Great heights

Not far from where I live is a little village named Ardmore. Just over the county line (and the River Blackwater), it is a pretty little spot, once dependant on fishing but now surviving well on reeling in the tourists instead. It’s home to the Cliff House Hotel, which has one of the better whiskey bars in the region, and it is also a popular spot for dives, with numerous wrecks just off the coast, including the HMS Scotland, which sank in 1875.

Scotland – the country, not the wreck – has its own Ardmore, one that is arguably more famous than the one in Waterford or any of the Ardmores scattered across the island of Ireland. Ardmore Distillery in Aberdeenshire was founded by the Teacher family to create malt for their blend, and it remains a primary component of Teacher’s. Their own bottlings include some TR NAS releases, and a recent 20-year-old that received a positive review on Malt, which pointed out that the 75 euro price tag made the release an excellent bang-for-your-buck whisky. By the time I clicked on to Master Of Malt to buy one, it had jumped up to 120 (as of now, it is back down to 75). So I had a rummage and found a Douglas Laing-bottled 21 year old from the same distillery for an equally reasonable 88 euro and bought that.

Ardmore means the same thing in Scots and Irish gaelic – great height. The links between our languages are a reminder of how much our countries have in common, culturally and historically. Obviously, when it comes to our beloved spirit drink, there are a couple of differences.

The much-touted renaissance of Irish whiskey has seen us rocket to an impressive 100 million bottles sold in 2016. For an industry that was in ribbons in the 1980s, this is like Lazarus rising and then winning a series of ultramarathons. However, we need perspective: In the first six months of 2017, Scotland exported 528 million bottles of Scotch, more than five times what we sold in all of the previous year. Yet Scotland’s staggering figure is a fall of 2.2% from the previous year. They are the whisky rulers of the planet, whether we like to admit it or not. So the question is, do we work to stand apart from them, or do we align?

When I spoke to Elliot Hughes and Peter Mosley from Dingle Distillery last summer, the subject of Irish food promotion came up. They talked about focus groups where brands were encouraged to separate themselves from the big success stories, and talk up how they were better than the best. The Dingle guys couldn’t see the sense of this, pointing out how ludicrous it was to be trying to lure consumers away from the big brands by claiming you are better on the basis of elements as random as the ‘air and water’ where your product is made.

Elliot made the point that you should let the big brands do the heavy lifting, then pitch yourself as similar, but separate. Think of it as – you’ve tried Guinness, Wrasslers is like that, why not give it a go? You don’t alienate consumers by telling them you are better than what they are drinking, you just say – have a sip of this and see what you think. I feel the same about whiskey. The Scots have inroads to markets, but more importantly they have inroads to hearts and minds. Theirs is a magical aura – of class, sophistication, quality. They also have an array of whiskies and distilleries that we could spend a century catching up to. So why not ride their coattails, rather than trying to row back decades of cultural osmosis? Why not say ‘Scotch whisky is a wonder, but Irish is too – and we aren’t all that different’? In short, why not just go ahead and drop the E?

In almost every Whiskey 101/Introduction to Whiskey article you read in the mainstream press, one of the most tedious and boring points is about how Irish whiskey is spelled with an E and Scottish whisky is not. It rarely goes into the subject deeper than that, mainly because the explanation is not very exciting – Dublin distillers wanted the world to know that their great whiskey was much better than that made by country distillers, so they shoved an E into the world to mark out how different they were. Or, Irish distillers wanted to differentiate themselves from Scottish blends, so they shoved in an E. Whoever started it, it all went a bit like Dr Seuss’s Sneetches On Beaches, where star belly sneetches get their stars put on and taken off as the unstarred ones do the same to fit in. So we were left with Irish whiskey, another construct of the Sylvester McMonkey McBean School of Marketing, where different and better are interchangeable terms.

I’m not saying that I want it taken off any of the brands already in existence, but for me, if I was a new distillery or indie bottler looking to make inroads into kingmaker markets like the US, or Asia, then I would have no problem with selling my brand as a boutique single malt Irish whisky. I wouldn’t stick a load of tartan on the label, or bagpipes, or anything to make it less Irish, but I would not bother with the E. Curiously, I would be fully entitled to do it.

