Ireland was once the grand capital of whiskey.  At one point in the mid-19th century, it boasted 88 licensed distilleries and countless more illicit producers. The largest distilleries in the world were in Dublin. The largest pot still was at the Midleton Distillery, Cork. Irish whiskey was drunk all over the world and had a reputation comparable to Champagne and Cognac. It even outsold Scotch whisky in Scotland. 

Yet, by 1980, just two distilleries were operating: Bushmills and Midleton. Irish whiskey went from a world leader to a niche product. You can take a trip through memory lane with our timeline of Irish whiskey history and also read more about the decline in our article Inside the archives at Irish Distillers. But right now we want to focus on something much happier. The comeback.

We are currently in the midst of the Irish whiskey renaissance. A period of extraordinary revival and growth for an industry that once teetered on the brink of extinction. This resurgence, beginning in the late 20th century and accelerating into the 21st, has been fuelled by several key factors, restoring Irish whiskey as a globally acclaimed spirit. 

This isn’t the story of how Irish whiskey reclaimed the crown. It’s not that simple. There’s still work to do. But with St. Patrick’s Day next weekend, now feels an appropriate time to tell the tale of how an industry that was on its knees stood tall once again.

The Kilbeggan Distillery

The Kilbeggan Distillery, in black and white, just to give it an old-timey feel.

The story of the Irish whiskey renaissance: early promise

First, we need to go back to 1966. The fate of Irish whiskey hung in the balance. A decision was made to pool resources, expertise, and brands into one company, one that could streamline operations, reduce costs, and enable a stronger negotiating position in both domestic and international markets. Cork Distilleries Company, John Jameson & Son, and John Power & Son took the radical decision to merge into Irish Distillers. It was a collaboration that saved the category from collapse.

By 1975, they had modernised the Midleton Distillery, producing a range of whiskies including the world-famous Jameson, while setting the foundations for a greater future, for example by committing to quality casks. It also kept the lights on at Bushmills, an old and proud name that would have been a travesty to lose, and maintained the creation of Ireland’s signature style, single pot still whiskey. Not that the average person would have seen much evidence of that, save for a small quantity of Green Spot as brands like Jameson and Powers were reformulated as blends. But it was being produced and when pot still whiskey became cooler again, Irish Distillers were well placed to take advantage. Particularly once Pernod Ricard acquired Irish Distillers in the 1980s, bringing with them greater financial backing, marketing capability, and global reach, significantly increasing the visibility and availability of Irish whiskey worldwide.

Irish Distillers were, for a time, the pillar on which all Irish whiskey stood. The company did a great amount to preserve the industry and to lay the groundwork for the future. However, Irish whiskey was a monopoly, and that’s never a sustainable solution. Bushmills remained part of Irish Distillers until Diageo bought it in 2005 (who, in turn, sold it to Proximo in 2014). That’s where John Teeling comes in. He founded Cooley Distillery in 1987, converting a potato alcohol plant into a two-column still distillery and then reviving brands like Kilbeggan. In 2011, he sold the operation to Beam Inc (later Beam Suntory) for US$95m, but by that time the Irish whiskey industry was unrecognisable. Irish whiskey needed a new name to breathe new life into the industry and Teeling proved particularly adept at doing that.


Teeling became the first new distillery in Dublin in over 125 years when it opened in 2015

The story of the Irish whiskey renaissance: craft and culture shifts

The creation of Cooley wasn’t much of a call to arms, however. In 2010, Ireland still only had only four distilleries. Back in 1987, whiskey wasn’t exactly thriving. But the green shoots of growth were there. Single malt began to rise in the 90s, and while it was Scotch whisky that benefited most, the tide of whiskey was slowly raising all ships. Jameson was making waves in supermarkets and bars across the world, Redbreast made a comeback to prove single pot still had a market, Midleton Very Rare annually represented the premium side of Irish whiskey, and Bushmills flew a fine flag for Irish single malt. Irish whiskey may not have been diverse, but what was there was full of quality.  

Interest in whiskey fuelled further interest in whiskey. This was occurring against a wider backdrop of a cultural shift among consumers towards supporting local, independent businesses, along with a growing interest in the provenance and story of the products consumed. Good news for a spirit made with the kind of craft and history whiskey boasts. In the 21st century, the explosion of the internet created a space for bloggers to bring whiskey education and opinion to a wider audience and drive more interest, while online retailers created a platform to sell spirits from anywhere to everyone. This shift was wider than whiskey, the global demand for premium spirits saw a marked increase, but Irish whiskey was perfectly positioned to capture this interest. It had the history, the stories, the reputation, and the appetite domestically to return to the glory dates.

