With St. Patrick’s Day quickly approaching, hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the latest trends in Irish whiskey on this episode of the “VinePair Podcast.”
Can the latest expressions of the Irish spirit compete with the United States’ booming whiskey and bourbon market? And who is the category’s intended audience? To get to the bottom of this, your hosts taste Jameson, the category’s leading and most popular brand.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.”
J: The Friday edition.
A: Zach, how are you doing, man?
Z: I don’t want to talk about me right now. How was Charleston? I want all the details.
A: Charleston was good. It feels like a world away at this point. But it was good. It was really fun.
J: I’m still pretty tired, though.
A: Oh, I’m tired. It was a lot.
J: We drank a lot.
A: There’s a lot of stuff going on at those festivals. Food festivals are really booze festivals, let’s be clear. But there’s never enough food. Or, the lines are 1,000 people deep. You’re like, “Oh, I’m not going to wait in that line, but hey, the beer line has two people in it.” There’s just never enough food at food festivals, ever. It doesn’t matter if you’re at a bespoke tiny event that’s part of the food festival, you’re at the grand tasting, or you’re even at a signature dinner. It just never seems like there’s enough food, but the alcohol is always flowing. I don’t know if that’s something that can be fixed. It’s not an issue of one festival; it’s all festivals.
J: You’re paying for a ticket, right? It’s got to be worthwhile. And I feel like alcohol is an easy way to do that.
A: I also think that, with these festivals, a lot of the chefs become very precious. Which they should. We were interviewing Michael Shemtov who owns the James Beard-nominated Butcher & Bee. He was saying that at the events they took part in, they were really particular that everything must be served as it comes out, because they want to be hot. So they’re not preparing anything ahead of time, which means it takes longer, which means the line gets longer, which means there’s not enough food. You’re waiting for that one bite, because they think you’re judging them and their restaurant on that one bite. You may be someone who never went to any of his restaurants before. If this is good or sucks, then the restaurant must be good or sucks. I think that makes all of this really hard. What you have to do is, when you think of a food festival, take the kind of service you’re used to and the food you’re used to at a wedding, and then expand out times 1,000.
Z: Even worse than a wedding setting is, you also run into this issue I’ve experienced at food festivals that I’ve been to where so many of the restaurants and chefs are trying to make an impression with really flavorful, fatty, high-intensity dishes. Even if it’s just a little bite, everything is just so rich and so heavy. You are hungry and disgustingly full at the same time, which is not a great feeling.
A: The largest lines are people waiting for the meat, always. You kind of crush it if you are the stand that does the vegetarian or vegan stuff, which Butcher & Bee actually does. That’s what they do, which I thought was cool.
J: To be clear, it was very fun. It was a great festival.
A: It’s a great festival; we’ll take part in it again next year.
J: They’re just hard to do.
A: They’re hard to do. They’re one of the best ones in the country. They pull it off really well. But it’s just the nature of it. So, this coming week kicks off spring drinking. It’s St. Patty’s Day.
Z: We’re talking green beer — no.
A: Rivers are dyed greens in parts of America, lots of Guinness. My goodness, my Guinness. I think Guinness is great beer, by the way. I know we’re not talking about that today, but what a great beer.
J: We should be talking about that.
A: I saw someone on TikTok like showing how to pour a perfect pint, and they showed themselves pouring it out. You don’t know how to appreciate nice things, because Guiness is a good beer. It’s a really good beer. Anyways, look, St. Patrick’s Day is not Cinco de Mayo. Cinco de Mayo is a big drinking holiday in the spring. It’s tequila’s time. But St. Patrick’s Day is a really fun holiday, a lot of people take part in it. I will never forget one of my best St. Patrick’s Day memories of all time in NYC. Do you guys want to hear it?
J: Of course.
Z: Of course.
A: We were in Hell’s Kitchen. I think Keith knows this story. Naomi was living there at the time, and one of our really good friends, Dion, was with us as well. And we went to this random Irish pub because we couldn’t figure out where to go. We got to go somewhere that feels like it’s an Irish pub, so we’re going to go to some random Irish pub. We went to this random Irish pub that was off of Times Square. It was really crowded and we were in this small, tiny side room, and in walks these two huge bodyguards. Walking in behind them, in a green dress looking stunning, is Mariah Carey. She has a seat in the booth with her bodyguards and her friend, and they’re drinking pints. And I’m like, “Oh my God.” I guess she decided she wanted to go out as well. And for some reason it was at this bar. Dion, being who he is, which is a hilarious human being, was like, “Oh my God, I see a jukebox over there.” He gets up and goes to the jukebox, puts in a song and he comes back, and he’s just giggling. What the f*ck did he do? He goes, “You’ll see, I’m song No. 3.” The song is coming through. We’re hanging out. Then all of a sudden he jumps up and screams at the top of his lungs as “All I Want For Christmas Is You” comes on, “This is for you, Mariah!” Then the entire bar realizes she’s there, because no one else is realizing she’s there. It’s absolutely insane. And her bodyguard gets up and unplugs the jukebox.
