As another St. Patrick's Day rolls around, it's a safe bet that many revelers will reach for a glass of Irish whiskey to celebrate Ireland's favorite holiday. As it happens, there's a lot for the Irish whiskey industry to feel happy about. It is enjoying a period of unparalleled growth, and is officially the world's fastest-growing spirit. According to the country's food-and-drink trade body Bord Bia, Irish whiskey exports grew by 6 percent to reach €505 million ($579 million) in 2016. This figure is expected to double by 2020.
It's a remarkable turnaround. At the turn of the millennium, Ireland could boast only three working distilleries. The lonely trio comprised the Midleton distillery in Cork, the producer of market-leading Jameson and pot still whiskey Redbreast; the independent County Louth-based Cooley Distillery, the creator of quirky whiskeys such as the peated Connemara and the single-grain Greenore; and the Northern Irish distillery Bushmills, situated on the beautiful County Antrim coast. Incidentally, Bushmills claims to be the oldest licensed distillery in the UK, tracing its roots back to 1608.
Today, the number of Irish whiskey distilleries in production has grown to 16, and another 13 are at the planning stage. That growth illustrates how popular Irish whiskey has become worldwide, especially in the US. The new Irish whiskey gold rush has seen major international players fall over themselves to claim their stake in this booming business. For instance, in 2014, William Grant & Sons, the owner of Glenfiddich Scotch whisky, opened a new €35 million ($40.1 million) Tullamore DEW distillery in Tullamore, bringing whiskey production back to the town after the old distillery there closed in 1954.
In January 2017, the world's biggest drinks company Diageo announced it was going to build a new €25 million ($28.6 million) distillery in the heart of Dublin at St. James Gate where Diageo also makes Guinness stout. The distillery will make a new blended Irish whiskey called Roe & Co. The surprise news marked a dramatic change in attitude by Diageo toward Irish whiskey. It was only in 2015 that Diageo decided to sell struggling Bushmills to José Cuervo in return for Don Julio tequila.
It would be a mistake to think Irish whiskey has never known the good times before. In the early 1900s, the business was riding high with 88 distilleries producing as many as 12 million cases worldwide. Irish whisky distillers even decided to spell their whiskey differently, adding an extra "E" to distinguish their products from what they saw as inferior Scotch whisky.
The boom era wasn't to last. A British export embargo slapped on Irish whiskey during the Irish War of Independence, and US Prohibition in the 1920s, both led to a steep sales decline. The industry was also slow to use the new Coffey column stills which were adopted at greater speed in Scotland. Column stills can make whiskey much more quickly and cheaply than traditional copper pot stills. By the mid-1980s just two distillers remained: Jameson-producing Irish Distillers and Bushmills.
Now that Irish whiskey is back in favor the Irish government has ambitious plans for the country to become the world leader in whiskey tourism by 2030. In December 2016, the Irish Whiskey Association and the Minister for Food, Agriculture and Maritime unveiled a plan to create an Irish Whiskey Trail similar to the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky and the Whisky Trail in Scotland. The plan envisages creating a whiskey-loving network of hotels, restaurants, pubs and distillery visitor centers. If successful, the Irish Whisky Trail could pull in 1.9 million visitors by 2020. It's thought these visitors would spend an estimated €1.3 billion ($1.49 billion) a year.
It's not all plain sailing for the rapidly growing Irish whiskey business, however. It is still dominated by one brand to the extent that nearly 7 of every 10 bottles of Irish whiskey sold worldwide are Jameson. Irish Distillers, which is owned by powerful multinational Pernod Ricard, produces Jameson at its vast Midleton Distillery in Cork.
Newly established distilleries are finding it hard to break through as they have to wait three years while their whiskey matures before it can be sold legally. If they wish to sell whiskey in the interim, they will find it very difficult to do so as no proper wholesale whiskey market exists like it does in Scotland. The majority of stock lies in the hands of just one multinational: Pernod Ricard (Jameson).
While their whiskey slumbers in warehouses, many cash-strapped distilleries are turning to quick-to-produce spirits like gin and vodka to bring the cash in until the whiskey comes on stream. An example of this is the Dingle Distillery, located in on old sawmill on the fringes of Dingle, Europe's most westerly town. It opened in 2012, but only started selling its first batch of whiskey in 2015. In the interim, it produced a well-regarded London Dry gin, and then a quintuple-distilled vodka, to make ends meet.
Whether all of Ireland's yet-to-open distilleries can follow in Dingle's successful path remains to be seen. Yet what is certain is that despite the initial problems many of the newcomers are experiencing, the long-term future for Irish whiskey does remain bright. Isn't that worth raising a glass to on St. Patrick's Day? "Sláinte!" as they say in Ireland.