Irish Whiskey Makers’ Eyes Are Smiling

Bar owners and suppliers eager for consumers to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a bit of Irish whiskey should have reason to cheer this year: The Irish whiskey segment is on a hot streak. Retail sales of the spirit rose more than 21% to $638 million in 2013, based on preliminary data from Technomic’s new 2014 TAB State of the Industry Report.

Irish whiskey volume climbed a projected 17.8% for the year, reaching 2.5 million 9-liter cases. The Irish whiskey segment remains the spirits category’s smallest, with just 1.2% of category volume share in 2012—versus 33% for category leader vodka and 8.6% for the also-hot straight American whiskey segment. But Irish whiskey’s volume and retail sales growth exceeded that posted by all other spirits segments in 2013.

As in other spirits segments (notably rum and tequila), within Irish whiskey, one of the most interesting trends is the emergence of smaller and often higher-end brands as important growth drivers for the segment as a whole. Jameson is the giant of the segment, to be sure: Jameson’s volume stood at nearly 1.9 million 9-liter cases in 2013—and that reflects impressive volume expansion of 17.1% over 2012. But Tullamore Dew, a super-premium offering in third place by volume with 100,000 cases, saw strong volume growth of 11% last year. And Beam Inc.’s 2 Gingers Irish whiskey, sold stateside exclusively in Minnesota for a year but now expanding nationwide, surged 45% to 29,000 cases. That was good enough to land 2 Gingers in fifth place by volume among Irish whiskey labels.

Elsewhere in the segment, Clontarf and Michael Collins recorded volume growth north of 15% in 2013, ranking them as the eighth- and ninth-biggest Irish whiskey labels, respectively. Beam’s Cooley’s Irish, a super-premium label introduced in 2012, doubled to 6,000 cases, placing it at No. 10 by volume.

What’s propelling Irish whiskey’s popularity? A rising tide for whiskey in general, for one thing. As our State of the Industry report notes, for the first time in more than 15 years, whiskeys/whiskies (including American, Irish, Canadian and Scotch) collectively outperformed non-whiskey spirits.

Consumers seeking new flavor experiences—and open to broadening their spirits horizons—are paying fresh attention to brown spirits. Irish whiskey brands are touting their smoothness much as wine labels are boasting about “drinkability.” The overarching message to consumers, especially those more likely to be new to the segment (including younger LDA consumers and women), is that these aren’t beverages that wear harshness or strength as a badge of honor; rather, they’re finely crafted, nuanced, versatile spirits that can be savored either on their own or in a wide range of cocktails. Distiller notes that whiskeys feature caramel and vanilla notes add to the sense of approachability.

On the consumer side, we’re also seeing interest in particular in labels that present a strong brand story and “personality.” Jameson has sought to showcase its heritage, which dates to 1780, in slightly irreverent ads that feature the whiskey being rescued from fictitious historical calamities. And relative newcomer 2 Gingers notes on its website that the brand—motto: “Bring Your Own Luck!”—was inspired by the founder’s ambitious red-haired mother and aunt, whose faces are illustrated on the bottle label.

Newcomers to the Irish whiskey segment include Irish Mist Whiskey, launched by Campari America in select Eastern and Midwestern markets this year specifically in time for St. Patrick’s Day. The original Irish Mist, a honeyed whiskey liqueur, dates to 1947; Campari America sought to bolster its whiskey portfolio (which also includes Wild Turkey and Kentucky Spirit) with an entry into the whiskey category’s hottest segment. Targeting the more-experienced whiskey drinker, Tullamore Dew last year introduced Tullamore Dew Phoenix, a limited-edition, triple-distilled blend of golden-grain, malt and pure pot-still Irish whiskeys. The 110 proof offering is finished in oloroso sherry casks, according to the distiller, producing prominent warmth and spice.

The outlook for Irish whiskey for the remainder of 2014 remains strong, with shifting consumer behaviors—less of an absolute loyalty to brands or even specific adult-beverage categories and more willingness to explore new tastes—boding well for the segment. For on-premise operators, showcasing Irish whiskeys in tasting series as well as in out-of-the-ordinary mixed drinks and cocktails can spur trial and encourage consumers to consider this long-storied spirit in a contemporary new light.

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Christine LaFave Grace

Christine LaFave Grace writes for and produces Technomic's Trends & Directions e-newsletters. She joined Technomic in 2013 as an associate editor. Her previous roles include assistant digital editor for Crain Communications’ Modern Healthcare magazine and associate editor at Reed Business Information’s Restaurants & Institutions magazine.

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