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SB voices: Irish whiskey needs more transparency

Irish whiskey’s soaring popularity is an extraordinary achievement for the category following its troubled past – but producers must be careful to ensure transparency across the board to protect the spirit’s future success, says Melita Kiely.

Irish whiskey tourism is a booming trade

Anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to Irish whiskey’s increasing popularity will be aware of the category’s phenomenal growth over the last 10 years. A decade ago, take at trip to the Emerald Isle and you’d find just four distilleries there: Bushmills, Midleton, Kilbeggan and Cooley. Today, that number has risen to 26 – and will no doubt continue to rise over the coming years.

This was by no means an overnight success. Category leader Jameson, along with the likes of Bushmills, Tullamore Dew and other established brands, must really be credited with paving the way for other producers to follow. It’s their high standards and perseverance that has created the consumer demand that has led to today’s growing distillery numbers.

Such is the demand that Ireland is now attracting a booming tourism trade. Last year, more than 2.7 million made a beeline for Ireland to visit the island’s distilleries and breweries, according to the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI). Since 2016, visitor numbers to Irish breweries and distilleries have grown by 241,294, and there are at least 24 visitor centres in Ireland now, the ABFI reported.

However, last month, a Tweet published by Blackwater Distillery said: “Here’s to the couple who visited us this week at the end of a three-week whiskey trip around Ireland. They decided against Scotland because there was ‘so much happening here’. So imagine their disappointment to find half of the whiskey distilleries they wanted to see didn’t exist.”

It was the ignition for a piece on BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme earlier this week, which I was asked to take part in. The piece highlighted that there is still much work to be done to create a seamless understanding of the Irish whiskey category between brands and consumers. Several valid points were touched upon during the segment: why are some Irish distilleries selling whiskey that’s not, technically, their own? And why are others suggesting they are the product of a non-existent distillery?

For those who work in the spirits industry, it may feel like common knowledge that existing Irish whiskey distilleries and brands outsource their liquid – and this could be for all manner of reasons: the astronomical costs that come with building your own distillery, the three-year minimum wait for Irish whiskey to mature, or a lack of facilities to produce grain whiskeys for blends. The practice is nothing new, and is an integral part of the Irish whiskey category’s infrastructure – and Scotch and American whisk(e)ys, too.

But what last month’s Tweet demonstrates is that there is quite clearly a disconnect between industry knowledge and consumer understanding – and the responsibility of addressing this to create a truly transparent category rests on the shoulders of the Irish whiskey producers. There is evidently still much work to be done when it comes to consumer education.

If producers are using potentially misleading labelling on their brands, such as those that refer to a ‘named’ distillery, which is actually non-existent, it will only be a matter of time before consumers connect the dots and, as our Tweet bode shows, feel a sense of disappointment in the category. Similarly, brands that source their liquid from a third-party supplier and then finish its maturation in another part of the country, must be careful to communicate the liquid’s provenance accurately and honestly.

We’re all acutely aware that today’s consumer is more discerning than ever, and engages with brands that have heritage, provenance and a story behind them. But above all, consumers are seeking quality spirits with brand integrity. They won’t be duped by false tales dreamt up to fit current trends.

The next few years will really give us an idea of the Irish whiskey’s potential as more brands come of age and hit the market. To safeguard the spirit’s longevity, it’s vital that brands do not fabricate a sense of provenance for the sake of an easy sale. It has taken decades to rebuild the Irish whiskey category – and breaking consumer trust now could all too quickly undo the industry’s hard work. Don’t take consumers for fools – honesty is always the best policy.

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