Massachusetts Beverage Business


Article By: Lew Bryson

It is said, in bittersweet fun, that God gave the Irish whiskey so they wouldn’t take over the world.  Theologians will have to take another look at the whole omniscience concept, though: the way Irish whiskey sales have been growing, the plan might just backfire.

How much has Irish whiskey grown?  Well, I’m a big fan of craft beer, and its proponents have made much of saying it’s the fastest-growing category in alcohol beverages.  Hey, it’s been impressive, with seven years in the low double digits, and even eked out 9% growth in sales in the first half of 2OO9 (according to the latest figures from the Brewers Association). 
Sorry, craft beer, Irish whiskey blows you away.  While cognac and champagne have taken big hits, imported beer is off its feed, and even vodka has slowed to barely perceptible growth, Irish whiskey strides ahead, seemingly unperturbed by economics. 

Jameson brand director Wayne Hartunian had the numbers, and they were solid.  “The latest 52 week Nielsen numbers have category dollar sales up +16% (in the period ending 12/12/O9, total FDL),” he said.  “This growth off-premise is well-balanced, with the highest percentage coming from Non-Promoted Velocity increases.  This is a good indicator of healthy long-term category building growth.  Another good indicator of long-term healthy growth is on-premise growth.  While we don’t have category information on this, Jameson is up over +25%.”

Keep in mind, of course, that this is similar to the “huge” growth numbers for rye whiskey.  While not as tiny as rye whiskey, the Irish whiskey category was a niche, albeit a solid one, for years, and one of the slowest to recover from the general slide of brown goods that began in the late 196Os.  Recover it has, though, in a big way, and the question is why, and why now?

There are several factors involved, and Hartunian ticked them off.  “It has a very approachable taste versus other whiskies,” he began, something most people mentioned.  “The category has become very popular among 25- to 35-year-old males who tend to socialize and go out often.  Consumption is continuing to become more year ’round.”  The last refers to the “St. Patrick’s Day Bulge” that used to prevail in Irish whiskey sales, a sore point with category managers; it’s still there, but the rest of the year is catching up. 

All of these, he said, are leading to another major factor: operator support.  “Retailers and on-premise are recognizing the success of the category,” he said, “and, more importantly, they are providing more support for the category to leverage this growth.” 

Examples of that support include larger displays, featured more frequently throughout the year; expansion of the shelf section; and shifting the shelf placement adjacent to North American whiskey, where the majority of Irish whiskey consumers shop (Jameson, he said, has the highest cross purchase interaction with North American whiskeys).  Support for a growing category leads to more growth, and more support, and so on.

Dan Kleinman, marketing director for Diageo North America, pointed out another factor: the difference – the fact that Irish is indeed a distinct category.  “There has been increased promotion of the category as a whole,” he said, “[which means that] consumers now have plenty of opportunity to learn the differences between various styles of whisk(e)y – Irish, Canadian, Scotch, and bourbon.  Irish whiskey tends to be a natural progression for consumers who drink – or who may be more familiar with – both Scotch and bourbon, and are looking for something new.” 

Sidney Frank’s Abaigeal Hendron, who represents the Michael Collins brands, pointed out the potential the category has.  “The Irish whiskey category is underdeveloped compared to other whiskey categories, which is part of the reason for the current growth,” she said.  “Additionally, with change of ownership in recent years of key brands [Tullamore Dew and Bushmills have both changed hands], there has been a lot of investment in the category, which is now paying off.  There have also been new entrants, such as Michael Collins, and new line extensions which have lead to more interest in and awareness of the category.”
Hartunian rightly pointed to Jameson’s role in the success of the category.  “Jameson’s success has led it to become the primary driver of the category growth,” he said.  “With two-thirds of the market share and growth +21%, Jameson continues to increase its investment behind the brand and launched its first TV commercial last fall.”  Every ad for Jameson is also an ad for Irish whiskey.

Bryan Cook, the marketing manager for Gemini Wine & Spirits, which imports the Cooley brands (Tyrconnell, Kilbeggan, Connemara), acknowledged the impact of category leaders.  “A couple brands have gained notice and that’s helped the whole category,” he said.  “Absolut did that for vodkas, Patron for tequila.  And a couple brands in the Irish whiskey category are now having their day in the sun.”

