Key whiskey trends for 2019 or possibly never

It’s that time of year when we look at trends for 2019. Actually, that time of year was about two months ago, in a different year, but I was busy then, so it has taken until now to get this done.

Predicting drinks trends is a risky business – do you play it safe by saying ‘markets will continue to struggle’ or ‘millenials are ruining everything’, or do you go all out and tell the world that agave/rum/armagnac/fermented CBD oil are going to be huge this year? I have no idea, as I am a 43 year old man sitting alone in his kitchen in a cardigan with a gas heater on. Trends, or fashion, or fads, or anything remotely resembling relevance are a foreign land to me. But I can tell you what I am excited about, or interested in, and what I hope to see in the Irish whiskey category this year.

Expansion: More distilleries, more indie bottlers, more everything. After some struggles, even the Moyvore Whiskey Vault got the go-ahead. There is a fantastic write-up by the ever-reliable Whiskey Nut about a meeting in the initial planning stages which shows just how much silliness had to be overcome, with ‘what if terrorists attacked it?’ being one of the more memorable NIMBYisms. It showed how hard it would be for any smaller distillery to get planning for warehousing on any scale. Fun fact: One of the chaps behind the Vault is the director of Writech, which did all the fire safety wiring for the colossal Midleton revamp, and you can see Writech’s timelapse video of the Garden Stillhouse being built here:

The Moyvore project means you can distill under contract, age the whiskey elsewhere, and not be worried ageing the barrels in your garage and watching them turn your azaleas black. It opens up great possibilities – now you just need a distillery, and not ten acres of warehouses that need 24-hour surveillance. Obviously, ‘just’ a distillery slightly understates the seven to ten million euro you need to actually build one and get it running before you even start production and then wait three to ten years before you can start making money. But hey, every little helps.

The Great Irish Whiskey Drought: Lads tis going to be worse than Black 47, there won’t be a cask older than three years left in the country. Or not, depending on who you ask. The question is – can the current supply of mature stock carry us to the point where we no longer need sourced as a lifeblood of new distilleries? I’m going to assume that with the boom at Bushmills, the answer is yes. Or at least, yes with an asterisk. And that asterisk is Brexit.

In 1996, Supervisor Leland Yee, left and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, center, pour several bottles of Bushmills whiskey down the drain in front of the Dovre Club, an Irish pub in San Francisco on March 17, 1996. Brown and Yee were joined by a small crowd from the pub celebrating St. Patrick’s Day to pledge their support of a world-wide boycott of Bushmills in protest of what they claim are discriminatory hiring practices in the whiskey’s plant in Northern Ireland

Brexit: Back in 1996, Willie Brown, the then mayor of San Francisco, poured a bottle of Bushmills white label down a sewer in the city. Brown was protesting what he said were Bushmills’s sectarian hiring policies, and called for a boycott. Irish Distillers Ltd, who owned Bushmills at the time, pointed out that while the town of Bushmills’s population was almost entirely Protestant, 27% of the staff in the visitors centre were Catholic, which given the demographics of the town, was a lot. It didn’t really take, and the line about Antrim’s finest being ‘Protestant whiskey’ stuck all the way to The Wire – as though Jameson was somehow a Catholic name.

Naturally, one year after after the San Fran demonstration, a DUP Alderman named Ruby Cooling started a one-woman boycott of Bushmills because the distillery sponsored Antrim GAA, which at that time did now allow members of the security forces to play for them. IDL had to explain that they sponsored many sports, not just GAA, but it didn’t matter, because this was the bad old days of the North – you simply could not win. We have moved on so much that it is hard to remember just how shitty it was. But now, thanks to Brexit, it would appear the UK wants to drag the North back to those bad old days.

Even in the early stages of Brexit you could sense that the goons leading the charge were looking to co-opt Bushmills into their mad rampage, with Andrea Leadsom back in 2016 droning on about ‘Northern Irish whiskey’ making Britain great again. I am very excited about NI whiskey, and I really hope that we can see it becoming a distinct Irish whiskey region, with a unique style and attitude – for it is a unique place with a unique identity – but right now the category to be with is Irish whiskey, not NI whiskey. But if that border goes back up and trade gets complicated, the fallout for all-island Irish whiskey could be sizeable. Consider how much sourced stock used here to fund the building of distilleries comes from Bushmills, or how much grain spirit goes from Midleton to the North; how much Irish whiskey is sold in the UK, how big whiskey tourism here could be for whisky lovers in the UK, or the border issues facing anyone who comes to Ireland and hopes to visit all the distilleries, North and south – the potential repercussions are endless. In short, fuck Brexit.

Wood: In Scotland, you legally need to mature whisky in oak. This means you can use any kind of wood, as long as it’s oak. Here, it has to be wood, usually oak. This allows us to bend and break boundaries, explore new flavours and cross-pollinate with other fields. Waterford were straight out of the traps with experimentation, using casks of Andean oak, wild cherry, chestnut, and acacia – a wood that Bushmills used as a finish on their distillery exclusive, while Midleton used native oak in Dair Ghaelach. Cask finishing is always going to be big, but here we have a chance to get really wild. So wood is big news, but not as big as grain.

