High-end Irish whiskies spearheaded segment growth last year as consumers traded up at retail to new and unique offerings. With super-premium and deluxe variants leading growth (sales up 43% to $309 million), Irish whiskey sales grew 6.9% overall to $1.13 billion and eclipsed 5 million cases in the United States in 2020, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. “Generally, consumers are showing more interest in single malt and single pot still whiskies, such as Redbreast 12-year-old ($60 a 750-ml.) and Green Spot ($80), as opposed to blends that have been traditionally more popular,” says Will Jones, manager of The Whisky Shop in San Francisco. The store—which currently stocks 127 Irish whiskey SKUs, up from 109 in 2019—saw category sales double last year. “Sales have gone through the roof since last year across the board,” Jones adds.
At Best Buy Liquors in Brooklyn, New York, Irish whiskey sales increased nearly 25% last year. “Just as people are going for the small-batch Bourbons, the same thing is happening with Irish whiskeys,” says store owner Victoria Vugmayster. “It’s not just blended whiskies anymore. Consumers are looking more upscale, as they did with Bourbons. They’re going with Teeling ($33-$53 a 750-ml.) and more unique brands.”
The sweet spot for customers buying Irish whiskey at Best Buy is in the $35-$50 price range. “With Bourbons becoming so much more expensive, people are finding the next alternative, and they’re trying out Irish whiskey’s higher-end, boutique styles,” says Vugmayster, who notes that Irish whiskey buyers at her store tend to be between 40 and 50 years old. “But as far as nationality, it’s across the board,” she adds. “It used to be Irish people would drink Irish whiskey.. More people realize it’s good whiskey, so now that barrier has been crossed.”
Irish whiskies at Best Buy are organized in a specific area and easy to find. The store is doing pre-poured tastings with barriers and social distancing. A Teeling Irish whiskey tasting is planned for Saturday, March 13.
While The Whisky Shop doesn’t have the floor space for large displays, the store does tastings via Zoom meetings and recently had a West Cork Irish Whisky 12-year-old ($65 a 750-ml.) tasting. “When everything was open, we used to have in-store tastings that would generate interest in specific distilleries,” Jones says. “The West Cork tasting did very well.” In addition to Redbreast and Green Spot, the top-selling Irish whiskey brands at The Whisky Shop include Yellow Spot ($100), Red Spot ($250), and Jameson ($30). Among high-end offerings, Middleton variants ($225-$335) and Jameson 18 Bow Street ($170) are leading sellers.
High tariffs on single malt Scotches have also contributed to Irish whiskey growth. “With the taxes on Scotches, Irish whiskies are becoming a lot more popular,” Vugmayster adds. “A lot of brands changed the presentation on their bottles to look more like Scotch.”
Like other European spirits like Cognac, some Irish whiskeys have been hard to get because of the pandemic. “We have the hardest to get allocated stuff,” Vugmayster says. “The Middleton 21 (prices vary) is still hard to get.”
With Irish whiskies evolving and gaining ground, they are anticipated to maintain momentum. “We expect the current trend to continue with growing interest in single malt and single pot still Irish whisky,” Jones says. “As people are digging deeper and explore flavors, and as interest rises in single malts, I’m sure more Irish distilleries open and existing distilleries will get more creative with production.”