Category Updates

The Trouble with Irish Whiskey – Part 2

A while back FFT published an article on the so-called Irish Whiskey renaissance. It generated a lot of debate and we hope this one will too. The first article looked at the Scottish market and tried to understand why Ireland is so far behind our Celtic cousins.

It seems clear that the success of the Scotch Whisky sector is directly related to positive consumer perception of Scotch as a high quality product of great integrity. If everyone wants our Irish Whiskey sector to enjoy similar success, it seems vital therefore that Ireland aims for the highest levels of transparency. And this is where I, along with many I’ve spoken to, feel Ireland is going badly wrong.

It’s important to remember that blended whiskey/whisky is by definition, a product that has come from a number of sources. That’s not to say that it mightn’t all have been distilled by one distiller, who added the small % of their malt to a grain base, also distilled in-house, but it is nevertheless a mix of distillations. It would therefore be largely irrelevant to attempt to put the provenance on the bottle. It’s worth noting that blended whiskey sells in far higher volumes than malt whiskey.

Here comes the important bit: the sales of cheaper blended whiskey/whisky globally are in decline. Whilst at the same time, the market share of malt has gone from only 5% a few years back to now sit at 15%. Needless to say it is also the higher value/premium product. What is clear from this is that consumers want premium experiences, and it is in this area that it is more vital than ever that Ireland has the highest possible standards.

Adopting Scotch Rules

Several of those in the Irish Whiskey sector have stated that they see it as vital that the recently formed Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) immediately adopt wholesale the rules of the Scotch Whisky Association. As a minimum! If you think about it, that doesn’t seem a bad idea - after all, is Ireland not aiming to emulate the success levels that Scotch has enjoyed? Surely the rules within which distillers operate in Scotland have contributed hugely to the credibility that their sector now enjoys.

I’ve been in contact with the IWA. Incidentally, their website is just a subsection of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI) - itself just another IBEC quango - who were recently trying to suggest that an advertising ban will kill craft beer companies. More nonsense from the big boys.

I asked the IWA whether they would be adopting the rules of the SWA. They responded: “It is important to note that in their jurisdiction, the SWA has a number of functions as a ‘competent authority’ which in Ireland are statutorily performed by the DAFM, Revenue, etc. The legislative ‘rules’ governing the production of Irish Whiskey are laid down in the Irish Whiskey Act 1980 and in the Irish Whiskey GI technical file.”

So that’ll be a ‘no’ then.

If the IWA isn’t going to insist on standards equalling those of the SWA, who is? From the perspective of this writer, there are a number of areas where Irish Whiskey really needs to pull its socks up if, as a category, it wants to garner international respect and acclaim.

Creating an Honest Sector

The first, and most important of these, is on accurately and clearly naming the distillery on bottles of Irish Single Malt Whiskey. Like they have to in Scotland.

Here’s a run-down of where Ireland is, and where it is not, getting this right.

The aforementioned IWA website lists distilleries in three categories: ‘Existing’, ‘New’ and ‘Planned’. Now what the difference between ‘Existing’ and ‘New’ is could be anyone’s guess. Presumably it’s the IWA’s way of distinguishing an established/incumbent distillery with its own mature stock from a distillery that has only recently been established and does not yet have it’s own stock. In other words, it’s less than three years in operation.

The distilleries listed as ‘Existing’ are obviously the big guys and a couple of smaller players that have been quicker than others to enter the market. Here’s a run-down:

Irish Distillers

Now a part of Pernod Ricard, another blue-blooded global drinks business, is the amalgamation of Cork Distilleries Company, John Jameson & Son and John Power & Son. When, from 1972, they also owned Bushmills, they were an absolute monopoly for several years. It’s easy to be critical of monopolies (do they abuse their position? Do they act in the best interests of the consumer? Do they get lazy?), but I’ve spoken to individuals who are full of gratitude for what IDL achieved in keeping the home fires burning over the last few decades - even some who question whether the sector would exist at all had it not been for their efforts. John Teeling is one such man, who told me: “Pernod helped create the category, their distribution and skills helped to bring Irish to a wider group”.

