The Angle’s Share

Friends, I have been to the mountaintop; I have been there and I have looked beyond and I have seen the promised land. In other words – I have seen Scottish whisky tourism at work, in Speyside in 2015 and 2018. At the Spirit of Speyside Festival you can see first-hand just how the entire region and all the distilleries in it work together to make the event a success. It is in this model that Ireland can draw inspiration. Enter Irish Whiskey 360°:

One shared spirit, many unique characters.

Irish Whiskey 360° leads you deep into the homes and heartlands of Ireland’s extraordinary distilleries. Your journey will take you North, South, East and West, through ever-changing landscapes, from rugged coastlines to historic cities.

This is part of the Taste The Island initiative from Fáilte Ireland, the Irish tourism board, and it takes an all-island approach to food tourism. Bushmills, one of the greatest distilleries in the world, is located in the North, along with powerhouse newcomers Echlinville, to name but two, so no whiskey tourism programme could exclude NI. When it comes to something as niche as whiskey tourism, the last thing we need are divisions. 

I was filled with great expectations; the 360 site would operate as a vast guide to all the distilleries, telling you who had mature stocks, who didn’t, who you could visit anytime, who you could visit by appointment only. There would be a section telling you about distillery only bottlings, a complete, all-Ireland map showing preferred routes from distillery to distillery, perhaps even a few other places of interest for people coming here to travel around and really gaze into the heart of Ireland – silent distilleries, great whiskey pubs, the odd brewery that does collaborations with whiskey firms; there would be warehouses, whiskey experiences, good restaurants with a whiskey slant. We need to build those links between distilleries – a trail of breadcrumbs to lure fans out into the wilds. This would be one for the real whiskey tourist, not just the coach tours who just want to use the loo. 

Anyway, this is the map:  

Aside from everything else, what is the story with the red speckles? Has there been an outbreak of plague in the north west and sunny south east (again)?

Seventeen locations, and not all of them are distilleries – Tullamore Distillery is by appointment only, one day a week, so the location they are flagging is the Tullamore DEW experience in the town. Same for Bow Street – it’s a whiskey experience, not a functioning distillery. As for places on that list where you can buy indigenous whiskey, I reckon about half of them have gift shops where you can come away with something that was actually distilled there. So the website’s claims that with their guide you’ll get to know the many very different characters that make up the Irish whiskey family seem more than a little far fetched – you’re far more likely to get to know a lot of Cooley and Bushmills. 

The breakdown of the 17 distilleries is thus: 

Roe & Co Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

The Powerscourt Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

Dublin Liberties Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

Clonakilty Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

Slane Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

Pearse Lyons Distillery – new distillery, mature stock from when they were operating in Carlow, nothing from the new site (as far as I know).

Royal Oak Distillery – new distillery, should have mature stock shortly. 

Rademon Estate Distillery – mature stock coming out later this year. 

Connacht Whiskey Distillery – mature stock, no idea when it is being released. 

The Echlinville Distillery – mature stock, no idea when it is being released.

Dingle Distillery – mature stock.

Kilbeggan Distillery – mature stock.

Tullamore D.E.W. – no mature stock either in the distillery or the bonded warehouse tourism bit in the town.

Jameson Distillery, Midleton – mature stock. 

Teeling Whiskey Distillery – mature stock.

Bushmills Distillery – mature stock. 

Jameson Experience, Bow Street – has some maturation on site but to all intents and purposes, no mature stock. 

The Irish Whiskey Association are keen to point out that this is phase one of the project, so this might explain why they only listed distilleries that can take larger tours. The distilleries listed all also happen to be IWA members, and this is where my nerves start jangling. If the IWA wants to create a whiskey tourism offering that only features their members, there is no problem – some of the biggest drinks firms in the world (Brown Forman, Pernod, Diageo, etc etc) are members of the IWA via their Irish operations, so they can afford to create their own initiative and promote it themselves. My issue is that our national tourism board has partnered with the IWA for this, something which is thus far a remarkably limited view of Irish whiskey in 2019. It’s taste the island, not taste the IWA. 