In October 2014 the Irish Whiskey Technical File was published. It lays the groundwork for what will become the rules guiding Irish whiskey. There is an excellent study of it by David Havelin of LiquidIrish (and an excellent correspondence with Bushmills on use of ‘whiskies’ in one of their campaigns), but right in the title of the technical file one thing stands out – a dual spelling. It can be Irish whisky or Irish whiskey. So there it was, right on the front page. It was only a matter of time until someone chose to drop the E, but it seems fitting that whiskey-historian-turned-whiskey-distiller Peter Mulryan was the first. It also seems fitting that Déise-based terroirist Mark Reynier was the second. That both are distilling in Waterford is just coincidence, but in a few years time, Waterford whisky is going to be a thing. Both are outspoken mavericks, so it makes sense that they would grab the chance to be different, although this quote from Reynier resonates with me: “I loathe whisk(e)y. That PC catch-all spelling beloved of publishers and bloggers the world over – neither wishing to offend, nor prepared to make a decision, they use the tentative bracket to give us the worst of both worlds, like a unisex lavatory.”

There is an argument that the E is central to the identity of Irish whiskey. Marketing, it seems, is the key.  The idea is that dropping the E would confuse consumers; that we are better standing apart from Scotland, and that the E does that. My point would be – do we want to stand apart? Do we not want to be seen in a similar light across the pond? The bigger question is one of category awareness, but also geographical and historical  – how many consumers in the States see Ireland and Scotland and completely separate entities? Look at the Paddy’s Day photos from the States – bagpipes, kilts, tartan. Granted the Boston Irish might know what’s what, but do the vast bulk of consumers that we want to target know – or even care – that we are separate countries?  Do we want to be the guys correcting them and saying ‘well actually that is completely separate from us’?

Beyond that, ask them what a single malt is, and they will probably tell you ‘Scotch’. Scotch whisky is embedded as the single malt in the hearts and minds of whisky drinkers over there, so shape-shifting a little and using that as an access point seems, to me, like a good idea. Do we want to stand so far apart from the gold standard for potable spirits? And does this one little letter really achieve that aim? I would like to see the category move beyond an ‘us versus them’ mindset to a ‘us and them’ one. I made this point a couple of years ago, saying maybe it is time to move beyond nation and see the Scots as our celtic family, as Canadian and Japanese whisky starts to take over. While I love the ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’ mindset, I certainly don’t want to see us setting ourselves up for a fall – and over-the-top sound bites aren’t going to help us be taken seriously on the world stage, especially in regards to whiskey tourism.

Joe Brandie had an ironic name, given his status as a whisky legend. As owner of The Fiddichside Inn in Speyside, Scotland’s distilling heartland, Brandie – who passed away late last year – became a well-known face among whisky tourists in the region, who would pop into his pub in between distillery trips. The Fiddichside was part of a disappearing world – there was no music, no TV, and no food. There was a big, open fire, a good whisky selection, and a warm welcome from Brandie, ever present behind the counter, unless there was a funeral nearby and he had to shut up shop for an hour.

Brandie’s passing is a reminder of the rich whisky heritage in Scotland – a heritage that dwarfs our own. Obviously, things are picking up here, but for the Irish Whiskey Association to declare that we will be the world’s number one whiskey tourist draw by 2025 is somewhat ambitious. Whiskey tourism is a very specific thing – it isn’t someone on holidays here visiting a distillery, it is someone coming here to visit a distillery. Whiskey tourists are going to be vital for remote rural distilleries, of which there are now many here, but in order for that to happen, those distilleries need to build up a following. They do this by bringing their own product to market, and for it to be a hit, even in cult terms. Then the fans will want to come visit the distillery, see the warehouses, picking up the distillery-only bottlings and spend time in the area before moving on to another distillery. While whisky tourism in Scotland only really took off in the 1990s, the distilleries involved had decades if not centuries of unbroken history – and decades old stock.

A busload of Americans at a loose end in Dublin doing the Jameson tour, or the Teeling one, or the Pearse Lyons one, is not whiskey tourism. A group of whiskey geeks coming here, hiring a car and travelling around Ireland, visiting every distillery they can find along the way – that is whiskey tourism.  

Consider the above. Clonakilty in west Cork is a great town with massive tourism offerings – year-round festivals, and an abundance of attractions nearby. But for an unbuilt distillery to claim it will draw more than forty thousand people per annum to the town is at best ambitious. It’s not a claim that they will have 40,000 visitors – it is that they will bring that number of visitors to the town.

To give it some context: Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye has 50,000 visitors per year. Talisker has been in existence for two centuries, and has its entry level ten year old single malt on every shelf in every Tesco store in Ireland. It is an iconic Scotch, which goes a long way towards explaining why Talisker welcomes almost a thousand tourists a week.  I asked Michael Scully, the man behind Clonakilty Distillery, where he got his figures from. He said the numbers are projected to five to ten years after the distillery is built, and are based on what he claimed was a similar attraction, the Clonakilty Model Railway, which has 40,000 visitors per year.

