Irish Whiskey Rising

In a converted Guinness brewery in the southern Irish seaport of Waterford, something remarkable is happening. Mark Reynier, formerly of Scotland’s Bruichladdich Distillery and a barley provenance devotee, has created what he terms, “A cathedral of barley” in his Waterford Distillery, where spirit flowed for the first time in January 2016.

Taking a page from his Islay playbook, Reynier enlists 46 Irish farms, some organic, growing barley on nineteen distinct soil types. Each farmer’s crop is harvested, stored, malted, and distilled separately, one each week throughout the year. Reynier declares, “Thus we can capture in spirit each farm’s terroir, that subtle character shaped by micro-climate and soil. I’m trying to make the most profound single malt whiskey possible.” In September, Reynier distilled the first organic Irish whiskey.

Meanwhile, further north, in County Meath, whiskey making is about to return to the Boyne Valley, where the last of Drogheda’s eighteen distilleries closed in 1968. The Cooney family, who boasts vast experience in the Irish drinks industry, created the Boann Distillery, along with a brewing operation in a former auto showroom. According to director Sally-Anne Cooney, the plan for the combined distillery and brewery is to produce a range of triple-distilled Irish single malt, pot still, and blended whiskeys from three bespoke copper pot stills.

Boann Distillery is a technological wonder, with patented nanotechnology that exposes the spirit to six times more copper surface than in a traditional still, and reflux control on the lyne arms of the intermediate and spirits stills that allows greater control over the styles of spirit produced.

Cooney reckons that greater consumer interest in the provenance of what we drink is helping to drive the creation of a more diverse Irish whiskey industry. She notes, “Our ingredients are 100 percent natural, 100 percent Irish. All our barley comes from Irish farmers and we also use our own Boyne Valley spring water drawn from deep below us here at the distillery.” It’s a true ‘grain to glass’ operation, with a café and retail shop that will celebrate the Boyne Valley by offering the best of local and Irish produce.

Mark Reynier, formerly of Bruichladdich distillery on Islay, now helms Waterford distillery in Ireland. (Photo by Shane O'Neill)


Waterford and Boann exemplify this dynamic moment in the world of Irish whiskey, a time of profound transformation. Just three decades ago, there were only two working distilleries in the entire country, both under the same ownership, and producing mostly blended Irish whiskey—the global workhorse of shot-and-beer bars, Irish expat celebrations, and Irish coffee.

By the end of this year Ireland will boast eighteen working distilleries, dotting the countryside from Dingle in the far southwest to Echlinville on the Ards peninsula in County Down, Northern Ireland; West Cork Distillers at Skibereen; The Shed Distillery at Drumshambo in County Leitrim, and more! Ireland is again awash in amazing whiskey, spanning the traditional styles of pot still, malt, and grain.

The Irish Whiskey Association (IWA), founded in 2014, currently boasts 28 members. According to Bernard Walsh, Chairman of the IWA, there will be eighteen Irish distilleries in production by the end of 2016, with at least ten others in various stages of planning. Walsh should know; he’s part of this new generation, owner of the Irishman and Writers Tears brands and the man behind the creation of the ¤25 million Walsh Whiskey Distillery, officially opened in County Carlow this summer.

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All whisky is enjoying good times, but Irish whiskey is at the top of the heap—the fastest growing brown spirit in the world, with a growth rate of 12.5 percent annually, according to the IWA. In 2015, Ireland sold 8.5 million cases of whiskey, including spirit destined for liqueurs. Of this, 46 percent was exported to the U.S., with Nordic and European markets receiving most of the remainder.

So, how did an industry of just two monopolistic distilleries 30 years ago metamorphose into one with potentially 28 whiskey-making operations in as diverse a range of ownership as one could imagine?

Walsh Whiskey Distillery produces the Irishman and Writers Tears whiskeys.

A Lesson in History

To appreciate the rise of Irish whiskey, it helps to consider its fall. During the mid-19th century 88 licensed Irish distilleries produced more than 12 million 9-liter cases annually, making Irish whiskey the largest global spirits category of the era and giving fame to Dublin distillers like John Jameson, William Jameson, George Roe, and John Power. Brian Townsend writes in The Lost Distilleries of Ireland (1997) that, “…the great Dublin distillers of the mid-19th century bestowed on the whole Irish whiskey industry a reputation that few modern advertising or public relations experts could improve on.”

