Green beer and shots of forgettable whiskey just don’t cut it anymore for celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. As the American market for brown spirits has continued to change, and as more consumers are focusing on high-quality whiskies, it was perhaps inevitable that the business of this particular holiday would be impacted.
Laphroaig and other super-premium whiskies appear to be benefiting. “Outside of the Q4 holiday season, March is one of the biggest sales months for Laphroaig,” says Simon Brooking, North American “ambassador” for the scotch brand, by email. “In addition to the month’s generally cooler temperatures when consumers lean toward scotch, [this] is likely influenced by some consumers celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with something other than the traditional Irish whiskies.”
Consumers, of course, haven’t slowed down their purchasing of Irish whiskies, on St. Patrick’s Day or any other day. That particular category, in fact, has experienced explosive growth: According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), Irish whiskey sales across price categories grew by 641.5% between 2002 and 2015. During the same time period, super-premium Irish whiskies saw a mind-boggling 3054.2% increase in sales.
“As consumers become more sophisticated and comfortable with the Irish whiskey category they will inevitably become curious about exploring higher end offerings,” noted Darryl McNally, Master Distiller for The Dubliner Irish Whiskey, in an email. “It’s no secret that Irish Whiskey is the fastest growing spirit category in the U.S., so we expect the acceptance of Irish whiskey on a high price point to continue to grow as the consumer base expands.” The Dubliner just released a 10-year-old whiskey on the American market, which should tap into that desire for pricier Irish whiskies.
The increasing consumer focus on high-end whiskies from around the world has meant a shift in what people pour to mark holidays like this one, and the benefits are felt across national and stylistic borders.
Bourbon, for example, benefits too. “It’s definitely a popular holiday for whisk(e)y—Irish and otherwise,” wrote Rob Samuels, Maker’s Mark COO and 8th Generation Whisky Maker, in an email. With a family that imbedded in the American spirits business, he speaks with a unique well of experience. “When my grandparents, Bill Sr. and Marge Samuels, founded Maker’s Mark in the 1950s, bourbon was a commodity spirit,” he added. “Before Maker’s Mark, the whisky my family produced for [hundreds] of years was harsh, bitter, and really just awful; the American consumer wanted something delicious and it was with that notion my grandparents sought to create a bourbon that was softer, approachable, and flavorful. While folks who tried it loved it, it’s only in recent years that the bourbon boom really propelled bourbon consumption.”
It’s a testament to that boom that even on a holiday like St. Patrick’s Day, bourbon is able to market itself as an appropriate drink to mark the occasion—Maker’s Mark even developed a special green cocktail for the holiday, the Maker’s Mark Bourbon Tarragon Cooler, which, he explained, derives a vivid green color from tarragon and serrano pepper.
St. Patrick’s Day, for all its focus on holiday-themed cocktails, provides a telling lens through which to understand the category as a whole—no matter where the whiskey or whisky is produced. From country to country, one of the through-lines that success is often built upon is the authenticity of the various whiskies. Carl Reavey of Bruichladdich Distillery told me in an email that “we are finding that our clients are increasingly engaging with the principles of authenticity, provenance, and traceability that underpin what we do.” In other words, the same focus that consumers are training on their food is being brought to bear on what they drink, too. “Clients are seeking more authentic, distinctive brands with interesting stories. Bruichladdich has a rich and unique heritage as well as an ultra premium product offering.
Laphroaig’s Brooking agrees: “In the short-term, we think you will continue to see a rise of premium and super premium whisky offerings as these expressions are driving the strongest growth across spirits. More and more often, we see consumers ‘trading up,’ whether it’s within the portfolio of a brand they already know and love, or seeking to discover something new. Super-premium whiskies that have rich heritage and authentic stories, such as Laphroaig, are particularly attractive to consumers, as are limited-time offerings that lend themselves to collecting.”
There is also an increasing focus on either new or novel expressions from classic brands or whiskies from places that consumers might not ordinarily be familiar with. [Note: Recommendations are based on products I either received as samples for review, purchased at retail for my own home bar, or tasted on media trips. All are included because I recommend them on their own merits, regardless of source.]
Jim Beam released the Double Oak ($22.99) bottling late last year, and it’s become a go-to in my house—a pleasant sipper on its own and an spicy, oak-forward base for cocktails. Maker’s Mark 46 (approx. $40) also amps up the oak for added complexity. Wyoming Whiskey offers an excellent range of bottlings, including the standout Double Cask Straight Bourbon ($59.99), which is finished in Sherry casks and speaks of stone fruit and warm honey. From Portland, Bull Run Distillery’s Oregon Single Malt Whiskey (approx. $50), with its notes of charred orange peel, multigrain bread, and spice, embodies much of what makes the Oregon craft whiskey movement so exciting.
In addition to the remarkable Islay single malts from Laphroaig (if you find a bottle of their 30 Year, snap it up immediately) and Bruichladdich (their excellent Islay Barley (approx. $60) is unpeated, which may surprise some Islay fans; the layered Port Charlotte (approx. $60), by contrast, delivers the full range of peaty goods), I’d seek out Glenmorangie’s new Bacalta Private Edition ($99.99), a sweet-souled, fig- and nougat-kissed Highland whisky aged in baked Malmsey Madeira casks. The Nikka Coffey Malt (approx. $60), from Japan, is haunting—elegant with sweet summer stone fruit, caramel, and coffee on the finish.
Whatever you drink for the holiday, St. Patrick’s Day is a perfect opportunity to expand your whiskey and whisky drinking with bottlings from all over the world.