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Irish Eyes Are Smiling: No Longer Just a St. Patrick’s Day Phenomenon, Irish Whiskey Thrives Year-Round

Posted on  | February 1, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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Last winter, after a long night, bartenders and industry insiders were seduced by the pickle back, a shot of Jameson followed by a chaser of pickle juice. As more and more customers stumbled upon the surprisingly delightful combination, the briny ritual lost its mysterious allure shortly after. Yet those months of buzz certainly helped propel the powerhouse Irish whiskey brand along.

Wayne Hartunian, Pernod Ricard USA’s VP Whiskey, feels the pickle back craze was a purely organic dynamic “driven by passionate bartenders” that has “proven to be more than a short-term trend.” While attention-getting at first, Hartunian believes that once people tried Jameson they tended to like it. “It is a challenge to try to identify its influence on sales, but clearly the continued and growing advocacy of bartenders for the Jameson brand continues to be a key success driver,” he says.

Jameson may have had the good fortune of being front and center in the bartender-generated pickle back, yet over the past year other Irish whiskey brands have found the limelight, too. It looks like Ireland’s beloved spirit is continuing to shed its St. Patrick’s Day-only rep.

Grabbing the Pot O’ Gold
In 2009, Irish whiskey was the clear category winner among all whiskeys. Granted, it’s only a tiny percentage of the overall whiskey category in volume—roughly 2.5% according to figures from The Distilled Spirits Council —but Irish volume increased by 10.2% over 2008. (By comparison, the total whiskey category declined by .7%). As it relates to gross revenues, in 2009, the Irish whiskey category was up over 12%, all of which was attributed to the high-end premium segment. Total Irish sales were approximately $200 million in 2009, amounting to 3.7% of the $5.34 billion total whiskey category.

Brand Power
One of the brands instantly equated with Irish whiskey is Bushmills—and rightfully so. “Bushmills is all about bringing people together—it’s an easy-to-mix, flexible, friendly whiskey—so it blends well with the current at-home entertainment trend,” says Yvonne Briese, Bushmills’ director of marketing. “Whiskey is as popular as ever, and the premium segment continues to garner steady sales.”

For Abaigeal Hendron, Michael Collins Irish Whiskey’s brand manager, the transformation of the spirit from “St. Patrick’s Day drink to a year-round favorite,” is because of “both continued investment in the brand (and category) as well as ongoing promotion.” Early this year, Michael Collins, part of the Sidney Frank Importing Company Portfolio, did just that with the nationwide release of its 10-Year-Old Single Malt, and an updated package with a bold new label for its blended version.

Other recent products to hit the shelf and keep the category going strong include the first bottling of Knappogue Castle’s 12-year-old Single Malt, also sporting a new label for the brand. Over the past 18 months, Tullamore Dew introduced its 10-Year-Old Single Malt and 10-Year-Old Reserve to its whiskey line-up, too. And, Jameson isn’t the only Irish whiskey brand that keeps Pernod Ricard USA busy. The portfolio also includes Midleton Very Rare, Powers, Paddy and Redbreast. Last fall, Redbreast introduced its 15-Year-Old Pot Still Irish Whiskey to the U.S—the only traditional Irish pot still whiskey available today—that is triple distilled and made with malted and unmalted barley. It is matured for a minimum of 15 years in a combination of old Spanish Oloroso sherry casks and fresh American bourbon barrels.

Meanwhile, beyond the pickle back, Jameson received tremendous news: it surpassed the one million case milestone in the U.S. for the first time (rolling 12 months). “Not only that, but it is the fastest growing premium spirits brand and the growth rate is actually accelerating even faster,” notes Hartunian. “With the scale that Jameson has now achieved, it is not only growing at a very strong pace in large cities like in New York, but it is also one of the top contributors among all brands to the growth of the entire spirits industry.”

Irish Whiskey 101
Irish whiskey may sometimes get overshadowed by scotch, but Kenneth Reilly, category marketing director at William Grant & Sons, points out that pre-Prohibition, Irish whiskey was actually the more popular brown spirit. It is this sense of history that Reilly feels is essential to tapping into the growth of Tullamore Dew, a newcomer to the William Grant portfolio. “Irish whiskey is a segment that has stood the test of time,” Reilly notes. “Tullamore Dew is 181-years-old.” With education of the category and brand as a priority, Tullamore Dew is actively looking at new packaging that can help increase the visibility of this rich heritage.

A program that has helped bring Bushmills into the spotlight is “Since Way Back,” in which the brand celebrated and captured the close friendship and camaraderie between individuals and social circles through exclusive films and a series of events. “This mirrors the focus of Bushmills, and its dedication to shape its community. Bushmills is a heritage brand telling the story of its past, while bringing a new chapter to life—a new generation was targeted through this campaign that introduced 400 years of brand legacy being passed on. The program garnered a lot of positive attention and the public was very receptive to learning more about Bushmills Irish Whiskey,” explains Briese.

