With St. Patrick’s day at hand, I am glad to report that Irish whiskey sales are growing faster than any other spirit in the global marketplace—according to the Irish Whiskey Association. I’m not calling this blarney. In the U.S., according to the Distilled Spirits Council, domestic sales of Irish whiskey grew 780 percent from 2002 to 2016. Rye sales over the same period grew almost 800 percent, but by volume Americans buy less rye than any other whiskey. (By volume, the biggest U.S. seller by far is bourbon/Tennessee.)
The appeal of Irish? “None of it has any crazy flavors,” says bartender Lenny Schafer of the Iron Room in Atlantic City. “It’s balanced, a little sweet and very smooth.” This owes, he says, to “the combination of wheat and barley giving you nice flavors, as opposed to the drier sweetness of Scotch. Rye is generally spicy; wheated whiskey is like leather; and bourbon, based on corn, is very sweet.”
The two biggest-selling brands, in order, are Jameson and Tullamore Dew. Back in the 1980s, they were the main makers of Irish whiskey. Today, Ireland has 16 distilleries. Old brands and recipes are being resurrected. The Irish national tourism board announced a campaign last year to triple the number of whiskey tourists to 1.9 million by 2025.
“The distilleries are bringing more products to market,” says Craig Laakmann, manager of the Bottle King store in Wayne, which carries 11 Irish whiskeys.
Mention Jameson, and fans of The Wire will think of rough-hewn Detective McNulty sneaking nips from his ever-present half pint. But much of the percentage growth in Irish sales has come in the premium categories. There you will find brands like Redbreast, aged 12 years ($60). Tullamore Dew has done well with deluxe expressions aged 14 or 18 years. Irish whiskey, says Tullamore Dew brand ambassador Tim Herlihy, “is finally being given the respect it deserves.”