It’s said that on one day of the year we’re all Irish. But these days, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t the only time things Irish are being celebrated. Celtic pride has spread as far and wide as the far-flung Irish themselves, often putting the country and its people in the news. Today, Ireland has the fastest-growing economy in the European Community. Its culture and music are becoming mainstream in countries around the world, and Irish pubs appear to be proliferating in major cities throughout Europe and North America. The Irish, in fact, saved civilization, according to historian Thomas Cahill.

It’s no wonder so many people claim ancestral ties to an O’Connell, O’Brien, Kelly or some other Irish clan come St. Patrick’s Day.


While Cahill claims that Irish monks rescued the world from interminable Dark Ages, some of the long-lasting contributions the Irish made to civilization include the inventions of whiskey, dry stout and cream liqueurs.


In days before refrigeration, food often could be a little “off,” leading to an upset stomach. Alcohol, a natural antibiotic, served a useful purpose as a digestive aid. So, when 6th Century Irish monks first made grain alcohol with an alembic (a type of pot still originally used to make perfume by the Moors), the resulting beverage was called uisce beatha, or “water of life.”


Now, Irish whiskey is enjoyed on its own merits. Though volume is relatively small (with the category representing just 0.2% of total distilled spirits consumption in the U.S.), the category has seen steady growth in the past decade despite a decline in brown goods sales overall. That growth (the top six Irish brands were up 6.5% in 1998, according to Adams Liquor Handbook and that growth continued in 1999) has encouraged distillers to introduce new products recently.

The number of distilleries in Ireland fell from nearly 2,000 in the late 1700s to essentially two in the 1960s. Since 1966, most Irish whiskey brands have been produced either by the Middelton Distillery in the south or the Bushmills Distillery in the north. Independents, like Cooley, have sprung up in recent years to offer a number of new brands.

“Interest in whiskies is growing, and people’s knowledge and understanding of whiskey is growing,” said Larry Kass, group marketing manager at Heaven Hill. “We’re in a great discovery phase of Irish whiskey. They’ve been out-shouted for years by other whiskies.”6801WHIS3

Indeed, Irish whiskey sales are growing not only because of interest in all things Irish, but also because of their accessibility, which makes them appealing to U.S. consumers.

Because of the way they’re made, Irish whiskies are considered to be much smoother than other types of whiskey. Irish whiskies are made from a combination of malted and unmalted barley. The malted barley is dried in closed kilns, unlike Scotch whisky which is made with malt dried over open peat fires, giving it its characteristically smoky taste. Most Irish whiskies also are distinguished by the fact that they’re triple-distilled in copper pot stills instead of twice or even once in the faster column still as other whiskies are.6801WHIS1

Distillers and importers are playing up that smoothness to broaden their consumer base. “In the Irish whiskey category, there are two segments where the volume lies,” said David Dorsey, vice president and brand general manager of Scotch and Irish whiskies at Brown-Forman. “One consists of older, middle income, college-educated men of Irish decent. They account for 60% of the volume and they’re very loyal to brands. We don’t want to offend them, but to get to newer drinkers who may include Irish whiskey in their portfolio, we need to send a lifestyle message.”

Bushmills is capitalizing on the opportunity by tying the brand to another product younger consumers have popularized — coffee. This winter, the brand is twisting the Irish coffee concept with materials that support the theme “Not your average Joe.” In the summer the theme will change to “Cooler than your average Joe.” The brand expects the program to tie in with a major coffee company.

The brand also is pushing recipes for drinks like the “Bushfire” shot in on-premise accounts to raise awareness and help drive off-premise sales. Also in the works is a new ad campaign that will likely break in May.

Jameson, too, is trying to break out of the mold. “The category has traditionally focused on its Irish heritage,” said Jeff Agdern, Jameson brand manager at Austin, Nichols. “Consumers in the U.S. have not been exposed to the tremendous quality of Irish whiskies. The new outlook on Jameson is to position it as a premium spirit, not just an Irish whiskey versus Scotch whisky.

