In an age of organisations, associations and bureaucracy, the newly-formed Irish Whiskey Association might seem a tad surplus to requirement to the untrained eye. After all, isn’t IBEC’s already-established Irish Spirits Association capable of doing just as-good-a job as the new kid on the block?
Peter Morehead, the IWA’s inaugural Chairman, would beg to differ.
“The ISA has been in existence for more than 20 years and covers all Irish spirits, effectively the Geographical Indicators of Irish whiskey, cream liqueur and Poitin,” Peter, in his day job as Director of Production at Irish Distillers, explains to me, “Up until a short number of years ago it was effectively ourselves & Cooley and then Diageo bought Bushmills and more recently William Grant & Sons bought Tullamore Dew from C&C, then Beam came in and there followed a stream of new entrants.”
Need for IWA
These “new entrants” had nowhere to go to find out how to successfully manufacture Irish whiskey, the methodologies involved or how to access the funding that was available, for example.
“We decided to do something about that, but were very keen that it be inclusive of the people coming into the category just as much as the established players,” he says. Under the Irish Whiskey Act 1980, for example, Irish whiskeys must be made from whole cereals and water, fermented by yeast, distilled on the island or Ireland and matured in wooden casks for no less than three years.
It was also becoming quite noticeable at ISA meetings that the vast majority of time was spent talking about whiskey and whiskey matters, so for others it was a waste of time.
“We’ve been looking at this since last Summer and have discovered, for example, that Enterprise Ireland now has a strategy document because of the number of new whiskey entrants seeking assistance with various aspects of establishing their own business, so Enterprise Ireland looked at the potential for establishing an ‘Ireland Inc’ on the matter.
“When we met him last November Minister Coveney thought that the establishment of such an Association would be a good idea. He suggested we come back and talk to him about the potential for such an Association, where the market was going etc.
“It was agreed that we’d develop a strategy document for the Irish whiskey sector and present back to him along with our assessment of the requirements for dedicated trade assistance for the Irish whiskey category – remember we’re talking about an all-island category for whiskey here.”
The new Association’s remit is to:
- 1. promote Irish whiskey
- 2. promote the integrity of Irish whiskey by ensuring that the Irish Whiskey Act 1980 and the EU’s GI are enforced worldwide
- 3. establish a vibrant Irish whiskey tourism offering
- 4. ensure inasmuch as it can that public policy supports a sustainably-growing industry North and South
- 5. support new entrants.
GI & funding
While Irish whiskey already has a GI, all GIs are up for renewal and the renewal process must be completed by Feb 2015.
“Our file is actually with the EU so we’re nearly there,” explains Peter, “When the GI is ratified EU funding will be available for promotion of GIs outside Europe.”
This funding will be on a 50:50 basis.
“We’ll seek to tap into that funding via a promotional strategy to promote the category abroad.”
Irish whiskey at home
On the home market the IWA will seek to do this through working with Government on public policy. But as part of ABFI, the IWA will not be yet another voice in the misuse debate.
“We’ll channel those things through ABFI,” he explains.
The IWA will also have a website at irishwhiskeyassociation.ie, a ‘One-Stop-Shop’ for anyone wanting to better understand the Irish whiskey category.
“In particular this will be of use to new entrants,” he stresses.
The IWA will also manage a mentoring programme.
“If you’re new, you’ll be paired up with an existing player at a technical level of knowledge sharing,” says Peter, “I think that’s really positive of the industry – which has established a pretty high bar on quality already – to do this.”
It might therefore seem ironic to learn that the Scotch Whisky Association has been so supportive of the setting up of the IWA.
But Peter sees no conflict.
“It’s in all of our interest that we run a tidy ship so they’re in support of that,” he says.
Marketing the Irish whiskey category
Once the largest category of whisky globally back in the 19th Century, Irish whiskey has been lost and forgotten to many. In some parts of the world it’s still thought-of purely in terms of Irish coffee.
The IWA will now develop a strategy that will effectively feed through to trade shows and to parts of the world where it needs to re-introduce Irish whiskey.
“The brands will push the brands, but in terms of introducing Irish whiskey as a category the strategy will push this,” he explains, “We need to reintroduce the concept of Irish whiskey, its distillation method, heritage, the whole story.”
Developing Irish whiskey
The cashflow burdens of developing a whiskey business remain leaden.
A good Irish Pot Still whiskey will take over five years to mature. Indeed, one can expect an eight- to 10-year time-frame before revenue develops, so the Association hopes that a Government agency can find the means to support new entrants and ease their position somewhat.
“We’ve a very positive message here and a great export story,” believes Peter.
More than 95% of Irish whiskey is exported. Over the last five years the category has been the fastest-growing spirits category worldwide.
“It’s a great opportunity for the country as it’s still only 4% of total whisk(e)y sales. And for every case that’s exported the impact locally is significant too.”
Irish whiskey’s biggest relevance to the on-trade here will be to develop a vibrant whiskey tourism offering, he says, “… and that isn’t just about visitor centres.
“It’s about Irish whiskey brands whose natural environment is in the on-trade where they’re most enjoyed and where an educated barman can explain their relevance.
“We’ll be promoting the education of hospitality employees to drive a tourism offering that’ll drive customers into the on-trade.”
But with growth estimates of 12 million cases by 2020 and 24 million by 2030, what if we’ve overestimated Irish whiskey volumes?
“That’s unlikely as we’ve 96% of global whiskey sales that are untouched yet,” he responds.
“Irish whiskey is a very approachable whiskey, a clear alternative to Scotch and Bourbon. As we reintroduce Irish whiskey to consumers around the globe, we’re still only touching some markets – for example South America, Africa and Asia. There’s an enormous marketplace out there that we’re just beginning to tap.
“Even if we get to 24 million cases it will still be only in the region of 10-12% of global whisk(e)y sales, we reckon.”