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Spirit of enterprise in Ireland’s burgeoning whiskey industry

More than 40 distilleries in Ireland now account for annual export sales totalling more than €1 billion

The growth of Irish whiskey on export markets in recent years has been little short of remarkable. “Ireland is simultaneously the oldest and youngest distilling nation in the world,” says James Doherty, chair of the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA). “It’s a great industry but it’s relatively young. Thirty years ago, there were only three distilleries on the island of Ireland, now there are over 40 dotted around the island. In 2022, the industry achieved export sales of over €1 billion for the first time.”

Part of Ibec’s Drinks Ireland division, the IWA is the all-island representative body working to promote, protect and represent Irish whiskey in Ireland and globally.

Doherty set up Sliabh Liag Distillers in Donegal in 2014 having spent several years working in the global drinks industry. Built on a family heritage of distilling, Sliabh Liag produces the Silkie range of whiskeys as well as Dulaman Irish Maritime gin and Assaranca vodka.

“Our business is based on creating opportunity by reclaiming the distilling heritage of Donegal,” Doherty explains. “How we go about that is by celebrating all things Donegal – place, people and culture. It’s about building an international drinks business in Donegal. Today, we have a footprint in 40 countries, in 45 states in the US and all 10 provinces of Canada. Our sales have doubled every year for the past three years. Like other distilleries around the country we are creating local jobs and acting as a catalyst for the local economy. We are also helping to build tourism and are contributing to the experience economy around the country. That’s very important to us.”


Export success is hard won and needs to be protected. “The route to market is challenging,” he points out. “Making the product is quite straightforward, but success internationally means finding distributors in markets, working with them, testing and learning, failing quickly, learning quickly and responding to that.”

One of the problems for any successful drinks category is copycat products. That makes geographic indication (GI) extremely important for Irish whiskey – without it, anyone can manufacture a whiskey and call it Irish and nothing can be done about it.

The IWA is working in markets around the world to achieve recognition for the Irish whiskey GI and has been very successful. “It’s all about making sure consumers know what they are getting is genuinely Irish whiskey. We don’t want the category to be devalued by low-quality products or consumers to be fooled.”

He describes the biodiversity crisis as a time bomb which must be addressed now

That protection is doubly important due to Irish whiskey’s journey from premiumisation to the luxury end of the market. The new crop of distillers has been building brands which command premium prices and are now moving into the luxury end of the market occupied by some of the world’s most famous brands.

“The consumer is much more taste led and a lot more discerning and sophisticated now,” Doherty says. “You will probably see a reduction in consumption levels but an increase in value. We are seeing more innovation and the brands with a taste-led approach are the ones doing better.”

Sustainability is a key issue for the industry and last year the IWA produced its Sustainable Together roadmap to help focus the sector on the sustainability agenda and encourage members to prepare sustainability plans and to collaborate to make progress.

“No business model should leave the world in a worse condition than when it started out,” Doherty says. “The industry is committed to reducing the carbon footprint of distilling. For example, the new Ahascragh Distillery in Ballinasloe will be carbon neutral. It is the first distillery not to use steam, it’s really fascinating. And IDL will be carbon neutral in a few years’ time. At Sliabh Liag we are doing everything we can to reduce carbon. We are looking at using an anaerobic digester to create energy from waste. The industry understands it is a high-energy sector and needs to ensure it is mitigating that in every way it can. We will see bottles getting lighter and we are looking at bottles made of 50 per cent recycled glass.”

He describes the biodiversity crisis as a time bomb which must be addressed now. “We have planted acres of hedgerows. We have to leave the world in a better place than we found it.”

He believes the collaborative nature of the industry will help it succeed in its sustainability and growth objectives. “There is a massive amount of knowledge sharing and support between the companies in the industry. There are lots of new premium brands coming in and we want them to succeed. It is the most collegiate industry I have ever worked in. Everyone works together and the level of mutual support is remarkable.”