One aspect of the growth of Irish Whiskey is the proliferation of new brands hitting the shelves of American liquor stores.
Many will be familiar to drinkers in Ireland – Jameson, Bushmills & Kilbeggan – to name a few.
Others not – Kavanagh, Kilbrin & Wolfhound – for example.
Generally the 2nd list are non distillery producers selecting sourced Irish Whiskey then labelling & marketing it under their own brand names.
For the last few years this has been a growing business.
The number of Irish Whiskeys seeking approval from the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has risen from 120 in the 2016-17 period to 204 in the 2019-20 time frame. Data courtesy TTB Online search page available here.
Clearly this reflects an increased appreciation of Irish Whiskey – as well as a ready supply of Irish Whiskey Distilleries willing to cater for this demand.
It’s marvelous to witness the growing marketability of Irish Whiskey.
I welcome each and every one of these new brands into the ever increasing & more diversified Irish Whiskey category.
There is however still a long way to go.
Scottish Whisky registered 1188 labels in the same 2019-20 period.
It may seem an incongruous pair of whiskeys to compare – but in my opinion – the two offerings above represent the growing maturity, complexity and coming of age of Irish Whiskey.
On the one hand you have ChapelGate’s ultra premium exquisitely packaged and presented Chosen,
On the other, McGregor’s mass market blend Proper Twelve.
Both have delivered a product that satisfies the demands of their specific target audiences,
And both are excelling within their respective categories.
My blog welcoming the arrival of Proper Twelve to the market stated;
‘Irish Whiskey will never be the same again’
Has certainly been proven true.
For a newly released brand to be seriously challenging the dominance of Jameson – as in an Irish Times article – is truly outstanding. Despite the recent deplorable antics – perhaps even because of? – there seems to be no slowing down of Proper Twelve’s growth trajectory.
It is opening the market to a new generation of Irish Whiskey drinkers around the world and recently expanded into Poland & South Africa.
ChapelGate’s Chosen is also taking Irish Whiskey into new – and to many unthinkable – territory, the ultra premium luxury market. I highly commend founder Louise McGuane for her courage in doing so.
The dedication, careful selection of stock and variety of quality casks at her bonded warehouse in County Clare was outstanding. I chanced a visit over two and a half years ago – even before her first release – which you can read about here.
To chart the growing success of ChapelGate since then – as well as tasting JJ Corry’s fabulous whiskey releases – has been a wonderful journey.
The reaction to Chosen and Proper Twelve has been immense – and divisive.
Both have taken Irish Whiskey out of the narrowly defined one dimensional stereotypes of the past.
They represent a multi dimensional & complex Irish Whiskey scene that can be double distilled, peated, flavourful, rough round the edges, brash & youthful, aged & nuanced all at the same time.
Both dreamed big and played far beyond the boundaries.
If anything – Irish Whiskey is late to this social media led personality trend – and I’d be more worried if there wasn’t an Irish celebrity wanting to get involved.
Right from the beginning however – even before it’s release – I posted a piece with the headline ‘We need to talk about Conor’ and got the following response;
“No we don’t”
Kind of sets the tone for what followed when Proper Twelve was launched.
“It’s barely legal”
Well at 3 years old it is legal.
Funny though – that issue never came up when punters were outbidding each other to get hold of ‘barely legal’ Dingle or Teeling whiskey when it was first released.
Then comes the condemnation.
“Heavily adulterated with caramel”
Yes there is added caramel – it says so on the label. Caramel is a legally allowed additive both within Irish Whiskey and Scottish Whisky. The same criticism can be levelled at virtually every Jameson product, Bushmill bottle, Johnnie Walker whisky and many others as they all contain caramel. Why single out one offender?
Then you start to get to the heart of the matter.
“See, Bono’s doing it right….he’s supporting the build of an ACTUAL distillery!”
Since when did you need a distillery to build a brand?
The Spot whiskeys started out from a grocers. So too did the best selling Johnnie Walker. Many a big brand of today began as non distillery producers – it’s a well trodden path.
And then you get plain old bias.
“I have no intention of ever trying it.”
Which is probably just as well – as blogger after blogger lined up to do a hatchet job on the liquid. The best described the whiskey as;
Now in all probability Proper Twelve was distilled at Bushmills for the malt content and Midleton for the grain. There is no law in either Irish or Scottish rules stating you must name the distillery which made the blend.