The guys in the trenches have a slightly grittier perspective, of course.  “In the broad category of whiskey, Irish, as a subset, was kind of ignored,” said Tony Iamunno, spirits manager at Downtown Wine & Spirits in Somerville.  “Jameson and Bushmills were viewed as a working class drinks for a long time.  It was the ignored stepchild of the whiskey world.  Now you’re seeing higher-class brands [of Irish whiskey], and people are taking notice.  They’re picking it when they want something better, which is neat.”

Gary Hill, owner of Gary’s Liquors in Chestnut Hill, sees single malt drinkers downtrading to Irish instead of to blended Scotch.  “In this economy,” he said, “the single malt drinkers may have peeled back and tried some new bottles.  I’ve seen people who were in the single malt category, buying $3O to $5O bottles, and they’re picking up bottles of Irish.  Sales of the 18- and 12-year-old Jameson are up in double digits.  Midleton sales doubled; on a small base, but still doubled, and that’s over $1OO a bottle.

“People can trade down to the higher marques [of Irish whiskey] from the higher end single malts, and they’re still getting value,” he said.  “They’re getting priced out of their drink, and they’re trying Irish whiskey, and my numbers show they’re staying in that category.  Look here: I’ve got the Macallan 18 on sale for $129.99, and the Jameson 18 is on sale for $74.99.  There’s still value in the high-end Irish whiskey, and I’ve seen a lot more Irish whiskey marketing, more Jameson ads, than I’ve ever seen before.”

“Value” is a word that comes up again and again.  “It’s easy to drink, there’s no smoke in it,” said Paul Caffrey, Brand Manager for Tullamore Dew.  “The retailers are putting it on the floor, and customers see it, and it’s at a price point they can afford.  Our original blend is around $22 a 75O, and in the premium spirits category, that’s value for the money.  It’s lips to the liquid: they try it, they like it, they can afford it.  Sold!”

One of the newest brands on the market is banking on value.  Dick Mutter, owner of Capstone International, is importing Slane Castle Irish whiskey.  “The category is growing fast,” he said, “and it’s dominated by one brand – Jameson – and there are no value brands in the category, it’s all premium brands.”  Slane Castle looks to hit that niche.
Slane Castle is a real Irish castle, owned by the Conyngham family for over 3OO years.  The current owner, Henry, is the 8th marquis of Conyngham and a Harvard graduate.  The castle is famous in Europe for the giant music festival Henry instituted 3O years ago at a natural amphitheater on the grounds that seats about 8O,OOO people. 

The whiskey is made for them by the Cooley distillery.  “Item #1 is that the whiskey’s absolutely delicious,” said Mutter.  “We put together a blend of exceptional malt and grain whiskeys.  It’s a beautiful, sweet whiskey, with various fruit flavors.  If we can connect the music and the whiskey, we can hit a real home run.  We put it together in an upscale package, positioned just slightly above Jameson.  It’s been in Massachusetts since October 2OO9, and will be going national.”

As Gary Hill pointed out, whiskey doesn’t have to be cheap to be a value.  Take Knappogue Castle, a niche brand that is bottled in vintages, a selection of barrels from the same year of distillation.  “Those who discover it stay loyal to it,” said Juliet Balian, Marketing Director for importer Castle Brands.  The vintage that’s out right now is 1995.  That’s a 13-year-old product, and you’re paying $35 to $45, and that’s a lot less than most 13-year-old Scotch whiskys.” (Knappogue Castle isn’t afraid to up the ante a bit, either: Balian told me that there will be a first-time limited release of Knappogue Master Distiller Private Selection in March, drawn from the master distiller’s “secret stash” of the very best barrels.  The product is almost 16-years-old, and only 1OOO hand signed and numbered bottles will be sold nationally by allocation.)

For a retailer, one counter-intuitive selling point of Irish whiskey is that so many brands are completely unknown to the consumer; that ‘discovery’ factor that Balian referred to.  There are Irish whiskey brands that are established and well-respected, even critically acclaimed, that are almost completely unknown, largely due to the domination of the market by Jameson, Bushmills and Tullamore Dew. 