J: He totally blew up her spot.
Z: I thought you were going to get a live performance.
A: It was probably the best St. Patrick’s Day ever. But St. Patrick’s Day also helps to focus our energies on Irish whiskey, which is booming recently. What are both of your takes on Irish whiskey? Are you Irish whiskey drinkers?
J: Not really. I can’t really remember the last time I had Irish whiskey. It’s definitely not something I look for. I know from articles on our website that it is growing quite rapidly. A lot of people think that it’s chasing Scotch or whatever.
A: The next Scotch.
J: The next Scotch. So I think that’s really fascinating, which is why I thought we could talk about it today, because some people here have predicted Irish whiskey as a big trend for this year.
A: Who is that person?
Z: Yes, let’s go back in time to the distant days of December 2021. A young Zach Geballe predicted it on this podcast.
A: With just a little more hair.
Z: I was younger, to be fair; it was before my birthday. I predicted a big year in 2022 for Irish whiskey, which is so far coming true as far as we can tell. That’s on the back of a pretty strong 2021. I don’t want to just repeat what I said then, although I’ll paraphrase quickly. To your question, Adam, I do actually drink a decent amount of Irish whiskey. I’ve always found it to be a category that I enjoy — not specifically Jameson or Bushmills or the more well-known and widely distributed Irish whiskeys. Since I was first introduced, I’ve been a fan of what goes on in Teeling, which is a distillery in Dublin. Green Spot is another distillery that I like quite a lot. What I like about the category and the style is, and I think this maybe plays into some of its appeal, that it definitely shares some DNA with Scotch, with single malt whiskey from Scotland and maybe single malt from the world over. There are Irish single malts that you can go out and find, some which are really cool. In the blended category in particular, I think what’s interesting about it is, it doesn’t have a flavor profile that is as easy to define as bourbon or even Canadian whisky or ryes. But it does have that delightful touch of sweetness. In Irish whiskeys in Ireland, you see a lot of use of casks in the way that Scotland uses them. They use mixed- use casks, some that are new, some that are old, without some of the same restrictions. Irish whiskey is not as bound to a specific style in the way that Scotch is. In terms of its rule set, it’s just not quite as restrictive. In our modern landscape, there are pluses and minuses to that. Scotland and Scotch have, in some ways, a defined style to fall back on. There are any number of different kinds of expressions of single malt that you can find in Scotland, depending on where in Scotland the barley comes from, where the distillery is, the size of the stills, the water, etc. There are all these different things. An Irish whiskey has some of those components, though it doesn’t always emphasize some of them. But what it does have is this kind of very northerly climate, general cool growing conditions, and distillery conditions, I guess you would say, like aging conditions. It’s a spirit that is in some ways more delicate than a lot of Scotch, but is also very clearly not something that you see produced very often in the U.S. That’s a little bit broad, I apologize. But I do think that there’s something about its balance and its lightness that I find particularly appealing.
A: It’s a shooting whiskey. That’s why I think it’s growing. And that’s what the data shows.
J: That’s what I wanted to ask, though. Irish whiskey has an uphill battle with regard to prestige. It needs a bit of rebranding.
A: Yes. We’ve done this story multiple times on the site. I’ve done a deeply reported story on it. Tim has done it in the past. What always gets uncovered is that, yes, Irish whiskey is growing as a broad category, but the growth driver continues to be Jameson and Jameson clones. Proper 12 is a Jameson clone, right? It is a shooting whiskey.
A: Exactly. Shots have made Jameson incredibly powerful. There’s other brands that have tried to copy that. Some are being a little bit successful, like I said, Proper 12. Especially if you have an awareness of Conor McGregor and things like that. But if you don’t, then Jameson is still the whiskey. And I don’t see Jameson pushing their high-end whiskeys on the American market that often, especially through marketing dollars. They’re around and they own the digital airwaves during the month of March. It’s them and Guinness; that’s what people think Irish is. It’s really, really interesting.
J: I can’t remember which article I was reading, but it said that newer brands are aiming for premium. The newer Irish whiskey brands are aiming for premium and above to change the perception of the category, and I think that’s very interesting.