So effectively the same teams that make all Bushmills product – from the White Bush blend to the lauded 21 Year Old Single Malt – as well as the folks that make all the Jameson, Powers, Paddy’s & Midleton products have somehow dropped their standards to allow ‘toilet cleaner’ to be made in their stills, stored in their barrels and blended in their tanks?
I don’t think so.
What I found on tasting was a very easy going, approachable blend with a slight charred cask influence and a hint of spice.
It sits very well among the other Irish whiskey blends out there.
But then what is getting people irate – from what I can see – is not really the whiskey – it’s the man behind it – Conor McGregor.
The idea that a somewhat colourful & controversial kid from Crumlin can just swan in with his millions and release a whiskey that has the whole world talking – buying – and drinking – is obviously too much to bear .
It upsets the cosy consensus that assumed ‘premiumisation’ was the way to go – or that ‘transparency’ is key.
For a whiskey that sold out 6 months worth of stock within a matter of weeks – I think it just proved there was a vast untapped market out there waiting to be filled. It’s a marketing master stroke and something of a social media phenomenon.
But of course – when all else fails – slag off the customer.
“There are just enough rednecks and hooligans out there that will actually make this crap a success.”
I find it ironic that those who criticize Mr McGregor the loudest seem to descend to his level of pre-fight ritual lambasting.
Which is a pity.
As Mr McGregor and his Proper Twelve brand have just pulled off a massive publicity stunt that is getting Irish Whiskey instant worldwide recognition and potential sales far beyond anything that has gone before.
It is without doubt my Irish Whiskey of the year 2018.
All quotes in italics are from social media posts by various whiskey fans. They are by no means the only ones. I have chosen the milder variety.
I received a Press Release today from none other than Proper No Twelve Irish Whiskey.
Conor McGregor issues apology – Proper No. Twelve Irish Whiskey out-of-stock situation soon to be remedied.
Proper No. Twelve sold more cases in less than one month than many whiskey brands sell in a full year. This amounted to hundreds of thousands of bottles. Prior to unveiling the new whiskey blend on 17 September, the distillery bottled what was estimated to be enough product for six months of sales in Ireland and the United States. Thanks to consumer demand, this forecast was far short of the mark. Today, the team is working feverishly to bring new product to market, and first wave solutions are in place for early December in Ireland and the United States.
“I told everyone as the company Founder that I was going to give it my all and take the whiskey market by storm”, said McGregor. “I am energized by the incredible reaction and am looking forward to being back in stock in the next few weeks. The Irish whiskey market has been dominated by one brand, but people want choice. People want brands that have true meaning to them, that give back to the community and that taste great. Proper No. Twelve checks all of those boxes”.
McGregor continued, “Over the past weeks, I have had the honour to visit many of our key distributors, customers, bartenders and consumers in Ireland and the United States. The feedback on our liquid and brand is outstanding and the support from people around the world has blown me away. I was thanking many and apologising at the same time for running out. I don’t usually see reason to apologise but in this case I want to take this chance to apologise to absolutely everyone for our out-of-stock situation. You have shown great support for Proper No. Twelve. I was at the distillery last week and we have plans in place to be back in stock in Ireland and the United States in early December and onward. We are producing many hundreds of thousands of bottles now. We will ship via air instead of by sea to deliver in time for the holidays for the many loyal customers who are asking for Proper No. Twelve for celebrations and gifting”. McGregor added, “We are also planning to launch in more countries in 2019 including the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Canada and others. We will continue to expand as quickly as possible to meet the global demand. We are also working on additional expressions for the future and will launch them when they are proper ready for release”.
It seems sales of this whiskey far exceeded expectations and 6 months of stock sold out in a matter of weeks.This is nothing short of a whiskey marketing phenomenon.
John Quinn – Global Brand Ambassador for Tullamore DEW – told an amusing story at the recent Irish Whiskey Awards 2018.
Out marketing Irish Whiskey in Japan back in the 1980’s when Irish Whiskey was virtually hanging on by a thread – the then Brand Ambassador pulled a stunt which made the whole audience pick up and take notice.
