In days of yore, the call of Irish spirits was most likely the wail of a banshee in the misty mountains or meadows of Ireland. Nowadays, the call is more likely the wail of Irish rocker Bono of the band U2 or the rhythmic clatter of the Riverdance troupe tapping their toes on stage. It’s also likely to be the sound of consumers asking for an Irish whiskey or Irish cream liqueur, for these products continue to experience increased sales. Beers from Ireland have also seen higher sales, propelled in part by the growing popularity of all things Irish. America has been captivated recently by Irish music, dance, movies, poetry and literature, and places like Dublin are now hot tourist spots. Phenomena like Riverdance, U2 and The Chieftains seem to have combined the energy and enthusiasm of contemporary Ireland with much of its unique heritage.6801IRA

Part of that heritage concerns Irish whiskey, which it is believed originated around the 6th century. Monks in Ireland discovered that when a mash of barley and water was fermented with yeast and then heated in an alembic (a type of pot still), they could separate and retain the alcohol in it. This whiskey was called uisge beatha, or “the water of life,” by the Celtic population. That phrase was eventually anglicized by English soldiers in the 12th century, resulting in the word “whiskey.”

Though there were almost 2,000 stills in Ireland by the late 1700s, only a handful of Irish whiskey brands are available in the U.S. today. All of them are growing, however, even in the face of a declining brown goods market. The category finished 1997 at about 300,000 9-liter cases, according to Adams Media research, up more than 4% from 1996, and is expected to continue to grow this year.


Whiskey’s Up

“It’s still from a relatively small base, but Irish whiskey is headed up,” said Stephen Kauffman, group product manager for brown goods at Heaven Hill Distilleries, importer of Kilbeggan and The Tyrconnell.

“The cigar phenomenon is really helping brown goods,” added Mark Levinson, vice president at A. Hardy/USA, which imports Connemara. “Single malts and cognacs have been doing well as a result. There are a huge number of people of Irish descent in this country, and I’m sure they’re curious about Irish whiskey.”

(Thousands of 9-Liter Cases)
Brands Supplier 1996 1997e % Change
Jameson (includes 1780) Austin, Nichols 120.0 117.9 -1.8%
Bushmills Brown-Forman Beverages 100.0 103.2 3.2%
Tullamore Dew Hiram Walker 12.0 15.7 30.8%
Powers Austin, Nichols 14.0 13.7 -2.1%
Black Bush Brown-Forman Beverages 10.6 11.7 10.4%
Kilbeggan Heaven Hill Distilleries 6.4 7.5 17.2%
Bushmills Single Malt Brown-Forman Beverages 4.0 5.3 31.2%
The Tyrconnell Heaven Hill Distilleries 2.2 2.9 31.8%
Total Leading Brands 269.2 277.9 3.2%
Others 18.8 22.9 21.9%
Total Irish 288.0 300.8 4.4%
(e) 1997 estimates
Source: Adams Handbook 1997 and Adams Research Database

In addition, the consumer trend toward premium products, including spirits, has been another factor in favor of Irish whiskeys. In fact, said marketers, Irish whiskeys have been undermarketed in this country, and have a real opportunity for growth, particularly among younger consumers.

“A lot of consumers in the U.S. don’t want to drink what their parents do,” said Philippe Cassous, marketing director for Jameson, imported by Austin, Nichols Co. “Irish whiskey is less snobbish than Scotch and perceived to be of higher quality than Canadian whisky.”

“Consumers also are finding that Irish, of all whiskey categories, is easiest to consume,” noted Roy Danis, vice president of sales and marketing at Austin, Nichols.

The production process, obviously, plays a big part in this smooth character of Irish. First, it is made with both malted and unmalted barley. The malt is then dried in a kiln — unlike Scotch whiskies which are dried over peat fires — so it doesn’t acquire the same smoky taste common to Scotch. Finally, Irish whiskey is distilled three times, once more than Scotch, resulting in a “purer” distillate. The distilled spirit is matured in sherry or bourbon casks for several years before being “vatted” or blended. The process creates a product that is lighter and smoother than most other whiskies.

Appealing To Younger Consumers

Hoping to capitalize on Irish whiskey’s heritage and its potential appeal to consumers, especially younger drinkers, Irish brands in the U.S. are trying to drum up more grassroots interest and support.