A: I think they’re aiming for premium for a few reasons. The biggest one is because that’s where the white space is. It’s almost impossible to go against a brand that is this entrenched and has that many dollars. It’s like saying, “Hey, I’m going to create the next great light beer that’s going to be a higher-selling Bud Light.” It’s just not going to happen at this point. They have such a large marketing muscle, such large brand awareness, that’s not where the opportunity is. The opportunity was with seltzer, and that’s exactly what Mark Anthony Brands did. They jumped in and saw that AB InBev was f*cking up their hard seltzer brand, to be honest. They saw that there’s potential for this same demographic of people, just a younger age group, to show them something different. The question is going to be, are we able to convince the next generation? There’s always going to be a generation that wants easy-drinking whiskey. But do they want higher-end, easy- drinking whiskey? Is it going to be convincing? I’m not sure you’re ever going to transition someone who’s already currently a high-end Scotch drinker to say they should also be collecting high-end, expensive Irish whiskey.
J: Yeah, I was thinking that as well.
Z: This came up when we discussed this in the predictions episode a few months ago. We are entrenched in this world now where if you are someone who maybe wasn’t an absolute top-of-the-market Scotch collector, but was someone for whom Scotch was a big part of their drinking life, they’ve seen the prices. Not that these were ever super affordable, but Macallan 12 is really jumping up there on price, to say nothing of any older expressions of Macallan. Pick whatever, Talisker or Oban, all of these good, but not crazy expensive, Scotches have dramatically increased in price over the last decade. Not as dramatically as the very top of the market, but they’ve still increased a lot. Or, you’re seeing distilleries put out older expressions with lower statements or no statements because they just don’t have the older product on hand. To an American collector or an American drinker in particular, Ireland might not carry the same reputation for absolute quality that Scotland does. Again, for a lot of people, Irish whiskey is synonymous with — as you’ve said, Adam — Jameson or maybe with Bushmills or Redbreast or a few other brands. The point is, it’s mostly thought of in those categories, but it’s still thought of as a whiskey country. We associate whiskey with Ireland very strongly, and rightly so. The notion that there are quality distilleries there and people making premium product is, I think, not as hard a sell. Frankly, in talking to some people who are in the distilling industry in the United States outside of Kentucky, it can be a hard sell to convince people that American distilleries are producing products on par with the British Isles. I think that there is an opportunity for Ireland there and for Irish distilleries. We’re in this place, too, where we are still just figuring out in some ways what this increased interest in spirits among millennials and Gen Z drinkers is going to mean for these categories long term. Some of what you’re saying is probably true, Adam. But what happens to someone who is exposed to Jameson or Irish whiskey as a shooting whiskey when they’re 21 to 25? When they reach 30, which is maybe this year, or maybe four years from now, etc., their drinking habits change somewhat but their category preferences don’t. Being in that space already, having established yourself as either a higher-end version of some of those products or a higher-end competitor, is a valuable place to be in. That’s where we are seeing some of this growth. It’s not necessarily with the 65-year-old Scotch drinker. It’s with the 30-year-old drinker who has always liked Irish whiskey and says, “You know what? Well, maybe this time I want a $50 bottle instead of a $20 bottle.”
A: I think that that’s where the possibility exists. The issue is, it’s going to take a decade and it’s going to take investment. With the premiumization of the Irish whiskey category also has to come the prestige that you get from drinking that premium product.
J: It’s a branding thing.
A: We’ve talked about this. People are not drinking The Macallan because it’s their favorite Scotch. The Macallan says you’re successful, you’ve achieved things, you’re moving forward in your life. That great consulting gig you’ve gotten is part and parcel with drinking Macallan. What are those brands going to be, the Irish whiskeys? Is it going to be Yellow Spot or Green Spot? Maybe. Is it going to be Kilbeggan or some of these other Irish whiskeys that are trying really hard to be seen as super high-end? Potentially, but that takes a decade to reinforce. I do think it could be this decade. It could be these people, this young cohort that is really into Irish whiskey that is starting to spend more money. Maybe it’s marketing to them. But again, this keeps coming back to these conversations we have where it’s paying attention to them. It is saying, “Yeah, we’re not going to focus at all on the people that already have chosen their whiskeys of choice.” It’s not going to be them. It can’t be them.
J: We mentioned Proper 12 and Conor McGregor, that’s his brand. Or it was his brand, I suppose. Maybe it will take more celebrities coming to the category to draw people to it and to feel like it has that kind of clout. To say, “I drink Irish whiskey and that’s what Conor McGregor drinks.”
Z: Mariah Carey, there’s an opportunity for you.
J: Doesn’t she have an Irish cream or something?
A: She does. All you have to do is look at the demographics of UFC fighters. The people who watched UFC are young men. It’s young Gen Z and millennial men that watch this stuff.
J: So if you’re shooting Jameson, then maybe the next Irish whiskey you’re going to drink is Conor McGregor’s Irish whiskey.