Jameson isn’t abandoning its Irish heritage, but sales promotion and public relations programs will be refocused along the theme of the new ad campaign, “What’s the rush?” Brand displays leading up to St. Patrick’s Day will encourage consumers to celebrate at their own pace. A mail-in offer lets consumer send away for a home party kit that includes T-shirts, hats, inflatables, buttons, drink recipes, games and songs.6801IRIS6

Beyond St. Patrick’s Day, Jameson will focus on getting consumers to enjoy life. Off-premise accounts will be supported with a sweepstakes that offers consumer a chance to win “the world’s most unrushed vacation.” On-premise accounts in key markets will get visits from massage teams to encourage people to meet with friends and relax after work instead of fighting rush hour traffic.

Tullamore Dew also is looking to markets with large numbers of target demographics, 30-year-old males familiar with whiskies. “It’s a big opportunity for us to increase distribution,” said Liam MacHale, brand manager at Allied-Domecq. “We’re not going back to our older consumers. They already know the brand.” New print ads incorporate features of Ireland, like one that shows a rugby player, but focus on brand attributes with the tag “tough country, smooth whiskey.”

Smaller Irish whiskey brands are leveraging consumer interest in high end spirits and unique products such as single malt Scotch, single barrel bourbon, and 100% agaves.

Heaven Hill, one of the few independent U.S. distillers, likes to tout the fact that the two Irish whiskies it imports — The Tyrconnell and Kilbeggan’s — are produced by Cooley, an independent distiller in Ireland.

The Tyrconnell also has the distinction of being a pure pot still single malt whiskey. Heaven Hill is positioning it as a step up from traditional Irish whiskies and an alternative to single malt Scotch. Kilbeggan, a moderately priced, light blended Irish whiskey, has found its strength in non-traditional markets such as Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. Both brands will have retail p-o-s support for St. Patrick’s Day.

The big distillers also hopped on the specialty product bandwagon several years ago. Bushmills Single Malt has grown to about 8,000 cases annually. Jameson introduced Jameson Gold last year, a blend of 8-to-20-year-old whiskies seasoned in sherry casks. It’s positioned between Jameson 1780 and the high-end Middleton Rare. This year, Jameson is promoting a limited edition 15-year-old pure pot still “Millennium” whiskey in numbered bottles.

Other specialty brands include Cooley Distillery’s Connemara, a peat-smoked single malt; Knappogue, a single-malt, single-cask whiskey; Bunratty, an Irish poitin (also spelled ‘poteen,’ pronounced po-cheen), which is a fiery home-brewed style Irish whiskey; and coming in February, Clontarf. 6801IRIS5

Distilled and marketed by the team of former R&A Bailey execs who launched Boru Vodka, Clontarf will be available in three versions — classic blend, deluxe blend and single malt.


Almost as Irish as whiskey, though a relatively new category, Irish creams have become a real tradition during the holidays and are now starting to make inroads as a more all-occasion cordial.

For the most part, as Baileys goes so goes the category. With 54% of the Irish cream category, Baileys tends to influence not only sales of creams in general, but other liqueurs such as Kahlúa as well. This year, Baileys is focusing on the indulgent nature of the product, but making it more relevant to consumers’ everyday experiences.

“Baileys doesn’t create special moments,” said Dan Butler, program development manager at UDV North America, “it enhances a special moment with indulgence.”

Part of the strategy this year is to “de-seasonalize” the brand. “We want to educate consumers on product form and drinking occasions,” said Craig Jodan, consumer marketing manager, “giving them less formal ways to drink the product on less formal occasions.”6801FY706

Instead of focusing on St. Patrick’s Day, for example, Baileys is promoting a more generic Irish program throughout February and March. The “Doors of Ireland” will be the consumers’ “door to indulgence,” inviting them to enter the Baileys experience through different means.

A near-pack or write-for offer (via bottle-neckers) will provide consumers with a CD containing contemporary Irish music, e-postcards, drink recipes, Baileys screensavers and Baileys commercials. The CD also will direct consumers to the Baileys web site.

Local market radio promotions will reward winners with either the CD or a home pub kit containing coasters, a trivet, glasses and the Baileys story. Where legal, radio stations may hold live remotes from both off- and on-premise locations.