Well Conor McGregor has certainly pulled off an even bigger stunt and made the whole world take notice of his Proper No Twelve Irish Whiskey.
He’s gaining new customers – opening new revenue streams and pushing the Irish Whiskey category forward in ways that could only have been thought of in the industry’s wildest dreams back in the 80’s.
I raise a glass to Conor and all the team behind Proper No Twelve Irish Whiskey who are busily engaged in trying to re-stock the whiskey so that all those who wish to enjoy it can do so in time for the festive season.
Press Release & header photo care of Hunter Communications
I don’t normally do press releases – but I’ll make an exception for this one.
The long awaited & hotly tipped Conor McGregor Irish Whiskey is here with the name Proper No Twelve Irish Whiskey.
This is the full statement below.
IRELAND, 17 September 2018 – Eire Born Spirits today announces the launch of Proper No. Twelve Irish Whiskey. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Champion and one of the world’s most iconic athletes, Conor McGregor, is the founder, chairman and majority owner of the company. McGregor is proud to introduce this exciting Irish whiskey to the world, launching in Ireland and the United States, with further expansion in 2019 and onward. McGregor, being the perfectionist that he is, took a detailed, time-intensive approach to creating his whiskey.
Numerous Irish whiskey makers sought McGregor’s endorsement over the years, but as a true born and bred Irishman, he did not want to simply endorse an Irish whiskey. Inspired by his pride for Ireland and his love of Irish whiskey, McGregor wanted to create his own whiskey that would match his high standards and make his country proud.
For years, McGregor developed the brand under the project name “Notorious” through which came the foundation of what was to eventually become Proper No. Twelve. It became a longer and more complicated project than originally expected, so McGregor turned to the world’s oldest whiskey distillery, located in Ireland, with a proven history of quality whiskey making. He met David Elder, esteemed master distiller, previously of Guinness, and together they took painstaking measures to bring the whiskey to fruition. “We created close to one hundred blends and ultimately selected what we knew was the one and only proper whiskey blend. We took the time to develop an incredible whiskey and I’m excited to share it with the world,” said McGregor.
Proper No. Twelve’s global launch expression is a blend of the finest golden grain and single malt. It is produced in an area known for its rich soil and pure spring water. Proper No. Twelve is complex and sophisticated yet smooth and approachable with hints of vanilla, honey and toasted wood.
“I come from a place called Crumlin, in Dublin 12. It’s a place dear to my heart. It’s where I learned how to fight; it made me who I am today. It’s a place I’m still very much a part of every single day of my life. So, that’s where the name came from. It’s proper Irish whiskey and twelve is my hometown,” said McGregor. “Growing up on the streets of Dublin 12, I learned the values of loyalty and hard work. I respect other Irish whiskeys, but I am coming in strong, with passion and with purpose. I am the founder of this company and I am going to give it my all,” he continued.
Especially when Dublin is the departing airport with it’s marvelous display of Irish Whiskey – and other countries whiskies too.
A bonus is to try out some of the latest new releases and travel retail exclusives.
By good fortune Bushmills were showcasing their Steamship Collection – including the latest and what seems to be the last bottling of the trilogy.
Named after the SS Bushmills steamhip which supplied the thirsty American market back in the late 1800’s – the trio are all triple distilled single malts presented at 40%.
The first Sherry Cask release didn’t seem to be well received at the time. I felt it lacked a flavour punch myself – but was otherwise a decent sherry bomb style of whiskey and despite initial criticism – seems to be selling well.
The Port Cask release was much more suited to my tastes. Rich sweet dark cherry notes. Nice!
I would have predicted the Port Cask to be my favourite – but then I tried the Bourbon Cask.
The enticingly fruity warm vanilla & caramel notes associated with re-charred casks instantly won me over. There was added depth & flavour to this expression. A lovely warm glow enveloped my palate.
The results of re-charring the casks may not be to everyone’s tastes – but the boosted notes certainly work on me.
As I sit tasting a whiskey, relishing it’s flavours & relaxing in the warmth of the brown spirit – my mind often wanders to the stories contained within the glass.
You could say it’s the ‘Message in a Bottle’ that often excites me.