So I put this query to the IWA’s PR firm: There are some distilleries in Ireland not on the list – what was the criteria for the ones currently on the map? Are other attractions going to be added – such as whiskey pubs? Or is it just for whiskey distilleries? The response I got was this: 

“Phase one features Drinks Ireland | Irish Whiskey Association member visitor centres/brand homes who came together to initiate and fund the development of the project. Future phases will see extension to other Irish whiskey tourism partners, including those in the on-trade.  The Festival of Irish Whiskey in October will include other participants beyond the 17 featured visitor centres and brand homes.”

All the distilleries here pay a lot of tax, and some of that tax goes towards funding the tourism board – I would be deeply concerned if I thought any whiskey firms might be excluded from any tourism initiative. Granted, some don’t do large scale tours, but places like West Cork Distillers and Waterford Distillery host visitors (albeit it on a very small scale at the moment). So I went back to the PR firm for clarity, asking: Are non-IWA members going to be included in the campaign, including having their presence marked on the map of distilleries, as well as on the website? Or is this initiative purely focussed on IWA members? The mercurial reply was: 

“Future phases will see more partners being included, on a commercial basis. The current focus is on the 17 founding members and the Festival of Irish Whiskey, which is open to non-IWA members to be included.”

Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, but there is something about those answers (‘on a commercial basis’) that leads me to think that non-IWA members might end up being left out, or treated as a lower tier in our whiskey tourism offering. Again, there is nothing against the IWA running a tourism campaign, but if this is the Irish whiskey section of the Taste The Island campaign, then we cannot leave out some places because they are not in the IWA, or even because they only take small tours, or are not normally open to the public. Have a look at the Visit Scotland whisky tourism site and how they portray Speyside – all the distilleries are listed. Then read this breakdown of the sheer power of whisky tourism in Scotland as a whole. If the Scots are getting it right, there is no harm in following their lead.

We either have a vibrant whiskey scene, or we don’t. We either have a thriving whiskey tourism offering, or we have a list of 17 places – some distilleries, some not – that you can go and walk around with your mouth open. Festivals are meaningless when the most basic tool of any tourist – a map – only shows a select few sites of interest. Who would look at the 360 map and think Connacht Distillery is worth driving across the country to see? There needs to be a trail, a route, a guide. I find it extraordinary that there is a far more comprehensive list of distilleries and upcoming whiskey projects available on the excellent Westmeath Whiskey World blog than there is on the 360 site. 

Part of the problem here is that the IWA has become the body to represent the industry, even though it doesn’t represent all of the industry. The IWA is there to represent business interests, but what happens to those who have no interest in paying a subscription to be a member? What about the smaller, indie firms who can’t afford to join? I understand that there needs to be some benefit to IWA members, but in this particular instance, there needs to be a bigger view taken. Firms can be rivals on the shelf, but should be comrades everywhere else.

I would very much hope that the next phase of the 360 project includes all distilleries; just last week I met up with an American tourist who came here purely to visit distilleries, and those that he couldn’t tour, he went along to and took photos from the outside. That’s the power of whiskey tourism, and understanding how it works will be key to harnessing it. We have a young scene, but it is vibrant, and, much like Scotland, it has one of the most beautiful backdrops in the world. By following the example the Scots have set, we too can find the promised land.

Dunville’s, distilleries, Speyside, patience

Indo col 54:

St Malachy’s Church in Belfast is a survivor. Built in 1841 in what Sir John Betjeman once described as ‘a cheerful gothic’ style, it had its windows blown in by a German bomb during the Second World War, whilst also having the remaining windows sucked out when another bomb hit the nearby gasworks, causing a massive vacuum. Some of the windows were then filled in with concrete, which ultimately damaged the surrounding brickwork, and eventually more than 80,000 handmade bricks had to be replaced. Apart from all those woes, the church also had to deal with some especially pedantic neighbours.