IDL do sell malt whiskey to third parties (more on that below), and when it comes to their own Whiskeys, the malts are all correctly labelled as heralding from Middleton. That said, Jameson Whiskey hasn't been produced at the Bow Street distillery in Dublin since production was discontinued there almost 50 years ago. So why do today's Jameson labels continue to imply that it is produced in the Bow Street Distillery? And the first thing that guests face on arrival to this Island takes it further.

Dublin Airport Terminal 1 arrivals corridor, end of last month

IDL? Do you want to come in here? The world’s best-selling Irish Whiskey is promoted as heralding from a non existent distillery. Do we really have to start out like this?!

Bushmills

Once owned by Irish Distillers during the period when they had a monopoly on this island, then in the hands of Diageo (who never really wanted it as their focus is on their thoroughbred Scotch brands), who sold it (‘swapped’ it) to get into the tequila market. Owned today by international drinks giant Jose Cuervo, they obviously have their own mature stock, label their bottles as they should and produce some terrific whiskeys. Needless to say Diageo has now re-entered the market with its Roe & Co brand. Where’s that coming from? They use the same line as many others: ‘a number of places’. That said it’s not a malt, so they shouldn’t have to indicate provenance. It’s just the speed of their re-entry that whiffs a bit and no doubt they’ll use huge international distribution networks and massive marketing budgets so as to dwarf the newcomers.

Cooley Distillery

Converted in 1987 from an old potato alcohol plant in Co. Louth by the aforementioned Teeling, and today owned by Beam/Suntory. Cooley has a number of brands; however confusingly for years Kilbeggan Whiskey wasn’t being produced in Kilbeggan (although, not unlike Bushmills, they make claims about being Ireland’s oldest continually licensed distillery etc) and Connemara Whiskey is not produced in Connemara (it’s also made with scottish smoked malt - today there is no Irish supplier, although some Irish Whiskey companies very likely did use turf to malt barley at the turn of the last century). With the latter being a malt whiskey, the use of an inaccurate geographic indicator in the name would be illegal in Scotland.

Under Teeling’s stewardship, Cooley supplied several independent bottlers (whether currently in the process of developing their own distilleries, or not, they are independent bottlers for the time being) - some of these supply agreements were cancelled when Beam purchased the business. Later reversing that decision, they do now sell to some, such as Brown Forman’s Slane, hence their triple cask release already being on the shelves when ground was only broken on the distillery less than two years ago. However, as the reader shall see below, Beam are not the only business that sells Whiskey to independent bottlers. Several incumbents do but, crucially, then bind the purchasers to non-disclosure agreements concerning the provenance of the spirit. Again, for single malts, this would not be allowed in Scotland.

Excluding West Cork Distillers (est. 2003 - they do sell to independent bottlers) and Dingle (est. 2012), the remaining distilleries listed by the IWA are all still in ‘Planned’ or build/maturation/’New’ stage. William Grant, which purchased the Tullamore D.E.W. brand from C&C in 2010, will soon have its own mature Whiskey and in the meantime told me that they source from other distilleries, “Including Middleton”. A quick call to the Celtic Whiskey Shop and I’m told to presume Tullamore D.E.W. single malts are all Bushmills.

I’m wondering how bamboozled Irish Whiskey consumers must be feeling because, once again, were Grants producing their 14 year, or 18 year old, single malts in Scotland, the rules state that the distillery would have to be named on the bottle. It isn’t, and William Grant, of all companies, being as familiar as they are with the benefits of higher standards in Scotland, will hopefully bring their know-how & experience to bear at the IWA table. Meanwhile, they’re as straight up with us as they can be: “You are correct that the current liquid was originally distilled at another distillery, and we are not at liberty to say where that was,” answers Caspar MacRae, Global Brand Director.

Who are the New Distillers?