Take Redbreast, for instance.  Redbreast, a product of the same distillery and company as Jameson and Midleton, is 12-year-old, pure pot still Irish whiskey, and a wonderfully soft and lively whiskey – a premium product in all senses of the word.  It’s quite well-known among retailers and bartenders, but has no promotions or marketing. 
The result?  Josey Packard is one of the bartenders at Drink.  “We carry both Jameson and Redbreast at the bar,” she said.  “When people order a Jameson on the rocks, I usually ask them if they’ve had Redbreast, and to a man, they have never heard of it.  It’s about education.” 

Misty Kalkofen works with Packard at Drink, and gave the broader picture.  “We don’t have a backbar and no cocktail list, so people are confused,” she said.  “They go for the brand names they know, the ones they see in the subway and magazines.  Jameson and Bushmills are the most advertised, so that’s the call.”  She laughed.  “If they want something else, they’re in the industry.”

That may sound like a reason not to spread your selection, but it can also be an opportunity.  Marketers will tell you that when people “discover” a brand on their own, and like it, that makes a powerful bond.  Irish whiskey is full of discovery brands right now, just waiting for that bond to happen.

What are we talking about?  Well, first off, the big guys have their own up-marques.  Jameson has a 12- and an 18-year-old (a favorite; round, full and flawless) that are excellent, along with the fine Jameson Gold and the exquisite (and pricey) Rarest Vintage Reserve.  They also produce Midleton Very Rare, an expensive but breath-taking whiskey (“Better than sex,” said one blog review; “Not good sex perhaps, but better than most of us experience.”).  Bushmills has some nicely wood-finished whiskeys: the 16- and 21-year-old bottlings (I carry the 21 in my flask fairly often) and the sherry-finished Black Bush (my introduction to “better” Irish whiskey).  There’s also the limited Bushmills 16O8, an anniversary edition made with caramel malt.
Tullamore Dew almost qualifies as a discovery brand itself; or perhaps a re-discovery brand.  The standard bottling left the US market for years; it’s returned with a position as the world’s second-biggest selling Irish whiskey, and a desire to make that mark in the US market.  To help that along, there is a new  Tullamore Dew’s 1O-year-old and 12-year-old – more sipping in style than the standard – and a new Single Malt.  I’ll let Paul Caffrey tell you about that.

“It’s a complex flavor from maturation in bourbon, oloroso sherry, port, and madeira casks,” he said.  “It’s the only Irish single malt whiskey to be matured in four different casks.  In all the whiskey shows I’ve been to, consumers will go for a malt, and the most expensive is what they want to try.  At all of the shows towards the end of 2OO9, we got a real ‘wow factor’ on the single malt.”

But that’s just the big brands, just the beginning.  Castle Brands has Knappogue and Clontarf (in Classic black label, Special Reserve and Single Malt).  There’s the Michael Collins bottlings, a blend and a delicious Single Malt I helped a friend kill a bottle of on a Miami balcony – a good day – and then there’s the Cooley portfolio.

Cooley Distillery is, as they love to point out, the only Irish-owned Irish distillery.  They have a blend, Kilbeggan, their flagship Tyrconnell single malt (also now available in three wood-finished versions, quite nice), their uniquely peated Connemara whiskeys (bold stuff, and quite appealing to a Scotch drinker) and Greenore, a very different aged grain whiskey.

How do you introduce these whiskeys to your customers; which ones to stock; which one to start with?  KJ Baaron’s in Worcester uses black magic.  They work with Jessica Lofgren, “The Whisky Witch”.  By day, Lofgren is a fifth grade teacher, but at night, she’s at Baaron’s or the An Cu Liath pub, getting people excited about whiskies. 

“Whisky on the whole is changing,” she said, and laughed.  “I’m trying to push it to change a little faster!”
Lofgren is reaching out to people who don’t know a lot about whiskey, but want to learn.  “I have a legion of women who are dying to learn about it,” she said.  “It’s about education and having someone there willing to educate in a non-formal manner.  It’s usually on the Irish: it’s triple-distilled, clean and really, really drinkable.”

She’s having success with the discovery brands.  “We’ve been exploring Bushmills, especially the Black Bush,” she said.  “And people are going nuts for Redbreast.  It’s something they never would have gone for before.” 

