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Led By Jameson, Irish Whiskey Thrives As Rivals Seek Bigger Presence In The Category

May 10, 2011

Amid a U.S. spirits market in which premium growth has lately been the exception, Irish whiskey has been making impressive inroads. Since 2007, the category’s U.S. depletions have grown by roughly two-thirds—hitting 1.3 million cases in 2010, according to Impact Databank—and the brand’s consumer awareness only seems to be increasing.

Jameson, the category’s overwhelming leader, nearly doubled by volume from 2007 through 2010 and now accounts for over 75% of U.S. depletions of Irish whiskey, up roughly 10 percentage points from just three years ago. Pernod Ricard is now attempting to trade consumers further up with a line of single pot still-crafted offerings, including high-end extensions to the Redbreast, Green Spot, Powers and Midleton brands. A Redbreast 15-year-old hit the U.S. last year, retailing at around $75 a 750-ml. Last week, Pernod said its Irish whiskey growth has spurred it to embark on a €100 million ($145m) investment to double capacity at its Midleton distillery in Ireland.

Diageo-owned Bushmills, which returned to U.S. growth last year, recently repackaged its single malt range, including its 10-, 16-, and 20-year-olds. Sidney Frank, meanwhile, also has moved further upscale with the launch of a 10-year-old Irish malt version of Michael Collins, retailing at around $40 a 750-ml., to complement the recently repacked core Michael Collins brand, which sells between $27-$29. “We’ll be starting ads for Michael Collins 10-year-old in the Wall Street Journal beginning this month,” says marketing manager Abaigeal Hendron. “It’s been received tremendously well. The lightly peated style and the fact that the single malt is double-distilled make for a unique flavor profile that consumers are starting to discover.”

One brand to watch is Tullamore Dew, which recently joined the William Grant & Sons USA portfolio through Grant’s acquisition of Ireland’s C&C last year. Ken Reilly, category marketing director at Grant USA, says Tullamore Dew’s depletions are up double-digits so far this year. The brand will have a “full-court marketing assault” that will include new positioning and creative toward the end of the year. “Given the category’s rise in the on-premise, not to mention the importance of that channel in building brands, we’re placing a major focus there—roughly three-quarters of brand activities,” he says.

Cooley Distillery, which produces the whiskey for the Michael Collins brand, also has its own brand presence in the U.S. market through its single grain and peated single malt Irish whiskies including the Kilbeggan, Connemara and Greenore brands, imported by Sazerac. “Our portfolio lends itself to high-end accounts that want something different than the market leader,” says Jack Teeling, Cooley’s managing director.

Despite its recent growth spurt, Irish whiskey remains small in relation to other whiskies like Bourbon at around 15 million cases and Scotch at around 8 million cases, according to Impact Databank. But its upward growth curve and potential are attributes that most other spirits categories will find difficult to match.

US – Leading Irish Whiskey Brands
(thousands of nine-liter case depletions)
Brand Importer 2007 2008 2009 2010 Percent Change
Jameson Pernod Ricard USA 540 685 815 1,035 27.0%
Bushmills Diageo North America 175 175 170 175 2.9%
Tullamore Dew* William Grant & Sons USA 58 62 67 68 1.5%
Power’s Pernod Ricard USA 28 30 32 35 9.4%
Redbreast Pernod Ricard USA 5 7 7 10 42.9%
Paddy’s Pernod Ricard USA 10 +
Total Leading Brands 806 959 1,091 1,333 22.2%
*Acquired from Gruppo Campari in 2011. 


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