St Malachy’s is home to the largest and possibly loudest bell in Belfast – its din was so great  that it started to bother the Dunville family, who owned the nearby Royal Irish Distillery. They claimed that the noise from the bell was disturbing the whiskey they had maturing in their warehouses, and managed to create enough of a headache for church bosses that they actually agreed to cover the bell in felt to help muffle the sound. Perhaps picking a fight with the church wasn’t the best idea for Dunvilles, as they went into voluntary liquidation in 1936, despite the fact that they were still in profit at the time. Many of the old Irish distilleries ended like this – brought down by a combination of bad timing, bad luck and the misfortune of having the canniest rivals they possibly could – the Scots. For almost a century, our Celtic neighbours have ruled the whisky world, and now we are in resurgence we have a lot of old scores to settle.

By now you will have heard that there is a whiskey boom here. All over the country distilleries are popping up, Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirits category in the world, and we are screaming back into the consciousness of drinkers like a rocket from the crypt. People are starting to talk about whiskey tourism, with industry body the Irish Whiskey Association even going so far as to say that they envision Ireland being a world leader in whiskey tourism by 2030. This is, of course, wonderful; everyone likes good news, especially when it involves the Irish doing well. However, it may take a little longer than 12 years to beat the Scots at whisky tourism, and all we have to do to realise this is to look across the Straits of Moyle to our old distilling rivals.

Scotland has two major whisky festivals – Feis Ile on the island of Islay, the location where Irish monks made the terrible mistake of teaching the Scots how to distill, and the Spirit Of Speyside, held in the true whisky heartland above the Cairngorm mountain range. While Islay has fewer than ten distilleries, Speyside has more than 50, many of them household names – The Glenlivet, The Macallan, Balvenie and Glenfiddich being some of the best known. They are the brands that permeate the consciousness of the average consumer. They have been in existence for up to a century or more, and have made their way into popular culture via cinema, art, and music. During the Speyside festival these titans of whisky and dozens more throw open their doors to their adoring public, and thousands flock from all over the UK, the US and Europe to be there. This, in a nutshell, is whisky tourism – people going to a place purely for the whisky, a sacred pilgrimage to the spiritual home of their favourite drink. It takes generations for a whisky brand to build up this sort of fanbase, because whisky is all about time. It takes three years for spirit to age in a cask before it can legally be called whiskey, but it takes far longer to become an icon. A ten year old single malt is considered to be entry level, and you will need considerably older stock than that to lure in significant numbers of tourists.

So this is where we are lacking – our new distilleries are going to be waiting for a decade or more before their stock starts to really make an impact on the global whiskey scene. Combine this with the fact that, outside of Dublin, we really don’t have any clusters of distilleries like they do in Speyside or Islay, where fans can walk, cycle, or simply stagger from distillery to distillery. If whiskey tourism is to work in Ireland, it will need more than just distillery visits, and that’s where we can learn from the Speyside festival.

I’ve been to the festival twice, in 2015 and this year, and it is an excellent illustration of how whisky tourism should work. Distillery visits and the drink itself may be the bedrock, but the festival is more about Scottish culture than anything. There were nature walks, ceilidhs, formal dances, incredible food, and treks into the mountains on amphibian Argocats. I went to talks on geology, a water tasting session, a distillery tour where we munched on malted barley, and more fine food than I should have eaten. There was breathtaking scenery, beautiful architecture, wonderful people and memories that will last a lifetime. This wasn’t a booze cruise – it was about losing yourself in heritage, history and tradition (whilst drinking some of the world’s greatest single malts, obviously).

We may not have mature distilleries that hark back two centuries, but we have all the other elements ready to go. In fact, Alan Winchester, the legendary master distiller of The Glenlivet – the person who told me about Dunvilles versus the bell of St Malachy’s – was singing the praises of the startling beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way, a route that is now peppered with whiskey tourism attractions. Seeing what the Spirit Of Speyside has to offer is a lesson in how whisky tourism should be done – rather than claiming we are going to beat the Scots, we should be learning from them and working with them. If a tourist is coming from Canada to visit Scottish distilleries, it’s a mere hop, skip and a jump to Ireland, where whisky fans can visit iconic distilleries like Bushmills and relative newcomers like the innovative Echlinville Distillery, who resurrected the old Dunville brands, rebuilding a link to our lost distilling heritage.