During the summer months, the brand will push “Baileys Blendz,” a program to merchandise the product’s versatility in cold drinks. Off-premise accounts get aggressive sampling support, drink recipe brochures and a glassware offer along with traditional p-o-s support.

Carolans, the number-two brand in the category, has been besieged by several low-priced contenders introduced in recent years, and has seen its share erode somewhat as a result. Though specific plans for this year weren’t available as of this writing, the brand’s not going down without a fight, according to Allied Domecq’s Liam MacHale.

“Alternative variations of creams have potential, but they’ll come and go,” he said. “There will be a falling out of those that only spend on price promotions, not image. Brands like Baileys and Carolans will still be here. We’ll fight to secure our position so new entries are less of a threat.”

O’Mara’s, a wine-based as opposed to whiskey-based cream, continues to enjoy success by virtue of alternative avenues of distribution. “We’ve been able to add to the cream market because we can be distributed in more avenues, such as supermarkets,” said Susan Overton, brand manager at Heaven Hill. “It’s good for the category and for O’Mara’s that we can be sold in different outlets.”

The brand intends to continue a strong sampling program (using bottle-shaped non-alcoholic candies where sampling isn’t legal). For St. Patrick’s Day, the brand will be bringing back the shamrock coffee mugs it introduced during the holidays. Like Baileys, O’Mara’s will be pushing alternative usage during the remainder of the year. This summer, it ties in with local store brand ice cream to promote “Mudslides,” cross-promoted with coupons. Fall will feature a coffee tie-in. The brand will push its versatility with drink and dessert recipes.

Other creams in the value segment, such as Emmets, Sheridans and Saint Brendan’s, will fight it out for attention as new entries scrabble for shelf space.


Though Ireland is noted for a number of the products it produces, from wool sweaters to Irish crystal, perhaps nothing is so Irish in character as beer, particularly dry stout, an Irish invention.6801GUIN1

Guinness, one of the most widely recognized and consumed brands in the world, continues its February lead-in to St. Patricks Day this year. For the seventh year, Guinness will try to break its own record for the world’s largest toast. This year the Great Guinness Toast is themed “raise a pint, raise the record.” More than 130,000 people in 32 markets registered last year. Guinness hopes to top that this year.

The theme switches over to “raise a pint, raise the roof” for St. Patrick’s Day.

In the meantime, Guinness has brewed up a new strategy to change consumer perceptions about the brand. A new ad campaign breaking in February will focus on the refreshing nature of the brand. To many consumers, the color and reputation of Guinness is forbidding. The new positioning intends to make it more accessible to mainstream beer drinkers.

In addition to advertising, Guinness packaging gets a new look, and cans now are available in eight-packs. New p-o-s materials complementing the graphics are available to support the brand.

Brand promotions in many cases this year also will include Harp and Caffrey’s Ale, and in some instances (such as Halloween) Bass Ale.

Color, in fact, seems to be the biggest barrier to broader consumption that stout producers face. All of them are addressing the problem in one way or another. “Stouts are a confusing style to many consumers,” said Bill Wetmore, commercial manager for Scottish & Newcastle, which imports Beamish. “The average consumer thinks they’re heavy and strong, but they’re actually one of the lowest in calories. You can’t judge this beer by its color. Color is only its sexiest feature.”

Beamish, Ireland’s third largest stout producer, is concentrating on sampling, awareness, and education to get the message across. “We’ve been able to convince more and more retailers that it’s acceptable to have more than one stout in stock,” Wetmore said.

Beamish now has cans in every market in which it distributes kegs, and is in about 40 states. The brand kicks off a wholesaler incentive program this month to help broaden its base so it will be more readily available on St. Patrick’s Day. Scottish & Newcastle also is pushing its John Courage brand with Beamish as a “Black & Tan” combo.

Murphy’s also intends to promote “Black & Tan,” taking advantage of its own two brands, Stout and Irish Amber. That push will last until St. Patrick’s Day, with a sweepstakes tie-in and tasting programs to stimulate trial. During the summer, programs will focus on Murphy’s Irish Amber.

Whether it’s whiskey, cream liqueur or beer, Irish products offer a range of tastes for a variety of occasions. With St. Patrick’s Day fast approaching, it’s not a bad idea to get your Irish up early and start educating your customers on the many ways they can incorporate Irish beverages into their celebration plans.