Grain: When I was a child, there were no potatoes as adored as the Ballycotton potatoes. Each year my parents would excitedly bring home a bag of the Ballycotton new season potatoes, and spend meal times discussing how great they were. There was no marketing or branding; this was pure flavour. The spuds from Ballycotton were simply better – growing high on the headland behind Ballytrasna strand, the soil was kissed by the sea air, battered by the odd raging storm rolling in off the Atlantic, and nurtured by a farmer who knew what he was about. Ballycotton potatoes are still highly prized; there is simply something about where they are from that makes them superior – the sea, the soil, the sky. The Irish may not have a word for what made them special, but the French do – terroir. Coming from the wine regions, it is a way of describing how the unique environment of each vineyard produced a different flavour. But this isn’t about grapes or potatoes, but rather barley.

Irish whiskey does not legally need to be made with 100% Irish barley, and grain spirit is made from imported maize, so there was no onus on Waterford Distillery’s Mark Reynier to use Irish grain. None of the big guns use 100% Irish barley, but I would imagine that that was at least part of the appeal of the project he has undertaken. I’ve written about it before, many, many times, but I genuinely believe that his distillery is going to change how the world sees Irish whiskey. If you haven’t visited the distillery and tasted the different distillates from different farms, then you should, and only then will you understand why this is so important. Reynier may come across like a monomaniacal Ahab, endlessly pursuing the perfect single malt across the oceans, but he is deadly serious, and is in the process of making the most authentically Irish single malt in living memory. Between Waterford’s terroir obsession and Blackwater Distillery’s blockchain traceability, it would appear that the Déise are leading the charge in genuine, forensic provenance.

Culture: We have a dedicated magazine, blogs, social media accounts and a thriving whiskey culture. In 2019 this is only going to get stronger, and we are going to see more and more of the accused breed known as influencers. Across the PR and marketing spectrum, nano-influencers – or those with fewer than 10,000 followers – are becoming a key leverage point. They operate in niche fields and rather than just leading a million fawning accounts, they actively engage with their following. The idea of the influencer makes all of us want to vomit blood, but they have always existed – Jesus, Charlie Manson, Bertie Ahern, your local GAA star who won an All-Ireland and was thus hired by the bank to stand around talking about former glories; all these have influence and are, or were, influencers, just not in the modern, social media sense. A niche market like whiskey is a relatively easy place to become a nano influencer – just find a channel and use your voice. Whiskey lovers are few and far between – but the internet has made us a community.

So the fans are linked up, but what about the distilleries – could any of us accurately say where even half of them are with regards their plans, or their progress, or anything? I think that starting a distillery is such a labour intensive affair that distilleries often forget to keep the channels open to the nerds. It’s fine to have an interview in the local or national press once in a while, but this is a long game and you will be lucky to get an interview once a year. But if you connect with whiskey lovers online, through social media or blogging, and take them along for the journey, then you will have your a voluntary public relations operation ready to fight your corner. I know the distilleries that I feel most invested in, and the ones that I have the most interest in, are the ones that used social media well – it isn’t rocket science, just the odd tweet about the day to day working of a distillery, or blog post about yeast. You can retain some digital bitumen bandits to run your Insta account if you want, and nod blithely while they cook numbers and conflate clicks with engagement, but if you can do it at all, keep those direct lines of communication open to the whiskey community. After all, the smaller, independent distilleries need all the support we can give them, because here comes trouble.

El Diableo: An easy prediction for any year is that Diageo will continue to be the pantomime villain of the drinks world. Oh no they aren’t, oh yes they are, etc etc. To be fair, Diageo are fine, but I often wonder if they had been the ones in charge of Jameson/Midleton for the last four decades, how supportive would they have been of all the newcomers in the industry. About as supportive as Thanos was of 50% of the universe when he snapped his fingers in Infinity War, mayhaps. So Diageo are back – Louise McGuane wrote an excellent piece that gives great insight into what seemed like an odd move (selling Bushmills and then building a distillery in St James’s Gate), but a recent interview with Grainne Wafer, the global brand director of Roe & Co, makes you wonder about their game plan. Diageo have their sights set on the premium category, which as they rightly point out, is wide open in this country.  

“The Irish whiskey category is really dynamic, but the super premium and luxury segment of Irish whiskey globally is underdeveloped. We think there is a strong opportunity to drive growth of premium Irish whiskey. That’s where Roe & Co sits,” she told Fora.

You know, Roe & Co, the whiskey that looks like Bulleit and is discounted in Tesco yet you still don’t want it. The interview goes on:

“You’ve only got a handful of brands that are operating in that super premium space. There are some starting to build on that, but we believe we can take the lead and shape that segment,” she said.

“For example, some of Jameson’s new innovations like Caskmates and Teeling’s small batches would sit up there. Likewise, that’s where Roe & Co would play; in the upper end of that segment.”

