Everybody’s Irish; whiskey booms, cordials stay hot beer does well: Irish brands are smiling

Everybody’s Irish; whiskey booms, cordials stay hot beer does well: Irish brands are smiling

Lew Bryson

Irish pubs are everywhere these days, and not just in the I U.S., either. The last one I visited was across the street from the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, a place called The Galway Hooker. Even on the main drag in Turin, Italy, Irish bars are thicker than heather. They’re part of a universal drinking language, a bit of familiarity for Irish and non-Irish alike.

In Munich the bartenders defiantly spoke Irish-accented English, poured a wider variety of beers than I found anywhere else in Bavaria, and made me feel comfortable with a canny combination of sharp wit and warm welcome.

“Irish soul.”

That’s what Chris Mullins says makes an Irish pub an Irish pub. Chris and his wife Mary Ellen own McGillin’s Ale House in Philadelphia, Philly’s oldest bar. What’s Irish soul? “My first pub,” Chris explains, “was a little neighborhood place, about $800 in sales a week, with no ambiance. We made that old man’s bar into a thumping Irish singing pub. It was a home run, We did Irish music, we had great bands. We did Irish beer. We were the first Harp draft customers in the area, and Guinness wasn’t as well known then. We encouraged the staff to be friendly and make people feel welcome. We put some Irish soul in there, and we increased business 15-fold in one year.”

Martin Whelan, who owns Maggie’s Place in Manhattan (along with a Scottish pub, St. Andrew’s), is a bit more pithy. “In New York, Boston, or Chicago, you have to have Irish people,” he said. “Outside of those places, it’s all about decor. Fado and others are building chain Irish pubs, but you can’t do that in New York, Boston, or Chicago. You need Guinness and Harp on tap. A lot of Irish places serve solid food at a fair price. People have a certain expectation of welcome at an Irish pub. There’s nothing trendy about them, and people like that.”

New York and Boston are full of Irish and Irish-Americans, of course, but one thing must be noted. When we speak of “Irish pubs,” we’re really speaking of “Irish-style pubs,” unless we’re talking about a place in Ireland. Fergus Carey, who owns Fergie’s, about a block over from McGilin’s in Philadelphia, gets his back up about that a bit.

“I’m Irish, and I own a pub,” he said, “but I don’t call Fergie’s an Irish pub. Places in America that call themselves ‘Irish Pubs’ should be sued by the Irish people. They’re good for what they are, but…an Irish-American bar and what they sell and what they cater to are different from what Irish pubs do. They’re not in Ireland.” Point taken, even though we still call them Irish pubs. It’s just too convenient not to.


What about those Fado pubs? I asked Kieran Aherne, the general manager at Fado Chicago, about them. “There are ten Fado pubs,” he said, “owned by Kieran McGill and some investors. They opened the first in Atlanta in 1996, then Austin and so forth. They don’t like to call themselves a franchise or chain, because each pub is different, though the menu, beer, and philosophy are the same. It’s not like Bennigan’s, where every one looks the same. The paperwork is the same, but the pub’s different,” The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the Fado pubs have done well.

But still, what makes an Irish pub? Soul, welcome, witty servers and good craic, the sharp wit that the Irish are known for? Or maybe it’s more tangible things, like decor, Irish food, or live performances of “traditional” music. That’s all open to debate, but a bar is still a bar and there is a triumvirate of drinks that have to be in an Irish pub: Irish stout, Irish whiskey, and Irish cream liqueur. Which brands of those you have is something more open to debate.

Irish whiskey, for instance, used to be an automatic: you had Jameson, unless you had a stash of crocks of Tullamore Dew. Now there are over a dozen Irish whiskeys available, though the ownership still breaks almost down the same way: there’s Jameson, Bushmills, and almost everything else, owned by Pernod Ricard, and there’s Tullamore Dew, representing Allied Domecq. The Cooley Distillery’s Tyrconnel, Kilbeggan and Connemara whiskeys and Great Spirits’ high-end Knappogue Castle whiskey almost complete the picture.

But Pernod Ricard has 85% of the category in the U.S., a dominant share. Why? “It goes back to the mid-80s when Pernod Ricard acquired Irish Distillers,” says Jeff Agdern, who manages the Irish brands for Pernod. “The company did a strategic assessment of which brands had the most potential. Jameson came out, and Pernod has put a lot into building the brand. It’s up to our company to become the champion of Irish whiskey.”