The seeds of Irish decline were sown by the growth in popularity of blended Scotch whisky during the second half of the 19th century. Most Irish distillers were dismissive of grain whiskey, a necessary component for creating blended whiskey—produced, ironically, in a column still perfected by an Irishman, Aeneas Coffey—and insisted on continuing to make pot still whiskey.

The creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, which forfeited the important markets of the British Empire, and U.S. Prohibition between 1920 and 1933 sealed the fate of Irish whiskey. In the U.S., inferior homemade spirit sold as ‘Irish whiskey’ during Prohibition unfairly tarnished its reputation for generations.

According to Walsh, “In some respects the scale of the renaissance is partially explained by the view that, having fallen from grace 100 years ago for reasons that didn’t relate to the quality of the liquid, in many respects Irish whiskey is just returning to its prior position as a celebrated drink on a global level.” Given the current investment from large drinks companies and small upstarts, it’s clear that many are hopeful Irish whiskey may still return to or surpass its golden era of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Consolidation and Survival

John Quinn, global brand ambassador for Tullamore D.E.W., joined Irish Distillers in 1974, just as the company was closing its last Dublin distillery and preparing to centralize all of its distilling operations in a new complex at Midleton in County Cork. “You can see 1966 as a turning point in the renaissance of Irish whiskey,” says Quinn. “What you had was a number of family companies in parochial silos looking after their own interests. Frank O’Reilly, a direct descendent of John Power, really pulled it all together, pointing out that individually the Irish distillers couldn’t compete against the big Scottish distillers abroad.”

John Power & Son, John Jameson & Son, and the Cork Distilleries Company best known for its Paddy brand merged. Bushmills joined in 1972, forming Irish Distillers Group and creating one conglomerate. During the 1970s sales of Irish whiskey fell to just two percent of those of scotch—two million cases per year compared to 100 million cases.

When Pernod Ricard bought Irish Distillers in 1988, their investment breathed some new life into the category, but it would be a long and slow resuscitation. “It’s only been in the last ten to fifteen years that it’s really taken off,” says Quinn.

Today, Jameson is responsible for more than five million of the eight million cases of Irish whiskey sold annually, followed by Tullamore D.E.W., with around one million cases, and Bushmills with some three-quarters of a million cases. William Grant & Sons Ltd., which acquired Tullamore D.E.W. in 2010, has demonstrated their faith in Irish whiskey by earmarking ¤35 million for a planned integrated pot still and grain distillery, returning the brand to its original home on the outskirts of Tullamore in County Offaly. The initial pot still phase opened in 2014 and grain whiskey will begin to flow in 2021.

John Teeling broke the Irish whiskey monopoly when he opened Cooley in the 1980s. (Photo by Barry Cronin)

Breaking the Monopoly

A year before Pernod Ricard entered the Irish whiskey arena, a visionary individual named John Teeling dared to take on the massive Irish Distillers’ monopoly with the creation of Cooley Distillery in an old industrial alcohol plant at Cooley, near Dundalk.

“Cooley had a number of outcomes. It broke the monopoly and offered choice,” says Teeling. Before Cooley, Irish Distillers was the only producer with column stills, so blended whiskey was impossible for others. While Irish Distillers produced mainly pot still whiskey, Cooley added single malts to their repertoire. By offering an innovative peated single malt, Connemara, and Ireland’s first single grain, Greenore, as well as private-label bottlings, Cooley helped to create an Irish category on the liquor store shelf. Then there was the taste. “Cooley whiskeys were lighter and slightly sweeter than those from Irish Distillers—something new, young drinkers wanted. Cooley broke the mold,” says Teeling.

In 2011 Teeling sold the Cooley operation to Beam Inc. for $95 million (¤71m). The sale included the historic Kilbeggan site—a popular visitor attraction, where a small-scale distilling operation had been reinstated in 2007. Now a global player operating as the Kilbeggan Distilling Company, Beam ceased third-party bottling to satisfy their own growth ambitions.

