Irish whiskey is often associated with St. Patrick’s Day, but the category’s soaring growth over the past two decades — surpassing that of many other spirits — demonstrates its year-round consumer appeal. Retailers should expect more discovery within the category, with more customers embracing Irish whiskey as a standalone beverage and cocktail ingredient while exploring new brands and styles.

Among the Fastest-Growing Spirits

After the number of Irish distilleries dwindled to only two by the mid-1970s, the Irish whiskey category — which includes all whiskey produced in Ireland — made a comeback in the 1990s, becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing spirits. This has only accelerated over the past decade or so; between 2010 and 2020, global sales of Irish whiskey grew from five million to 12 million cases, according to Drinks Ireland, with the U.S. as the category’s largest export market. 

Following a four percent dip in global sales in 2020, due primarily to the collapse of travel retail sales, the category made a strong rebound in 2021, marking a new all-time high for global Irish whiskey sales.

In 2021, Irish whiskey accounted for an 8.5 percent share of total whiskey category sales on Drizly. This is down slightly from 8.8 percent the year prior, but it is in line with Irish whiskey’s 8.5 percent pre-pandemic share in 2019. The category currently holds 3.1 percent of the total liquor category on Drizly compared to 3.3 percent in 2020.

NielsenIQ data for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 29, 2022 show a six percent year-over-year decrease in off-premise dollar sales. However, the category’s sales increased by an impressive 21 percent compared to the same period in 2020. The single-malt category, on the other hand, is on the rise; dollar sales grew seven percent in the year ending Jan. 29, 2022 and jumped 43 percent compared to 2020. 

Though the Covid-19 pandemic presented challenges for Irish whiskey brands as bars shuttered, consumer familiarity with the category drove continued growth for some brands. Pernod Ricard’s full-year report released in September 2021 reveals that top-selling Irish whiskey brand Jameson saw 15 percent growth in the U.S. market, fueled by at-home consumption and the reopening of on-premise venues.

As Irish whiskey has gained popularity over the past decade, it has moved beyond its reputation as a St. Patrick’s Day staple, or a go-to choice for shots. More consumers are adding Irish whiskeys to bar carts, exploring new styles and flavors, and mixing it into cocktails.

“Whereas consumers at one time may have had preconceptions about Irish whiskey, such as flavor or specific occasions, we’re seeing its popularity continue to grow,” says Andrew Eis, the Jameson engagement director at Pernod Ricard USA. “This interest has accelerated innovation, which is great news for the category as a whole.”

New Entrants and Category Innovation

The Irish whiskey category has no shortage of well-known brands, many of which have topped Drizly’s best-selling Irish whiskey SKUs list for years. However, the number of distilleries in Ireland has grown from just four in 2010 to 39 in 2021, with new entrants adding more variety and discovery to the category.

“In the coming years, retailers can expect new brands beyond the traditional big players to gain traction, particularly around occasions like St. Patrick’s Day,” says Liz Paquette, Drizly’s head of consumer insights. Retailers should consider carrying a combination of new brands and trusted favorites in order to optimize sales within the category.

Drizly’s Fastest-Growing Irish Whiskey Brands, 2021

  • Clonakilty
  • The Busker
  • Wolfhound
  • Prizefight
  • Hinch Distillery

Drizly’s Fastest-Growing Irish Whiskey SKUs, 2021

  1. Jameson Irish Whiskey with Ginger Beer Pack
  2. Clonakilty Port Finished Irish Whiskey
  3. The Busker Triple Cask Irish Whiskey
  4. Jameson Buccaneers Party Pack
  5. The Busker Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey

“Now is an exciting time for Irish whiskey as a category and there are tremendous options across all price points,” says Eis, suggesting that retailers find ways to market the category’s versatility for both sipping neat and blending into cocktails. More consumers have become aware of single-malt and age-indicated Irish whiskeys, recognizing parallels with Scotch.

Irish whiskey has also seen innovation in recent years, with producers entering the ready-to-drink (RTD) market with products like Jameson Cold Brew, launched in early 2020. “[It] has not only been very well-received but has also helped bring new consumers,” says Eis. “It’s a clear indicator of the diverse palates of the Irish whiskey consumer.”

Drizly’s Best-Selling Irish Whiskey Brands, 2021

  1. Jameson
  2. Redbreast
  3. Tullamore Dew
  4. Proper Twelve
  5. Bushmills
  6. Green Spot
  7. Midleton
  8. Teeling
  9. Yellow Spot
  10. Powers

Jameson held the No. 1 position for the second consecutive year, while Redbreast moved into the No. 2 spot in 2021, replacing Tullamore Dew. Additionally, Proper Twelve moved up from No. 5 to No. 4, replacing Bushmills.

The average unit price for Irish whiskey in 2021 reached $35.80, up nine percent from 2019 and two percent over 2020. 

Broad Consumer Appeal

The age breakdown of Irish whiskey buyers on Drizly is largely consistent with the platform’s overall sales breakdown by age, with the largest proportion of buyers in the 35 to 41 age range.

“This suggests that the category appeals broadly across age groups,” says Paquette.

Eis agrees, noting that many newcomers are now discovering Irish whiskey. “The whiskey category has continued to benefit from consumers, particularly millennials, looking for an elevated, higher-quality drink,” he says. Irish whiskey also has a long history of triple distillation, creating a smooth, crowd-pleasing style.

Markets that over-index on Irish whiskey sales on Drizly include Denver, Dallas, Austin, Phoenix, and Seattle. 

Immediate and Future Growth

In the immediate future, retailers should expect Irish whiskey to drive sales over St. Patrick’s Day. Though parades are set to return in cities such as Boston and Chicago after cancellations in 2021, some Covid restrictions will likely persist and last-minute changes may occur if a new virus variant emerges in the coming weeks. “It will likely be similar to last year,” says Paquette, “with the return of some on-premise events but with many consumers continuing with at-home celebrations.”

Retailers should also prepare for the category’s longer-term growth, particularly as innovative new products, in addition to premium brands and SKUs, draw in new consumers. “Along with the continued growth, Irish whiskey is a category with tremendous versatility that many consumers are starting to better realize as they mix more drinks at home,” says Eis.

As more consumers understand the breadth of the category and embrace it across a variety of occasions, Irish whiskey’s trajectory is poised to continue upward.