“Ireland has a long history when it comes to whiskey. We talk about the country’s story and then discuss Michael Collins’ unique attributes,” notes Hendron, who uses the opportunity to point out they are handcrafted in small batches at the last independent Irish-owned distillery; have revived the tradition of double distilling; and are the only ones to use peated malt whiskey in their new 10-Year-Old. She continues, “We aggressively promoted Michael Collins to the media in months other than just March. For example, we highlighted the versatility of the category with cocktails created by top mixologists across the country. Additionally, we focused on key whiskey moments during the year such as National Whiskey Sour Day (August 25).”

The Gateway Brown Spirit
Reilly says that Tullamore Dew’s approachable taste makes it a nice gateway opportunity for those looking to cross over to brown spirits: “Our demographic is the younger consumer, the 24-25 confident male and female. They are looking for brands that mirror their own personality and values, and enjoy Irish whiskey because they can have it any way they want: a shot, mixed with ginger ale or in an ornate cocktail. Our broad range allows consumers to enjoy and take a journey.” Capitalizing upon William Grant’s solid roster of brand ambassadors, Reilly is looking forward to the rise of a Tullamore Dew brand ambassador who will be able to merge the brand’s past with modern interpretations of cocktails.

Hartunian on the other hand, continues to see the rise in popularity of a classic Jameson & Ginger Ale. “Besides being a great tasting product, consumers like it because it doesn’t mask the flavor of Jameson,” he says. “The highest volume Jameson on-premise account in the world is based in the U.S. (McCarthy’s, an Irish pub in San Luis Obispo, CA), and they have built a very successful business around making the Jameson & Ginger Ale drink the primary year-round promotional focus.”

Reilly says there is a natural affinity among consumers to seek traditional Irish beverages when in Irish pubs. This sense of conviviality and unpretentiousness found in pubs will be the theme of a new campaign in the works for Tullamore Dew.

Pernod Ricard’s Hartunian sees bartenders at these pubs and neighborhood joints reaching for Powers more often, too, and Jameson’s brand recognition might have something to do with that: “The growth of Powers is purely organic. There are several bars that are recognizing the very strong growth of the Irish whiskey category, and building upon their successful Jameson business with Powers.”

In The Mix
An energetic mixology scene means bartenders are looking at serving Irish whiskey in more ways than neat. At Louis 649 in New York City, bartender Joshua Wortman says he is seeing more demand for Irish whiskey at the bar. “It’s a sleeper category. The flavors generally speaking are softer than bourbons and scotch,” notes Wortman, who once competed to be an apprentice to the Bushmills master distiller. “I would love to have some cocktails with it on the menu, especially now that we’re playing around with ingredients like Chartreuse and amaros that tend to work well with Irish whiskey.”

Nearby, at Death & Company, bartenders make drinks like the “Northender” pairing Irish whiskey with muddled cucumber and Averna. “At Bushmills, we have a group of 15 Masters of Whiskey across the country that have all been trained by master distiller Colum Egan at the Bushmills Irish Whiskey distillery,” shares Briese. “Part of their job is to discuss the brand with bartenders. Additionally, ‘cocktail culture’ is still a big trend, and we’re thrilled that many bartenders are creating interesting cocktails using Irish whiskey. With five marques available in the U.S., there is a lot of variety for mixologists to choose from in the Bushmills family.”

Michael Collins has also dreamed up an array of classic and modern cocktails, including a Michael Collins Manhattan and a “Frisky Whiskey” with Bärenjäger honey liqueur and Angostura Bitters. Likewise, Kellan has made its Irish whiskey more approachable with cocktail creations including the “Bomb the Castle” with stout and Irish cream liqueur and the “Black and Green” with sweet vermouth.

With the arrival of boutique Irish whiskey brands like John L. Sullivan made at the renowned Cooley Distillery, aged four to 10 years in single-use bourbon barrels from Kentucky with a whimsical label bearing the image of its namesake, the last Bare-Knuckle Boxing Heavyweight Champion of the World, the category is continually infused with new passion. Wild Geese, the high-end brand currently available in Ireland, will launch in the states in 2011, bringing a more sophisticated twist to the category. Still, it’s nice to know that tradition has not been broken, and that St. Patrick’s Day will always be a time to up the sales of Irish whiskey. “It’s a segment that’s come into its own, but we still see a great rise in volume over the holiday,” says Reilly. “Along with Guinness, Irish whiskey owns St. Patrick’s Day.”


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