Jameson, the category leader which topped the 1 million-case mark worldwide in 1996, grew as much as 14% in selected major markets last year, the company said. The brand is increasing its spending to support a print and outdoor ad campaign stressing its Irish origins. A new campaign that targets a younger audience will be unveiled this year.

Brand support includes display materials and shelf talkers themed, “Call The Shots,” for St. Patrick’s Day. But the brand is pulling away somewhat from typical St. Patrick’s Day promotions.

“We want to promote Jameson as an everyday whiskey,” said Cassous. “In 1998, we’re going to try to have only 20% of our communications devoted to St. Patrick’s Day and 80% to the rest of the year. There are 40 million people of Irish descent in the U.S., so we’ll be doing more promotion to Irish communities.”

The brand also is considering another line extension mid-year that would be positioned between Jameson and the 12-year-old Jameson 1780. The new product would give Austin, Nichols entries at five different price points — Powers at the low end (marketed primarily to on-premise accounts for Irish coffee, though it’s one of the best-selling brands in Ireland), Jameson, the as-yet-unnamed new product, Jameson 1780 and Midleton Very Rare at the very high end.

The number-two brand in the U.S., Bushmills, was up more than 3% in 1997, and expects stronger growth this year. The brand kicked off a six-month print campaign in September, its first ads in several years.

“The interest in premium spirits suggests a real opportunity for Irish whiskeys,” said David Dorsey, vice president, business planning manager, at Brown-Forman. “We’ll grow by taking share from Scotch and other brown goods.”

Though the brand as a whole should grow this year, Dorsey said, Black Bush and Bushmills Malt will grow even faster because of the interest in premium spirits. Bushmills Malt, in fact, is now among the top 10 best-selling single malts in the country, according to Dorsey.

Bushmills is hoping its heritage as the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world (1608) can help build the brand. In addition to the ads running in The Wall Street Journal, Bushmills offers basic point-of-sale support materials. The brand is strongly pushing grassroots programs, however, getting third party endorsements by conducting tastings wherever possible and offering local support such as training or special promotions.

Tullamore Dew has seen tremendous growth since being reintroduced to the U.S. market three years ago after a 20-year absence. The brand has rocketed to the number-three spot, growing more than 30% last year.

“In markets where we started out well, we’re still growing and expect to continue to grow,” said Guido Goldkuhle, Tullamore Dew brand manager at Hiram Walker & Sons. “When we get it into people’s mouths they’re surprised at how great it is.”

To get it into even more people’s mouths, the brand is concentrating this year on direct mail and sampling, conducting tastings in key markets like Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston. They are also intensifying marketing at the local level.

“Our key brand champions are the sales guys in the field who do the grassroots stuff,” Goldkuhle said. They make sure the brand is involved with local Irish parades, festivals and publications.

Growing even faster than the category are the smaller independent brands that offer consumers some of the same mystique of single malt Scotches. Heaven Hill’s Kilbeggan is positioned against Powers, and though 80% of sales are to on-premise accounts, it’s gotten good reviews. The Tyrconnell, also imported by Heaven Hill, is a single malt priced slightly below Bushmills Malt, making it very competitive.

Connemara, another whiskey from the independent Cooley Distillery, broke tradition with other Irish whiskeys when it was first introduced, using malt dried over peat fires like Scotch. A single malt, Connemara has an Islay malt taste, similar to Laphroaig, according to the company.

This year Connemara sports a new package, a colorful tube overpack. For St. Patrick’s Day, the brand is offering the trade a special keychain carved out of Connemara marble. Retailers also can get shelf talkers and other p-o-s materials.

New this month is Cask-Strength Connemara, a 120-proof single malt bottled from individual casks. The new whiskey will compete with other high-end single malts.

Cream Of The Crop

The Irish cream liqueur category was created in 1974 when Baileys was introduced. It was an immediate hit, and the brand, imported by IDV North America, is now the third best-selling liqueur in the U.S. Worldwide, the company claims that 1,000 glasses of Baileys are consumed every minute. Despite an onslaught of wannabes over the years, the Baileys brand holds more than 50% of the market, and sales of both the Original and Light versions are nearing 1 million cases annually.

