Were you aware that a large proportion of Irish Whiskey brands are actually sourced? Do you know and not care? Or, is it akin to not wanting to know how the sausage is made? Maybe most don't want to talk about it but just enjoy drinking it. A recent article from Neat magazine raised the issue of how common sourcing in the American whiskey market was and the lack of transparency around it. What if I told you there were more than a dozen sourced Irish whiskies mixed in with non-sourced brands on the shelves in the above picture alone?
Sourced whiskey is simply spirit purchased from another entity before being bottled and released. