Irish whiskey is galloping ahead in the U.S. market thanks to brands’ continued innovation with new styles and line extensions, as well as a boost in marketing. To satisfy keen consumer interest, the retail tier is promoting Irish whiskies by highlighting in-store tastings, the increased selection,, and placements in weekly store circulars and online ads. Irish whiskey sales grew 12% last year to $1 billion in the United States, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.
Despite its growth, Irish whiskey remains relatively small in stature when compared to Scotch and Bourbon. But this creates an upside for more potential growth. “As a category, it’s still seemingly untamed, certainly more so than the explored realm of Bourbon,” says Matt McWhinnie, assistant manager at Empire Wine in Albany, New York. “Irish whiskey also has a bit more of a roguish element to it, something intangible you can sense from the look in a customer’s eye when discussing it.”
At The Whisky Shop in San Francisco, California, whisk(e)y specialist Mark Cassidy notes that the store’s Irish whiskey sales grew more than 50% last year. “There are new Irish whiskies coming out all the time,” he says. “People want to know more about them.”
The Whisky Shop offers approximately 40 Irish whiskey SKUs and 25 brands, all organized in alphabetical order and ranging in price from $24 a 750-ml. of Kilbeggan to $850 a 750-ml. of 26-year-old A Drop of the Irish by Blackadder Statement. Big sellers include Teeling Single Grain Irish Whiskey ($53 a 750-ml.), Tipperary Boutique Selection “Watershed” ($67), Jameson Black Barrel ($34), and Bushmills 1608 Blend ($27).
According to Cassidy, tastings are also boosting sales at The Whisky Shop. On Saturday, March 16, the store is hosting a tasting of Knappogue Castle (from $50 for a 750-ml. of 12-year-old single malt to $95 for Twin Wood 16-year-old single malt). “The tastings are a big hit with customers,” Cassidy says. “We will usually sell more of whatever is being tasted for the next few months.”
Similarly, Empire offers rotating in-store tastings that feature products, including Irish whiskeys, on a regular basis. The store also uses its website, Empirewine.com, to promote the category regularly. And leading up to St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, Empire is highlighting its best-selling and up-and-coming Irish whiskey brands.
Irish whiskies at Empire are organized as a subsection of the overall whiskey category, with dedicated shelf space divided between such large brands as Jameson ($29 a 750-ml.), Tullamore DEW ($32 a 1-liter), and Bushmills ($32 a 750-ml.) and small batch producers like Redbreast 12-year-old ($55), Glendalough Double Barrel ($31), and Slane ($28). “Organizationally this has presented a challenge due to the increasing demand for new products,” says McWhinnie. “We currently carry over 40 SKUs of Irish whiskey in the store, a number that has risen steadily in accordance with demand over the past few years. But on our website, we offer over 70 expressions, and we’re adding more all the time.”
At Empire, Irish whiskey sales in 2018 continued at a strong aggregate 15% increase over 2017. McWhinnie notes the category has been increasing since 2013, likely because of diversification in styles, such as cask finishing, and tie-ins with major marketing engines, including Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter Conor McGregor’s launch of Proper No. Twelve ($30 a 750-ml.) last September. “We project this trend to continue for the short term in the mold of small batch Bourbon, which has exploded over the past decade,” McWhinnie says.