Michael Sherer is a Seattle-based writer and consultant specializing in beverages and foodservice.

Wearin’ O’ The Green

Since we’re all Irish one day of the year, the one thing you can count on is that many of your customers will be wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day. That means an opportunity for you to see a lot of green at the cash register. Unlike the holidays just past, St. Patrick’s Day is here and gone before you know it. Many suppliers recognize that fact and have designed promotions to try to lengthen the St. Patrick’s Day “window.” And while the holiday seems to have been taken over by beer and babes, remember the host of Irish spirits you have to merchandise. Here are a few ideas from fellow retailers.

* Theme displays. “Theme displays really help,” said Brian Bowden, spirits buyer for Beverages and more!, San Francisco. “Three weeks after the holiday, we get another spike in business when people run out of what they purchased.”

“Right after Valentine’s Day we flip over to St. Patrick’s Day decorations,” said Rick Curtis, Curtis Liquors, Weymouth, MA. “It’s a quick hit, but a concentrated hit.” The stores are turned into Irish pubs with displays that feature all the Irish spirits they carry.

* Tastings. Where legal, sample Irish products. Let consumers compare Beamish, Guinness and Murphy’s at a tasting, or introduce them to other ales they might not have tried, like the recently introduced Caffrey’s. Many Irish creams have a non-alcoholic alternative to give customers a taste of their products. Baileys has a truffle and O’Mara’s offers a bottle-shaped candy. For whiskies, sample Irish whiskies against single malt Scotch and explain how each is made. Host a whiskey tasting at a local restaurant for your customers.

* Cross-merchandising. Display and sample Irish spirits with food. The deli at Schaefer’s, Skokie, IL, features Irish bangers (sausage), rashers (bacon), corned beef and cheeses around the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. The weekend before St. Pat’s, all the departments work together to orchestrate what will be tasted — Irish coffee, coffee with Baileys, beers, cheeses and sausages, for example. Shopper’s Discount Wines & Spirits, Madison, NJ, displays Irish beers near Irish cheeses in the deli department, and will put Irish beers out on display when sampling the cheeses.

* Create impulse sales. In addition to feature displays, put Irish spirits out in other areas of the store, too, to catch the customer’s eye. “We always do a couple little end caps to merchandise different products,” said Ken Lewis, owner of The Party Source, Bellevue, KY. “Over the years, it’s gotten easier to merchandise Irish spirits, particularly at the high end of the market.””It’s a no-brainer to do huge displays of Guinness and Baileys,” said Todd Jacobson, general manager at Happy Harry’s Bottle Shops, Grand Forks, ND, “and, in addition, we’ll play up anything that sounds Irish that week with side stacks and end caps.”

* Advertise. Feature Irish spirits in your weekly newspaper ads a few weeks before the big day.

* Merchandise year-round. Find other occasions on which to feature Irish spirits other than St. Patrick’s Day and year-end holidays. Beverages and more! advertises Jameson or Bushmills about once a quarter as a reminder to customers. Create a holiday, such as a “half St. Pat’s Day” in September, as an excuse to merchandise Irish spirits.

With a little extra effort, you can convince your customers to be Irish on more than just one day a year.

Irish Vodka? What Next?

The Russians have been making their own version of stout for more than a century. Vodka, it seems, is produced by just about every country in the world with a distillery. So, it was probably only a matter of time before the Irish came up with one.

Less than two years ago, a couple of former executives with R&A Bailey formed the Roaring Water Bay Spirits Co. in Dublin. Its first product, Boru Vodka, was launched here a year ago. Available in Original, Citrus and Orange, Boru also has a “Trinity” pack featuring the three flavors in stackable 200 ml bottles.

In time for St. Patrick’s Day, Boru will be available in a 100 proof version. Packaged in a black bottle, Boru Extra Strength Vodka will be supported with display racks, case cards and shelf talkers. Crews from the distillery will do tastings and talks in key markets.

Next up for the new company? No, it’s not tequila. In February, Roaring Water Bay introduces Clontarf Irish whiskey, in single malt and two blends. Clontarf, too, will be available in the stacked sampler pack.


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