Irish whiskey’s growth in the United States over the last two decades has been remarkable as it races towards annual sales of 6 million nine-liter cases. At the four-unit Sav-Mor Liquors in the greater Boston area, Irish whiskey sales grew 30% from 2019 to 2021. “Spirits’ sales overall went up about 5% in that same time,” says store manager Michael Weiner. “Irish whiskey has increased with the advantages of marketing and the internet. Consumers are able to gain information on smaller producers and distributors.”
Irish whiskies have been on a roll in the United States for the past 20 years. The category advanced from 434,000 cases in 2002 to 5.9 million nine-liter cases in 2021, an increase of 17.8% over the previous year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). The Washington, D.C.–based organization reports sales by value increased 16% to $1.3 billion in 2021. DISCUS noted that gains were primarily with high-end premium and super-premium brands, indicating that consumers are trading up.
If trends continue, Irish whiskey sales volume will surpass the 6 million nine-liter case threshold this year. “The proliferation of flavored Bourbons made people more likely to try a non-Bourbon brown spirit,” Weiner says. “Whenever I try an Irish whiskey, there’s always something distinct in the flavor profile.”
Sav-Mor carries 25 Irish whiskey brands with Jameson ($32 a 750-ml.), Bushmills ($24), and Tullamore Dew ($27) leading sales. “Most of the volume is sold in 50-ml. nips,” Weiner says. “Irish whiskey is really getting popular with the younger crowd, who may be looking for something tasty and it’s going to fit their budget. The popular brands come in various sizes so it’s easy to get introduced and then customers can decide for themselves what they like.”
Sav-Mor promotes Irish whiskies for St. Patrick’s Day with in-store displays and offers free merchandise like shamrocks and green tablecloths. The Sav-Mor stores in Somerville and Cambridge border Boston and see a spike in Irish whiskey sales around St. Patrick’s Day. “People are parking in those lots and taking public transportation to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade,” Weiner says.
In Denver, the single-unit Argonaut Wine & Liquor typically sees an Irish whiskey sales bump leading up to the March holiday. “St. Patrick’s is the first larger drinking holiday of the year, so there is a fairly significant jump in Irish whiskey sales for March,” says store co-owner Josh Robinson. “For St. Patrick’s, we do various seasonal advertisements that highlight the category of Irish drinks, including beers and Irish cream liqueurs.”
Argonaut sells 50 to 60 Irish whiskey brands, with Jameson ($23 a 750-ml.), Tullamore Dew ($20), and Bushmills ($19) dominating the category. “The main thing for Irish whiskey is trying to break the mold,” Robinson says. “Some 80% of the category is Jameson so getting customers to try other types is the biggest challenge.”
Irish whiskey sales at Argonaut grew slightly from 2019 to 2021, but decreased around 10% last year from 2020. “This is consistent with overall business at our location,” Robinson says. “The long-term future depends on getting customers to try new things.”
Brisk Irish whiskey retail sales are expected to continue nationwide. “It can’t do anything but increase,” says Sav-Mor’s Weiner. “Irish whiskies are being made cleaner, better, and at a lower cost. It’s not difficult to get into the liquor industry and make a spirit. It’s difficult to sell that spirit.”