Coleraine Distillery used to produce first class whiskey. Opened in the early 1800’s – Coleraine made triple distilled malts of distinction before struggling during the two world wars eventually coming under the ownership of nearby neighbour Bushmills. It was converted to a grain distillery in it’s latter years before falling victim to Irish Distillers rationalising plans in the 1970’s when grain production was moved to the New Midleton Distillery & Coleraine closed for good.
This is the Message in a Bottle.
So I took a sip.
The current incarnation of Coleraine is a budget priced blend trading off it’s past glory. The nose has that e150 caramel characteristic of an entry blend – the taste is rather muted but approachable – the finish is slightly harsh but not unwelcoming – overall no strong flavours, no surprises, but for the price point – it’s grand.
This is the Message in a Bottle.
So I took another sip.
Brexit – for those that don’t know – is the name given to the process by which Britain will leave the European Union after the historic vote in 2016.
Northern Ireland is part of Britain – along with Scotland, England and Wales.
Depending on how the talks go – Northern Ireland will be out of the European Union (EU) by 2019.
As ‘Irish Whiskey’ is an EU definition – Regulation 110/2008 – I’d argue that definition no longer applies post Brexit. I cannot see how a non EU country will be allowed to label itself the same as an EU country.
This is the Message in a Bottle.
So I took another sip.
Now initially this means whiskey collectors will have a field day. Just think – all the whiskey producers in Northern Ireland will no longer be able to label their produce as ‘Irish Whiskey’.
To the best of my knowledge they are all engaged in making, planning or building a whiskey distillery. After 2019 they will all be out of the EU – and if you click on the names you will be guided to their websites.
Do you think the 27 remaining member states will allow a non-member state to trade under an EU registered label?
I think you will get a resounding non, nein, nie, ne ………… and so on.
This is the Message in a Bottle.
So I continued to sip and ponder.
But it gets more complicated.
There is no grain distillery in Northern Ireland.
At one fell swoop all blends produced there will now become whiskey made in an EU country – Ireland – as well as a non EU country – Northern Ireland.
That will go down well with the Brussels bureaucrats!
It was beginning to wreck my head too!
This is the Message in a Bottle.
I needed another sip at this stage.
But wait a minute. Doesn’t Bushmills export some of it’s liquid South for other bottlers & blenders to use?
Won’t that be subject to import taxes & customs control?
Won’t the resultant whiskey become a non EU product or a hybrid whiskey at least?
This is the Message in a Bottle.
And it was all getting a bit too much for me – and another song popped into my head.
Day 2 of our Irish Whiskey Distilleries Tour dawned rather dull & grey as we continued our journey North to Bushmills Distillery.
Proclaiming to be the world’s oldest distillery with a license to distill from 1608 – living in Westmeath I know Kilbeggan Distillery is actually the oldest working distillery with a continuous license housed in the same building from 1757. The Bushmills Distillery we took the tour in today wasn’t built until 1784.
Regardless of the history, Bushmills is currently owned by Jose Cuervo and the distillery produces an excellent array of age statement single malts along with some pleasing blends. The highlight of hour long tour – which went through the history, manufacturing & maturing process as well as the all important tasting at the end – was undoubtedly entering the extremely hot working still room crammed tight with the stills full of soon to be fresh distillate! Demand is so great there are plans to double the capacity by building a new stillroom on the expansive site.
As this was the first distillery we visited that had their shop open a bottle of the 12 Year Old Distillery Reserve made it into the bag. A pleasant mainly sherry cask matured triple distilled malt presented at 40%
Oddly enough Bushmills malt is not peated unlike it’s nearest working distillery – Laphroaig on Islay – which is only a short sea crossing of 30 miles away or so. On a good day you can see the hills of Scotland from the nearby Giant’s Causeway coast. There is a new ferry service taking you on the short crossing if you wish called High Sea Spirits – now that would be an adventure!
As our car isn’t amphibious we took the road instead to Derry where Niche Drinks are building their Quiet Man Distillery in the former military barracks of Ebrington Square. We were kindly met by Ciaran Mulgrew – the managing director of Niche Drinks – who proudly showed us round the building site explaining how a modern & stylish distillery with an attractive visitors centre could be built within the old listed building and yet still retain it’s history & integrity. He also told some wonderful stories of how cross party alliances which straddled the former divided city came together to get the project off the ground. Very impressive.