Moving on to the newcomers, let’s give a couple of examples of distilleries still establishing themselves that are, in my opinion, playing a very straight, honest & patient game.

The first of these is Waterford Distillery (Renegade Spirits), the project of Bruichladdich’s Mark Reynier. Reynier has no plans to sell any whiskey other than his own (nor will he sell to others), and when asked when his first whiskey will be ready for market he answers with a question of his own: an incredulous, “How could I possibly know that?”

Another example of how to get the marketing right is Cape Clear Distillery. Their website talks of their plans, describes the whiskey they will be aiming to make, and at right now are only selling gin whilst the whiskey matures.

Another approach is in evidence at a couple of distilleries that are developing, with mixed results, an en primeur model - Boann Distillery being a good example here. This, too, is open, forthcoming, and an exciting way of doing things while building a story and engaging the consumer.

The current IWA vice Chairman, David Stapleton (Bushmills’ Colum Egan has the Chair), Managing Director of The Connacht Whiskey Company, is at least doing his best when he says: “So as not to confuse the consumer or ‘dilute’ the brand of Connacht Distillery’s own superb single pot still Irish whiskey, we have created our Spade&Bushel label that we will use when presenting these special offerings of sourced Irish whiskeys”. That’s the transparency that is needed. It’s a shame Stapleton hasn’t told me where it’s from or responded to my attempts to get in contact with him. One wonders also whether a name covering as wide an area as Connacht should be allowed. I doubt it would be in Scotland. What if some poor soul wanted to build a distillery in Galway sometime down the line?

There are other newcomers also playing with a very straight bat, but after that things start to get unclear. Niche Drinks, an independent bottler, state that they had “A fabulous time” selecting their 8 year old single malt, sold as The Quiet Man. I imagine they did, but where’s it from? What appears to be a highly autobiographical blurb on their website is written by, well who knows? We’re only told that it’s bottled in Derry.

Meanwhile Quintessential Brands, another independent bottler (albeit with plans for a Dublin Liberties Distillery), asks on their Dubliner Whiskey website, “Who put the whiskey in the jar?” You might well ask!

One should stress that would-be distilleries trying to establish what are extremely expensive businesses (both in terms of time and cash), may often need the cash flow generated by having a product already on the market. Hence all the gins you’re seeing (be careful there guys - you need to lay down at least 70% or you’ll never produce any whiskey). It is exceptionally frustrating for them to be bound to nondisclosure agreements by their Whiskey suppliers.

Some seem to find the agreements quite convenient and unashamedly pass off other businesses’ spirit as their own. Several could take a significant step towards being a little straighter today by marketing their independent bottlings separately to their future brands (like Stapleton), or just by being a little more up-front in their marketing communications.

I asked Gary McLoughlin, Marketing Director & Founder at Glendalough Distillery, where their whiskey comes from. He stated: “We are and have always been very upfront about where we source our aged whiskey stock [Cooley]. We will always inform ... about where we source our aged whiskey stock. We are very conscious of the consumer and giving them full disclosure. As such, we adhere to all the rules and regulations set out by the IWA.” And that last bit is correct, they are breaking no IWA rules as far as I’m aware.

The rest of what McLoughlin says is a little less accurate. Their website, dominated by an epic hollywood blockbuster-esque video, whilst impressive, has no mention of where the spirit comes from, and no mention of when the distillery came online etc. This is a shame, because when one makes the effort to get past the marketing there’s a wonderful story of them actually making their first still themselves! When it comes to Whiskey, today they are an independent bottler and marketer.

Doing the maths, if it gets four years of maturation, even their youngest whiskey won’t be ready until October of this year. The website is about as far from ‘full disclosure’ as it’s possible to get. Not all consumers can be expected to contact the distillery to get the ‘full disclosure’ and it’s hard to believe McLoughlin would want them to do so. Initially, his entire response to me was: “Some of the answers to these questions are confidential in nature so unfortunately I won't be able to answer them”. Hardly ‘very upfront’, hardly the transparency the sector needs.

