You know the landscape has changed a lot when an Irish whiskey maker welcomes investment from a Scottish whisky company.
Go back through Irish whiskey’s history and you will discover a once very healthy whiskey industry that was taken to pieces. Back then Scotland did a lot of investing in Irish distilleries – so it could shut them down.
And you don’t have to go that far back to find the most recent example of overseas interference in the Irish whiskey. When John Teeling had the audacity to launch whiskeys that did not conform to the standard Irish whiskey style, Irish Distillers – at that time a combination of overseas giants Diageo and Pernod Ricard – tried to stop him selling whiskey.
But that was then and this is now. And today several multi million Euro deals have provided the Irish whiskey industry with the chance to build new distilleries, to grow the overall category, and to take advantage of strong and established routes to new world markets.
Now there is a cautious but optimistic hope that the new international investors will put the interests of Ireland first and repeat the experience of the past and encourage small domestic Irish distillery projects to thrive.
To some extent it has happened already. For a long time now Pernod Ricard and Diageo have provided independent whiskey maker Bernard Walsh with whiskey to allow him to sell his own unique range of products. Suntory Beam’s purchase of Teeling indirectly allowed Stephen and Jack Teeling to take some whiskey stock and form The Teeling Whiskey Company, and Diageo allowed the sale of one of its old breweries to be sold for conversion in to an independent whiskey distillery.
Perhaps most significantly of all, Scotttish family-owned William Grant & Sons once again showed how switched on it is by buying Tullamore DEW, little more than a brand name and a museum, and set about turning it in to a working distillery. YOU try and tell brand ambassador John Quinn, for some years a brand ambassador with no distillery behind him, that William Grant’s is anything but a good thing. He points out that the people at William Grant understand whisky, what makes it special, and how important it is to create unique and relevant to its geography and culture.
“With William Grant we have a company made up of whisky people, people you can talk to and understand.” he says. “They do not want to impose a Scottish view of whiskey on Ireland, they want to reach back to our heritage and provenance.
“Everything they do is about quality. They want to check every penny but they are getting outstanding value for money. They want to recreate the stills as they originally were.
“I heard one of the Grant family discussing something for the outside of the distillery and he said it wasn’t good enough because it wouldn’t look good in 100 years. That made my heart soar. They are thinking about the heritage for a future generation.”
There is a very strong case for a similar level of care to be made for Pernod Ricard, owner of Irish Distillers, too. Having failed to shut down Teeling, it finally took the decision to expand its definition of what Irish whiskey should be, and to push different styles of pot still whiskey. It is committed to 20 new pot still releases in 10 years. But more than that, it has invested in an education centre to further the development of pot still whiskey, it is at the heart of the Irish Whiskey Association, and all the signs are that it is actively encouraging new distillers.
Finn O’Connor, a young whiskey expert and author of a forthcoming book on pot still whiskey, is happy to pay credit where credit’s due.
I think Irish Distillers Limited have certainly been a force for good in the big picture,” he says. “ Firstly, they make some fine whiskey and the category wouldn’t really exist without them.
“They made it a financial contender with Jameson and that financial success has both encouraged would-be distillers to take the plunge, and provided Irish whiskey with a global market. Redbreast, Green Spot, John’s Lane– these kinds of whiskeys are the spine of Irish whiskey and it sounds like they have plenty more on the way.
“Large as they are, I think IDL have a long memory going back to their roots in Irish whiskey’s dark ages and an even older memory of the heights that irish whiskey fell from.
“I’ve had plenty of talks with them about single pot still in particular and, although they certainly are the large and international players of the irish whiskey family, they really do care about the heritage of the category. And I’ve heard countless stories from new distilleries about the help they’ve received from IDL, especially in the case of distilleries like Dingle and the Dublin Whiskey Company which want to make single pot still whiskey themselves, i’ve hear nothing but good things about the encouragement they’ve received from IDL.”
Since 2013 more than one billion Euros has been invested in Irish whiskey. This will allow the industry to double capacity over the coming 10 years. So is there a danger thatIreland is at the mercy of overseas companies?
Bernard Walsh, who is building the Walsh Distillery at Royal Oak, county Carlow, thinks not.
“Firstly it has to be said Ireland is no stranger to foreign direct investment in whiskey,” he says. “As it currently stands 98 per cent of Irish Whiskey is owned by the big international drinks corporations. The positive here is that all those currently involved in Irish Whiskey are global brand builders.
“Almost 100 per cent of Irish Whiskey produced is for brand building versus private labelling/bulk sales. This compares very favourably when you look at other whiskey producing nations. When Walsh Whiskey was looking to raise money we could have sourced it locally in Ireland but we strategically went after global brand builders in the drinks industry. Distilleries don’t just need funds, they require a route to market.”
But there is some disquiet at grassroots level, and among the more serious traditional Irish whiskey enthusiasts.
Whiskey expert Peter Mulryan is a former journalist and now master distiller at Blackwater Distillery at Cappoquin, West Waterford, wants to ensure that the big companies don’t reintroduce a definition of Irish whiskey that stifles innovation and diversity.
“It’s good to see all the investment,” he says. “However the industry will only be healthy when there are operations coming from the grass roots. As far as I can tell, all players are now chasing the same market – that is mass production, international sales. That means bland. The industry here is very poor on innovation and you know when you are in long term trouble when the most exciting thing is a new expression of Redbreast.
“Overall it’s all good right now as long as we can wrestle the definitions back from the big boys. It’s proving hard as the Government Minister is in awe of multi-nationals. However I am involved in planning some direct action that might win the day!”
The fight’s on for the soul of Irish whiskey – but so far, so good. watch this space.