The clamour in recent years to enter the Irish whiskey category suggests that the segment is poised to become the next big thing. But, with one brand dominating the sector massively, are the prospects for growth really all they're cracked up to be? Ian Buxton considers.

"It's the way I tell 'em!". Does the current excitement surrounding Irish whiskey not owe – just a little – to the comedic style of the late, great Frank Carson?

According to the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA), production is set to soar and, along with it, exports will boom, all leading to a growth in the segment's global market share of whisk(e)y of 300% by 2030. From 4% to 12% of all whisk(e)y – it’s a tall order. Without doubting the enthusiasm and expertise behind the new body, it’s perhaps worth considering that the IWA is barely a year old and so has no corporate memory of the very hard times that have blighted Irish whiskey’s all-too-chequered history.

But, the boom can hardly be denied. There are close to 30 new or proposed distilleries where - until recently - only a handful existed. This production explosion leads to a curious situation, highlighted by serial entrepreneur Mark Reynier, the driving force behind the Waterford Distillery project, who sees a "somewhat misleading impression of a vibrant and dynamic sector" that, in reality, is "as hollow as a doughnut".

"With a 40-year distillation monopoly, the Irish whiskey consumer has had less choice than an Irish stout drinker," he maintains. "Starved of any diversity, the Irish whiskey market has haphazardly blossomed with unfettered optimism as scores of 'own-label' brands burst on the scene. Last week, Dublin Airport announced a new Irish whiskey display of 160 whiskies - but the spirit comes from only four distilleries".

Even within that, and for all the optimism of the new ‘craft’ operators, one behemoth totally dominates the Irish scene. That, of course, is Pernod Ricard's Jameson which Diageo’s CFO Deirdre Mahlan reminded us in November last year is the elephant in the room. "The leading Irish whiskey brand has more than two-thirds of the category," she said. "It has transcended the category."

That stark fact, alongside Bushmill’s third-place in Irish whiskey, goes a long way to explaining Diageo’s exit from a category others are clamouring to enter.

Typical of those is William Grant & Sons, which in 2010 vaulted into the runner-up spot as it acquired the Tulllamore Dew brand. Subsequently, the company has made a EUR35m (then US$46.6m) investment in a new distillery at the brand’s eponymous home.

According to Caspar MacRae, Tullamore Dew's global brand director, William Grant's confidence is built both on recent trends and history. "Irish whiskey is one of the fastest-growing categories in premium spirits, projected to grow at more than 8% a year over the next five years", he says. "This is supported by broad consumer trends towards quality brands with authenticity, provenance and history – while Irish whiskey benefits from an accessible taste profile and positive category associations."

"Today", continues MacRae ,"Irish whiskey represents just 5% of global whiskey sales, but at one stage was the largest of all whiskey categories. Given the heritage, quality and passion for high-quality whiskey-making in Ireland, we feel it has the opportunity to appeal to many more consumers of premium whiskies in markets worldwide."

Pointing to the arrival of William Grant, Brown Forman, Suntory and Campari as well as his own project, Mark Reynier shares this optimism: "There is plenty of scope for Irish whiskey," he says. "If Scotch has been terribly lazy, Ireland has been desperately suppressed. I’m not saying the two sectors could ever equate, Scotland has an unassailable head start. But, today there are barely a handful of distilleries in production in Ireland while in Scotland there are more than 105.

"There is," concludes Reynier "tantalising 'room for improvement".

Well, I’d plan to strap in and tighten my seatbelt. As Brown-Forman’s $50m play at Slane Castle Irish Whiskey Ltd vividly illustrates, the cost of entry is rising rapidly. Big eyes are greedily looking at what remains today, for all the optimism, quite a small pie once Jameson has taken its slice.