A: Then maybe the next thing from there is another high-end thing that’s brought to this group of young men. That’s an easy way in. But enough about Irish whiskey. Let’s drink some of it.
J: More about Irish whiskey.
A: Enough about the business side of Irish whiskey, because it is almost St. Patrick’s Day. So we have a bottle of Jamo here. Do you have a bottle of Jamo there?
Z: I do.
A: Any special one? Or do you have the traditional Jameson?
Z: I got the traditional bottle.
A: Triple distilled; the classic. When was the last time you guys have had this?
J: I don’t know.
Z: It was definitely one of my last service shifts in a restaurant. Jameson was always one of the kitchen favorites, maybe unsurprisingly. There was definitely a round Jameson after one late pre-shift drink onslaught of the pandemic shift. It’s been two years now, I guess.
J: Why did Jameson take off the way it did?
A: The flavor profile is really accessible. There is a very large population in the U.S. of Irish-Americans. There have been a lot of studies written about this, there’s an amazing proliferation in the U.S. of Irish pubs that feel like you’re in Ireland. There’s a whole article we have on the site, if you’re curious, about the family in Ireland that actually manufactured that around the world. They figured out how to design these pubs and then basically bring them everywhere around the world and make everything feel the same, which is really crazy. You have those, and then as I was saying earlier, you have their amazing dedication to the bar community and especially to neighborhood bars. I’m sure part of their strategy for this is to be in a cocktail. But that is not needed. It is the support for the neighborhood bartender.
Z: Another piece to that is, it’s always come across as very unpretentious as a spirit. For people who are frequenting neighborhood bars, dive bars, who work in the food and beverage trade — especially in kitchens, but in front of house as well — there’s a lot of appeal to a spirit that is well made and easy to drink. It’s a badge of “I’m not fussy.” As we talked about before with the realities of dive bars, spirits where you can trust the bottle and you don’t need the bartender to do any more than pour in the glass are always going to do well in those settings. You’re not going to order a mixed drink very often or certainly a cocktail in that kind of setting. The thing is, Jameson has been affordable. It’s been relatively affordable compared to most other whiskeys on the market that aren’t your well whiskey. It’s a recognizable brand, but it doesn’t come at the same price tag as even a relatively lower-end bourbon would.
A: The profile of this is so interesting.
J: I don’t think I’ve smelled Jameson this long ever in my life.
A: I’ve always been handed it in a tiny shot glass. It’s really sweet. It smells like sweet cereal and honey. There’s very little burn.
Z: That’s what triple distillation does for you.
A: Joanna aerated it a little bit there.
J: No, it’s good. It’s easy to drink.
A: It’s 80 proof; it’s 40 percent alcohol. It doesn’t have that barrel-proof burn that all these bourbons have. It’s an easy shooting whiskey. You can have a few shots of it while you drink some beers with your friends. That’s why people like it. It’s amazing that as much as whiskey is moving toward premium, there still is this huge market for whiskey like this. I would argue on the bourbon side, too, where people want the whiskeys that they can pour over ice and shoot straight. Jameson does a great job.
J: I feel like every generation passes through Jameson, and then many just don’t let it go.
A: Or they come back to it with certain occasions like birthday parties — Jamo shots. Hot take, Zach. Let’s go.
Z: Despite our discussion earlier about the close association for St. Patrick’s Day with both Jameson and Guinness, I don’t think they go very well together.
J: I don’t think people do a shot and a beer with those two things.
Z: I think a lot of people do. A lot of people who don’t drink either regularly will absolutely on St. Patrick’s Day. They’ll order both and not regret it, because they’re both good. Jameson pairs better with a lighter beer. I don’t think it goes super well with Guinness, which is delicious for sure. But it’s not a pairing I particularly care for.
A: Are you more of a Baileys and Guinness guy?
Z: I mean, if you’re going to do it, you should do it that way. That’s my opinion. Or drink Jameson and another Irish beer.
A: Jameson goes really well with IPAs and craft lagers. They’ve had a lot of really great partnerships with craft breweries. The majority of the time that I’m out in New York City and I see people drinking Jameson with beer, it’s not Guinness. It’s something else. But on St. Patrick’s Day, it’s different. But who goes out on Cinco de Mayo and goes, “I’m really in the mood for an Old Fashioned?” Everyone gets a Margarita and tequila. That’s what people do, because Americans are basic.
Z: There’s the real hot take. Saving it for the very end.
A: Come on, we know that.
Z: I mean, you just put the whole country on blast. Sure, sounds good.
A: But I hope you guys both have an amazing weekend. Cheers to St. Patrick’s Day, and I’ll see you on Monday.
J: Talk to you on Monday.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.