A year ago, Baileys launched a web site ( to target 25- to 35-year-old consumers. Last fall, the brand added a “Truth or Dare” game to the “Pleasuredome” site, giving it more interactivity, and started promoting the site with banner advertising on other home pages, including on-line versions of several newspapers.

Baileys’ other programs — including advertising, promotions that feature its popular “Yum Cups” and striking point-of-sale and display materials — have helped increase the brand’s visibility. And the popularity of new drinks that include Irish cream as an ingredient, like the Mudslide and Slippery Nipple, have also helped boost sales. But incursions by upstart brands at cut-rate prices are also having an impact.

“As Baileys goes, so goes the category,” said Eric Larsen, brand manager for Carolans, imported by Hiram Walker. “But there’s also the phenomenon of an influx of low-price creams. Volume-wise, they’ve given a shot in the arm to the category, but some have been very short-lived. Because they’re coming in at the low end and taking shelf space, they’re also eroding pricing. With a $3 rebate, some of these guys are priced less than a gallon of milk.”

While Baileys holds court in the category, a number of brands, like Carolans and Emmets (also from IDV North America), compete fiercely in the so-called “value” category, priced a little below Baileys. This middle tier of creams is feeling pressure from lower-priced brands, like IDV’s O’Darby’s, as well as a number of regionally distributed creams.

“We’re all trying to hold on to a premium image, but it’s tough in the face of all the low-price competitive pressure,” Hiram Walker’s Larsen said.

Value Brands Hold Their Own

Carolans is the leading mid-priced brand. It grew about 3% last year. It ranks as the third-best-selling Irish cream in the U.S. Line extensions Carolans Light and Carolans Irish Coffee obviously have a much more modest base but do well in their niches. Carolans is getting more support this year, with some outdoor trials, direct mail programs and a consumer sweepstakes for a trip to Ireland.

The fourth-best-selling brand in the category is the mid-priced Saint Brendan’s Superior Irish Cream, imported by David Sherman Corp. Though the brand is “value-priced,” it has an upscale package that gives it a premium image, according to North American regional manager Roisin O’Grady. Saint Brendan’s, which is owned by dairy company Golden Vale, actually produces all of its own cream. “Consumers who tend to read labels see the ingredients and perceive that a product made with real Irish whiskey and cream is of higher quality,” she said.

Though St. Patrick’s Day is big for all Irish cream brands (and most Irish brands in general), O’Grady said Saint Brendan’s wants to concentrate on more than just one holiday this year. The brand plans to increase its visibility, and will run ads and promotions on a regional basis. Sampling is important, so Saint Brendan’s promotes its 50 ml bottles to build trial.

Another up-and-coming brand in the segment is O’Mara’s Irish Country Cream, imported by Heaven Hill. Launched just two years ago, the product has become a very strong regional contender in the Northwest and the Southeast.

The brand is positioned as the sweetest, richest cream in Ireland and features a “spokescow” in all of its sales and display materials. This year O’Mara’s is concentrating on a variety of display materials including on-pack coffee and other flavor-related samples, recipe books and a gift set.

Whether whiskey, cream or beer, Irish imports are lifting the spirits of consumers as they continue to grow in popularity. While the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day holiday represents a prime selling season for Irish brands, most marketers are beginning to push to keep their brands visible all year-round. As consumers continue to express more interest in Ireland and Irish heritage, Irish spirits offer retailers a tremendous sales opportunity.

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

In The Irish Spirit

No discussion of Irish spirits would be complete without due attention paid to Irish Mist, imported by Hiram Walker & Sons. Based on an ancient recipe, Irish Mist was first produced in 1947. The recipe, rediscovered by the grandson of Daniel E. Williams, for whom Tullamore Dew was named (after the initials D.E.W.), combines Irish whiskey with honey.

The popular liqueur competes with the grand classics like Drambuie, Grand Marnier and B&B, so it tends to have an older constituency. But that may soon be changing.

“We don’t want to leave our core constituency, but we’re looking for younger drinkers,” said Eric Larsen, brand manager. “There are some pockets where Irish Mist is being consumed as a shooter, and we’re looking at how we can appeal to that base as well as to a female base where consumers can enjoy Irish whiskey without all the bite.”

Grassroots support, direct mail, recipes and a partnership with the Blarney Gift Catalog may help.

