Is the time right for Irish whiskey to step out of Scotchs shadows?

Is the time right for Irish whiskey to step out of Scotch's shadows?

A change in permitted terms for Irish whiskey in the US has been turned from a problem into an opportunity by the market leader, Pernod Ricard's Irish Distillers. Whilst Richard Woodard is happy to applaud the unit's handling of the matter, could this not be used as a springboard, he asks, for the category as a whole to really hit the gas?

Some words have no place in the world of drinks. The term 'reserve' on a bottle of wine, for instance. Meaning what exactly? That it’s been matured for a certain amount of time in oak, maybe? Well, not if it’s a Sauvignon Blanc from Chile that’s just spent a few months – if that – in stainless steel. 

'Grand Vin de Bordeaux'? The very fact that a château feels the need to stick it on the bottle suggests a lack of self-esteem bordering on the desperate. The truly 'grands vins' need no such proclamatory nonsense. 

I could go on, so I will. 'Pure'. On a bottle of whisky. As opposed to what? All those 'impure' whiskies out there? It’s a nonsensical descriptor whose darkest hour came when Diageo renamed Cardhu single malt a 'pure malt' - when it was, in fact, a blend from various Speyside distilleries engineered to cynically exploit a sales boom in Spain.

So, it’s good to see the US Trade & Tariff Bureau (TTB) giving Irish Distillers a deserved smack on the behind for last year’s launch of Redbreast 15-year-old Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey. “Oh no you don’t,” they told the Pernod Ricard-owned business. “'Pure'? Doesn’t mean anything. Our rules say you can’t use it.”

Well, good for them. And good for Irish Distillers too, because they’ve transformed this setback into a springboard (they hope) for their Redbreast and Green Spot brands (very sexy packaging for the latter, by the way, while the Redbreast revamp is a tad ho-hum), claimed as the only single pot still whiskey brands available globally. 

The move to create the 'Single Pot Still Whiskeys of Midleton' coincides with a change to the terminology governing Irish whiskey production, banning the phrase 'pure pot still' and replacing it with 'pot still' – or 'single pot still' if it comes from just one distillery.

It’s a great way to raise the profile of a unique style of whiskey, which combines malted and unmalted barley, triple-distilled in copper pot stills. Anyone who’s tasted Redbreast won’t need to be convinced of the merits of this complex, yet eminently approachable style.

More importantly for Irish Distillers, at a time when Irish whiskey is arguably the fastest growing and most dynamic spirits category on the planet*, the term 'single pot still' adds another layer of heritage and provenance on which eager consumers can slake their thirst.

*Did someone mention Tequila? Come off it! Anything that’s 90% consumed in Mexico and the US is just a local speciality – a bit like calling baseball a global sport.

The growth, of course, has been led by Irish Distiller’s very own Jameson, which topped 3m cases last year on the back of a 24% hike in sales in the newly resurgent US market; and boosted by the supporting roles played by Diageo’s Bushmills and Tullamore Dew, now owned by William Grant & Sons – not to mention the sterling work of Cooley Distillery.

Given the oligarchy of brands spanning the Irish whiskey scene, it’s odd to think that Ireland was the cradle of whisky-making, boasting about 1,200 distilleries in the late 18th century. Then, 150 years of crackdowns on illegal production, Catholic-inspired abstinence, the rise of blended Scotch and Prohibition in the US all but killed the industry stone dead.

The twitching near-corpse that remained was stirred into life by the formation of Irish Distillers, a move that stifled competition but kept the industry (just) alive. Since then, it’s been a gradual process of growth and diversification, with the rise of Tullamore Dew and Cooley, plus the sale of Bushmills to Diageo in 2005, bringing back at least some competitive pressure.

And that’s exactly what the industry needs now. If Irish Distillers' move to create the 'Single Pot Still Whiskeys of Midleton' illustrates anything, it’s that the Irish whiskey category (in the US especially) has now acquired the kind of critical mass where there’s room for more niche brands and previously little-known product categories.

Cooley’s restarting of production at Kilbeggan in 2007 will help this process a little. The building of a home for Tullamore Dew – called for in this column and acknowledged as a possibility by William Grant earlier this year – would boost it no end, especially if the new distillery includes the possibility to produce rivals to Redbreast and Green Spot.

But, we need more. Unlike in Scotland (and, God knows, even there some great distillery names have been lost to supermarkets and housing estates), history has robbed Ireland of practically all its distilling history – it’s as if circumstances have conspired to create a kind of ethnic cleansing of Irish whiskey culture. 

That can’t be reversed in the short to medium term – if ever – but, surely, the time is ripe for canny investors to engineer a new wave of craft distillation across the Emerald Isle? The industry could certainly do with it, and the country, beleaguered by bail-outs and debt, is desperately in need of it (and likely to do all it can to ease the path of such new ventures).

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with what Irish Distillers is doing with Redbreast and Green Spot (despite the use of the p-word). I’m sure they’ll do a great job. But I’d rather they didn’t have practically the entire market to themselves.

And, I wouldn’t mind betting that everyone involved in Irish whiskey – Irish Distillers included - feels the same.