Whisk(e)y is the Celtic craft that just keeps giving

Irish distilling has grown by 1,300% over the last 15 years

Irish whiskey
An artistic impression of the new £10m Limavady Distillery, which secured planning approval in May

The Irish will tell you that the ‘e’ in whiskey stands for excellent. And they’re not wrong.

Whilst Scotch still leads the market as the international prestige spirit, I’m lucky enough to be working with businesses at the cutting edge of both countries’ production so have a ringside seat in a competition which is heating up.

In recent years Irish whiskey has come from virtually nowhere (or at least solely from Jamesons). Fifteen years ago there were only three Irish distilleries to Scotland’s 120. Scotch thrived whilst Irish whiskey nearly died out.

But Ireland is back, reinvigorated, young and full of good ideas. There have been around 40 new whiskey distilleries built in Ireland compared to the 30 built in Scotland. Scottish whisky distilling has therefore increased by around 25% whilst Irish distilling has grown by 1,300%.

This means the Irish whiskey sector is proportionally younger, more independent and more craft focused than Scotch. These newer, smaller companies are creating a wide variety of whiskies in interesting ways. New distilleries are generally privately owned and driven by a founder’s vision and single-minded energy, allowing them to take risks in the way that older, corporately owned businesses won’t.

Whisky-making is a very energy-intensive process, but new distilleries don’t have millions tied up in old equipment the way legacy distillers do, so they can plan their entire process to be logical, efficient and green.

Irish whiskey
The Ahascragh Distillery in Co Galway - the the first to use a heat pump

A ground-breaking new method of green distilling is up and running at Ahascragh in Co Galway, where Gareth and Michelle McAllister have built the first distillery to use a heat pump. The first heat pump is yet to be used in Scottish distilling.

Over the last decade there has been a drive within the industry to distil in environmentally responsible ways, with a duty to meet government targets for decarbonisation. This is an opportunity for the newer Irish producers to ease ahead of their Scottish counterparts, and the Irish Whisky Association has encouraged this with a sustainability roadmap.

Irish whiskey is advancing fast on the Scotch whisky industry and, as the huge branded and well organised Ireland stand at the drinks industry’s largest trade show ProWein shows, it’s well organised and working hard to reduce Scotch’s share of the premium market. Having just sold the world’s most expensive bottle of whisky Ireland is clearly a force to reckon with.

Both countries have a tremendously welcoming character which are easily translated into their brands, and perfect for the visitor side of the business. Communities benefit from their international sales and reputation.

Irish whiskey
Gareth Roberts

Both trade on tradition and prestige, characteristics that Scotch has led until recently. But with time and good stewardship Irish whiskey can only grow. Scottish distillers take the young Irish industry for granted at their peril.

With Scotch’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2040 looking harder to achieve, consumers will develop a greater awareness of the environmental impact of their favourite brands and may switch their allegiance to a young, fresh industry which has built in sustainability from the start.

  • Gareth Roberts is founder of Organic Architects, which has just secured approval for a new distillery in Limavady, where the origins of whiskey distilling can be traced back to 1750.