Scotland vs. Ireland: The Whisk(e)y Wars…
Article by Ian Buxton
Once upon a time, even before your correspondent was a lad (so, a very long time ago), Irish whiskey dominated the world stage and Scotch hardly figured at all.
We’re talking, in fact, about the middle of the nineteenth century, when the Irish industry was flourishing and the Dublin distilleries of Powers, Jameson and Roe were the largest in the world. In fact, had they survived, they would still be considered substantial operations. However, today all that survives, like Ozymandias’ pedestal, are a few random scattered remains and, in the old Jameson distillery, a visitor centre – a ghostly reminder of long-lost glories.
The reasons for the decline of the Irish industry and the ascendancy of the Scots are many and complex. But the fact remains that, until recently, apart from its home market and a few die-hard expats, Irish whiskey scarcely featured in drinkers’ repertoires (other than the unmentionable Irish Coffee, which surely no reader of Riddle would be so gauche as to order).
But now Irish whiskey is on the march. Sales are soaring, especially in the USA and in some central European markets; fine new distilleries being built and confidence is high once again. One hasty commentator even suggested recently to me that Irish whiskey could overtake Scotch.
Well, never say never, but that’s quite a challenge despite the recently-reported 11% drop in exports. What’s that you say, is the world falling out of love with Scotch?
The unexpected drop has come as an unwelcome surprise to an industry which, until very recently, had become accustomed to double-digit sales growth and steadily-increasing prices. There was talk of a new ‘golden age’ for Scotch, with an unprecedented expansion of production; huge investment from established giants and a rush into small-scale ‘boutique’ or ‘craft distilling’ from ambitious new hopefuls.
All of this was predicated upon the emergence of a new global middle class; newly-affluent consumers anxious to acquire the status symbols that would reflect their prosperity and success. Scotch also pointed to its ability to open up new markets in a way that no other spirit has managed with quite such ease, suggesting that its global ubiquity provided unique protection from regional economic variations. Behind closed doors, Scotch producers could be heard discreetly savouring the discomfort of cognac producers who had bet heavily on China only to be caught badly by the recent Government clampdown on “gifting” and lavish banqueting.
However, worldwide economic storms have taken their toll and while the drop in Scotch exports is nowhere near as bad or, for the moment, as long-lived as that afflicting cognac it has given the industry pause. At present this one set of figures is publically dismissed as a ‘blip’ and investment and expansion plans are continuing – but watch this space.
Meanwhile, Irish whiskey continues blissfully upwards buoyed by increased prosperity in Eastern European markets and strong economic recovery in the USA.
But, as I reminded my excitable friend, all this is from a significantly smaller base than Scotch – around 6m cases globally compared to the behemoth of Scotland, with its 86m case sales.