The 19th century saw the rise of Irish whiskey, then the 20th century almost killed it. Now it’s back with a twist -— as craft makers find success alongside multinational giants.
Whiskey has been produced in Ireland for centuries and the country was once a world leader in its production. Following years of decline, a new generation of distillers is now reviving the industry by blending modern know-how with traditional techniques.
In 2015, the Teeling Whiskey Company set up the first new distillery in Dublin in over 125 years. Its founder, Jack Teeling, saw new opportunities in an industry that his family has been involved with for more than two centuries.
His ancestor Walter Teeling set up a small craft distillery in Dublin in 1782 and his father, John Teeling, established Cooley Distillery in the north of Ireland in 1987. Jack was managing director there until it was bought by Beam (now owned by Japan’s Suntory (STBFY)) for $95 million in 2012.
Teeling uses time-honored methods such as aging its whiskey in oak barrels, but it also sets aside up to a quarter of its annual production for experimenting with new techniques and flavors.
“We’re very keen to not focus on the past and be powerful enough to do something different and new,” said Teeling. “We’re known for our innovative approach to layering on extra flavors onto the underlying taste that people expect from Irish whiskey.”
In March, Teeling’s 24-year-old single malt (made from whiskey from the Cooley distillery, and matured in wine casks for three years by Teeling) was named the world’s best at the World Whiskies Awards, the first time an Irish whiskey has won in the category.
The company produced 900,000 bottles of whiskey last year and had a turnover of €15.5 million ($17.2 million). It exports to more than 65 countries, with the United States, France and Germany its biggest overseas markets.
“Irish whiskey is the (world’s) fastest growing premium spirit and will probably continue to be for the foreseeable future,” explained Teeling. “But, as an industry, we’re only around 11 million cases. To put that into context the Scottish [whisky production] is 90 million cases, so there is plenty of room to grow.”
Steeped in history
It’s an impressive turnaround for an industry with a bumpy history.
“Ireland became the global powerhouse of whiskey production in the 1900s,” explained William Lavelle, head of the Irish Whiskey Association. “There are figures to suggest that at one stage up to 70% of the developed world’s whiskey was being distilled in Ireland.”
However, in the 20th century, production was hit by the war of independence in Ireland and prohibition in the United States, and Irish whiskey lost ground to the Scottish industry.
“We went from a situation where in the late 19th century, there were well over 100 distilleries around Ireland — 200 years later, there were only two distilleries left,” said Lavelle. “The industry was really on its knees.”
Ireland now has 26 distilleries and an additional 24 in development, according to industry body Drinks Ireland. As well as independent labels like Teeling, they produce international brands such as Jameson, owned by French company Pernod Ricard (PDRDF).
Last year, the Irish Food Board reported Irish whiskey had a record year of growth, with exports increasing by €45 million ($50 million) to reach €620 million ($685 million). Sales are projected to reach a historical peak of 12 million cases by 2020.
“This decade is the decade we call the Irish whiskey renaissance,” said Lavelle. “That has been a mix of investment from multinational companies, as well as the entrepreneurial zeal of many Irish people who want to bring back distilling to Ireland.”
For Teeling, the business is an opportunity to restore part of his national, and family, heritage.
Cooley Distillery still produces a range of whiskies. Among them is another brand with historic links — The Tyrconnell, which is named after a racehorse that won at 100 to 1 odds at the famous Curragh racecourse in 1876, and was first made the same year.
The brand was discontinued in the 1920s but revived in the 1980s. It’s now produced by the Kilbeggan Distilling Company, which exports its whiskies to more than 50 countries.
“Irish whiskey has experienced a rapid resurgence along with the global growth and appreciation of whiskey,” said Ivan Hidalgo, Kilbeggan’s managing director. “With so many Irish distilleries opening, the premium offerings within the category have only just begun to shine.”