Irish whiskey’s return to the world stage will be as much about respect as it is about sales and economics – the great bell of St Malachy’s still rings three times a day, a reminder that when it comes to spirit matters – both liquid and divine – faith, devotion and a decent measure of humility are key to salvation.

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

Forty shades of delicious

I wrote a couple of pieces for the Irish Examiner Food & Drink supplement; one about innovation in food and drink, and one on (of all things) whiskey.

And would you believe I didn’t get any free booze for doing this? Shocking. WTF is journalism coming to? Anyway, here you go:

 

Brewing up a storm

Our forty shades of green are more than just a tourism slogan – they are also a sign of just how strong agriculture is in this country. Whiskey sales may be rocketing, but our craft beer scene is also getting stronger, with a plethora of new brands coming on stream every month – to the point that many of the brewing giants are trying to cash in and creating ‘craft’ styled brands. When the titans of industry are getting rattled, you know a revolution is taking place.

It has been 21 years since the late Oliver Hughes and his cousin Liam LaHart opened the Porterhouse in Temple Bar, and while the concept seemed alien at the time in a country where you drank one of three lagers or one of three stouts, the modern boom shows just what a thirst there was for change. A Bord Bia report released last year highlighted this, pointing out that there is an estimated 90 microbreweries operating in the Republic of Ireland, of which 62 are production microbreweries and at least 28 are contracting companies. There was a 29% increase in the number of production microbreweries from 48 in 2015 to 62 in 2016. The number of microbreweries has more than quadrupled since 2012.

As the scene grows, so does innovation in the category. Munster Brewery in Youghal is one example. Last year the brewers, twins Padraig and Adrian Hyde, released 12 Towers,  Ireland’s first certified organic beer. They also signed up to a green earth initiative: “We’ve delighted to say we’ve just signed up to the Climate Neutral Now programme, where we promise to reduce emissions and offset any unavoidable ones by buying carbon credits. It’s an extra expense we don’t really need but one we’re happy to pay. We’ve gone and committed the entire brewery to the Climate Neutral Now programme so we’re busy as bees monitoring energy usage and fuel.”

Apart from making their beers more earth and body friendly, they also make the ancient health drink kombucha under their HOLO (holistic and organic) brand. While they also offer tours, they are frustrated by the licensing laws, which prohibit small brewers and distillers from selling direct to customers. They can sell huge amount wholesale, but not a few bottles to a tourist – an issue for any potential drinks tourism.

Innovation is integral to the drinks category – and with the explosion in craft breweries and distilleries comes new ideas. Perhaps one of the biggest success stories in drinks innovation here is Baileys, the first of the now ubiquitous Irish creams. A collision of two forms of famring – tillage (barley for whiskey) and dairy (the cream), it was dreamed up by David Dand in Dublin in 1974. Legend has it that it was first created using a simple mixer (blending cream and whiskey takes a bit more science than that),  it now sells 6.4m cases year, or 80m bottles – more than the entire Irish whiskey industry combined. Every three secs someone, somewhere in the world is having a Baileys. The brand has also expanded to include Baileys Gold, Baileys Chocolat Luxe, and flavours Biscotti, Vanilla-Cinnamon, Pumpkin Spice, Espresso and Salted Caramel. Each year, 38,000 Irish dairy cows produce more than 220 million litres of fresh cream specifically for the creation of Baileys.

The success has prompted other entrants to the category, with Cremór, Kerrygold, Carolans, Molly’s, Brogans, Saint Brendan’s and Coole Swan all doing a booming trade.

Kerrygold Irish cream is produced by the Ornua group, which recently released booming stats. As Ireland’s largest exporter of primary Irish dairy products, they delivered a strong trading performance in 2016, with turnover up by 9% to €1.75 billion – a figure all the more remarkable when you consider that this performance was achieved in a year of volatile milk prices and political uncertainty in some of their key markets.  The global giant’s ambition is to move Kerrygold from being a world-class butter brand to an instantly recognisable €1 billion global dairy brand in the coming years. 2016 saw the successful launch of Kerrygold Yogurts in Germany, Kerrygold Spreadable in the UK and the continued roll-out of Kerrygold Irish Cream Liqueur across Europe and the US.

