THE renaissance of Irish whiskey over the past decade has seen it become the world’s fastest growing brown spirit.
Global sales doubled from less than 6m cases (72m bottles) in 2010 to over 12m cases (144m bottles) by 2020.
Irish drinks exports grew 8% last year to reach €1.45bn with over half of that growth achieved by whiskey.
Ireland was a global powerhouse of whiskey production in the 19th century but it later fell apart and by 1980 there were only two working distilleries left.
The past 10 years have seen a dramatic turnaround with the number of working distilleries increasing from four to nearly 30 by the end of 2019.
Due to the increased demand for Irish whiskey, the areas of malting barley being grown in Ireland for the production process have also increased.
This is giving tillage farmers the chance to enter a niche market with their produce and increase their profitability.
That was the backdrop to the recent malting barley conference in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, part of a joint programme by Teagasc and Boortmalt, the global malting company, which has 27 plants on five continents,
including one in Athy, Co Kildare.
Kieran Kilcawley, Teagasc Moorepark, spoke about research he is conducting on terroir, a concept that the taste and smell of
whiskey can be directly associated with the location where the malting barley crop has been grown. While his research is ongoing, initial results have indicated there is a link.
Tom Bryan, technical manager with Boortmalt, said the company’s new malting barley facility in Athy is now complete and operational, with the reconstruction of the old facility due to be completed shortly.
With increased capacity, he said the company aims to purchase a record quantity of malting barley this season to 180,000 tonnes.
The growing interest in Irish whiskey has also boosted the tourism industry here. Over 1m people, a 10.5% increase, visited distilleries and brand homes last year, according to Drinks Ireland/Irish
North America remains the top market of origin for visitors to the whiskey distilleries, with tourists from the US and Canada accounting for 34% of all visits in 2019, followed by Ireland (13%), Britain (12%),
Germany (10%), and France (7%).
Last year also saw a rise in visitor numbers from Australia, Italy, and the Benelux and Nordic countries, all outside the top five markets of origin.
Between 2018 and 2019, the highest increase (32%) was seen in visitors from Germany, while those from Ireland (North and the Republic) grew by 16% and from France by 15%.
These increases were offset slightly by falls in the numbers visiting from North America and Britain. However, North Americans are still the highest
proportion of the visitors to whiskey distilleries and brand centres across the island of Ireland.
More centres are planned to open this year, including one at the Hinch Distillery close to Belfast and a new visitor experience at the Shed Distillery in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim.
Existing visitors recorded slight growth. The bulk of these resulted from four new openings: Clonakilty Distillery in West Cork, Powerscourt at Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, and two in the capital, Dublin Liberties and Roe & Co.
The number of staff directly employed in Irish whiskey visitor services increased by 15% in 2019, from 356 to 409, with a resultant economic boost to the communities in which they are located.
Irish Distillers, recently named Cork Company of the Year, produces Jameson in Midleton, Co Cork, where it has a long-established visitor centre. At the other end of the island, Bushmills Distillery in Antrim is another popular tourism attraction.
William Lavelle, head of Drinks Ireland/Irish Whiskey Association, said the total number of visitors to Irish whiskey distilleries and brand homes in just four years has grown by 54%, from 653,000 in 2015 to the 2019 record of 1.02m.
“Exceeding 1m visitors annually is a massive achievement and I congratulate the managers and staff of our 17 visitor attractions on achieving this milestone. Irish whiskey distilleries and brand homes are now firmly established as a star performer within Ireland’s all-island tourism offering.
“Jameson Distillery, Bow St, Dublin, remains the No. 1 Irish whiskey visitor attraction; and indeed the No. 1 whiskey visitor attraction in Europe; in addition to being voted the world’s leading distillery tour for the second year running at the World Travel Awards in 2019,” he said.
Mr Lavelle said the continued popularity of Irish whiskey visitor experiences could be attributed, in part, to the diverse range of tourism offerings within distilleries and brand homes.
“Irish whiskey is set to be a world leader in experiential tourism. Many distilleries and brand homes have innovated and expanded their offerings.
“We’ve seen a marked increase in blending and cocktail classes, for example, along with more ‘meet the maker’, food-pairing, and seasonal special events.
“The increase in visitors last year was undoubtedly supported by the Taste
the Island food and drink tourism promotion led by Fáilte Ireland.
“Irish whiskey distilleries and brand homes look forward to enhancing our participation in Taste the Island in 2020,” he said.
“By throwing open the doors of our distilleries, by showcasing our people, our places and our practices, we are putting our authenticity and the uniqueness of Irish whiskey on display.”
Mr Lavelle said while the 2019 visitor numbers are
year-on-year trends point
to potential challenges ahead.
“Future growth in visitor numbers to established Irish whiskey distilleries and brand homes will require a fresh approach to attracting visitors,” he said.
Mr Lavelle said it will prioritise its promotional activities in the US and
Canada, working closely with state tourism agencies. It will also continue to
keep a close eye on the
impact of Brexit on tourism figures.