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High-End Irish Whiskies Thrive, Pushing The Category Further Upscale

July 21, 2020

Irish whiskey is growing across all markets and price tiers in the U.S., and brand-owners are increasingly pushing their high-end releases—including single malts, super-premium blends, and Ireland’s most unique spirit, pot still whiskey. Pernod Ricard’s Irish Distillers unit still leads the way, but its competitors are displaying the breadth of what Ireland can produce.

Pernod Ricard’s largest high-end brand in the U.S. market is Redbreast ($45-$250 a 750-ml.), at 40,000 cases, up nearly 20% last year. The Redbreast lineup includes a 12-year-old, a cask-strength variant, a Lustau Sherry cask-finished whiskey, a 15-year-old, and a 21-year-old. “Redbreast 12-year-old has made up more than half of the growth by volume within the Redbreast portfolio,” says Mwanza Lumumba, brand director for Redbreast and the Spot range of Irish whiskies.

The Spots—including the non-age statement Green Spot, the 12-year-old Yellow Spot, and the 15-year-old Red Spot—are all performing well and building from their small bases, according to Lumumba. All three have been in growth mode, with Green Spot rising 22% to 10,000 cases last year, Yellow advancing 13% to 3,000 cases and Red Spot rounding out the range at 1,000 cases in its first full year back in the U.S. after a 40-year absence.

Proximo Spirits’ Bushmills is working to expand its single malt releases and carve out space as a leader in high-end Irish whiskies. “Our single malts grew the fastest in 2019, up 20%, as Irish single malts have become increasingly popular among older millennials,” says Lander Otegui, senior vice president of marketing at Proximo. “We’ve been driving particular focus on our 10-year-old ($45), 16-year-old ($150), and 21-year-old ($250), reintroducing them to the U.S. market at a time of explosive growth in ultra-premium Irish whiskey.”

At William Grant & Sons, Tullamore Dew brand manager Connor Neville notes the success of the brand’s 12-year-old Sherry Cask Finished whiskey. He adds that as demand for aged Irish whiskey grows, the company is prepared to become more active in the upscale space.

Roe & Co., owned by Diageo, entered the U.S. last March, debuting in six U.S. markets. The 45% abv whiskey was created Diageo master blender Caroline Martin and five of Ireland’s top bartenders. Though the whiskey is currently sourced, Diageo plans to produce future batches at its St. James Gate Distillery in Dublin, which opened last year. Bacardi is also present in the category with its minority stake in the Teeling brand, which hit 20,000 cases in the U.S. last year. Teeling includes a core Small Batch blend and a collection of single malt, single grain, and single pot still whiskies.

Elsewhere, Intrepid Spirits is taking aim at Irish whiskey’s luxury end with its Egan’s brand, which specializes in single malt and single grain offerings. Egan’s flagship releases are its 10-year-old Single Malt ($65), Vintage Grain whiskey ($45), and Fortitude, an NAS bottling aged entirely in Pedro Ximénez casks ($50). Egan’s is expected to hit around 4,000 cases in the U.S. this year.

Also targeting the higher end is San Francisco-based Hotaling & Co. with Dingle and the Walsh Whiskey portfolio. The company initially entered the Irish whiskey category in 2018 with Dingle single malt whiskey. “Last year, Dingle Distillery saw high double-digit growth in the U.S. as we introduced the Single Malt Batch No. 4,” said Hotaling CEO Dan Leese. In June, Hotaling added the Walsh Whiskey portfolio, which includes the Writers’ Tears and the Irishman lines of whiskies.—Shane English

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