Whiskey has made a tremendous comeback. After decades of decline brought on by a global love affair with vodka, whiskey is suddenly booming. More and more, everyone wants to try new whiskies, and the whiskey whose sales have grown the most—by a huge percentage—is Irish whiskey. From 2002 to 2015, sales of Irish whiskey in the U.S. have grown by an astronomical 642 percent, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
So, as distilleries open in Ireland at an ever accelerating pace, including several relatively large ones, some are wondering: could Irish whiskey be the next Scotch?
Stop and think first. What does that question mean? Scotch is by far the biggest player in the overall category, twice the size of second-place American whiskey. Of the world’s five major whiskey producing areas—Scotland, the U.S. (Kentucky and Tennessee, mostly), Canada, Japan, and Ireland—Irish whiskey lags far behind in last place and would have to grow a lot and for a long time to catch up with Scotch in terms of volume or even dollar sales.
The curious thing is, Irish whiskey once was a serious, head-to-head challenger to Scotch. In the 1800s it was a global commodity. There were distillers all across Ireland. But Prohibition in the U.S., Irish Republic’s post-independence trade war with England, and the trade embargoes and blockades associated with World War II combined to bring Irish whiskey low. The only reason Irish has been able to grow so rapidly in recent years and still be in last place is because it all but disappeared in the ’60s.
The industry wisely consolidated and merged, and now it is strong once again. Though it is still small in comparison to Scotch, if you measure preeminence in respect, acclaim, and variety, Ireland does indeed pose a challenge.
Ask most Americans about Irish whiskey, and their knowledge begins and ends with Jameson and Bushmills, and perhaps Tullamore Dew. It’s not much different in the rest of the world, outside of the actual island. But those three brands encapsulate why Irish whiskey’s potential is so great.
Jameson is the driver of Irish whiskey’s growth, the biggest Irish brand in the world. It is made at the Midleton distillery, near Cork. Like blended Scotch, Jameson combines two types of whiskey: a relatively mild-flavored whiskey distilled to a high proof and barrel-aged for a minimum of three years; and what is called single pot still whiskey, made from a unique blend of malted and unmalted barley, which gives it a fresh, grassy, almost fruity character like no other. (You can taste pot still’s unique flavors unblended in Jameson’s stablemates Redbreast and Green Spot.)
Bushmills, made in Northern Ireland, is the other Irish brand with which most people are familiar, and is much more similar to Scotch. Like Scotch, Bushmills is either a blend of malt and grain whiskies, or a pure single malt whiskey, matured in a combination of used bourbon, sherry, or port barrels. But whereas most Scotch whisky is double-distilled, these whiskeys are triple-distilled. (Midleton also distills its whiskey three times.) The extra distillation yields a smoother character that some people find more appealing than the more intense character of Scotch.
Tullamore Dew differs in that it combines all three types of whiskies used by the other two brands: grain, malt and single pot still whiskies. The Tullamore Dew distillery closed in the ’50s, so it currently blends whiskies purchased under long-term contracts from Midleton and Bushmills. But there is a large new Tullamore Dew distillery (in Tullamore) making malt and single pot still spirit, also triple-distilled. Next year what was made there will start to legally become “whiskey” after three years of aging in the barrel.
Just in those three distilleries there is already more variety than in Scotch. Then add the double-distilled and sometimes peat-smoked whiskies made at Cooley and Kilbeggan (where the Kilbeggan, Tyrconnell, and Connemara brands are made), the varied and innovative whiskies being produced at the new Teeling distillery in Dublin, and the dozens of new small distilleries in Ireland, and you have a whiskey homeland with great potential.
The near future will see a growing number of interesting and delicious Irish whiskies from an increasing number of distilleries. The whiskey industry looks to become an important part of the Irish economy again. And, of course, we get to reap those benefits.
So, will Irish be the next Scotch? Well, you’d have to talk to the bourbon distillers about that.