Distilleries began popping up like dandelions. Teeling became the first new distillery in Dublin in over 125 years when it opened in 2015. Pearse Lyons (housed in an old church with the still on the altar, no less, pictured in the feature image) and Roe & Coe brought more distillation to the capital, and just a stone’s throw from the Guinness Storehouse too. Titanic Distillers took advantage of the booming tourist sector that is the Titanic Pump-House, the very site where the fabled ship was built in Belfast. The charming Micil sits above a popular Galway bar. Dingle added distillation to the beautiful and scenic west coast. The newcomers weren’t just creating a supply to meet increased demand for whiskey, but also whiskey tourism. People’s interest in the story and craft was something they wanted to see in person and so what followed was the age of the visitor centre. Just offering tours became old hat. Cocktail bars, food offerings, and bespoke visitor experiences were all required to deepen consumer engagement, which in turn fuelled greater interest. 

The effect of this was enhanced with support from the Irish government and regulatory bodies. A specific licensing regime for small distilleries, for example, was introduced. It was less costly and more accessible than the traditional licenses, making it financially viable for entrepreneurs with less capital to start their own distillery operations. The Irish Whiskey Association (now Drinks Ireland) was established in 2014, the same year Geographic Indication status was secured, both bolstering the industry’s integrity. Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) also increased support, establishing international trade shows, offering guidance on entering foreign markets, and offering marketing experience. 

Redbreast and Robin the mascot

Redbreast is one of the leading examples of pot still whiskey

The story of the Irish whiskey renaissance: what’s in the glass

Irish whiskey’s main strength was always in the spirit itself, however. The industry boasts four core styles. There’s the classic single malt. The versatile, affordable, single grain. The unique and bold single pot still – a blend of malted and unmalted barley (and sometimes other cereals). And then the blends of various compositions from those styles. Single pot still gives Irish whiskey a singular edge as it can only be made in Ireland. It’s a rich, complex, interesting whiskey with a long history. The buzz around it has only grown as consumers search for new experiences and whiskey nerds seek the authentic and awesome. This article goes into single pot still whiskey in greater detail if you want to learn more.

Despite its single pot still heritage, Irish whiskey’s larger reputation was rooted in the idea that it’s light, sweet, and smooth. This might be an oversimplification, but as a marketing tool, it’s had success. Brands, especially Jameson, have sold Irish whiskey as an accessible first whiskey for newcomers, a huge bonus in a crowded market. Those kinds of Irish whiskeys, much like great blended Scotch whiskies, are perfect for bartenders who need a quality, versatile core spirit to play with. Purists may turn their nose up at mixing whiskey, but light serves like Jameson & Ginger and cocktails like the Irish Coffee are many people’s introduction to the spirit. And the industry is all the better for it. 

Of course, expanding Irish whiskey’s reach and presence in new markets and re-establishing its reputation in traditional strongholds such as the United States means that Irish whiskey needs high-end, premium whiskey too. Discus (Distilled Spirits Council of the US) recently reported that, in the US, people were turning to Irish whiskey as their luxury whisky of choice. Since 2003, high-end premium and super-premium Irish whiskey grew by 1,053% and 2,769% respectively. This, of course, is starting from a small base, but the likes of Midleton Very Rare, Redbreast, The Causeway Collection from Bushmills, and the well-aged stock Teeling Distillery has bottled have increasingly demonstrated that Irish whiskey can compete in this market.


Jameson is hugely important, but Irish whiskey needs to be bigger than one brand

The story of the Irish whiskey renaissance: teething issues

The expanding demand for Irish whiskey is wonderful, of course. But there’s always another side to the coin. A growing market is inviting for people who believe in great whiskey and want to make it, but also to hucksters looking to turn a quick buck. In the surge in new bottlers, some aspire to be distilleries, some are legitimate operators recalling Irish whiskey’s long and proud history of whiskey bonding and bottling, and some are just getting their hands on what they can and slapping a label on it. This is particularly damaging when they do so without transparency. 