That’s the key to her success.  “People are looking for things that are different,” she said, cutting to the heart of all the talk about triple-distillation, approachability and Irish heritage.  “Everyone wants to stand out a little more.  When they come across a whiskey that they can talk about and that makes them stand out, that’s fun.  They’re trying something new.  We try it at the pub, and if they like it, it’s gone from the shop.”  Instant market research.

Discovery at the bar drives sales as well; what’s selling in the bar?  Kalkofen is talking up Tyrconnell because it messed with her head.  “I recently tried Tyrconnell,” she said, “and if I’d blind-tasted it, I’d have said it was a Scotch.  It messed with me and I kept thinking Scotch Scotch Scotch!”  She’s partial to Redbreast and Midleton, too. 

Josey Packard is partial to Powers, one I’ve been drinking a fair amount of lately.  When I was in Ireland a couple years ago, we did a side-by-side-by-side of Jameson, John Powers and Paddy’s,” she said.  “We asked the bartender to blind-taste us on them, and we both picked Powers.  There was a tiny bit of spice topnote that the others didn’t have.”

(Wayne Hartunian told me that there is going to be a limited release of Paddy in the US in March, only in liter bottles.  Paddy’s is a blend that has malt whiskey and pure pot still whiskey, not your usual Irish make-up.  It’s a first, and you can be sure your customers will respond to a value-priced limited release of a whiskey they can usually only find in Ireland.)

One of the most puzzling, most endearing things about Irish whiskey, though, is how people drink it.  “I serve it as shots or neat more than anything else,” said Joy Richard, Bar Manager of the Franklin Cafe and Franklin Southie.  “A lot of people drink it with a beer.  Jameson neat is an easy sell for us.”

“It’s the ubiquitous shot in Boston,” said Tony Iamunno.  “Guinness, shot of Jameson.”

Lauren Clark, who writes the DrinkBoston blog and is very much pro-cocktail, sees the difference with Irish whiskey drinkers.  “They don’t drink cocktails, and they don’t talk about Irish like they talk about bourbon or Scotch,” she said.  “It’s a shot with their Guinness, and there’s nothing wrong with that: that’s how I drink it!”
“It’s very much a shot drink,” said Misty Kalkofen.  “No one ever thinks about it in cocktails.  I ask people, ‘What do you drink?’  ‘Irish.’  ‘How about a cocktail?’  ‘Why would you do that? You put other things in cocktails! Don’t f**k with my whiskey.’  It’s tradition more than flavor.”  [Kalkofen does have some Irish cocktails, and you’ll find hers and some others in the sidebar.]

Caffrey of Tullamore Dew sees no problem with the shots; in fact, they’re rolling with it.”  America is a shot market,” he said, “and we’ve created a sub-brand around that, a call drink – a Dew and a Brew.  We’re taking that on the road, on-premise sampling opp across the country.  We recommend to the off-premise accounts that they run these “Dew & Brew” promos around televised sports events, like the 6 Nations Rugby event, or March Madness, and baseball through the summer.  There’s a very strong link between people drinking in a bar and take-home, of course.  And we’ll be offering money off for buying Dew and a beer of your choice.”

No matter how people drink it, it looks like another very good year for Irish whiskey.  The keys to its growth are all still in place: taste is the same, promotion is still strong, still a value category and under-developed, still a discovery category.  None of the brand managers I talked to saw price increases coming in 2O1O, and were confident that the discounting seen in other categories would only make Irish whiskey stronger.  More new brands and successful line extensions mean continued attention to the category, and more choice for consumers looking to expand their knowledge of the category. 

And of course, the taste hasn’t changed.  It’s still smooth, nicely sweet and eminently approachable – a well-mannered whiskey that’s been making a lot of new friends.

Irish whiskey, of course, is not the only spirit of Ireland.  There’s Irish Mist, the long-time stablemate of Tullamore Dew, for instance, which has recently undergone a facelift in the form of a new bottle and a new positioning. 
As for the positioning, SKYY has bowed to the inevitable cultural differences.  “The US isn’t a big after-dinner drink market, not like Europe,” Caffrey said.  “It retails around $26 a bottle, so it’s not an ultra-premium bottle.  We’re positioning it more as a long drink, with cola and lime.

