It has been an intense few months around here. I’ve slacked off on blogging mainly due to the fact that I have had trouble finding the time. We are pretty much sold out now of our first batch of The Gael, it just won another medal at the World Whisky Awards and we are gearing up for Batch 2. I’m also kicking off work on our Blending Room, US is launching and I am opening more export markets so its kind of nuts. I did not want too much of the year to pass by before putting on paper my thoughts on the coming year in Irish Whiskey. I did this last year and was close on some things and bang on, on others. Hold on to your hats and your outrage until you finish, here we go!
Sh!t is About to Get Real on Labeling
The labeling saga is coming to a head. This is a bit of a double edged sword to be honest. For a long time nobody paid any attention to Labeling Pernod & Diageo just banged whatever they wanted on a label and off they went. When multiple newcomers arrived in the industry suddenly labeling was a hot topic and everyone started to lodge complaints against their competitors labels (mine included) Sadly the Old Guard of the Irish Whiskey Industry sleep walked into a situation whereby consumers who are increasingly demanding the truth in whiskey (shocker!) have risen up and taken to the internet to highlight issues in false provenance and fake claims. What the industry perhaps failed to realize is just how powerful that medium would be in relation to this issue.
We are now in a situation where the FSAI, Dept. of Agriculture, HSE and Dept. of Revenue are coming together to IMPOSE hyper tight policing around labeling. So for 100 years nothing was done to police labels and now we are looking at a situation where we may have Over-Policing by governmental bodies who perhaps do not 100% understand the practical mechanics of our industry.
There is not a lot of agreement within the industry as to what should go on a label. Anyone who reads this blog will know I am in the 100% transparency camp. It’s a pretty lonely camp to be honest. However there are thorny issues that are grey. There are a lot of heritage brands out there with place names on them from back in the day, they bear no correlation to where the whiskey is made. What do you do about that? Even I am not sure about that. Is is fair to tell a newcomer they can’t put a place name on a whiskey that is not made there but someone who happened to do it in 1975 is allowed to continue doing so? In reality it does not matter a damn what any producer thinks. We are about to hear from the aforementioned cabal of departments on all of this. I don’t think its going to be pretty and the industry only has itself to blame for screwing around with consumer perception for so long.
Luxury Irish Whiskey Will Become a ‘Thing’
Of all the big whiskey categories globally, Japanese, Scotch, Indian, American, Canadian, it is Irish that is the rarest. Irish whiskey is a rare commodity. That word commodity is important. For a long time under the duopoly system Irish whiskey was stacked high and sold cheap and young, this continued when Cooley arrived on the scene. If you have a look on whisky exchange for 50 year old whiskey you’ll exclusively find Scotch and you’ll find loads of them from different distilleries. I would be surprised if Pernod have any 50 year old at all, If Jose Cuervo do have up north then it is precious indeed. If they do, as probably the ONLY 50 year old Irish whiskey in existence it surely would be worth more than the £35,000 per bottle Royal Salute asks for its own?
Rarity means value. As someone who sources whiskey for a living I can tell you, Mature Irish Whiskey is increasingly becoming more and more Unicorn like in terms of sightings. Anyone who spends any time in Dublin airport will have seen the whiskies on the top shelf ranging in price from 1000-5000 euros. You are going to be seeing more of that. Before everyone goes all irate in the comments…let me just say that this is a positive thing for our category. Sure true whiskey fans tend to hate ‘Luxury’ whiskey because let’s face it its totally inaccessible but a Luxury sub category in Irish Whiskey is badly needed if we are to compete against Scotch and Japanese in terms of quality perception.
Well I would say that wouldn’t I? We have recently been accepted in to Walpole as a Luxury Brand of Tomorrow. Walpole is the luxury industry trade body and I get to spend the next year rubbing shoulders with Harrods, Bentley and all manner of luxury brands as we develop our portfolio. If you hate Luxury Whiskey you are going to despise me in 2018.
The Whole Whiskey Tourism Strategy Thing May Wobble
OK this is a controversial one, but I am putting it out there. Without Bord Failte taking the lead on the All Ireland Whiskey Trail it will struggle to take off. I know there are wonderful numbers bandied about around Whiskey Tourism going up but geographically it is all centered in Dublin. There are tour buses now pulling up outside visitor centers and distilleries in Dublin and vomiting out coachloads of people 15 times a day and the rest. A few weeks ago in dreary January I was up the country sourcing new make whiskey (v. exciting actually) and I stopped at Tullamore Dew visitor center on the way down. In the entire center there were 4 people, 2 were employees. I know, I know its January, but I am using the example to illustrate the point. Tourism is totally seasonal in Ireland outside of Dublin. The Liberties is going to become the center of whiskey tourism pretty soon the way its going. Why do you think Pernod who make their whiskey In Cork have their tourism offering in Dublin? Diageo will be funneling the 1 million visitors to St. James Gate directly into Roe & Co. within a year…..
Bord Failte to date has not shown a Huge amount of support for the Irish Whiskey Tourism Strategy, This is a problem. If our National Tourist board does not get behind the strategy and promote it globally in a similar fashion to the Wild Atlantic Way or Ireland’s Ancient East, then what real chance does it have outside of Dublin? I personally have no interest in opening a tourist attraction right now, I simply don’t have the capacity to make it happen, Eventually perhaps when we are better established I will look at doing something seasonal. There are however quite a few rural distilleries in development whose business model relies on tourism. Let’s see if Failte Ireland get behind it in 2018….
Technology Will Circumvent EU Law Around Transparency
As I was vividly reminded recently through a series of anonymous competitor complaints, legal letters, and the threat of court action, whiskey producers are not allowed to list full blend components by percentage in their blended whiskey. Under a bizzare interpretation of an EU law telling people everything that is in your whiskey can be construed as misleading to the consumer. You are allowed to list only the youngest component of the blend or nothing at all. This law is not fit for purpose many in Scotch who have faced similar issues agree with me on this. A lot, not all, of the new guard in Irish Whiskey value transparency and value their consumers right to know what they are paying for. This EU law is not going to change as there is no real drive in the industry to change it. There are however technologies coming online that will allow producers to circumvent it. You’ll see that happening in Ireland and I imagine in Scotch this year.
Small Producers Will Come Together
I predicted this last year and I was wrong. I am 100% confident about it for 2018. There are more small Independent Producers now in Irish Whiskey than there are multinational companies. We are currently responsible for probably less that 1.5% of Irish whiskey sold, but there are more of us and we are growing. Our voice matters and needs to be heard.
My Blending Room Will Be BadAss
Lastly, as is traditional I will throw in here a challenge to myself. Last year I predicted that I would begin exporting to the U.S.A. in 2017, I did. We launch on March 2nd in Connecticut to start with and roll out over 2018. This years personal challenge is to build a blending room that not only functions beautifully and allows me to precision blend, but to make it visually stunning. I’m a sucker for design and refuse to build anything that does not give me joy to walk in to. The easy way to do a blending room is to fire a few tanks up, but I’m not going to do it the easy way.
In all 2018 is going to be another great year for Irish Whiskey. A few more new distilleries will be coming on line with 3 year old, which is exciting and some will be opening their doors for the first time after many years of work, several others are breaking ground or coming out with pre-releases (I predict Powerscourt on that one) We are still a ways away from any kind of shake-out an in spite of our growing pains the future is bright. Now if only we could all actually find somewhere to mature all that pesky whiskey we’d be flying it.
To steal a tagline that I wish I had thought of and trademarked ages ago….”Glasses Up” everyone its going to be a great year.