Ready to bounce back stronger than before

The Irish whiskey industry was booming, until Covid-19 had a serious impact. KATE RYAN catches up with key players in the sector as the country continues to reopen
Ready to bounce back stronger than before
Clonakilty Distillery.

OVER the past ten years, Irish whiskey has been the big winner of the global love affair with Irish food and drink, with a 370% increase in the value of its exports since 2010, and worth a staggering €1.45billion in 2019, an increase of 8% on the previous year.

Alongside the growth of whiskey products, whiskey tourism was also booming, with one million visitors attending distilleries and brand homes across the country.

Cork is home to some of the most successful Irish distilleries in the country, with both legacy and innovation in their armoury.

Irish Distillers, home of Jameson whiskey in Midleton; West Cork Distillers in Skibbereen, producing quality own label spirits and myriad successful brands; and Blacks of Kinsale and Clonakilty Distillery, are just four distilleries in the Rebel County recognised internationally for their unique contributions to the global grá for Irish whiskey.

Visitor experiences such as the Midleton Campus and Clonakilty Distillery, with on-site tasting rooms, gift shops and restaurants, proved their valuable contribution to Ireland’s booming food tourism industry, thanks in part to initiatives such as Fáilte Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland’s Ancient East.

“International visitors to Ireland have flocked to Irish whiskey distilleries on the basis of their worldwide reputation as exciting and enjoyable attractions,” says William Lavelle, head of Drinks Ireland, Irish Whiskey Association.

“People can learn how Irish whiskey is made and explore the influence of the people and place in crafting our unique national spirit.

“We now want more Irish visitors to discover the depth and diversity of our Irish whiskey distilleries and brand homes, starting with their local distillery.”

Covid-19 effectively stopped the industry in its tracks. Production ceased until such time as safer ways of working could be found.

As restaurants and bars closed, sales of Irish whiskey faced a steep decline in orders at home and abroad, with some distilleries forced to take back stocks of unopened spirits.

Tourism closed its doors overnight to domestic and international visitors, so too the visitor attractions, distillery schools, gift shops and restaurants. The Irish whiskey industry fell silent. But not for long…

I spoke to three Irish whiskey distilleries in Cork and asked how Covid-19 impacted their business as the pandemic has rolled through the various phases and stages of shutdown, and now, as Ireland slowly begins to reopen.

Karina Collins is the Head of Marketing at Clonakilty Distillery. At the end of March, the distillery should have been celebrating its first birthday. But, says Karina, the birthday candles had to wait…

“Our year ahead was looking exciting. We had just signed three of the largest distributors in the U.S and secured a foothold in the Russian market. Then the virus hit and everything came to a standstill. The on-trade (pubs, hotels and restaurants) accounts for 55% of sales in the industry, and on top of that, we were hit by the closure of tourist attractions.

 An early morning on an overcast day outside the distillery in Clonakilty, Co. Cork, Ireland. Picture; David Creedon / Anzenberger
 An early morning on an overcast day outside the distillery in Clonakilty, Co. Cork, Ireland. Picture; David Creedon / Anzenberger

“We run a popular visitors’ centre with distillery tours, tastings, shop, our Whale’s Tail restaurant and Minke Gin School. We had to close all the doors — it was pretty grim to be honest.

“When it became clear things wouldn’t return to normal any time soon, we decided to transition to making quality alcoholic hand sanitisers — in fact, we were one of the first distilleries in the country to do so. It wasn’t about money, we gave a significant proportion to charity and sold the rest at cost. It was more about doing something to help the community, helped to keep staff employed, and turned out to be a hugely positive team experience.

“Reopening will be more difficult than closing, but the government roadmap helps as it gives us goals we can shoot for.

“Despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, I think we will emerge stronger for the experience. For the first time, we seriously embraced non-traditional routes to market, instead focusing on virtual experiences and online activities. We launched an online shop in record time and worked with social media influencers to offer virtual tasting and ended up trending No.1 on Twitter!

“Because we manage the whole process from distilling to blending to bottling and labelling, we are in a fortunate position that we can adapt to changes easily.

“The demand for Irish whiskey is increasing again across the world — in fact, the first Russian order for Clonakilty whiskey is currently en route to Vladivostock, but it is still too soon to make any conclusion either way.

Clonakilty Distillery reopened their visitor experience again on July 1, with small, intimate tours of just six to eight people to ensure social distancing and guests can finish with a visit to the Whales Tail restaurant.

“With strict cleaning schedules, what we won’t run short of is sanitiser!”

See www.clonakiltydistillery.ie

Sam and Maud Black, of Blacks Brewery, Kinsale
Sam and Maud Black, of Blacks Brewery, Kinsale

Maud Black is the co-founder of Blacks of Kinsale, a craft brewery and distillery in Ireland’s original gourmet town.

After perfecting their much-loved beers, gin and rum, latterly Blacks have turned their talents and attention to the Irish uisce beatha.