The key to that is to rim the glass with the lime; it leaves that citrus flavor and breaks the sweetness a bit.”
“It’s about taste,” he promises: “The liquid has not changed.  Retailers may have tried it years ago, and that’s that.  Try it again, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

Gary Hill (Gary’s Liquors) is trying it.  “We bought in on an attractive price on the new bottles,” he said, “they were flushing the old bottles out of the market.  My sales were up 8%, though I am offering a more aggressive price.”
The other, much smaller Irish cordial is Celtic Crossing.  Juliet Balian told me that it too had been repositioned.  “We’ve been working on introducing it in bars as a female-friendly shot,” she said.  “There’s a honey taste in there, and we’ve been promoting it as a great chilled shot.  There are some bars that are working with us on that; it’s a slow but successful endeavor.”

Baileys continues to not only dominate the category it created, it has transcended it.  Tom Breeding (Wine Gallery Kendall Square) put it simply: “Baileys sells really fast.” 

“It just moves,” agreed Tom Iamunno (Downtown Wine & Spirits, Somerville).  “The holiday season and St. Patrick’s Day, it’s big.  But it’s always steady.  It’s Baileys!”

Indeed, the spirit is huge.  “For five years running,” said Bill Topf, Baileys’ Vice-President of Marketing, “it is the number one selling spirit from the Thanksgiving to New Year’s holiday season.  Baileys is still the number one cream liqueur in the world.  It is also the seventh largest spirit globally.  Innovation with flavor extensions has been a great way to stay connected to consumers.”

Those Baileys flavors are now in their sophomore year.  Are they holding up after an initial promotion-backed surge?  Yes, says Gary Hill, and had the numbers to back it up.  “The Caramel grew 3O%, off a pretty small base.  Coffee grew 35%, the Mint Chocolate grew 36%, all starting small, but they did grow over the year.  Regular Baileys in all formats was up 9% overall for us.”

Topf had some suggestions for driving those solid sales even higher.  “Any of the Baileys flavors makes a perfect hostess gift for people attending get-togethers,” he said; it doesn’t always have to be a bottle of wine.  As for placement, “Baileys plays an important role in the cordials section in retail stores.  However, people don’t always think to go in the cordials aisle.  Retailers are encouraged to place Baileys – in all sizes – outside of the cordials section to drive impulse purchasing.”  Prime real estate, but an iconic brand like Baileys deserves it. 

What about the rest of the category, the “other” Irish cream liqueurs?  It sounds like they’re finding a niche.  Carolans is doing pretty well emphasizing value.  “Number 2 Irish cream in the world,” said Paul Caffrey.  “Carolans is up 4%.  We have a premium product coming from Ireland.  The recession made people look at their wallets and think about price.  You look at a Baileys at $18, and a Carolans at $1O, it’s going to make you think.  What we’re hoping is that once they’ve recognized the quality of Carolans, they won’t move back.

“We’re doing a St. Patrick’s Day promotion with Carolans: ‘Get Shamrocked’,” said Caffrey.  “A Shamrock Shot, made with equal measures of Midori, Carolans and Tullamore Dew, shaken with ice, and strained into a glass.  Man, if you haven’t tried it, you should!”

Juliet Balian told me a similar story with Brady’s.  “People have found this to be a very good price on a product made in Ireland,” she said.  “We’re up about 3O%, on a small base.  Brady’s has a new lightweight PET 1.75 package; the old one was very heavy.  The new one should be easier to handle, with less breakage.”
Not every cream competes on price.  Coole Swan is actually more expensive than Baileys, but, says Tom Iamunno, it’s worth the money.  “It’s just amazing,” he said enthusiastically.  “I was dismissive of it when I first heard about it, but everything they said was totally true.  It’s delicious, I have one in my fridge at home.  I like to talk about it.  You just have to taste it once.”  Gary Hill said his sales were up 5O% (from a small base, stop me if you’ve heard that before), and that it was “definitely worth carrying at this stage in the game.  We’ve had a few referrals because we carry it.”

“Coole Swan has established a really good following in Massachusetts,” confirmed operational director Adrian Walker.  “We are particularly delighted to have been embraced by owners and managers of leading liquor stores in Boston and beyond (including Tony at Downtown Wine & Spirits, Charles Pedersen at Charles Street Liquor, and Joe Howell at Federal, to name but a few).”

