumers on behalf of the Irish spirit.
Irish whiskey’s profile also appears to make it particularly appealing to adult consumers, who have only recently started to drink whiskeys.
An additional recent entry to the Irish whiskey market was MMA fighter Conor McGregor’s Proper No. Twelve brand. It has been getting a lot of attention over the past few days following the headline-grabbing incident in a Dublin bar.
Launched a year ago, it was said to have sold out an entire supply of six months in just 10 days. Previously, McGregor had enthused: “Proper No. Twelve for me is bigger than just making money, it is about my legacy and my love for Ireland. I want to create a brand that will live on, and that my children and grandchildren will be proud of.”
The whiskey, a single malt blend, has now been launched in the UK and Australia.
However, Patricia Callan, director of Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland, cautions on a number of global challenges.
“The Bord Bia report notes that Irish whiskey must not be overly reliant on the US and producers should continue to look at emerging markets. For example, consumers with disposable income are spending more on imported drinks in South Africa and Irish whiskey exporters are well placed to take advantage of this over the coming years,” she said.
With almost a quarter of all beverage exports sold in the UK in 2018, Brexit is another significant challenge for producers.
“The industry must continue innovating to respond to a changing consumer landscape,” Ms Callan said.
Earlier this year, Clonakilty Distillery opened its doors to became the 23rd Irish whiskey operating distillery. It wants to attract 35,000 visitors annually.
“The distillery is a great addition to distilling and whiskey tourism on the Wild Atlantic Way,” said head of the Irish Whiskey Association, William Lavelle.
“Last year we saw 923,000 tourists visit Irish whiskey distillery visitor centres across the country. We expect this number to grow again in 2019. Clonakilty Distillery will play a strong role in driving this growth, educating Irish and overseas visitors on the heritage and innovation of today’s booming Irish whiskey industry. We are an ambitious industry are our ambitions are increasingly global,” he said.
He noted that, at present, half of all Irish whiskey is sold in just a single market, the US.
“Our goal is to target more growth in more markets. We want to expand from our current 135 markets to at least the 170 markets where Scotch whisky is sold. More critically, in the markets where we currently have a low sales base, we want to grow sales by double digits each year,” said Mr Lavelle.
He underlined increased sales across Europe and in emerging markets such as Canada, Mexico, and Africa, identifying Asia and the Far East as a key focus to promote Irish whiskey exports.
While conceding that Brexit raises concerns for the Irish whiskey industry in terms of the uncertainty over potential disruption to all-Ireland supply chains and the threat of regulatory divergence, he also pointed to the possible advantages.
“Brexit also offers significant opportunities. Irish whiskey will be the EU’s largest whiskey category once Scotland leaves the EU and given our current growth trajectory we could, in a few years, overtake Cognac to become the EU’s largest spirit export,” he said.