Irish whiskey’s growth continues unabated. The category remained the single fastest-growing segment of the U.S. spirits market in 2019, according to Impact Databank, growing by 8.5% to reach 4.63 million cases. But while Irish whiskey is seeing growth across the board—nine of the top ten brands in the U.S. saw increases last year—it’s still top-heavy; there are roughly 3.7 million cases separating the top brand from the No.-10 entrant.
At the top is Jameson, the Pernod Ricard-owned label that controls 80% of the Irish whiskey market in the U.S. Nevertheless, an array of other brands are holding strong and carving out their own space in the market. “Jameson is still the top-seller by far, but we’re seeing solid growth for Tullamore D.E.W., Bushmills, Redbreast, and Proper No. Twelve,” says Alex Poreda, director of sales for Florida retailer ABC Fine Wines & Spirits. And Brown-Forman’s Slane and Pernod Ricard’s Spot range are also having a moment.
Despite the devastating impact Covid-19 has had on the on-premise this year, Irish whiskey has posted gains in IRI and Nielsen channels thanks to its strong performance at the retail level. “Irish whiskies make up 5% of our overall spirits sales, but we have two SKUs that rank in the top ten: Jameson 1.75-liters and Jameson 750-mls.,” says Jeff Feist, category lead for spirits at West Coast retailer BevMo. Feist adds that BevMo stores offer 94 SKUs within the category.
As long as Irish whiskey continues to diversify, retailers are prepared to place their bets on new brands. ”I love giving new brands a chance in our stores, but if the story doesn’t resonate with the consumer, the brand will be short-lived,” says Feist.
Jameson The Giant
Pernod Ricard leads in Irish whiskey both nationally and internationally, with its Irish Distillers unit producing some of the most sought-after spirits from the Emerald Isle. Last year, Jameson was up 6.5% in the U.S. to over 3.7 million cases. The global staple is the flagship release from Pernod Ricard’s Irish whiskey portfolio, and it leads the category in the U.S. and abroad.
While Jameson’s core label leads the way by a wide margin, Pernod has seen recent success with a steady release of line extensions, including the Caskmates Series and the higher-end Black Barrel—which combined to add roughly 270,000 cases to the brand—as well as the newest extension, Jameson Cold Brew. “We’re proud of how Jameson Cold Brew has performed since its launch in 2020,” says Matt Foley, brand director for Jameson at Pernod Ricard USA. “It’s now a top-three spirits innovation in Nielsen, despite being introduced during the pandemic. Consumer response has been overwhelmingly positive, and it’s opening up Jameson to an entirely new audience and new consumption occasions.” The brand will now work to pitch the entire Jameson family to consumers depending on occasion and taste preferences. “In the most established markets for Jameson, we are focusing on leveraging the full portfolio and using innovation to expand into new occasions,” Foley adds.
Thus far, Cold Brew is doing well in retail, with BevMo reporting that it was the seventh bestselling Irish whiskey through June 2020. BevMo’s top-selling Irish whiskey list is dominated by Jameson, with the core label at the top two spots in its 750-ml. and 1.75-liter formats, Black Barrel at No. 5, Cold Brew at No. 7, Caskmates Stout at No. 8, and Jameson 18-year-old rounding out the top ten. “It’s very early into Cold Brew’s launch, but all indicators have been positive as consumers are loving the combination and are having fun coming up with ways to enjoy it—from on the rocks to mixing it with cola or cream,” says Foley.
Retailers across the U.S. consistently report that Jameson is their top-selling Irish whiskey, both year-round and in the days surrounding St. Patrick’s Day. “The overall sales were trending up in Irish whiskey, and as of St. Patrick’s Day sales were even, if not slightly up from the previous year,” says Gary Fisch, founder and owner of New Jersey-based Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, which stocks roughly 40 Irish whiskey SKUs. “Had the shutdowns due to Covid-19 not happened, sales would have definitely been up.”