Walker said that tastings will continue, and are successful, but word-of-mouth continues to be Coole Swan’s best friend.  “These key stores play an invaluable role in spreading the word,” he noted, “as do the top bars, restaurant and hotels who have discovered Coole Swan.  We have experienced both bartenders and consumers looking for discernible product quality and taking that into account when they seek value . . . it’s not all about lowest price, if that means you compromise on the quality.”

Finally, there’s one more spirit to cover, an Irish vodka: Boru, from Castle Brands.  “It’s a fantastic product,” Balian said.  “Distilled 5 times, imported, smooth, it just slips on your tongue.  We’ve actually taken some price increases, and the volume sales have held up.  Still, you can find the 1.75 for $19.99; it’s a fantastic price.  Consumers have rewarded us by staying with the product.  We are holding very steady where it’s slash and burn in the market.”     

Irish whiskey doesn’t have the classic cocktails that other whiskeys do, not even the rare Scotch cocktails.  There’s the Hot Whiskey, a mix of whiskey, boiling water, lemon, and sugar – cloves are optional.  There’s Irish coffee, which is a great pick-me-up on a cold, sleeting night.  They’re not the first things most people think of when they grab a bottle, and neither of them is what you’d call popular in the summertime.  What is popular year ’round is a straight-up shot of Irish whiskey, sitting beside a glass of beer, preferably Guinness. 

Recently I was hanging out at the Green Street with Lauren Clark, who writes the DrinkBoston blog (and put me in touch with the great bartenders in this story).  We’d had a couple drinks, and I asked her, “What cocktails use Irish whiskey?”  To my surprise, she didn’t know any, and whipped out her iPhone – she had an app for that (which didn’t surprise me at all).  In short order, she’d conferred with the bartender and I had a Brain Storm in front of me.  It was cold and delicious, everything in harmony.

Brain Storm
as described by misty kalkofen of drink,
taken from hugo ensslin’s 1916 book recipes for mixed drinks
2 ounces Irish whiskey
¼ ounce dry vermouth
¼ ounce Benedictine
pour into a double old-fashioned glass with a big chunk of ice.
stir it till it tastes good, then twist an orange peel to spray some orange oil on the top. 

They don’t have to be complicated.  The Jameson & Ginger is just a Jameson highball, mixed with ginger ale and lime.  “Jameson & Ginger is becoming very popular,” said Wayne Hartunian.  “In fact, the highest volume on-premise account in the world for Jameson – in Minneapolis of all places – has built a very successful business around promoting the Jameson & Ginger drink day in and day out as their signature drink.”

Josey Packard, who tends bar at Drink, told me about a simple Irish cocktail she’d been making and was pretty happy with, the Tipperary.  “I made one last night with Jameson and Cinzano,” she said, “and it knocked my socks off when I tasted it.  I wished that I was drinking it.”

1½ ounces Irish whiskey
1 ounce Green Chartreuse
¾ ounce sweet vermouth
pour onto ice in a mixing glass and stir thoroughly.  strain into a cocktail glass, no garnish.

Abaigeal Hendron had some cocktails to go with Michael Collins blended; her current favorites, she said.  The Honeysuckle caught my eye; it’s made with Sauvignon Blanc, a little something different. 

michael collins honeysuckle
1½ parts Michael Collins Blend
2 teaspoons honey
1¼ parts Sauvignon Blanc
1½ parts fresh apple juice
¼ part passion fruit syrup
¼ part fresh lemon juice
shake ingredients over ice and strain into a chilled glass.
garnish with a thin apple slice.

Finally, Juliet Balian of Castle Brands was telling me about a new bar in New York called Vintry Wine & Whiskey.  “They only serve whiskey and wine,” she said, “and they make a Peach Smash with Knappogue, it’s a wonderful drink.”

Peach Smash
3 ounces Knappogue Castle
2 ounces white peach puree
In a mixing glass, muddle three lime wedges, fresh mint leaves, and a splash of simple syrup.  add the whiskey and peach puree.
shake vigorously and strain with a julep strainer into a martini glass. 

Now you know more about Irish whiskey cocktails than most bartenders.  Spread the word.

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