Oklahoma tourist Karen Gregory traveled to Dublin this week, inhaled the aroma of malted barley at the Teeling Whiskey distillery and chose sides in a centuries-old contest. “Certainly Irish. It’s lighter and brighter. The tape is too heavy.
The throngs of visitors happily sipping neat whiskeys, whiskey cocktails and whiskey-infused coffees suggested more converts to the Irish side of a rivalry that has pitted two venerable traditions against each other in a battle for market dominance.
Irish distilleries prevailed in the 19th century, accounting for over 60% of sales in the United States, before disaster struck. The Irish ignored new technologies, curbed exports during American Prohibition in the 1920s and found themselves caught in a trade war with the UK. Scotland seized the chance and accelerated its global exports, establishing Scotch as a synonym for all types of whisky.
“We’ve gone from 60% to 2% in the US, that’s a thing,” said John Teeling, a doyen of Irish whiskey producers. Then he smiled: “But I think we will overtake the Scots by the end of the decade. There will be a big party when that happens.
After decades of silent woe, Irish whiskey is back. From just four operational distilleries in 2010, there are now 42 on the island of Ireland. Annual global sales rose from 5 million cases (60 million bottles) in 2010 to 14 million cases (168 million bottles) last year, fueled by new offerings and younger drinkers.
Growth in the United States has been particularly strong, rising 16% last year to a record $1.3 billion, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. If the trend continues, sales of Irish whiskey in the United States – currently 5.9 million cases – will overtake Scotch, which has peaked at around 8 million cases, by 2030.
Globally, however, Scotch sales, at 1.3 billion bottles, still eclipse its Irish rival, which sells 190 million bottles. “We’re just catching up after decades of underperformance when the scotch basically stole our breakfast,” said Jack Teeling, John’s son and managing director of Teeling Whiskey.
It’s a bigger game now – the global whiskey market has hovered at $80 billion over the past decade, but is expected to hit more than $100 billion by 2024, according to consumer data firm Statistics. Japanese brands have also exploded in popularity, netting $340 million in sales last year.
Last month, the Irish government launched a €750,000 ‘Spirit of Ireland’ campaign to promote Irish products in American bars and liquor stores. For Irish distillers, overtaking Scotch in the United States would be a psychological boost and correct a century-old fiasco in the world’s biggest market.
It would also underscore the ambition to challenge Scotch’s enduring dominance elsewhere, including in Britain. “The UK was once a graveyard for Irish whiskey,” said John Teeling. “Not anymore.”
Celebrities have launched their own brands of Irish whiskey, with the stars of American sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia this week launching a 15-year-old single malt to celebrate the show’s 15th season. Former mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor launched a brand in 2018.
Popular culture marked the revival of Irish whiskey a decade ago when the Jameson brand appeared in songs by Rihanna and Lady Gaga and on TV shows Mad Men and South Park.
“There wasn’t a moment of switch and suddenly Irish whiskey was back in fashion,” said William Lavelle, director of the Irish Whiskey Association. “It took 30 years. Ambition and strategy have come together.
Exports to Russia, the second-biggest market, have stopped and the UK-EU dispute over Northern Ireland could cause disruption, but the future is bright, Lavelle said. “It’s a rebirth.”
Ireland claims – like other countries – to be the home of whisky. There is a reference to the drink in the Red Book of Ossory, a medieval manuscript produced in County Kilkenny in the 14th century.
At one time, Ireland had over 1,000 distilleries. In the 19th century, a group of producers in the Liberties district of Dublin supplied much of the world.
However, they eschewed innovation – like a new type of still – and shrivelled during American Prohibition and the Ireland-Britain trade war of the 1930s. Scotch whiskey – which omits the “e” – filled the void with more peaty and darker offerings. Ireland’s traditionally milder fare has gained a reputation for blandness.
In the 1980s, Ireland had only two distilleries producing a tiny fraction of Scottish production. The turnaround began after French drinks giant Pernod Ricard bought Irish Distillers, giving multinational clout to its Jameson brand, and the Teeling family opened a new distillery, emboldening other newcomers.
The Irish experimented with new tastes, methods and cocktails – a level of freedom denied to Scottish producers, who operate under stricter rules – and won over drinkers in the United States. Some, however, remain confused about the terminology, making John Teeling shudder. “I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘your scotch is delicious’.”