What is also impressive is the award winning bar & restaurant that is Walled City Brewery handily adjacent to the distillery. Happily we had booked a tasty meal here & despite stocking Quiet Man whiskey – the allure of some tasty craft beer proved too much for some! Wonderful.
The sun came out as we made our way down to Sliabh Liag Distillery. Situated just inland from the impressive sea cliffs that it takes it’s name from. The actual distillery site hasn’t yet even started – but we were enthusiastically shown round by the highly informative & engaging founder James Doherty.
He comes with a wealth of experience from his years in the drinks industry & his stories of that career mirrored the seanachai traditions of Donegal – so we repaired to the local John The Miners Bar in Carrick where a glass of the Silkie blend awaited us. This sourced whiskey’s name recalls old stories of seals taking on human forms when ashore to befriend lonely menfolk – it certainly befriended us with it’s soft yet slightly spicy notes.
We could have stayed for longer – but a long drive through the stunning coastal scenery to our hotel for the night in Sligo beckoned.
A nightcap in Thomas Connolly’s Bar rounded off our extremely entertaining day covering the whiskey distilleries across the top of Ireland.
Dram of the day?
There wasn’t one to top the stories we heard from our day on the road & in the bar that evening!
Decomposed vegetable matter that can be used as a fuel source to dry the malted barley commonly used in whiskey production. This imparts a smoky flavour to the spirit which generates much devotion amongst ‘peatheads’ – who go to great lengths to satisfy their cravings.
Luckily for me – I simply cycled down to my local distillery – Kilbeggan – to indulge my passion for peat.
There has been a distillery at Kilbeggan since 1757. It claims to be the oldest working distillery in the world operating out of the same site with a continuous licence from it’s inception.
Bushmills have ‘alternative facts’ dating from 1608. The current distillery however wasn’t built until 1885 replacing an earlier one at a different site dating from 1784.
While it’s undoubtedly true Scotland is the biggest producing whisky nation in the world, they only gained that title in the early 1900’s. Before then Ireland was number 1. The earliest Scottish distillery still in production – Glenturret – dates from 1775.
Kilbeggan – in advance of a new and welcome bill – also has a licence to allow the consumption & sale of alcohol on the premises. Cycling afforded me the luxury of being able to enjoy a few glasses. Allowing me to reacquaint myself with the Connemara 22 year old – as well as trying out the recently re-released Turf Mor expression.
Now none of the Connemara range are actually produced at Kilbeggan. Cooley Distillery in County Louth is where that all happens – but Kilbeggan is one of the maturation sites. It also has a small boutique distillery whose spirit usually finds it’s way into some of the blended releases. There are plans afoot however to allow visitors the unique experience of bottling their own Kilbeggan produced whiskey with a valinch as part of the historical distillery tour. A welcome addition.
The 22 year old has a softly peated nose. As befits it’s age the taste is smooth & complex. The peat is well balanced by many rich notes from the long years maturing in oak barrels. A very fine & well cultured whiskey. Bottled at 46% & non chill-filtered.
Turf Mor is the bigger, badder & bolder younger sibling!
Youthful, exuberant & punchy. This heavily peated single malt delivers a healthy kick to the palate tempered by a soft sweetness. Much more my style.
It’s not as bold & overwhelming as the previous 58.2% incarnation – but a very welcome return of a heavy hitting peat from Ireland at 46% – albeit as a limited Travel Retail release & of course – at the distillery.
A bottle was duly purchased. Well worth the 70km cycle!
The entire Connemara range of peated single malts make a fine display in their new bright livery. Oh! Did I say they are all Irish double distilled peated single malts?
The 2 youthful non-aged statements (NAS) contain some welcome fire & bite in contrast to the rather well-mannered & refined 12 & 22 year old elders.
All are available at the Kilbeggan Distillery – along with the Tyrconnell, Kilbeggan & Locke’s range of whiskeys too.
Kilbeggan is currently owned by the Beam/Suntory group. Due to increased demand it’s advised to book in advance for the guided tours. You are welcome to drop into the very friendly Whiskey Bar anytime during opening hours.
Full of wonderfully rich history & culture, some fabulous whiskeys, a cafe and a bar – what are you waiting for?