The Teelings, however, are far from finished with the whiskey business. John’s sons, Jack and Stephen, restored whiskey making to Dublin for the first time in almost 40 years when they opened Teeling Distillery in the historic Liberties district of the city in 2015. John established Great Northern Distillery (GND) on the site of a former Harp brewery at Dundalk. With Cooley no longer supplying spirit, Teeling aims to fill the bottles of third-party labels and offer the necessary grain whiskey to allow craft distillers, who are focused on pot still projects, to create blended Irish whiskey. “Only 15 percent of Irish sales are single malt, and GND will help to produce blends. We can supply about 40 percent of the current world demand for Irish whiskey, so GND is built for the future,” says Teeling.

Single Pot Still

Single pot still whiskey (previously referred to as pure pot still) is the traditional style of Irish whiskey. It is made from a mash of malted and unmalted barley and triple distilled in copper pots.

In 2011, Irish Distillers began to champion the style, focusing on their representative Redbreast, Green Spot, Yellow Spot, and Midleton whiskeys. A number of new expressions were introduced to Redbreast; Green Spot finished in French oak wine casks from Château Léoville Barton has proven to be a popular innovation, as has Midleton Dair Ghaelach—the first whiskey to be finished in Irish oak casks. The Garden Stillhouse, constructed as part of a ¤100 million distillery expansion project at Midleton in County Cork, includes additional pot stills to allow for future growth of the single pot still sector.

At the opposite end of Ireland, in County Antrim, Bushmills is planning to expand under Casa Cuervo, which acquired Bushmills in 2014. The Mexican tequila producer intends to spend some £30 million, doubling distillery capacity to around nine million liters per annum.

Brown-Forman Corporation, owner of Jack Daniel’s, announced in September of last year that it is planning to spend $50 million creating a distillery and visitor center on the Slane Castle Estate in County Meath, the company’s first foray into distillery construction outside the U.S.

Tasting Teeling whiskeys at the distillery

Innovative Spirits

Reynier of Waterford Distillery remarks, “At Dublin airport there are something like 110 Irish whiskeys on sale, but only three distilleries are represented!” Many of these are spirits distilled at Cooley, sometimes subjected to a variety of wood finishes to inject individuality. Although this type of cask finishing is certain to remain a key manipulator of style, and many distillers have embraced the practice with enthusiasm and skill, the future of the Irish whiskey industry depends upon innovation like that at Waterford and Boann.

Jack Teeling declares, “We will devote 25 percent of our distilling time to innovation,” talking about the possibility of producing heavily-peated single malt and Irish rye, while experimenting with mashbills, yeasts, and distilling cut points. He even mentions smoking malt with beechwood.

According to Quinn of Tullamore, “We are now laying down spirit that is not traditional Tullamore D.E.W. spirit and filling some of it into a variety of cask types. We are looking at producing single pot still spirit, perhaps with a heavier character and considering the use of wine casks.”

Meanwhile, in the west coast county of Mayo, Nephin Distillery, which stands in the shadow of Nephin Mountain, plans to make heavily-peated pot still whiskey using Irish turf, and operate its own cooperage.

The world’s best-selling Irish whiskey brand, Jameson, is not being left behind when it comes to innovation. The brand launched the stout cask-finished Caskmates last year, followed by a raft of new releases this summer, including the super-premium Whiskey Makers Series and the Deconstructed Series exploring key taste characteristics—Jameson Bold, Jameson Lively, and Jameson Round.

What’s Next

John Teeling projects sales of 20 million cases of Irish whiskey by the end of 2024—driven by younger drinkers in the U.S. and elsewhere, opportunities in Russia and Eastern Europe, and virtually untapped potential in Asia, Africa, and South America. His ambitious plan is to help satisfy the 30 million cases of Irish whiskey he forecasts will be needed by 2030.

Walsh says, “Naturally the really big distilleries will shape the sector but I think that the Scottish model is very relevant, with a whole panoply of distilleries of all shapes and sizes contributing to ensure diversity in the scotch category.”

Overall, the dynamism of the Irish whiskey industry is a cause for celebration. Quinn recalls that, “In the 1980s Irish whiskey was often seen merely as an ingredient in Irish coffee, and we had to establish it as a stand-alone beverage. I remember when Irish whiskey wasn’t sexy.” Well, John, it certainly is now.

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