All Irish cream brands face two truths.
The first is that sales are by far the best around the winter holidays. The second is that the category contains a runaway leader: Bailey’s Irish Cream, the top-selling liqueur worldwide.
Even with those two category-defining realities, there remains much room for growth, creativity and opportunity. Irish cream — the combination of heavy cream and Irish whiskey — is an indulgent treat enjoyable year-round enjoyment. Modern drinkers who crave variety and quality will want to check it out.
Follow the Leader
Irish creams not named Bailey’s have an interesting relationship with the liqueur giant.
“On one hand we want to separate ourselves from them,” says Ed Caan, founder and CEO of Riviera Imports, which produces Molly’s Irish Cream liqueur. “And on the other, we want to get closer to them.”
“Because of Bailey’s, we do not need to educate most consumers in the United States about how to drink Irish cream,” says Alejandra Pena, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Castle Brands Inc., which owns Brady’s Irish Cream.
Bailey’s recognizes and embraces this role. “As the category leader, Baileys always wants to ensure that we’re helping to drive category growth,” says Nicola Heckles, Brand Director, Baileys.
Which is not to suggest that all Irish creams are somehow bound to Bailey’s — or want to be. Rather, this category contains an obvious frontrunner, which affects the strategies of its competitors.
Deviate and Distinguish
A clear category leader allows other brands to distinguish themselves by showing their differences.
Molly’s urges drinkers to take the “Molly’s Challenge” and put the product up against any of its rivals. The brand has also partnered up with the all-female Irish musical ensemble The Celtic Woman. With greater customer exposure, the brand hopes it can avoid being seen as a category “lookalike.”
“We want people to know that Molly’s is a legitimate product that can be enjoyed by anyone,” explains Caan. “And it may even be a little better than its older brother.”
Molly’s sold 41,000 cases last year, and hopes for 100,000 in the near future. Caan also points to his Irish cream’s longer shelf life as a differentiator, as well as its less-expensive price: $15 per 750-ml. bottle, with Bailey’s closer to $20.
Brady’s takes a similar approach. The brand sees itself as a value option: $11.99-$12.99, depending on market, per 750-ml. bottle. The price for Brady’s is lower — but not necessarily the quality. They promote this concept through in-store tastings. “It makes us an easy sell,” Pena says.
Even for Bailey’s, Irish cream sales spike come holiday season.
Depletions in December 2015 accounted for 24% of full-year Bailey’s depletions, according to Heckles. This is a bit of a pick up from 2012-2014, when December Bailey’s depletions accounted for between 22%-23% of full-year depletions.
“The last quarter is a major time for all Irish creams,” says Caan, of Molly’s. Sales of Brady’s will jump significantly, as much as 35-40%, Pena says. The brand Saint Brendan’s Irish Cream sees similar numbers — with one outlier.
“We are also seeing a spike in summer,” says Hannah Pellouchoud, assistant brand manger for Saint Brendan’s. “It’s something we’re still researching. We don’t have an answer yet for the increase.”
To help alleviate the sales slump that can affect Irish cream outside of winter, some brands have released specialty flavors.
Saint Brendan’s in 2015 rolled out two limited-edition products: Salted Caramel and Peppermint Bark. Customers gravitated more towards the former, Pellouchoud reports, making Salted Caramel the more likely of the two to return.
“We’re trying to tap into a different set of consumers: the younger crowd, mixologists, Millennials, the craft movement,” Pellouchoud says. “You have to keep them in mind. They want what’s new and next.”
Nevertheless, Pellouchoud says the biggest focus remains on the core customer and core product. “We have to remember the basic product first,” she explains.
Molly’s has tapped into fall tradition with its pumpkin Irish cream. “That sold out quickly,” Caan says.
The flavor will return next year. A coconut Irish cream from Molly’s was not as successful, however, and will not reappear.
Bailey’s being by far the biggest Irish cream brand has more leeway for experimentation. Their flavor line includes four alternative tastes: Vanilla Cinnamon, Salted Caramel, Chocolate Cherry and the newest, Espresso Crème. “They all play really nicely in the Irish Cream space,” Heckles says.
These flavors play into another way that Irish creams have increased sales outside of the holidays. The typical way that drinkers mix Irish cream is with coffee. But the category wants more drinkers to see its liqueur — especially the flavored products — as a fit for the craft-cocktail movement.
Molly’s has made mixology a core component of their website. Visitors can easily locate a list of craft cocktails, summer drinks and shots, all accompanied by matching images.
These diverse drinks include the Espresso Martini, Muddled Raspberry Cocktail and Birthday Cocktail Shot. “There are so many ways to use Irish Cream,” Caan says. “It’s a very versatile liqueur. You can put it over ice cream, in coffee, or drink it straight or on the rocks.”
Brady’s has been at work on its own craft cocktails recipes. The company has partnered with world-famous bartender Jack McGarry from the legendary Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog in Manhattan.
Bailey’s has worked with several mixologists to create cocktails.
For instance, San Francisco mixologist Kate Bolton came up with “The Toasty Mitten.” This calls for ½ oz. Baileys Original Irish Cream, 1 oz. Zacapa Rum 23, ⅓ oz. Almond Syrup, 2⅓ oz. freshly brewed coffee, 2 dashes Angostura Bitters, 2 ¼ oz. coconut milk crème and grated nutmeg for garnish.
To make the coconut milk crème, chill one can of coconut milk. Combine 1½ oz. of the separated fats with ¾ oz. of simple syrup in a cocktail shaker. Shake well until the contents become the consistency of whipped cream.
The Toasty Mitten is completed by combining the Baileys, rum, coffee, almond syrup and bitters in a footed coffee mug and stirring. Top with the coconut milk crème and then garnish with the nutmeg.
Irish cream is a category with a fairly established demographic: women, particularly middle-aged.
Bailey’s defines its drinkers as the “modern woman,” Heckles says. She goes out to bars with girlfriends, or is content to hang home and fix herself a mixed drink. She balances work and play, is happy with her family and friends, and “always remembers to treat herself,” Heckles says.
Saint Brendan’s finds a similar demo. Their drinkers (female) are aged between 35-54. They earn a higher average income than most at around $75,000 annually. Most are educated professionals.
But that does not mean that the demo cannot grow. Especially as the category expands into new flavors, mixology, and uses other than as a holiday treat.
“This category has not even scratched the surface yet in the U.S.,” Caan says.
Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Beverage Dynamics Magazine. Contact him at email@example.com