Irish whiskey industry ready to bounce back after virus restrictions

Pictured at Teeling Distillery to mark the milestone of one million people visiting Irish whiskey distilleries and brand homes last year are Andrew Cowan of Matt D’Arcy’s & Co in Newry and William Lavelle, head of Drinks Ireland | Irish Whiskey Association
Gary McDonald Business Editor

THE Irish whiskey industry, in a statement to mark World Whiskey Day, says it is ready to bounce back when the Covid-19 restrictions are eased.

And it came as Drinks Ireland|Irish Whiskey Association revealed that in 2019 some 137 million bottles (11.4 million cases) of Irish whiskey were sold globally, a doubling of sales since 2010, while a record one million people visited Irish whiskey distilleries and brand homes.

But the Association has warned warning that 2020 will prove very different as the sector assesses the negative economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

William Lavelle, head of Drinks Ireland|Irish Whiskey Association, said: “In response to the crisis, our industry had to step back and in some cases step-up.

“Sales channels have been restricted and, and in many cases, such as bars and travel retail, have shut down.

“We have had to close our visitor centres, including Old Bushmills Distillery, cash flow has dried-up and jobs have been lost, although hopefully only temporarily.”

He added: “The Irish whiskey industry has proven itself to be resilient. After decades of decline, we've just experienced a remarkable decade of recovery. That recovery will continue. We're ready to bounce back again.”

Throughout the pandemic Irish whiskey distilleries have supported the national effort to slow the spread of the virus by producing alcohol-based hand sanitisers to help meet increased demand for the product.

Mr Lavelle added: “It's really encouraging to see whiskey distilleries and brand homes play their part during this public health emergency. There has been a massive increase in demand for alcohol-based sanitisers, given its effectiveness in helping to prevent the spread of the virus.”

A key priority for the Irish whiskey industry over coming months will be to consolidate and reboot sales in key existing markets for Irish whiskey, and to support this, Drinks Ireland|Irish Whiskey Association says it is developing new programmes to promote Irish whiskey at home and abroad.

“This crisis has knocked back sales growth. Orders have been cancelled and, in some cases, companies have been called on to take back stock. The challenges are particularly stark for many smaller and new-entrant companies," Mr Lavelle went on.

“But our industry intends to win back these sales losses, across all our key markets. We are finalising ambitious plans to promote Irish whiskey in our key markets, from the US and Canada right back to the domestic market where we'll be seeking to re-position Irish whiskey in what is quite likely to be a re-imagined hospitality scene.”

The industry is urging governments to back the proposal from Drinks Ireland for an ambitious programme of support - with up to 70 per cent funding - to allow companies to directly and exclusively employ graduate brand ambassadors in key markets for at least 12 months.

Mr Lavelle added: “Supporting Irish exporters to reboot their brands and regain market position should be a key priority for government. Funding ‘boots on the ground' in key markets around the world has long been the key to Irish food and drinks export success and is now more vital than ever.”

Last year, over one million people visited Irish whiskey distilleries and brand homes. However, 87 per cent of those visitors were from overseas, which will result in a significant decline in visitor numbers recorded this year.

Lavelle said: “Irish whiskey visitor attractions are more exposed than other attractions to the loss of international tourism. We will be actively targeting domestic Irish tourists once our visitor centres reopen in July.

“The second half 2020 is likely to see a surge in ‘stay-cations', short breaks and day trips by Irish people right across the island of Ireland. As part of this we are encouraging Irish people to visit an Irish whiskey distillery.

“International visitors to Ireland have up to now flocked to Irish whiskey distilleries on the basis of their worldwide reputation as exciting and enjoyable attractions, where 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 brands homes, starting with their local distilleries.

“Distilleries and brand homes are ready to reopen their doors in July , many with new and redesigned tour experiences – such as more intimate tour offerings for couples, families and small groups - all designed to ensure the safety and enjoyment of visitors.”

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