A Rising Tide
While Jameson looms large over the entire category, success is widespread among Irish whiskey brands. In the U.S., William Grant & Sons’ Tullamore D.E.W. is the second-largest brand at 300,000 cases, up 6.8% last year, according to Impact Databank. The last five years have been particularly strong; Tullamore D.E.W. has doubled in size since 2014, growing 15.4% on average each year since then. William Grant opened a single malt and pot still whiskey distillery for the brand in County Offaly in 2014, adding a grain distillery and bottling plant three years later.
“Since acquiring the brand back in 2010, we’ve grown depletions by well over a quarter million cases in the U.S. alone,” says Connor Neville, brand manager for Tullamore D.E.W. at William Grant & Sons. “Competition intensifies each year. The other side of the coin is that we’re not just competing with other Irish brands, but that whisk(e)y drinkers as a whole tend to be more adventurous, drinking across categories and occasions.”
While most of the brand’s sales come from the standard Tullamore D.E.W. blend, Neville says that they are seeing solid performance from Tullamore D.E.W. XO Rum Cask Finish, the brand’s most recent addition to its core lineup. “Premiumization is an aspiration for all brands and it certainly plays a part in our overall strategy given the quality of aged stock at our disposal,” he notes.
At the higher end, Neville notes the success of Tullamore D.E.W. 12-year-old Special Reserve and says that as demand for aged Irish whiskey grows, the company is prepared to become more active in that space. Though Tullamore’s aged stocks are a source of potential for the brand, Neville points out that premiumization can go beyond age statements. “Understandably this can be viewed as a reassurance for many consumers, but there is so much more that goes into producing an exceptional Irish whiskey—from the variety of different distillates and mash bills to the opportunity for cask finishing and experimentation within the category,” he says. “Our new distillery gives us license to do all of that with production control from grain to glass.”
Behind Tullamore D.E.W. is Bushmills, imported by Proximo Spirits. The historic brand was up 4% last year to just under 200,000 cases, according to Impact Databank. Bushmills has spent the last half-decade rebuilding and has nearly rebounded from its low point in 2015, when it was down to 170,000 cases. Though the brand has faced challenges since 2010, its expansive offerings across many price tiers have helped it regain ground. “We see our newest blend, Red Bush, aged in Bourbon barrels, as an entry point for younger American whiskey drinkers, whereas Black Bush, a blend with high malt content aged in both Bourbon and Sherry casks, offers a richer whiskey for the more developed malt drinker,” says Lander Otegui, senior vice president of marketing at Proximo. “All Bushmills expressions are growing, including Bushmills Original, which globally is our most popular variant.”
The category’s fastest-rising star has been Proper No. Twelve, owned by MMA fighter Conor McGregor’s Eire Born Spirits and produced at Bushmills, and handled in the U.S. by Proximo. The brand, which launched in 2018, tripled in size last year to reach 124,000 cases with just one SKU. “I’ve never experienced anything like the launch of Proper No. Twelve,” says brand co-founder Ken Austin. “When we came into the marketplace, the forecast from Proximo was 30,000 cases for the first year. We told them that we thought they were way off the mark. We produced 25,000 9-liter cases for our first run and we were out of that in ten days.”
Looking forward, Austin sees great potential for the brand’s recently launched 1.75-liter bottles. He notes that while the format is available nationally, it’s not yet as ubiquitous as the 750-ml. “If you went to a market like Illinois, you may not find it,” he says. “You’ll find the 750-ml. everywhere, but the 1.75-liter is relatively new and we have work to do, but the upside on that size is great because for now, a lot of people are going to be drinking more at home.”