So the 50 to 60 euro category. If that’s premium, then we are a far meaner nation than I previously believed. Of course, it was rightly pointed out by Serghios Florides, editor of Irish Whiskey Magazine, that as Diageo used to own Bushmills, a distillery that is packed with fantastic mature whiskey, for them to now act like they are going to teach us all about categories is a little rich. This sentiment was echoed Yves Cosentino, who was Global Marketing Manager with Bushmills Irish Whiskey from 2005 to 2008, in the earliest days of Diageo owning it.

Or how about this from Louise McGuane again, writing about Proper No. 12:

When I worked at Diageo in the Reserve Brands Group, Bushmills was added into our portfolio for a while. Nobody ever wanted to talk about it, focus on it, or even address it. The brand was an also ran in a company with a Huge portfolio of Rockstar Scotch Whiskey. It was an afterthought. It was under the eye of Diageo that the distillery sold off much of its stocks at the low point of the wholesale market. There was never a blockbuster ad campaign or indeed much love for Bushmills at the global office in London during my tenure.

So cheers once again to the mad titan Diageo, it’s great to have you back in the Irish whiskey category.

Diversification and innovation: The recent Bord Bia report into Irish food and drink showed some impressive stats for whiskey, but underneath those was a stark warning – we need to broaden our horizons. What we call ‘the Irish whiskey boom’ is, in reality, the ‘Jameson In America’ boom. If you subtract those stats, which relate to one drink in one market, it is a rather different picture you get. But Jameson has laid the groundwork, and hopefully it will continue to do so in emerging markets like Asia and Africa, while Diageo, Brown Forman, and whoever owns Bushmills this week will be able to do the same.

What we need to be able to do now is show the world that actually, Irish whiskey isn’t just the mellow, smooth, approachable Jameson, that we can do peat, we can do double distilled, we can do single malt, we even have our own indigenous style. We can challenge and confront misconceptions and have the confidence to try new things. Look at Irish Whitetail – contrary to what this misleading article says, they do not have a distillery, nor are they using African mahogany casks. They are using sourced, Cooley malt and finishing it with African mahogany – I’m going to assume the system they use is very similar to Tom Lix’s Cleveland Whiskey, ie, pressure + wood pellets = flavour. Lix’s approach to innovation is excellent – on the labels of his whiskey he challenges you by being completely up front about what he is doing. I admire his attitude and I enjoyed his whiskey. I’m not going to give up my respect for traditional ageing, but I definitely think there is room for pushing the boundaries in the category, both globally and domestically.

Health: I am prone to using terms like ‘neo-prohibitionism’, but even I need to face reality – booze isn’t especially good for me. I can ramble on with a load of whataboutery, drone on about how sedentary lifestyle, processed foods, or chemtrails, are just as harmful, but there is little point. Despite the fact that our alcohol consumption rates are falling all the time, booze is in the crosshairs of Big Health, and will continue to be for some time. Of course, it isn’t just about physical well-being, but social issues too.

In a bout of harrumphing, I happened to ask an ENT consultant how he felt about the health bill introduced last year. He said that we are only just starting to understand the impact that alcohol has on health, and that the cancers of the head and neck he saw were so often linked to alcohol consumption. Then I asked if MUP was just a class-based prohibition, and he said this: Don’t be afraid to look outside your own privilege. There are children whose lives are being ruined by parents who are lost in alcoholism, and cheap alcohol is central to that.

I can wring my hands all I want, but ultimately he was right. There are people who cannot help themselves. It’s like saying well, SVP buying food for families ravaged by alcoholism is simply facilitating their self destruction. Ask the SVP about this and they will tell you point blank – either they fill the cupboards with food, or the cupboards stay empty. This is not an either-or situation, where SVP bought the cereal for the kids so you can treat yourself to a slab of cans that costs half nothing. I’m not saying I want whiskey to get more expensive – it is already – but there is booze that goes for half nothing and it is ruining lives. That, whether we like it or not, is going to have to change, and it would appear that this is happening sooner rather than later. Yet however I feel about the impact on health of alcohol, cancer warnings on bottles of Irish whiskey, and not on bottles of Scotch on the shelf alongside them, is insane.

The decline of pubs: It has been a gradual decline, and it is going to continue. Drink driving laws are not to blame – if anything, our lack of regard for the dangers of drink driving allowed an unhealthy number of pubs to thrive here. We are drinking less, drinking at home more and – crucially – drinking better. I see little wrong with this picture. There will always be room for a great pub, but even in my hometown there are far too many.

One final prediction for 2019 is that I will continue to write too much. This post is 3,000 words, thank you for your patience. I wrote my first published piece about whiskey almost six years ago, and I would love to tell you that my passion for writing on the subject has abated, but it obviously hasn’t. Your passion for this blog post probably abated about two thousand words back, but thanks for hanging in there. Maybe I should make 2019 the year I learn to self edit. We shall see.

3 responses to “Key whiskey trends for 2019 or possibly never”

  1. Thought provoking blog indeed.
    Need a drop of the hard stuff after all that.

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