Jameson is still the standard bearer. “If you look at the category numbers, it looks like Irish whiskey has grown; it’s actually Jameson,” Agdern said. “In 1998, Jameson was at roughly 150,000 cases. In 2002 we’re looking at 225,000 cases.” Agdern hopes to build Bushmills in a similar fashion. “This is our first year of really working on Bushmills,” he said, “and it’s responding well. We’re launching a 21 year old Bushmills single malt in the spring.”

Jameson is getting a surprising challenge from Tullamore Dew, which is coming back strong. “Tullamore was out of the market for 15 years,” said Alan Lewis, VP of sales and marketing for C&C International, the owners of the brand. “We bought the brand in 1996 and brought it back into the U.S. market. Tullamore is now the third best seller in the U.S., and we just introduced a 12 year old.”

Tullamore’s doing very well in some bars. “The biggest seller and the most popular with the employees is Tullamore Dew,” said Fergus Carey. “Ten years ago it was high-end, in the crock. But then they went after the Jameson market, and it’s awfully popular right now. If people are doing shots, it’s Tullamore.”

It’s still Jameson at Fado Chicago. “We have 12 different brands behind the bar,” said general manager Kieran Aherne. “Ten years ago, Jameson was the only one out there, but that’s changed drastically. The selection we carry is diverse, and we sell it all, we’re not carrying it for show. But Jameson is still the number one seller.”

Some places go all the way. The Pub in Oconomowoc, WI, stocks 16 different expressions of Irish whiskey, including three types of the rarely seen Clontarf.

Jeff Agdern had some tips on how to upgrade your regular whiskey customers. “The easiest thing to do is to work within a brand. If someone drinks Jameson, and they’re drinking it on the rocks, it’s an easy switch to Jameson 12 Year Old. And once someone jumps to Jameson 12, it’s not that far a leap to Redbreast. But to introduce customers to the whole range, play within the brand first. Once they understand there’s significant differentiation there, and whiskey for different occasions, start introducing them to other brands.”

Don’t miss a chance to sell some whiskey when the weather’s cold. Irish coffee is a lot of work for a bartender but it can be sold for a premium to the right crowd if you make a show of it with real whipped cream and raw sugar. But the real surprise seller is “hot whiskey,” a devilishly simple Irish favorite. “Whiskey is a great thing to sip on a cold day,” said Whelan. “And I’m a firm believer that a good hot whiskey will make all your pains go away. It’s just whiskey, hot water, and a slice of lemon with a couple cloves stuck in it.” Simple, but marvelous.


Beer in an Irish pub would seem to be just as simple: Guinness and Harp. Not necessarily. Just to get down and dirty, I asked the guys at the pubs if a place could call itself an Irish pub and not serve Guinness.

“No,” says Aherne at Fado Chicago. “You’re guilty by association. It would be like an Italian restaurant that wouldn’t serve pasta. It’s the biggest beer ever to come out of Ireland.”

“No, I don’t think so,” agrees George Crawley, owner of The Plough and the Stars in Cambridge, Mass. “The typical new Irish pubs all have Guinness. It’s in a lot of places. You have to have the Guinness, and a lot of nonIrish drink it.”

But ask whether an Irish pub can be Guinness-less in Philadelphia and New York, and you get a different answer. “Absolutely,” counters Carey. “It’s not necessary, even if it is expected. But I like to have Guinness on tap, and I don’t like to run out of it.”

“Absolutely,” echoes Mullins. “We’ve been Guiness-free for almost three years. I have Beamish and Murphy’s from Cork. Guinness is ubiquitous. People ask why we don’t have it. I tell them you can get it anywhere, in French restaurants. But you can’t get Beamish or Murphy’s anywhere.

“Yeah, you can,” Whelan says in New York, “if you have everything else.”

Are these guys in Philly and New York crazy? Well, in New York there are enough Irish customers that they can be contrary and get away with it.


Philly, on the other hand, is a story of Fado and bad blood. The owners of several Irish pubs in Philly got wind of plans for a Fado in town. Another Irish pub was one thing. But, despite laws preventing suppliers having a financial interest in bar and restaurant operations, a rumor spread through the Irish bar community that their wholesale partner was helping a national competitor. What is clear is that importers are interested in developing new outlets for their beers, and worked with a variety of companies to ensure that those outlets will be successful. One was Fado.

Mullins and other Irish pub owners in Philadelphia responded by counter programming, opting to focus on stouts other than Guinness.

