Anyone visiting Dublin Airport these days and looking to buy some whiskey will be bewildered by the range of brands that have appeared as if by magic - some may even have leprechauns on the bottle to imply that this was indeed the case!
So just how many Irish whiskies are there, and who is making them? In the 18th century there were over 1200 legal distilleries in Ireland according to Peter Mulryan's recent book The Whiskeys of Ireland (O'Briens Press). Mulryan's book is a romp through the history of Irish whiskey, and he is quite candid about where we are right now – e.g. the recent 'success' of Irish whiskey is really just Jameson, which is probably 80- 90% of Irish whiskey sales.
Despite what you might think from social media and the shelves, right now in 2016 we have around a dozen working distilleries in the country; including Mulryan's Blackwater Distillery which recently acquired brand new copper pot stills from Italy (delivery early in 2017). Mulryan's Blackwater No. 5 Gin has been picking up prizes since it launched, so there are high hopes for his whiskey.
The current estimate is 39 working distilleries by the end of the decade, but only one of the new distilleries can claim to be producing their own whiskey for sale. The late Oliver Hughes founded the Dingle Distillery in 2010 and his first three year old whiskey was released this year at a collector's price. Otherwise, any Irish whiskey you see on the shelf will be spirit acquired from Midleton Distillery, old Cooley Distillery stock (now owned by Suntory/Jim Beam) or old Bushmills stock (which was sold off after Diageo surprisingly sold Bushmills to tequila giant Jose Cuervo).
Midleton have been extremely selective about who they sell to (Walsh Whiskey – Writers Tears is one of the few), so chances are that the PaddyWhack Whiskey you see for sale is from the stock John Teeling and his sons have been flogging to finance the Great Northern Distillery (in the old Harp brewery) and Teelings Whiskey in Newmarket Square. This is almost run out however, so I'm wondering where the new stocks will come from for those brands that are selling 10 year old single malts – I doubt Midleton will be interested.
The other distilleries are either too new or are keeping the whiskey for themselves (e.g. Tullamore – owned by William Grant). Yet, looking at a bottle of say Hyde Whiskey or similar you would swear they had their own boutique distillery that has been operating for decades. I genuinely feel this is misleading and will come back to bite us if consumers feel they have been conned. In Scotland and the US it is perfectly normal to sell whisky that has been purchased and aged somewhere other than the original distillery – honesty should be the key.
Very soon the Great Northern will have stocks of good quality grain whiskey for blending, but not malts. The approach will be similar to the early days of Cooley – supplying own-brand whiskey and the new entrants keen to get some momentum behind their brand.
Formerly of Tipperary Water, the Cooney family's Boann Distillery is due to begin production in Louth on the site of an unfinished boom-ear BMW showroom and will likely do similar. The Waterford Distillery (also on the site of an old Diageo brewery) produced its first juice this year and is the brainchild of Mark Reynier, who transformed Bruichladdich on Islay before it was sold to Remy.
Reynier is quite caustic in Mulryan's book about the sameness of much that is produced by Pernod Ricard (Irish Distiller's parent company), and how he wants to create a point of difference – mainly by sourcing local barley (he has contracts with 46 different farmers) and sticking with pot-stills and a terroir based approach. Expect the first releases in 2021.
Otherwise the Slane Distillery (in conjunction with Brown Forman/Jack Daniels) is due for completion any day now. PJ Rigney in Drumshambo sealed his first whiskey barrel in December 2014 and other entrants to the market such as St. Patrick’s Distillery in Douglas, West Cork Distillers in Union Hall, Rademon and Echlinville in Northern Ireland and Connacht Whiskey in Ballina are up and running. There is plenty to look forward to.
If we really want growth and a mix of the multinationals and the locals (as in Scotland) then we need flexibility. The Irish government needs to reform the current legislation, which dates from the Victorian era, to allow distillers to sell their own whiskey on their premises and to compete properly with the UK, which post-Brexit will likely introduce even looser rules. We need a level playing pitch.
In conclusion, don't believe the hype. Yes Irish whiskey has a shortage at the moment and there is enormous potential in the market, but we need to be honest and quality focused or we will be found out.