BY MICHAEL SHERER
What’s hotter than the Yankees in August? Well, in case you haven’t been paying attention lately, all things Irish. In the past several years Ireland has risen above its bucolic image as a sleepy, rural island full of eccentric sheep farmers. History and heritage now co-mingle with a young, hip society on the cutting edge of technology and e-commerce, making Ireland Europe’s second-fastest growing economy and one if its top tourist destinations.
For centuries, the Irish have emigrated to countries around the world, looking for work, seeking their fortunes, and making their mark wherever they went. Now, the Irish are exporting pieces of their culture, reminding those who left of what they’ve missed and enthralling those who have never been. Gaelic pride and inventiveness have enabled the Irish to take old traditions and repackage them for new audiences. Irish music, becoming more popular in its own right, has been given new twists by groups like Afro-Celt Sound System. Riverdance and offspring troupes have given quaint Irish folk dancing mass appeal. Celtic art and jewelry are the latest in fashion accessories.
Perhaps nothing Irish has traveled as well as the center of Irish socializing, the public house. Irish pubs are springing up all over not only the U.S., but the world as well, safeguarding and promoting the Irish art of conversation. The mainstays of the pub — Irish whiskey, beer and cream — are gaining in popularity, and here, too, a little repackaging has garnered them new interest among a younger, hipper crowd.
WHISKEY A GO-GO
Whiskey is one of Ireland’s oldest social traditions. The art of fermenting wine and beer had been around for millennia, but medieval Irish monks added a new twist. Employing an alembic pot still, which the Moors had used previously to make perfume, the well traveled and well educated monks distilled alcohol from fermented barley malt. Called uisce beatha, or water of life for its ability to make the oft-tainted food of the day a bit more tolerable to the digestive system, the new beverage quickly found favor among invading tribes of Normans, Saxons and other itinerants who washed up on Irelands shores. Whiskey, beer and wine, in fact, were beverages of choice since safe sources of drinking water were hard to come by before the advent of modern sanitation and sewage and treatment facilities.
Irish whiskey distilling hits it zenith at the end of the 18th century. At the time, there were more than 200 distilleries in Ireland producing hundreds of whiskies. Prohibition in America, a trade war with England, and the favored status of Scotch whisky by American servicemen returning home from England after WW II put a crimp in Irish whiskey sales and exports. By the early 1960s, there were only five major distilleries left. The four distillers in the south joined forces as the Irish Distillers Group, with Belfast’s Bushmills finally following suit in 1972.
Distilling in Ireland, however, is experiencing a small renaissance. More brands are being introduced by both the major distilleries and Irelands small independents. And brands that have been around a while are seeing substantial growth. While brown goods categories in the US have generally suffered over the past two decades, high end spirits like single malt Scotches and single barrel bourbons have continued to do well. Irish whiskies also have fared well.
“Traditional blended Scotch and whiskey drinkers are looking for something different, and Irish whiskey offers something new, something unknown that they can discover,” said Jeff Agdern, brand manager for Jameson, imported by Austin, Nichols.
The category, driven by the major players Jameson and Bushmills, has continued to grow in high single digits or double digits in recent years. But even the smaller brands are benefiting from the interest in Irish whiskey for a number of reasons. First of all, Irish whiskey is more attuned to an American palate and perhaps less of an acquired taste than Scotch. Most Irish whiskey is triple distilled, making it very smooth to drink. It’s also distilled in pot stills rather than column stills over peat fires, which is what gives Scotch its characteristic smoky taste. Many brands are aged in sherry casks, giving them an even more rounded, mellow character, though rum and bourbon barrels also are used.
Irish whiskey also is a spirit that is still being discovered. Drinkers who have experimented with single malt Scotch and small batch bourbons see Irish whiskey as another interesting, and somewhat exclusive, alternative. Distillers and importers themselves also are turning their attention to a younger audience.
“We developed a strategic position for the brands several years ago and have maintained consistent marketing efforts in line with that positioning,” said David Dorsey, vice president and brand general manager at Brown-Forman, importer of Bushmills. “Bushmills is an easy-to-drink, premium imported whiskey that appeals to the taste and image of younger drinkers.”
Bushmills has been promoting a “Bush and Brew” shot-and-beer program in on-premise accounts, which will receive emphasis during the St. Patrick’s Day period.
Category leader Jameson has dramatically increased its media spending on the brand with an evolution of its “What’s The Rush?” campaign. New print ads appearing primarily in male-oriented magazines like GQ, Maxim, and Out, focus on “Rush Hour” in major international cities, showing relaxed Jameson drinkers in the midst of frenzied rush hour scenes. Instead of a traditional product message, the brand is trying to get through to a hard-to-reach target with a values message that suggests Jameson is a brand they can take time out with, along with friends and family.
At retail, Jameson will again offer its St. Patrick’s Day home party kit this year, a write-for offer that gets consumers all the hats, noise-makers and other accoutrements they need to throw a great St. Pat’s Day bash. A new floor rack display is being introduced that should give the brand even more visibility at retail.
All the attention Jameson is drawing to the brand is having a very positive rub on Jameson Gold, 1780 and especially the ultra-premium Midleton Very Rare, which was up 15% this past year.
Tullamore Dew, reintroduced in the US in 1994, also is experiencing good growth, although off a smaller base than its bigger cousins. The brand has hitched its fortunes to the sport of rugby, and the program has a lot of credibility with consumers. The brand is now the official sponsor of US Rugby, which fits well with its “Rough Country, Smooth Whiskey” campaign.
During the holidays, the brand ran a sweepstakes promotion both on- and off-premise giving consumers a chance to win a trip to Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day.
“Malt whiskeys and single-barrel bourbons have been experimented with,” said Joe Chrastina, field and marketing portfolio manager for Tullamore Dew at Allied-Domecq. “We’re going to cigar shows and pouring whiskey and getting a great response. Irish whiskey got a bad rap a long time ago, but consumers are discovering what a great product it is.”
Because of the interest in ultra-premium and unusual products, small Irish brands also are doing well. “The category continues to get attention because it grows year after year after year,” said Larry Kass, group marketing manager at Heaven Hill Distilleries. “More of the success now is going to the higher end.”
Two brands from independent Cooley Distillery are taking advantage of trends and pushing for greater visibility. Kilbeggan, a patent still blended whiskey, plays on its Irish heritage with a campaign that touts it as “100% Irish,” and suggests that it’s “Kilbeggan or nothing.” Because of a limited budget, the brand’s big push was during the holidays with a gift pack with hopes that awareness will carry the brand through the March period.
Tyrconnel, a pure pot still, single-malt whiskey, is being supported by a push to increase trade awareness. Its unique character makes it more of a hand-sell, so the brand focuses on trying to get reviewed and tasted by as many magazines and spirits writers as possible. “We hope people reprint the reviews and awards the brand has received for on-shelf p-o-s or waitstaff cards to help upsell or cross-sell the brand,” Kass said.
Due to the growing popularity of Irish whiskey, new brands have been introduced recently. Another of Cooley’s brands, Brennan’s, imported by Shaw-Ross International Importers, is now available in select markets nationwide. This year the brand hopes to expand its distribution. A new Irish whiskey, introduced last year, is Clontarf, produced by the Roaring Water Bay Spirits Co. which also introduced Boru Irish vodka. Named for the site where Brian Boru fought his last battle, Clontarf is a traditional blended Irish whiskey, imported by Better Beverage Co., New York. For its part, Boru, imported by Shaw- Ross, is offering a gift pack with two branded collins glasses, and special posters and case cards to help create floor and end-aisle displays with its Original, Citrus, Orange and Trinity Pack products.