Earlier this month, the Irish Whiskey Association came into being. Ian Buxton looks at the category and considers why it is needed and what it will do.

The Irish have been making whiskey for centuries and seem to have got along quite happily without a formal industry association; until two weeks ago. So, what’s changed? After all, when Irish whiskey ruled the world and the country had hundreds of independent distillers, they didn’t seem to feel the need for one.

In the past, if lobbying was required, the four giant Dublin firms stepped up and made the necessary noises (although not always with terribly much success).

Since those halcyon days, Irish whiskey has been through some terrible times but, as all the world knows, is making a rapid and sustained recovery. With growth, and the prospect of that continuing into the future, comes confidence and belief that the category is entering a new era. Hence, one assumes, some envious glances were cast at the success of the Scotch Whisky Association and the Distilled Spirits Council in the US in promoting their respective industries -and the idea of an Irish Whiskey Association took root.

Remarkably, virtually the entire sector is on board, so I asked the new Association’s head, Aoife Keane, why  Irish whiskey now believes it needs an association. Naturally, she had a ready answer, pointing inevitably to the very growth I’ve already mentioned here. But, let's allow her to put some figures on it, because the numbers are impressive.

“The association has been set up to protect and promote the Irish whiskey category, which has grown by 220% in the last ten years, with average annual growth rates of over 12%,” she told me.

“Three years ago, the island of Ireland had four distilleries in operation. In the next three to five years, that number will [potentially] grow to over 15, [with] EUR1.1bn of investment between now and 2025. Thousands more direct and indirect jobs will be created and whiskey tourism is expected to attract 1m visitors annually.”

“With this growth comes the need for leadership in ensuring the category maximises its potential and continues to maintain the high quality standards that consumers have come to expect," she adds. “It is against this backdrop that we have formed the association.”

So far, so predictable. But, a mission to ensure the sustainable growth of Irish whiskey and promote the category is a big ask. The organisation aims to become the one-stop-shop for information on Irish whiskey – including its technical standards and economic impact – as well as being a resource for new entrants. Add to that a role in maintaining the integrity of the product (as per the Irish whiskey technical file standards) and a longer-term aspiration to promote Irish whiskey both domestically and internationally and the scale of the task becomes apparent.

At present, the fledgling organisation exists under the umbrella of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI), which represents manufacturers, producers and distributors. Also to be found there are the Irish Spirits Association, Irish Wine Association, Irish Brewers Association and the Irish Cider Association. With just four full-time employees, the ABFI aims to provide a unified voice in Ireland on issues such as alcohol misuse and taxation. The various associations focus on category-specific issues such as labelling at a domestic and EU-level, suggesting the new association will, initially at least, focus on whiskey-specific issues.

But, it’s off to a flying start. “Discussions started in November last year with a small group, which grew to 18 founding members by the time we launched the association last week,” Keane continues. “The biggest challenge  we had initially was making sure we had a big enough room for the meetings! We spent January and February agreeing the association’s mission as well as the work plan and areas for focus.”

Before long, there will be a website, and work to build relationships with the Irish agencies such as Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia. Beyond that, Keane will be developing the association’s approach to category protection: Agreeing a code of conduct for members and a process for dealing with suspected infringements of the Irish whiskey Geographical Indication.

As followers of the Scotch Whisky Association know only too well, this is a never-ending task and calls for a high level of diplomatic skill to keep all the industry partners on board and to raise the funds necessary to make a real impact in worldwide markets.

Indeed, the wider alcohol sector in Ireland continues to face challenges, such as a new Alcohol Bill, due to be published shortly, and pressures in the domestic market brought on by successive excise increases.

No doubt there will be growing pains but, hopefully, the new association will go from strength to strength. A strong and developing category is in everyone’s interest and, with a raft of new players entering the market, the need for leadership and high standards is evident. 

The potential role is there; the industry support seems to be in place – let us hope that the luck of the Irish goes along with the new body.

Expert analysis

Global market review of non-Scotch whiskies – forecasts to 2018

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Non-Scotch whiskies in aggregate represent an enormous and growing category, with Irish whiskey in particular showing real momentum. With over 100 data tables and unique insight, this new joint IWSR/j...read more