I’ve been to the model railway, and it is great fun for all the family. I bought my wife and kids there, and the venue is also used to host kids parties. It’s a nice day out. If I suggested to my wife that we load the kids into the car and go visit a distillery, she would rightly tell me to fuck off. A distillery may draw people with an interest in food and drink, in chemistry, in history, but you are not going to convince kids that a distillery is a place worth visiting. Trust me, I’ve tried. So if you consider who in your family would like to visit a distillery, and who would like to visit a cool little railway town that makes kids feel like giants, then work out how many of the 40,000 would actually go to Clon to visit a distillery. I reckon it’d be generous to say between 15,000 and 20,000 is a more reasonable number.  

You can say, well the 40,000 figure is hypothetical, but it was being used as leverage as the distillery sought planning and funding. If Clon distillery draws 40,000 visitors per annum in twenty years, I will be impressed. But for now we need to keep our feet on the ground and accept that our Irish charm and wit isn’t going to hand us success on a plate. Where is our Talisker? Our Macallan? Our Ardbeg? You don’t become a whiskey legend overnight, and this isn’t the Field Of Dreams – you build it, you make a great product, and if you’re lucky, they will come at some point in the distant future.

Similarly, we don’t have a Feis Ile, a Spirit Of Speyside, or any festival where we can celebrate a rich heritage of classic distilleries. We have so much to offer any tourist here, but large numbers of mature distilleries is not one of them. In a few years Dublin will have many distilleries you can visit – but Dublin doesn’t need tourists; places like Waterford, Clare, west Cork, Connaught, Donegal need them – to rural outposts, tourism is a lifeline and the difference between failure and success. I am as optimistic as the next person, but we need to talk in real stats, real plans, real distilleries, and real whiskey tourism. 

 

Scotch has beaten us repeatedly over the last 100 years, and will continue to do so for some time, both in sales, in tourism, and – crucially – in reputation. If we are going to earn the respect of the spirit world, we will need to be realistic in our approach, and walk the walk before we talk the talk. Joe Brandie could have told us how much hard work it takes to become an icon – in the 57 years he ran the Fiddichside Inn, he only ever took four days off, and that was to mourn the passing of his wife. Brandie’s passing is a lesson in the difference between being a legend and being a myth – everything is about time, hard work and patience, and a lot less about how you spell the word whiskey. That said, if you’re thinking about starting a distillery in Ardmore in County Waterford, you might want to keep that E right where it is. 

Footnote: There is an excellent piece on FORA.ie about whiskey tourism

2 Comments

  1. Hi Bill,
    I have to say that I am very much in favour of retaining the ‘e’ in Irish whiskey.

    As a differentiator, it is at the very least, the most tangible indicator that the product is from a separate territory to British whisky. Given the oversupply of Scotch whisky in particular on the world market, it would be a unique approach to suggest that we differentiate the product by adopting a strategy that would serve to highlight any similarities, as it would essentially mean that exported Irish volumes would essentially be ‘lost’ in the tidal wave of British whisky.

    Those of us following the industry closely are well aware of the reasons underpinning the historical collapse – ironically one of the more minor ones being poor quality Scotch having been passed off as higher quality Irish whiskey! We should absolutely strive to set ourselves apart, stand behind the quality, composition and history of our national product and use accurate, focused business and marketing practice to support growth.

    However, with other articles on certain ‘sharp practices’ and light-touch regulation in mind, I would suggest that a greater discipline re. provenance and origin needs to be evident from our law-makers and industry bodies. Otherwise, we may as well call it snake oil (again, with or without the ‘e’!) and hope for the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi John, totally respect that point of view. To be honest, I would have thought any mention of dropping the E was heresy until the technical file allowed it. That started me thinking. Mind you, I’d hate to see Jameson Whisky on a shelf, as I’m still a traditionalist at heart. I have to admit my awareness – or complete lack thereof – of how the American market works probably shows; maybe the dropping of the E would just confuse consumers, and lump us in with what you correctly call a tidal wave of whisky. That said I think the booming numbers in sales over there are largely Jameson, and I’m not certain there is a deep understanding of the category beyond that, but hopefully that will change. Jameson have laid down the heavy artillery, now it’s time for the footsoldiers to get in there and start the real campaign, spreading the word on the great and varied product we have.

      Like

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