October was a significant month in the history of Irish whiskey in the 21st century.  For starters, the Geographical Indications (GI) protecting Irish whiskey and Irish cream liqueur were recognised in China for the first time (more on that later).  Secondly, J.J. Corry released The Chosen, which at €6,500 a bottle is the most expensive Irish whiskey ever released.

The Chosen is a watershed whiskey for Ireland.  For the first time, the Irish whiskey industry seems to have decided that it deserves that esteemed spot amongst the most expensive Scottish whiskeys in the world.  It takes its place on the alongside Glenfiddich 40 Year Old Single Malt and The Macallan Fine Oak 30 Year Old Single Malt. With this release, J.J. Correy isn’t just saying that Irish whiskey is among the best in the world; they’re proving it with a top of the range release, beautifully presented with a price tag to match.

This is not the bulletproof 2012 Renault that’s faithfully served your family since day one; this is the Ferrari 458 of Irish whiskeys – a rare and coveted head turner.

For reasons of price and availability (The Chosen is a single cask, 100 bottle release) this  whiskey is out of reach to almost everyone who wants to try it. And that’s the point. You might see a display of it at a duty free while rushing through your layover in Boston on the way home from holidays, or it will turn up on a list of the 10 most expensive whiskey releases of 2019. The point is that you’ll see that bottle; you’ll hear that name; and you’ll know that an Irish whiskey company has released an internationally recognised product on par with the finest whiskeys in the world.

At the same time, Irish whiskey’s GI has been recognised by China for the first time. This is part of a trade deal in which the Chinese government recognized 100 EU designations in exchange for recognition of 100 Chinese designations. This isn’t quite the summit reaching that the release of The Chosen represents. Rather it’s the firing of a starting gun.

Entering the Chinese market is a decision that’s fraught with difficulties for any brand. It’s the world’s second largest economy, and it’s radically different from the North American market, where there are significant legal protections and better-understood marketing and distribution systems.  Brand fraud is rife in China, and not just of the cheap knockoff variety that immediately comes to mind. It is estimated that around 30% of alcohol in China is fake. We’re talking legally produced, authentic looking spirit.

As a Chinese middle class emerges, so has the practice of importing premium brands into China. At the same time, cheap approximations have flooded the market and quickly superseded the real product.  How is a consumer who’s unaccustomed to Jameson 18 Year Old supposed to know the difference between the real thing and a sloppy counterfeit? 

On the bright side, Irish whiskey sales in China doubled in 2018 and continued interest from major Irish producers in China will have a long term positive effect.  Chinese recognition of GIs is an important step towards the continued importation of Irish goods in that market. It’s also a good sign for the coming years as the huge stocks of Irish whiskey currently in warehouses begins to mature.

In this edition of Food for Thought – FFT.ie, I’m delighted to have Leslie Williams cover this year’s Food on the Edge symposium, Caroline Egan’s interview with Peter Mulryan of Blackwater Distillery, as well as Sharon Ní Chonchúir’s insightful chat with Denis Dempsey of Kinsale Mead Co.

To contact me directly, email mark@fft.ie.

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