The Second Coming of Irish whiskey is truly upon us. The whiskey renaissance is only starting in earnest now as the distilleries across the country start to build their own liquid identities for themselves. Truly exciting times ahead.
For years now, we have been inundated with very familiar news articles preaching about the grandeur of the second Irish whiskey renaissance. They have been highlighting the litany of copy and paste Cooley expressions, gracing our shelves as some accolade to be worn proudly to prove to the global drinks community that we have gained international relevance once again. Unfortunately, this initial surge in producers hitting the shelves lacked the innovation and revitalisation that anyone would expect from a resurgence that was being touted as a ‘renaissance’.
For what seemed like a decade, consumers were being treated like a blind cash cow. The shelves were laden with hundreds of brands in fancy labels all at different price points but all with the exact same whiskey inside. This is where the phrase ‘Copy and Paste Cooley’ arose. Aside from occasional creative releases from the likes of Irish Distillers and Teeling, ex-bourbon matured, 10-year old Cooley malt whiskey became the recognisable flavour of this Irish whiskey ‘revolution’.
*To clarify, it is not an indictment of the quality of Cooley distillery or the quality of the spirit they produced. I happen to be quite a fan of their spirit. This is also not a term I coined but it is one that I borrowed from the Irish whiskey industry. It is used to describe whiskeys that have been purchased Cooley warehouses, and were not personalised before being putting on the shelves for sale. Thus, the phrase was born in an effort to indicate that they were identical or a ‘copy and paste’ version of each other. This is not a comment about the distillery or the whiskeys they make, nor a comment about producers who use third party stock.*
The problem with booming markets are that they attract a large amount of interest from cross segments of the industry. The financial value associated with such an explosive popularity attracts new entrants with a variety of convictions; some are there to create fantastic expressions of Irish whiskey and some are there to flip a commodity as quickly as they buy it. This can create a panic phenomenon that drives new entrants to view the route to market as a race to finish line rather than an avenue for quality. Brand building, identity, and value for money take a back seat when there is a race to secure shelf spacing and new distribution channels.
Ultimately, this led to a burgeoning market that was populated with a litany of identical products at a range of different price points. My biggest fear in this phase of our history was that we were running the very real risk of ultimately betraying consumer trust and destroying the future for our market before we even really got going.
Thankfully, I think that this farce of a ‘renaissance’ has finally ended and the true second coming of the Irish whiskey industry is looming. We find ourselves at a point where the Cooley whiskey tap is well and truly off, Irish distilleries are opening all over the countryside and the first own distilled distillates are finally hitting the market. These new distilleries are truly throwing the shackles of third party sourcing asunder and differentiation is going further than just putting your fancy label on the same whiskey.
We are now standing at the precipice of innovation and actual revitalisation, which ultimately is the true meaning of a renaissance. Distilleries are innovating with their liquid and their processes, double distilled pot still whiskey is being made in Northern Ireland, stout’s being distilled into spirit in the midlands, and even Irish malted oats are weaselling their way into mashbills around the island. Bottlers are creating premium blends using 25-year-old malts, sourcing their own Irish oak, making peated whiskeys with barrels, rather than the grain. The old normative idea of what Irish whiskey should be, is being thrown out with the bathwater. Producers are utilising everything in their arsenal to show the world just what this little country has to offer in the world of brown spirits.
We now find ourselves in an incredibly exciting time in the industry. I guarantee that the Irish whiskey landscape will be utterly unrecognisable in two years time. While the industry is due for some change, I personally believe that the days of international acquisitions are coming to a polite pause. There’s realistically only one multinational and one whiskey venture that are likely to consider joining forces, although you’ll have to ask my opinion on that one over a taoscán sometime as it’s not a discussion for today. What I do think we will see is a burgeoning explosion of confidence from the indie/craft producers segment. Stills are coming alive, barrels are being laid and sales are starting to climb. With so much more control over their own destiny these craft producers are going to have the freedom to spread their wings and make liquid statements that really set them apart from the crowd.
Uniquely, we find ourselves in a curious position, innovation in Irish whiskey doesn’t have to come from space age exploration, it can come from doing quite literally, exactly what our forefathers did 100 years ago. In-fact, a number of distilleries are looking to the past and resurrecting old mixed mashbill recipes of pot still whiskey from the 1800’s, to rediscover their lost flavour profiles and drag them kicking and screaming into the twenty first century. It must be one of the few times in history, that doing exactly what has been done for generations can be truly considered innovative. Unfortunately, so many of these recipes and processes were lost in the collapse of the industry. We may never know the true magnitude of flavours lost to the sands of time but hopefully with the current levels of creativity we may be able to reintroduce at least some of these flavours in the coming years.
Interestingly, its not just the distillers that are being faced with possibilities for innovation, but blenders and bonders are burgeoning with ideas as well. This influx of new distilleries presents these non-distillery producers new avenues to source their liquid ingredients and enact much greater control over what liquid is produced on their behalf. Any bonder with a hint of imagination is likely to run wild with what will likely become a healthily competitive market place for third party whiskey in the coming years.
Staring into my crystal whiskey tumbler, I obviously cannot see a clear picture of what the future will hold, although I do know that this second coming of Irish whiskey is going to be a very exciting liquid landscape for consumers.
** NB** This article does not seek to group or stereotype all third party whiskey brands into the same copy and paste Cooley basket. There are an incredible amount of sourced whiskeys which have a great amount of personalisation and identity and this article is not seeking to diminish that in any way.