Brown-Forman’s Slane has seen strong growth since it launched in 2017, when it was at 8,000 cases. Last year, the brand reached 23,000 cases in the U.S., according to Impact Databank. Besides bringing Brown-Forman into the Irish whiskey category, Slane offers the company a unique footing in the whiskey tourism sector. When it acquired Slane Castle in County Meath in 2015, Brown-Forman built a $50 million distillery that can produce up to 1.2 million liters, and began filling barrels with its own distillate in 2018. “Slane is at more than 30,000 cases, and it’s only been a couple of years that it’s been out there,” says Lawson Whiting, president and CEO of Brown-Forman. “The Slane Castle and distillery itself are different from most of the other Irish whiskey experiences.” He adds that beyond the relatively new whiskey tourist attractions at the castle, the space continues to be known internationally for its large-scale concerts.
In Ireland’s capital, a storied whiskey history was recently revived thanks to Jack and Steve Teeling, sons of Cooley Distillery and Great Northern Distillery founder John Teeling. The brothers founded Teeling Distillery in 2015—the first distillery in the city of Dublin in 125 years—and released the first whiskey made there in 2018. Though the brand is building from a small base, it offers consumers a variety of whiskies, including a Small Batch blend and a collection of single malt, single grain, and single pot still whiskies, the latter made entirely on-site. Beyond those core releases, Teeling occasionally offers ultra-aged whiskies from its reserves to appeal to luxury collectors. Teeling, in which Bacardi holds a minority stake, reached 20,000 cases last year, according to Impact Databank.
More distilleries followed Teeling to Dublin. Pearse Lyons Distillery opened in 2017, while the Dublin Liberties Distillery opened in 2019. And drinks giant Diageo jumped into Irish whiskey in 2017 with Roe & Co. Last year, Diageo opened the brand’s distillery, located directly across from Guinness’ St. James’s Gate brewery. The site pays homage to the former Thomas Street Distillery, where George Roe & Co. single pot still whiskey was produced from 1757 until 1923.
Pot Still Resurgence
Known as the quintessential Irish whiskey offering, the single pot still style of whiskey has seen a major resurgence in recent years thanks to such brands as Teeling, Redbreast, and the Spot range. As is the case in the broader Irish whiskey market, Irish Distillers is the dominant player in the single pot still space. Its leading label in the segment is Redbreast ($45-$250 a 750-ml.), which reached 40,000 cases last year, up nearly 20%, according to Impact Databank. Redbreast’s lineup includes 12-year-old, 12 year old Cask Strength, Lustau Edition, 15-year-old, and 21-year-old.
“Redbreast 12-year-old makes up more than half of the growth by volume within the Redbreast portfolio,” says Mwanza Lumumba, brand director for Redbreast and the Spot range of whiskies. “Redbreast is most popular in California, Massachusetts, Texas, New York, and Florida, and we tend to see considerable growth from a sales perspective in these markets. Traditionally we have seen Redbreast perform well on-premise, but given recent current events we have seen more consumers want to try Redbreast at home.”
In partnership with Mitchell & Son, Irish Distillers also produces the Spot label ($51-$120 a 750-ml.), a historic brand that traces its roots back more than seven generations. The core Spot lineup includes the non-age statement Green Spot, 12-year-old Yellow Spot, and 15-year-old Red Spot—a whiskey that returned to the market in 2018 following an absence of more than 40 years. All three whiskies were up last year, with Green Spot leading the way at 22% growth to 10,000 cases. Yellow Spot reached 3,000 cases on 13%, growth and Red Spot reached 1,000 cases in its first year on the market. “Green Spot is not only driving the growth of the brand, it’s also becoming quite popular in California, Massachusetts, Texas, New York, and Florida,” Lumumba says. In addition to the core offerings, the brand offers Green Spot Chateau Montelena ($65)—which is finished for 12 months in Zinfandel casks from the Napa Valley winery—as well as Green Spot Château Léoville-Barton ($65), which spends 12 months finishing in casks from the renowned Bordeaux estate.
