Gin is quintessentially British, but there’s a gin craze that has been taking over the Emerald Isle in the last few years. Although Ireland is known for its whiskey, gin has been produced there for centuries, dating back to 1793 when Cork dry gin was first launched. Yet many distilleries were only producing gin as a stopgap while they waited for their whiskey to mature.
These days, there’s a slew of new brands and gin distilleries on the market. Gin is the fastest-growing spirit among Irish consumers. Exports to the U.S., the U.K. and Germany have increased in the last couple of years. According to ABFI, there are now more than 50 brands in the country, with 12 new brands introduced in 2018. It’s so popular there’s a curated gin trail in Castlebar in County Mayo, allowing gin lovers to taste the latest products on the market.
The rise of Irish gin can be attributed to several factors, including a new breed of distillers who are experimenting to create unique products. Galway, on the west coast of the island, distills its gin with dillisk, a type of seaweed native to the area.
Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish gin, made with Asian botanicals and gunpowder tea, is the most popular brand in Ireland. P.J. Rigney, of The Shed distillery that produces Drumshanbo, attributes the gin boom to the craft cocktail revival.
“Once this revival took hold, bartenders started delving into historic drinks, many of which are gin-based—the Martini, Negroni, Martinez, Tom Collins, Aviation, Ramos Gin Fizz,” he says. “When bartenders began to incorporate these drinks on their menus, consumer interest followed. Gin is complex in its history, culture and flavor, all of which are highly appealing to the modern imbiber.”
Others like Elliot Hughes, the business development director of Dingle distillery, thinks Ireland is looking at what is happening with the U.S. and U.K. trade market and is following suit. “I think there are numerous reasons for the gin craze in Ireland,” he says. “In Ireland, we naturally take notice of what our two biggest trading neighbors (the USA and U.K.) do. Although we haven’t seen gin take off in the same degree in the USA, we have seen this in the U.K., and it’s a route that Irish people have followed. The increased numbers of distilleries producing gin gave consumers in Ireland a greater choice”
Pádraic Ó Griallais, the founder and head distiller of Micil distillery, believes the character of Irish gin is another reason why it’s on the rise. “I think Irish gin has proved to be a world-class spirit,” he says. “Irish gin is like Irish whiskey; it’s really approachable while having depth of character. The best examples set the bar incredibly high. They have unique sensory qualities that are intrinsic to their location. We have a broad range of styles.”
And being that gin is trending now, established distilleries have made changes to accommodate the boom. To keep up with the massive demand of its products, Dingle installed a new gin still last year that allows it to quadruple the current capacity. “This was a huge statement of intent for our distillery, showing that we are a serious producer of a very high-quality gin and we hope to continue doing so,” says Hughes.
While most distilleries are producing other spirits such as vodka and whiskey, some of the newer distilleries, like Listoke, are going all in on gin. To stand out among the crowd, Listoke created Ireland’s only gin school, where for €95 visitors can develop, distill and bottle their own gin.
Micil distillery’s visitors center
Is it genius marketing or a symbol of gin’s staying power? “It’s an interesting strategy,” says Hughes. “If they can produce a high-quality gin with good branding, then there’s no reason it can’t be a successful business model. It has a much quicker turnaround time in order to make a profit than a whiskey distillery. On the negative side, it’s a hugely competitive market, and only having one product leaves you extremely exposed to market shifts.”
Keeping in mind Ireland’s great history of distilling, creating a quality gin is part of the natural evolution of being inspired by the world. Although Irish gin is unlikely to overtake the Irish whiskey trade anytime soon, it can stand on its own two feet. This is one craze that might be here to stay.