On more than one occasion a brand has implied that the whiskey is from a distillery when the liquid is sourced. This risks damaging Irish whiskey’s reliability, and with it, its reputation. As many of the distilleries in Ireland are new, naturally few have much stock to sell, and even fewer have mature stock for double-digit age statements; whatever it says on the label, these will come from Midleton, Bushmills, and Cooley. Irish whiskey is in a transition period and in time this problem will, to an extent, fix itself. There’s already a first wave of distilleries now only bottling what they make. Sourcing whiskey is not a problem, as long as it’s communicated effectively, otherwise, it will complicate the industry’s authenticity. The Scotch Whisky Association has been successful in making regulation as much as a focus on promotion, an example Ireland can follow. 

Irish whiskey also has marketing challenges. Jameson has been a behemoth, one that has spread the good word globally, but there’s a legacy of monopoly that Ireland needs to push past. About 95% of all Irish whiskey sales in the US market, for example, are made up of just the top five Irish whiskey brands, and even then most of that is Jameson. That leaves a very small share for the rest and poses complications for new entrants. Do they try for the premium sector with bold pot still whiskey, but risk compromising the idea that Irish whiskey is affordable and accessible, a strategy that has worked so far? Do they create versatile, light, smooth whiskeys for bartenders to play with but get lost in the crowd? There’s no waving of a magic wand that will fix this issue, it will just take time, investment, and strategy. 

These issues are at least ones that the industry can control. The impact of the war in Ukraine, supply chain issues, tax, energy prices, the cost of living crisis impacting consumer spending, and protectionist trade trends, however, are not. What’s most troubling is that some distilleries and brands may not get the time and platform to work through their teething issues because of the pressure factors like this put on the industry. Exports of Irish whiskey plummeted by double digits in 2023 due to a decline in the US, according to a report by Bord Bia. It revealed that the country’s drinks exports fell by 8% to €1.8 billion, while Irish whiskey, which holds a 49% value share of Irish drinks exports, declined by 14% to €875 million in 2023. As with most industries, Irish whiskey could do with a break.

Slane Irish Whiskey

Say Sláinte to the Irish whiskey renaissance!

Here’s to the Irish whiskey renaissance!

As we said from the outset, the story of the Irish whiskey renaissance is not a reverse Greek tragedy that has ended with the country sitting pretty at the top of the industry. But there’s so much to admire and love about the comeback of Irish whiskey regardless. It wasn’t ever going to be an overnight success. In fact, there was no guarantee it would be successful at all.

But Irish whiskey has backed its history and culture of whiskey-making. It’s embraced innovation and new ideas. It’s committed to carving out a promising future. And the global landscape is opening up all the time. In its 2023 report, Bord Bia gave us good news too. Performance in the UK was up 38%. In the EU, it was up by 17%. In emerging markets for the spirit, like Singapore and Nigeria, growth was charted at 55% and 59% respectively. Award shows are constantly bestowing medals to Irish whiskey, top bars are stocking the spirit, and you can now genuinely tour Ireland through its distilleries, there are so many across the country.

Here’s a snapshot of the current state of the Irish whiskey. Just to give you an idea of what rude health it’s in. Distilleries to have opened in the 21st century include the revivals of Roe & Co (backed by drinks giant Diageo) and Tullamore D.E.W. (similarly backed by William Grant & Sons). Cognac creators Camus opened Lambay and Illva Saronno (of Disaronno fame) owns the Royal Oak Distillery, while Slane and Teeling attracted the attention of Brown-Forman and Barcardi, respectively, demonstrating that the wider industry sees the benefit of having a strong Irish whiskey presence. 

Then there’s the wave of interesting, independent distilleries: Waterford, Shortcross, Pearse Lyons, Dingle, Drumshanbo, Glendalough, Dunville’s, Walsh, West Cork Distillers, The Dublin Liberties Whiskey, Powerscourt, all of which are bottling spirit made at their distilleries. Distilleries that are currently being established but aren’t bottling their own whiskey yet include Sliabh Liag Irish whiskey, Boann, Clonakilty Whiskey, Hinch, Titanic, Micil, and Ahascragh. Bottlers, bonders, and brands rounding out the Irish whiskey sector include Egan’s, Hyde, Grace O’Malley, The Sexton, Sailor’s Home, J.J. Corry, W.D. O’Connell (no relation to this author), Quiet Man, Proper No. Twelve, Kinahan’s, and Gelston’s.

It’s a long, long way from the days when Midleton and Bushmills stood as the sole distilleries and the selection of brands available languished in the single digits. There’s never a bad time to say Sláinte to the Irish whiskey renaissance. But given it’s St. Patrick’s Day this weekend, it just seems rude not to do it now. Sláinte!