Irish Distillers’ Powers brand is also active in single pot still with Three Swallow, Signature Release, and John’s Lane. In 2019, Powers Three Swallow was named one of Whisky Advocate’s Top 20 whiskies of the year. Overall, Powers was up by 4.8% last year to 25,000 cases. Beam Suntory recently jumped into the space as well, launching Kilbeggan Single Pot Still earlier this year. The whiskey’s production was based on traditional recipes and made at the historic Kilbeggan distillery.
At retail, the upper end of the Irish whiskey category receives a mixed reception, with some retailers seeing solid performance for higher-end whiskies and others noting that consumers rarely trade up outside of special occasions. At BevMo stores, single malt and pot still whiskies do well, with Feist seeing the category as both approachable and high-quality. “Irish whiskey is a growing category for us,” he says. “The price point is usually a trade-up, and that’s good for everyone. It’s also a great stepping stone to other categories: People start out drinking Jameson, and then move to a single malt or pot still.” But despite the growth, Feist says these higher-priced whiskies still lag behind brands priced below $25 a 750-ml.
At Gary’s, meanwhile, Fisch notes that upscale Irish whiskies often require extra effort to sell. “These are great expressions, but they are usually hand-sold,” he says. “They make up a small portion of our Irish whiskey sales.” Overall, Fisch notes that single malt and single pot still whiskies serve as occasional splurges for customers interested in the category, but that there isn’t any consistent push toward premiumization.
In Florida, Poreda of ABC Fine Wine & Spirits says premiumization and growth for Irish whiskey is happening, though the category remains a small percentage of sales. “Our guests, as they have with other spirits, are consistently trading up on price point and looking for different barrel finishes or extra-aged products,” he says. “Right now, they’re a single digit percentage of overall whisky(e)y sales, but with the current growth, we expect to get into double digits soon.” ABC stocks 65 Irish whiskey SKUs.
Although retailers are not seeing across-the-board growth for high-end Irish whiskies, producers see a bright future, particularly for single malt expressions. “Irish single malts have become increasingly popular among older millennials, who are seeking out premium and super premium Irish whiskies,” says Proximo’s Otegui. “Bushmills single malts grew 20% in 2019. We’ve been focusing in particular on our 10-year-old ($45), 16-year-old ($150), and 21-year-old ($250) expressions, reintroducing them to the U.S. market at a time of explosive growth in ultra-premium Irish whiskey.” He adds that Bushmills plans to release limited-edition single malts starting later this year.
Beyond Bushmills’ single malt releases, Proximo also handles The Sexton single malt ($30) in the U.S. market. “In the two years since launching, The Sexton has focused on engaging the on-premise with a late-night food and drink party called The Sexton Midnight Club,” says Otegui. “That has contributed to strong double-digit growth rates and built the brand’s reputation as a discovery single malt.”
While its star is rising, Irish whiskey’s growth is slower than categories like flavored whiskies, Tequila, and pre-mixed cocktails. In Nielsen channels for the 52 weeks ending July 11, Irish whiskey was up only 17%. Control states are slowing too, with Irish whiskies up less than one percent by volume in the four months ending in June, according to NABCA, behind the 9% growth rate in control states for 2019. Still, Pernod Ricard’s Foley says Jameson continues to surge. “In the most recent 13-week period in Nielsen within the Covid-19 environment, Jameson significantly outperformed the whiskey category, growing at 38% in sales compared to the same period last year,” he says.
With the entire beverage alcohol industry constrained by the Covid-19 pandemic, Irish whiskey’s continued success is under great pressure. For much of the U.S., lockdowns began in mid-March—right around St. Patrick’s Day, the single most important day for the category. ABC’s Poreda says the coronavirus certainly changed St. Patrick’s Day sales for the chain because celebrations shifted from the on-premise to people’s homes, with customers stockpiling Irish whiskey from stores rather than heading out to bars. “The major difference this year is that March 17 marked the day bars and restaurants closed in Florida because of Covid-19,” he says. “So this year we saw an increased sales spike because we because an essential business and our guests chose to do more celebrating from home.”