Category: Archive

Brown liquor boom

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Whiskey – and brown liquor in general – has been making strides in recent years. And after years of decline dating back to Prohibition and beyond, Irish whiskey leads the pack.
Driving the trend is a surge in younger drinkers, a push from premium brands and a move towards a premium product that can benefit from consumer tastings and talk about the aging process.
The new interest in whiskey, as well as the distilling process, has likened itself to the enthusiasm of oneophiles and wine.
According to Robert Sickler, a master of whiskey who works for Diageo, all Irish whiskeys carry “a light, natural nose and taste, with no hint of peat or smoke, as well as a distinct smoothness that comes from triple distillation.”

Water of life
Irish whiskey — the name comes from the Irish “uisce beatha,” which translates to “water of life” — is triple-distilled, and allows its malt to dry without peat or smoking, which gives it a smooth, non-smoky flavor.
As hesitant as they might be to admit it, the Scotch learned distilling from the Irish. Therein lies the difference between Scotch whisky and the Irish whiskey, also indicated by the “e” in the Irish potion.
And while the Irish first laid claim to making whiskey, they were dealt a blow in early modern times. While England’s Elizabeth I was said to have been a fan of Irish whiskey through her reign in the late 1500s and had casks shipped over, a 1661 excise tax forced some distillers to start illegally producing poteen. Still, the industry thrived and continued to produce the tipple for distribution throughout the expanding British Empire.
The distillery industry thrived until the U.S. Prohibition Act cut off Ireland’s biggest whiskey market. Many of the smaller distillers closed, and few anticipated the repeal of Prohibition. When it did happen, the Scotch whisky industry was ready with stocks, which explains how it finally took the Irish market share in the U.S. and abroad. The Great Depression, trade embargoes between the newly independent Ireland and the UK, and world wars didn’t help the situation.
Since the middle of the 20th century, the industry has been shoring up support and working on their product. Today, all Irish whiskey is made in just three distilleries, Midleton in Cork (owned by Pernod Ricard, who hold the largest market share in Irish whiskey as well), Bushmills in Antrim (recently purchased from Pernod by Diageo) and Cooley in Louth, which is the only one that is Irish-owned.
But the consolidation has helped buy market clout and make the product more widely available. There are about 20 Irish whiskies on the market, as well as some highly prized rare bottles that come up every so often.

Whiskey in your jar
When it comes down to numbers, the U.S. is the fastest-growing Irish whiskey market in the world. According to The Distilled Spirits Council of America, there was a 25 percent increase in volume sales of Irish whiskey last year.
The idea of premium and super-premium has been helping spirits sales grow for the last decade, and whiskey is no exception.
“People in many facets of life are seeking luxury products,” said Sickler in an e-mail exchange. “There is also a definitive trend toward brown spirits, as the vodka craze has about worn itself out.”
Vodka, the number-one selling spirit in the U.S., has seen its popularity boom thanks to super-premium brands like Grey Goose and Ketel One. Some whiskey marketers are trying the same tactic. One recent addition to the fray is Michael Collins whiskey, which features a large magnum-shaped bottle — and a premium price point — to denote the luxury factor.
The love for all things retro also helps. And, according to a Sunday Tribune article last year, a driving force was that the younger generation of drinkers are seeking out drinks that are different to their parents’ mainstays of vodka and gin.
“Much of this has to do with a current tendency to embrace the past,” said Sickler. “But it also has to do with elevated palates of the consumers. People are seeking out finer wines and more sophisticated spirits.”
LaNell’s, a liquor store located in the far-out Red Hook section of Brooklyn, has become popular because of its stock, which caters to the whiskey drinker.
“We carry some Irish whiskeys,” according to Amanda Womack, who works there. She explained that people shopping there know what they are after, and appreciate their specialty stock, which includes harder-to-find brands in the U.S. such as Red Breast and Clontarf.
It is the drive to offer something different that has also captured the attention of younger drinkers. As Scotch’s popularity grew in the 90s, bartenders and storeowners were looking for alternatives that customers would try.
Spike Hill, a bar in the young, hip neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is known for its scotch and whiskey selection, and customers can try different tipples under the tutelage of their staff.
“We are known for our specialty whiskeys,” said Nicole Champion, who tends bar there. “We frequently order special reserves and things you won’t find anywhere else.”
The idea of a typical whiskey drinker is disappearing almost as fast as its popularity rises.
“It is absolutely not confined to the upwardly mobile male demographic,” said Sicker, who often hosts whiskey tastings and events. “Many of the whiskey events have a large number of women in attendance. I also see a lot of younger people in their 20s who are seeking out something more refined than shooter brands in the college bars.”
With an increase in choice comes more customers, retailers are finding.
“For years there weren’t many types [of Irish whiskey] available. People want to see more things and they try what’s new and exciting,” according to Scott Abramson of Park Avenue Liquors in New York City. While Bushmills and Jameson “still outsell everything else,” he pointed out that they have even gone as far as to buy their own cask of Irish whiskey and bottle it exclusively for their customers. Called McGilligan Single Malt, it is a 14-year-old whiskey.

Taking matters into
their own hands
In humanity’s never-ending effort to create the perfect drink, some of the people who have brought us craft-brewed beer are now expanding out to home distilling. While the legality may vary, some legal operations are producing their own gins, rums, and yes, whiskies. According to a recent New York Times article, the Pacific Northwest is a veritable hotbed of micro-distilleries.
Since beer brewing is halfway to the process of making a single malt, it only seemed natural for them to try their hand at distilling. One distillery owner pointed out to the Times that “I don’t know any brewer who doesn’t like whiskey.”
Even a professional like Sickler sees the trend as having some merit.
“I think it’s great that people are experimenting with whiskey-making outside of Ireland and Scotland,” he said. “I don’t know that our guys in the Northwest can ever replicate the stunning complexity of a Scottish single malt, as much more is involved in making a fine whiskey than mere distillation. Soil, water, peat, atmosphere, and climate all play significant roles.
“I still support any attempts throughout the world to make a good whiskey. The distilleries in Kentucky and Tennessee have been making whiskies for over a hundred years, and American Bourbon is huge throughout the world.
“I liken it to wine,” he adds. “Should we only leave winemaking to the French, Italians, and Spaniards? If so, we’d miss out on some wonderful Australian, South American, South African, and American wines that are all unique, stunning expressions of winemaking. There’s always going to be an Old World and New World style in wine, and with whiskey there will probably be the same.”

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