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Charting the world of Irish spirits

Ireland once dominated the world’s spirits trade, but fell out of favour in the early 1900s. Yet now is an intoxicating time for the small island, with the resurgence of craft distilleries and desire for local and boutique products throwing the market wide open for everything from vodka and gin, to new whiskey distilleries and the ubiquitous Irish Cream. The alcohol industry contributes €2 billion to the Irish economy and supports over 92,000 jobs and is the eighth-largest spirits producer in Europe.

First some history – production peaked in the late 1800s with 88 distilleries producing around 12 million cases. Political unrest, prohibition in the US, and importantly, the failure of Irish distillers to innovate and embrace the Coffey still (ironically designed by an Irish distiller Aeneus Coffey) led to the nosedive of the industry with only two distillers left by the mid-1980s. Then the Irish whiskey industry started to awaken – by 2015 eight distilleries were in operation, with 32 now planned or producing and the optimistic Irish Whiskey Association targeting the export of 24 million cases per year by 2030.

Smoother than Scotch, with the use of malted barley and rarely any peat, Irish whiskey is now booming with new releases such as Roe and Co and Glendalough coming out on a regular basis – an achievement that has been some time coming considering that the whiskey needs to be aged for a minimum of three years before release.

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Middleton produces the volume with the Jameson brand, and its many variants, alongside Bushmills and Paddys. However, more distilleries are coming into production with West Cork Distillers, Teeling, Dingle, The Shed, Blackwater and Glendalough amongst others jumping on the craft spirits trend to get the ball rolling. Many of the start-ups are buying in whiskey from closed distilleries and re-blending it in order to release product to the market now, whilst they create and refine their own offering.

In a twist of modern-day marketing, it’s also worth noting that there are two Jameson distilleries, but Jameson is distilled at Middleton, and this quirk continues for other brands such as Tullamore Dew.

The increasing popularity in the liquid from markets far and wide such as Japan and America, has seen some behemoths of the spirits world – Diageo and Pernod Ricard – investing millions to ensure and build on supply, and in creating new brands for a younger market. Diageo’s St James’ Gate Distillery in Dublin, to be built in an old building at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, is reportedly costing around €25 million to construct and has a capacity to produce half a million litres of liquid. Yet whiskey isn’t everything!

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Poitin – pronounced pot-cheen is the once illegal, oft-shunned white spirit of the Emerald Isle, produced in small pot stills from locally available ingredients, and has come to the fore in recent years. Illegal until the late 1990s Poitin gained a Geographical Indicative Status (GI) from the EU in 2008. Bright, grassy, punchy – there are several words used to describe this liquid, which is essentially white whiskey, but it has garnered favour amongst enthusiasts and in cocktail bars. Further experimentation drawing from the whiskey world continues, with sherry barrel-aged, ‘mountain strength’ and even buried variants hitting the shelves from producers such as Glendalough and Ban Poitin.

Irish Cream – always there in your parent’s drinks cabinet – is a creamy rich blend of Irish whiskey. It once heralded the end of Christmas Day by the fire, but the category continues to grow and develop with unusual flavour combinations becoming the plan of the action – Baileys Pumpkin anyone?

Vodka – produced around the world from almost anything, and now coming to you direct from Ireland. As an example, Dingle producer vodka on the west coast, are creating a five-times distilled spirit with a sweet, creamy texture. Yet Dingle actually set out to be a whiskey producer – vodka, and lately gin, are being produced by a number of the new distilleries in Ireland as a way of experimenting with products, and also to keep the money coming in whilst they wait out the long three-year minimum before their whiskey is ready.

Gin – no one can have escaped the gin boom of recent years, and in a similar vein to vodka, several new distilleries in Ireland are producing gin whilst waiting for their whiskey. However, there are also gin-specific distilleries in action. A key element it seems in Irish gin production is the use of, and search for flavour – rather than producing regular London Dry, we’re seeing strawberry gins, hopped gins, seaweed gin, alongside gins rested in barrels made from juniper wood for added oomph, and even gin distilled from whey (milk).

The future is clearly bright for Irish spirits as more producers come to the market promoting regional, craft expressions of well-known categories.