The spirit of Irish independence has been responsible for the tax-dodging exploits of thousands of illicit distillers over the years. When England imposed a system of licensing in the 1600s, a number of Irishmen chose to distill their own fiery brand of whiskey rather than pay the taxman. The illicit whiskey was called poteen, which refers to the pot in which it’s distilled.

Reviving the tradition of poteen is Hackler, imported by Schieffelin & Somerset. The brand was launched in Boston last fall with plans to roll out to other markets with strong Irish-American communities this year. Support includes print ads with the tag, “Discover your Irish spirit.”

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

Whiskey and Irish cream aren’t the only beverage alcohol products for which Ireland is noted. Indeed, one of the most famous trademarks in the world comes from the Irish brewing family Guinness.

BFD-4-BEER PINTRichard Guinness, an estate manager for a clergyman, brewed beer for the rector’s table. The clergyman left an inheritance to Richard’s son Arthur, who used it to purchase a brewery in Dublin in 1759. The brewery’s first beers were modest ales, but Guinness soon began producing porters, which were popular at the time, in three different strengths. One of the export versions was eventually labeled Guinness Extra Stout Porter, and stout was how the style was known thereafter.

Ireland is best known for dry stout, the style originated by Guinness. Brewed with darkly roasted malt, the beer was heavily hopped to help preserve it for long periods of time. Guinness is still the product by which all other stouts are judged, but Ireland also boasts two other well-known stout brands — Murphy’s and Beamish.

Guinness sales were up an astounding 25% last year on top of 20% growth in 1996. The reasons for the brand’s success, according to Reggie Fils-Aime, vice president of marketing for Guinness Import Co., are its unique taste and heritage combined with strong marketing programs.

“Ireland is an interesting juxtaposition of the contemporary with things that are culturally rich,” he said. “A strong underlying trend in our growth is that our brands have authentic heritage.”

This year, the brand plans to continue successful programs like trying to set a new Guinness World Record “Guinness Toast” in more than 40 markets, and its fifth annual “Win An Irish Pub” contest this spring. But the brand also has new tricks up its sleeves this year, according to Fils-Aime.

Harp Lager also is capitalizing on the popularity of Ireland. Sales were up 25% last year, making it the fastest-growing European lager in the U.S. market, according to Information Resources, Inc. data.

Murphy’s, which is marketed here by Heineken USA, also has seen tremendous growth. “Fuller-flavored products continue to do well,” said Heineken USA’s Dan Tearno, “and imports are accelerating because people are coming back to tried-and-true products, and consumers obviously recognize Murphy’s heritage.”

Murphy’s Stout has been bolstered in the past year-and-a-half by nitrogen-powered draught-flow bottles and cans, and the introduction of Murphy’s Irish Amber, which has performed above expectations. For St. Patrick’s Day, the brand is teaming up with Heineken to create greater impact at retail. Point-of-sale materials include case displays, pole toppers and danglers, banners, posters, streamers, case cards and Irish flags. Give-aways include T-shirts, suspenders, belt buckles, buttons, keychains and more.

Later in the year, Murphy’s will likely reprise its consumer sweepstakes from last fall that awarded a trip to a comedy showcase in Kilkenny, Ireland.

Ireland’s third stout, Beamish, imported by Scottish & Newcastle, has been gaining distribution and is now available in 20 states. The brand just launched a draught can to give it presence in off-premise accounts, and plans a strong St. Patrick’s Day program to support the launch.

“We’re finding that retailers used to feel they needed only one stout, but are now seeing them carry a variety of stouts because of the consumer interest in specialty beers,” said Bill Wetmore, commercial manager for Scottish & Newcastle.

Ireland’s reputation for great beer has even led to the creation of popular “Irish” beers in the U.S. Best known is Killian’s Irish Red, based on a recipe licensed to Coors Brewing by Irish brewer George Lett. Coors also has introduced Killian’s Irish Brown and Killian’s Wilde Honey in recent years. Stroh Brewery markets McSorley’s Ale and McSorley’s Black & Tan, beers named after a New York tavern opened by John McSorley who immigrated from in Ireland 1854. And Genesee Brewing offers both J.W. Dundee’s Honey Brown and Michael Shea’s Irish Amber in honor of Irish tradition. Perhaps the sincerest form of flattery, however, is the tremendous variety of stouts now being produced by American brewers, both big and small.


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