Ireland’s strength in the export of food and drink products is also reflected in the success of the Carbery Group, a global leader in food ingredients, flavours and cheese, headquartered in Ballineen, Cork. Founded in 1965 as a joint venture between four creameries and Express Dairies, UK, Carbery Group is owned by four Irish dairy co-operatives, employ more than 600 people, and manufacture from eight facilities worldwide, including Ireland, UK, USA, Brazil and Thailand. The group has moved far beyond the traditional bedrock of cheese to health and nutritional supplements and flavour creation.

One knock-on from the distilling is the boom in gins, used as a revenue generator by distilleries as their whiskey stocks mature, while the use of local botanical infusions in the gins give them a regional flavour that sets each apart. One of Carbery Group’s success stories in drinks innovation blends the normally disparate worlds of dairy farming and distilling. Originating from Ballyvolane House in Cork, Bertha’s Revenge gin is named after a cow, a tribute befitting an alcoholic beverage distilled from sweet whey, the liquid produced during cheese making. Bertha’s Revenge is distilled with whey alcohol sourced from Carbery and derived from cow’s milk produced by Cork dairy farmers.

Using specially developed yeasts to ferment the milk sugars in the whey, Carbery brew and then double distill the whey in large column stills. Justin Green of Ballyvolane House and his business partner Antony Jackson then distill the 96% proof whey alcohol a third time in their custom-made 125 litre copper stills along with botanicals such as coriander, bitter orange, cardamom, cumin and clove as well as foraged local botanicals such as elderflower and sweet woodruff. The resulting gin has won local and international acclaim since its launch in 2015, and Bertha’s Revenge is now exported to the UK, mainland Europe and even South Korea – and, later this year, to the US, where it just won a Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2017.

Bertha’s Gin has shown that innovation, experimentation and even the occasional odd idea can get the best out of Ireland’s tradition of agricultural excellence – and proof that those forty shades of green can always keep us in the black.

Distillers of future past

The old adage of ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’ may not be true in all fields, but in whiskey it might just be. With a history of distilling dating back to its first mention in the Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405 (the Scots’ earliest mention is 1494), we were the world’s greatest whiskey makers by the late 1800s, with distilleries dotted all over the country. But that changed – a combination of war, pestilence, famine and a simple changing of tastes saw us go into a period of decline that hit a low point in the Seventies and Eighties, with only two distilleries left on the island of Ireland – Bushmills and Midleton. We were an also ran in the world whiskey scene, with our neighbours the Scots having left us for dust.

Fast forward to the last six years: Through careful marketing – and our old friend ‘changing tastes’ – Jameson has rocketed to the fasted growing spirit brand in the world, and that rising tide of smooth irish liquor has lifted a number of boats, with distilleries popping up all over the country. This is great news for the whiskey fan, but the wider effects will be felt in agriculture and tourism. In the short term, more distilleries means a need for more barley, more maltsters, and thus more employment. In the longer term, it will mean more tourists.

Whisky tourism is worth tens of millions to the Scottish economy – travel across a region like Speyside, where there are 50+ distilleries, and you can see how a coherent strategy has been built around whisky – there is even a walking trail you can take, bringing you through the hills from distillery to distillery. But they have had decades to draw a roadmap for tourism, while here our industry is still in its infancy, with a number of distilleries in operation, in the process of being built, at the planning stage, and some that are still trying to get beyond being a pipe dream.