I asked Aherne at the Fado pub in Chicago if he’d heard about the Philadelphia response. “Somebody in the Irish community [in Philadelphia] was getting bent out of shape and stirred up a hornet’s nest,” he said, somewhat scornfully. “It’s never been an issue anywhere else. Fado is not related to Guinness. That’s false, everyone knew it. The pub’s opened, they’re doing very well.”

Most customers of the bars involved on both sides know nothing about the disagreement, and continue to have a good time, regardless of the presence or absence of Guinness Stout. So maybe Mullins was right about that, anyway.

The phenomenon of the “pub-in-a-box” Irish pub springing up in the most unlikely places is disconcerting to people used to authentic locales. But it has made Guinness Stout a cross-market phenomenon in the U.S.. Mullins is right about something else; you can find Guinness almost everywhere, and beer-lovers are often very glad to find its familiar taphandle amongst the American mainstream lagers.

Aherne sees 60% of his beer sales from Guinness Stout and Harp. “Of that, Guinness and Harp are about 60/40,” he said. “We’ll do 25-28 kegs of Guinness a week, 18-20 of Harp. Guinness has a lot more money behind them now. They’ve turned their back on the big events and dug in more on local sales. How that will stand up remains to be seen.”


What about the cream liqueurs? Everyone agreed that this is the time of year to sell them, laced into a hot cup of coffee. Bailey’s is by far the favorite, with its strong media backing, though Carolans is growing by double digits, and other brands such as Emmett’s, Ryan’s, Brogan’s get shelf space. “Bailey’s is the one I carry,” said Crawley. I tried the others, but I’m just wasting inventory. People don’t order them,” Mullins, of course, does things differently at McGillin’s. “We sell Ryan’s primarily,” he said. “We do not sell Bailey’s. We are contrarian.”

And that’s Irish, too. My mother-in-law always says, “What’s the use of being Irish if you can’t be thick,” a classic bit of Irish self-deprecation. Soul, music, welcome, stout, whiskey, and a creamy glass of liqueur are all fine, but you can have that and have nothing, while the Irish in your town, real and wanna-be, flock to a dive that serves only Guinness and shots of Jameson. There’s a certain amount of mystery to the whole business, a certain amount of luck. But if you start off by aiming at giving the customer an honest value with an honest welcome, boyo, you’ll be in the running.


Malternatives may have taken the shine off cider sales in their meteoric rise (and fall), but there is an Irish cider that is doing well, wisely following the Guinness model of playing on its familiarity with an Irish audience. Magners Original Irish Cider was recently introduced to the Irish markets in Boston and New York, where importer U.S. Beverage says it is now the leading brand of hard cider.

“We aimed for the Irish pubs to develop a beachhead,” confirmed Mark Woodard, Magners’ national sales manager. “The basic thought was to go to the Irish markets, the Irish bars, and grow from there. We had to let the Irish know it was the same product they knew as Bulmers.”

That was a bit difficult, since the Bulmers name in the U.S. is owned by a different company, HP Bulmers of England, makers of Strongbow and Woodpecker, and also the owner of U.S. cider brands CiderJack and Woodchuck. It was important to get the message across, though, since the Irish-based Bulmers accounts for 85% of Irish cider sales, equating to a respectable 11% of beer-strength sales in Ireland.

Magners spun an initial ad campaign for Irish immigrants to get the word out about their name. “We advertised to the Irish to let them know it was the same product” said Woodard. “The ads went, “Like many Irish, we had to change our name.” The Irish understood the ads and bought the product. Americans didn’t get that, so we’ve changed the message now.” They continue to advertise, unlike the rest of the cider producers, who seem to have gone into a defensive position with the onslaught of malternative ads.

Most appealingly, Magners, like draft Guinness, is a real Irish product. “It’s produced in Ireland, from Irish apples,” says Woodard. “They have a cider mill in downtown Clonmel that dates from the 1930s. There’s a big new facility outside of town, but they couldn’t get the same flavor from the new machinery. So they crush the apples in the new facility, then truck it to the old facility to run it through the old wooden tanks, then run it back to the new facility for bottling.” Sounds Irish, indeed!

Magners represents a fourth Irish drink, one that is traditional, light and crisp, and appeals to drinkers who might not be interested in stouts, whiskeys, or cream liqueurs. It also mixes well with Guinness in a half-and-half pint of Snakebite. And the new ad campaign is disarmingly honest: “Drinks like soda. Kicks like beer.” Trust the Irish to give it to you straight, with no blarney, when it’s something as important as drink.

Lew Bryson is the managing editor of Malt Advocate.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Bev-AL Communications, Inc.

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