Misinformation and Inaccuracies

Perhaps the most outrageous and deliberately misinformed statements though are coming from companies like the one behind Hyde Whiskey. For all the world looking like and, appearing as hard as possible to be one, Hibernian Distillers Ltd are not... distillers.

They aren’t alone at this though. A recent article in The Independent stated that the boss of the DAA (a man who probably knows a bit about sales volumes of Irish Whiskey at the airport!) recently announced an investment of €500,000 (you’re going to need 30 times that amount) in the Dublin Whiskey Distillery Company. Infuriatingly, the article goes on to reveal that they are still plotting their strategy, including whether or not they will actually own a distillery; one individual involved saying: “Owning a distillery is not a prerequisite to making a whiskey”. That may be true, but the name chosen for the business is extremely disingenuous if that’s not the plan.

One wonders how many ‘distilleries’ Dublin is going to have in a few years’ time - and don’t forget that no Whiskey can be matured in the capital anyway as it’s illegal (read this excellent article on the 1875 Dublin Fire from the always fantastic Come Here To Me!).

To re-cap: many of the other distilleries listed on the IWA’s website might be up and running and close to having mature stock, but some of these are marketing malts as old as 15 years and that makes you an independent bottler, not a distiller - and for quite some time to come in that particular instance! It may be frustrating if you’re buying from one of the big established distilleries and have had to sign nondisclosure agreements (thereby making it impossible for you to put the origin of the malt on the bottle), but at least market yourself as a soon-to-be distillery and clearly state that meanwhile you are an independent bottler of spirits sourced from elsewhere.

Whether independent bottlers can get whiskey in the current environment at all seems to be very much a relationship-based question. Some, who are prepared to pay the asking prices and are too small to be a threat to the big guys, have secured supplies. Others, already well established overseas (Wild Geese being a case in point) are not finding it so easy (they were cut off by IDL and then again by Beam). Clearly they represent too much of a threat to the incumbents because of the hard yards they’ve done developing strong brands in overseas markets that IDL et al now feel threatened by.

I didn’t just look at businesses in Ireland for this article. Some overseas businesses were identified that had no roots here whatsoever yet market Irish Whiskey brands overseas. Some of them are not even bottling it in Ireland - that too being a contravention of the rules.

I was left wondering what’s in the bottle.

Hope for the Future

Summing up, the reason that it’s vital that the consumer knows the origin of what’s in the bottle is simply that. If they don’t know this, how can they believe anything concerning the other claims being made. Is your whiskey really 15 years old? Did you really distil it like that? Is it really matured as you say it is? If the basics aren’t right the whole product unravels. I urge the IWA to act, and to act today.

As for the independent bottlers with their exciting plans for the future, be transparent and clearly state it’s not yet your own spirit. I understand you need to market a story, but after that have the confidence to play the Irish card, which is all the overseas consumers really want anyway, and then keep them up to date with how your plans are developing.

Lastly, to those selling to independent bottlers: why can’t you release the middle men from their confidentiality agreements? Take the credit, which you’re due, for the fantastic spirits that you are behind. You have nothing to fear from the small independents. They don’t have your muscle or your contacts, your networks or your relationships, your experience or your resources. What’s more, this is all a very temporary issue anyway. Please let’s not mess it all up before a diverse Irish Whiskey market even gets started!

I can finish on a positive note. Having endeavoured to speak with every business in the sector, it’s clear there is massive effort and genuine passion and justified pride going into the recreation of the category. It will undoubtedly enjoy the renaissance it deserves. In the interim, if you need to temporarily be a bit straighter in your marketing or clearly separate your bottling business from your distilling business, I’d urge you to do it. If you have so little respect for the category that your marketing/business name is utterly misleading and deliberately disingenuous, then for the sake of everyone else - for the sake of Irish Whiskey -  for the sake of the Irish people - I implore you to STOP IT NOW!

Click here to read part three.

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