Dublin has a number of distilleries at various stages – the merchant princes of Irish whiskey, Jack and Stephen Teeling, sons of the legendary John Teeling, who opened Cooley distillery and democratised whiskey by selling it direct to bottlers, have an incredibly slick operation in Newmarket Square. Alltech agrifoods billionaire Pearse Lyons has his eponymous distillery housed inside an old church in the Liberties, while a couple of hundred years down the road the former owners of Bushmills, Diageo are building a distillery within one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ireland – the Guinness site at St James’s Gate. Also nearby is the Dublin Liberties Distillery, which has recently commenced construction. Meanwhile, the longest serving whiskey tourism hub in Dublin, the Bow Street Jameson Heritage Centre, recently re-opened after a massive €11m overhaul.

But Dublin doesn’t need a selection of distilleries to attract tourists – it is simply another string to the city’s bow. It is the distilleries spread across the country that need to be brought together under one tourism vision.

Outside the Pale, the Jameson Heritage Centre in Midleton is the biggest whiskey tourism draw that Ireland has right now, bringing in hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. But what gives Midleton the edge over their Dublin wing is that they have the heritage, the history, and – tucked away behind it all – one of the most modern, efficient distilleries in the world. In recent years Midleton added another attraction – an experimental micro-distillery.

Ignacio Peregrina, General Manager at The Jameson Experience Midleton: “Since we opened in 1992 we have been delighted to welcome over 2.3 million visitors to Midleton. We’re always delighted to bring our heritage to life for new audiences and send people home as strong ambassadors for Irish whiskey. In the last 25 years, we’ve welcomed people from all over the world from Hollywood royalty, Kevin Spacey to Cork royalty, Roy Keane!”

Since opening in 1992 the Midleton centre has welcomed 2.3 million visitors, while last year it hosted 125000. Of the top four countries of origin for visitors, USA made up 25%; Germany 12%; Britain 11% and France 10%.

To the east of Midleton, along the Ancient East, lies Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city and home to Mark Reynier’s Waterford Distillery, one of the most impressive operations to set up here in the last five years. With his background (he resurrected Bruichladdich distillery on the Scottish island of Islay, before selling it to Remy Cointreau) he was able to buy an old Guinness brewery, and transform it into a state of the art distillery.

Reynier’s project differs from many others in its dedication to barley – he has been using barley from individual farms to distill individual batches of spirit, meaning you will be able to taste the difference from soil type to soil type, thus proving the concept of terroir. His project is one to watch – and having just secured another 20 million boost from investors, it has no signs of slowing down.

Not far away in the sleepy village of Cappoquin, Peter Mulryan has been creating award winning spirits under his Blackwater Distillery brands. A journalist, author, and whiskey expert, Mulryan is getting ready to move his operation to a larger premises in the nearby village of Ballyduff and, with that, to move to the next stage of his business plan – whiskey tourism.

To the west of Midleton is West Cork Distillers in Skibbereen, and beyond that, Dingle Distillery. Dingle was the vision of the late Oliver Hughes, credited as being the father of craft beer in Ireland after he set up the highly successful Porterhouse chain. Hughes saw opportunity in whiskey too, setting up Dingle before the current boom properly took off. As a result of his foresight, Dingle Distillery single malt is hitting the market at a time when all other whiskeys come from one of the other big three – Midleton, Cooley or Bushmills. Dingle whiskey, much like the town itself, is in a league of its own.

The process of creating whiskey is one of the complications to building an immediate tourism industry around it. First you need to build the distillery, distill your grain, and cask your spirit. Then you wait – while three years is the legal minimum requirement, anything between five and ten years is the accepted minimum for the serious whiskey drinker – and thus, the serious whiskey tourist.

In order to draw tourists here in the same way Scotland draws thousands from across Europe, Ireland will need well-established and well-respected distilleries with quality output. The casual tourist will be happy to visit one distillery on a trip to Ireland, the whiskey tourist will want more than that – they will want distillery exclusives – whereby the distillery sells a particular brand on its own premises and nowhere else – and to be able to visit a number of distilleries in one trip. The Irish Whiskey Association has launched a document laying out its vision for whiskey tourism here, creating a whiskey trail from distillery to distillery so that when the plan comes of age in 2025, there is an accepted route for the discerning whiskey fan.

One thing is for certain – after decades of struggle, Irish whiskey is back with a bang.