Karen Gregory, a tourist from Oklahoma, visited Dublin this week, breathed in the aroma of malted barley at Teeling Whiskey Distillery and picked a side in a centuries-old competition. “Definitely Irish. It’s brighter and brighter. Scotch is too heavy.”
The crowds happily sipping down whiskey, whiskey cocktails and whiskey coffee hinted at more converts to the Irish side of a rivalry that has pitted two venerable traditions in a battle for market dominance.
Ireland’s distilleries were dominant in the 19th century and accounted for more than 60% of US sales before disaster struck. The Irish ignored new technology, curbed exports during US Prohibition in the 1920s, and engaged in a trade war with Britain. Scotland jumped at the chance and increased global exports, making Scotch synonymous with all types of whisky.
“We’ve gone from 60% down to 2% in the US, it’s a trick,” said John Teeling, a doyen of Irish whiskey producers. He then smiled: “But I think we’ll overtake the Scots by the end of the decade. When that happens there will be a huge party.”
After decades of silent suffering, Irish whiskey is roaring back. From just four operational distilleries in 2010, there are now 42 on the island of Ireland. Annual global sales have increased from 5 million cases (60 million bottles) in 2010 to 14 million cases (168 million bottles) last year, fueled by new offerings and younger drinkers.
Growth in the US has been particularly strong, rising 16% last year to a record $1.3 billion, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. If the trend continues, by 2030 sales of Irish whiskey in the US – currently 5.9 million cases – will overtake Scotch, which has plateaued at around 8 million cases.
Globally, however, Scotch’s 1.3 billion bottle sales still eclipse its Irish rival, which sold 190 million bottles. “We’re still just catching up after decades of underperforming when Scotch basically stole our breakfast,” said Jack Teeling, John’s son and managing director of Teeling Whiskey.
It’s a bigger game now — the global whiskey market has hovered around $80 billion over the past decade, but is set to surpass $100 billion by 2024, according to consumer data firm Statista. Japanese brands have also exploded in popularity, raking in $340 million in sales last year.
Last month the Irish government launched a €750,000 ‘Spirit of Ireland’ campaign to promote Irish products in US bars and liquor stores. It would be a psychological boost for Ireland’s distillers to overtake Scotch in the US and clean up a centuries-old fiasco in the world’s largest market.
It would also underscore the ambition to challenge Scotch’s continued dominance elsewhere, including the UK. “Britain used to be a graveyard for Irish whiskey,” said John Teeling. “No longer.”
Celebrities have launched their own brands of Irish whiskey, with the stars of US sitcom It’s Always Sunny debuting a 15-year-old single malt in Philadelphia this week to celebrate the show’s 15th season. Former mixed martial artist Conor McGregor launched a brand in 2018.
Popular culture marked the Irish whiskey revival a decade ago, with the Jameson brand appearing in songs by Rihanna and Lady Gaga and on the television shows Mad Men and South Park.
“There wasn’t a moment of light change and suddenly Irish whiskey was back in vogue,” said William Lavelle, director of the Irish Whiskey Association. “It took 30 years. Ambition and strategy came together.”
Exports to Russia, the second-largest market, have halted and the UK-EU row over Northern Ireland could cause disruption, but the future is bright, Lavelle said. “It’s a renaissance.”
Ireland, like other countries, claims to be the home of whiskey. There is a reference to the drink in the Red Book of Ossory, a medieval manuscript created in County Kilkenny in the 14th century.
At one point Ireland had more than 1,000 distilleries. By the 19th century, a cluster of producers in Dublin’s Liberties district supplied much of the world.
However, they shunned innovation – like a new breed of stills – and dwindled during US Prohibition and Ireland’s trade war with Britain in the 1930s. Scotch whiskey – which omits the ‘e’ – filled the gap with peatier, darker offerings. Ireland’s traditionally smoother diet gained a reputation for being bland.
In the 1980s Ireland had just two distilleries producing a tiny fraction of Scotland’s production. The turnaround began after French drinks giant Pernod Ricard bought Irish Distillers, giving its Jameson brand multinational clout, and the Teeling family opened a new distillery, encouraging other newcomers.
The Irish experimented with new flavors, methods and cocktails – a degree of freedom denied to Scottish producers, who are subject to stricter rules – and won over drinkers in the US. However, some remain confused as to the terminology, making John Teeling shudder. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Your scotch is wonderful.'”