This was looking like a very busy year for Blacks, with events planned and booked to attend in Asia and the USA – both big export markets for Irish whiskey, with Japan taking 9% and U.S 40% respectively. Unfortunately, says Maud, Covid-19 put paid to those plans, so they focused on the distillery instead.

“At the beginning of the lockdown, we were in the middle of installing our whiskey stills. These are now fully commissioned and producing whiskey which is extremely exciting for us here in Blacks. We have continued to make whiskey, our production wasn’t affected and new-make spirit requires three years maturation in the cask before it can be deemed whiskey, so we didn’t have to worry about having stock sent back. Time was on our side.

“We started filling our first whiskey casks just recently, this has been a long project for us, and we’re delighted to be making whiskey finally in Kinsale. It was survival and adaption of our business, which was key to being able to stay in production and keep our staff in employment. We started selling online; working with our local off-licence, Kinsale 1601, and our sales staff normally on the road were directed to managing and filling orders that came through the e-shop.

“We also went into production for hand sanitiser. We worked producing bulk volumes for customers, and donated hand sanitiser to local charity groups and Cork Simon in the city. In Kinsale, we donated to the local Covid-19 group and Kinsale’s Good Food Circle who were organising dinners and food bags for the cocooning over 70s every weekend during the pandemic.

“The opening of gastro pubs and restaurants is an important step for our business and will hopefully be followed shortly by the opening of pubs. Good communication with our distribution partners in our export markets has continued throughout the pandemic, allowing us to be ready for any orders as markets begin to open up.

“The making of hand sanitiser was really only to fill a gap in the supply chain and the desperate shortages of this product, at cost in a time of need, but we won’t be continuing with this long term.

“The online shop has been a good source of direct sales to new and existing customers and has given us a chance to interact more directly, for example, personalising bottles of whiskey for Fathers’ Day, a fun concept, and we would love to continue with these types of innovative custom options.”

See www.blacksbrewery.com

Irish Distillers, Midleton Campus.
Irish Distillers, Midleton Campus.

Danielle Scully is the Brand and Corporate Communications Manager for Irish Distillers, the powerhouse behind much loved Irish whiskey brands as Jameson, Red Breast, the Spot Range, Midleton Very Rare, Powers and Method & Madness.

The old Midleton distillery campus in East Cork combines one of Ireland’s most visited tourist attractions with a working distillery and cooperage, restaurant, gift shop and the innovative Irish Whiskey Academy. Covid-19 has been a challenge, no doubt, but the spirit of the 200-year-old distillery is very much alive and kicking and looking forward to the future.

“We had a very strong start to 2019, with sales of Jameson Irish whiskey passing a record eight million cases. Our growth wasn’t just confined to Jameson, we’ve seen strong growth across our portfolio of super premium whiskeys where interest has been growing year on year, with many of our single pot still whiskeys now established as the drink of choice for knowledgeable drinkers and among the upper echelons of world whiskey.

“2020 has been an exciting year with respect to product development. In February, we launched the first of our Midleton Very Rare Silent Distillery Collection, a collection of six releases, one a year until 2025, which will coincide with the Old Midleton Distillery’s 200th birthday. Each release will range in age between 45 to 50 years old and all from the fabled Old Midleton Distillery that operated between 1825-1975. The February release was a 45-year-old Irish single malt.

Irish Distillers, Midleton Campus.
Irish Distillers, Midleton Campus.

“Like so many, Irish Distillers supported the national cause in a time of crisis, providing large-scale quantities of alcohol, free of charge, to support the production of alcohol gel in Ireland. Our distillery in Midleton, together with our partners Mervue Laboratories in Cork, are manufacturing alcohol gel for Irish healthcare authorities. We are committed to maintaining supply to the maximum levels possible for as long as possible. We hope that in doing so, it helps our healthcare professionals in their efforts to protect us all from the spread of the virus.

“We are working to reopening our visitors’ experience at our Midleton Campus on July 13. Necessary adjustments are being made to ensure all our guests and staff will have a safe, comfortable and enjoyable experience when we reopen. Some of our flagship experiences have been completely redesigned to meet the latest guidance while still offering an exceptional visitor experience.”

See www.jamesonwhiskey.com

Without doubt, the message, loud and clear, is that our Irish whiskey industry is ready to bounce back after Covid-19 better and stronger than before.

William Levelle, Drinks Ireland, Irish Whiskey Association says: “The second half of 2020 is likely to see a surge in ‘stay-cations’, short breaks and day-trips by domestic visitors right across the island of Ireland. As part of that we are encouraging people to visit an Irish whiskey distillery. Distilleries and brand homes are ready to reopen their doors in July, many with new and redesigned tour experiences — such as more intimate offerings for couples, families and small groups — all designed to ensure their safety and enjoyment.”

Visit www.irishwhiskey360.ie for details of all distilleries due to reopen in July.

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