Spirits: Irish whiskey is going 'through the roof'

John L. Sullivan, one of the country's great bare-knuckle fighters and first gloved boxing champions, was a pugilist second and a drunk first. When the man known as the "Boston Strong Boy" wasn't pummeling ring foes with his cinder-block fists, he was tossing back tumblers of booze at unnatural rates (he later swore off drinking, even becoming a temperance advocate, but by then the damage to his liver was done). In case you were wondering, he boxed once and only once in Pittsburgh, at the North Side's old Recreation Park stadium, whipping a tomato can named Frank Herald in a few rounds in the waning summer of 1886.

The only thing the Irish appreciate more than a renowned brawler or a renowned imbiber is someone renowned for both, so of course, there now is an Irish whiskey named after Sullivan — a distinction that is becoming somewhat less distinct by the year. Ten years ago, you could have counted on one hand the number of Irish browns that were reliably available — Jameson, Bushmills, Tullamore Dew and a couple of higher-end products such as Redbreast. Today, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board carries the above-mentioned, plus Clontarf, Concannon, Connemara, Cu Chulainn — and those are just the ones that begin with the letter C. More labels are in the pipeline.

What happened?

"Irish is just going through the roof," said David Wondrich, the Brooklyn-based and Squirrel Hill-born spirits writer and cocktail historian. "They're getting a lot of 20-somethings and turning them into whiskey drinkers," at the expense of vodka and other distilled spirits, as well as beer, whose sales volume has been flat for years.

Irish whiskey sales grew by nearly 18 percent in 2013 and 23 percent the year before that. Since 2002, sales are up more than 400 percent. Supply is up. Demand is up. It's a happy convergence, particularly for those making and selling the whiskey.

The convergence has been decades in the making. For much of the 20th century, Irish whiskey was in decline. Various Irish uprisings against John Bull cost distillers the British markets. World wars, depressions, and American Prohibition killed off much of Irish whiskey's overseas audience. They "couldn't ship whiskey anywhere," Mr. Wondrich said. "Ireland is a small country. If they couldn't export it, there just weren't enough people to drink it all, try as they might -- and Lord knows some of them did."

By the 1960s, dozens of distilleries had been shuttered, and those that survived were, by 1972, all consolidated under one umbrella: Irish Distillers Ltd. The Bushmills distillery campus continued to produce in Northern Ireland, and in 1975, Irish Distillers moved the balance of its product line to a newly opened plant in Midleton, County Cork, alongside the existing Old Midleton stills.

As Mr. Wondrich explains in his recently published primer: "Bushmills made malt whiskey, distilled thrice in old-school pot stills from 100 percent malted barley and sold mostly under its own name. Midleton made two kinds of whiskey: pure pot-still whiskey, a uniquely Irish type made by distilling malted and unmalted barley together three times in huge, old-fashioned copper stills, and grain whiskey, a light-bodied product made in modern column stills and used for blending."

For two decades, the market was stagnant. But in 1988, Pernod Ricard bought Irish Distillers, and began pushing Jameson, arguably the smoothest of its products, as a bridge between sweeter, paler spirits and bolder, more medicinal Scotches. It worked — Jameson sales have exploded. The distillery was able to meet demand because, Mr. Wondrich said, it had the great foresight to "lay down all this extra whiskey," aging it in the hope that international demand would pick up.

It did. Over the same period, Cooley Distillery boot-strapped itself into existence, converting an old potato-schnapps plant into a whiskey distillery in 1985. Cooley, like Irish Distillers, began pumping out whiskey and putting it into barrels, waiting for the day when there might be a market. Cooley is responsible for the newcomer brands (Michael Collins, Greenore, Connemara, Kilbeggan and others), and also owns the historic Kilbeggan distillery.

In 2005, Pernod spun its Bushmills distillery to spirits giant Diageo. And Cooley now is owned by Jim Beam (which itself has a sales agreement with Japan's Suntory Holdings), meaning all three major whiskey-makers in Ireland are owned by foreign firms.

But while there no longer are any big independent distillers on the Emerald Isle, a new generation of micro-distillers is investing in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. Belfast city is set to open a distillery for the first time in 75 years, in a former jailhouse. Dingle Distillery, in southwest Ireland, opened in 2012 and hopes to have enough aged product on hand to begin selling in 2018. The Teeling Whiskey Co. announced this January its plans to build a distillery in Dublin, the city's first new distillery in more than a century. Other operations are being built or planned.

"We used to just sell Jameson, Powers and Bushmills" as recently as six years ago, said David Regan, owner of Mullaney's Harp and Fiddle in the Strip District. "Now we have 25 selections," from the standard bar shots to Jameson Gold Reserve. High-end Irish whiskeys can run $35 for a pour on ice.

Ireland still has a way to go before it meets Scotland's infrastructure (more than 160 distilleries) and output, but the new generation of stills gives Mr. Wondrich hope for new and interesting batches of Irish whiskey.

"Now there are more players in the game," he said. "I think we'll see more traditional types, older brands, styles that they haven't made in a while."

These Irish whiskey brands are now available -- in various iterations, sizes, ages and flavors -- through the PLCB: 2 Gingers, Bushmills, Clontarf, Concannon, Connemara, Cu Chulainn, Danny Boy, Greenore, Irish Manor, Jameson, John L. Sullivan, John Power, Kellan, Kilbeggan, Knappogue Castle, Michael Collins, Midleton Rare, Paddy's, Redbreast, Irishman, Wild Geese, Tullamore Dew, and Tyrconell.


In other news:

• There's a liquor license transfer pending for 1500 East Carson St., home to Elixir Ultra Lounge for nearly a decade. The new bar is going by the trade name of The Flats on Carson, according to PLCB records.

The S Bar, two blocks away, is also changing hands; the new ownership group, which also runs Casey's Draft House in the South Side, calls the new place Devils and Dolls.

On Mount Washington, the venerable Mario's chain (first in the South Side, then in Shadyside) has designs on the property at 10 Virginia Ave., a former gas station that most recently was a tobacco shop. The neighborhood has been clamoring for a bar or restaurant investor to remake that property for years; Mario's III, with a rooftop deck, could open by the end of this year.

In the Strip District, a club license is pending for the Service Industry Social Club at 2016 Smallman St.

• Releases: Wigle Whiskey's aged rye will be listed through Western and Central Pennsylvania state stores this month. It goes for $45 for a 750-milliliter bottle. Coming soon: an aged gin (April 3), aged wheat whiskey with cherry and maple finishes, two more bitters, and two single-batch releases -- a barley whiskey and a "mocha porter" whiskey based on beer-mash ingredients.

Over at Maggie's Farm, spiced rum should be available in a few weeks, once bottle labels are approved and printed. Also on its way is a reserve spirit, cut from the tail of each rum distillation run, to be called "The Queen's Share." The products will be finished in variety of barrels and will be sold over-proof, at cask strength -- which is to say, 125 proof.

• Opening: next month, CJ Spirits, a "grain to glass" craft distillery in Kane, McKean County, just outside of Allegheny National Forest. Owners Sam Cummings, Jr. and Tom Jones will be producing vodka, gin and white whiskey in their 300-gallon still.

Visit cjspirits.com for details.

Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625 and on Twitter @btoland_pg. Read more at post-gazette.com/food.


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