For all the talk of the growth of Japanese whisky and the revival of American Bourbon and Rye the words “explosive growth” can only truly apply to Irish whiskey. This trend shows no sign of slowing down with sales expected to double by 2020. Those are some staggering gains so why doesn’t it get the same kind of geeky love that, say, a Yamazaki does? I’d say it’s because for many of us Irish whiskey isn’t a category. It’s just Jameson.
Irish whiskey has traditionally lived and died with the American market. American Prohibition was so devastating that 400 brands made by over 160 distilleries turned into essentially three brands and a whopping four distilleries. And while you may have heard of John Power and Cork Distilleries what you’ve drunk is Jameson.
You’ve drunk a lot of it. In 2014 Jameson sold nearly 18 million liters in the U.S. alone. It’s closest competitor, Bushmills, sold a paltry 1.3 million. Jameson accounts for 63% of the global Irish whiskey market. It’s a behemoth.
You may be asking, if Jameson is such a monster and there are only four distilleries cranking out all of this liquid then where are all these craft Irish whiskies coming from? The answer is Jameson. Or more accurately Irish Distillers who are the massive Irish whiskey conglomerate.
While on this side of the pond growth is being fueled by the proliferation of “craft” distilleries creating a wide range of diverse products, in the Irish segments growth and innovation is being by the big boys. And let’s not kid ourselves it’s a business decision. Premium and super-premium Irish whiskey sales have grown by nearly 600% since 2002. Which is a much more impressive way of saying no one drank it at all and now they drink it a little. They’re creating their own market, and they’re not doing it for the little guys.
That doesn’t mean it’s bad whiskey by any means. In fact I truly believe that there are Irish whiskies that can measure up to the best in the world. Look at Redbreast. It’s an example of understated elegance. The brand goes back to possibly 1903 but certainly 1912 where it was bottled by Gilbey’s using whiskey sourced from the Bow Street Distillery in Dublin, which was, you guessed it, the home of Jameson Irish Whiskey.
In the 1971 Irish Distillers decided to close all of their Dublin distilleries and consolidate their operations at a New Midleton Distillery in Cork. This lead to a disruption in supply and eventually Gilbey’s sold the rights to Redbreast to Irish Distillers in 1986. It seemed like the end of the brand but it was reintroduced in 1991 still boldly 12 years old. In a whiskey world where age statements and brands are disappearing every month the core Redbreast has never lost it’s age statement. In fact, it’s grown over the years with the introduction of a 15 year, 21 year (which is simply stunning) and even a 12 year old cask strength. Where others are contracting they are expanding.
The latest edition to the family is the Lustau Edition. It’s the same Redbreast formula: Pure Pot stilled, made from a blend of malted and unmalted barley (we can talk about the historical reasons for that later) but rather than just the bit of sherry influence carried on the standard 12 year, this whiskey is finished in first fill Lustau Olorosso Sherry casks pulling all those sherry notes to the forefront. It is rich, creamy, with a dark fruit and fig note wrestling with nougat and candied fruit. It is a lively whiskey.
At first the lack of age statement may seem like a step backwards but this Lustau Edition isn’t replacing anything. The 12 year isn’t going anywhere, this is simply an expansion. It is a way to experience and highlight many of the subtleties that exist in the Redbreast line. It is also an experiment.
Experimenting costs money and Jameson is almost certainly footing the bill on this experimental expansion. Big doesn’t always mean bad, just as craft doesn’t always mean good. Experience is one thing you can’t teach and it’s something that the craft distillery world is going to learn the hard way. The folks at Redbreast have already got it down.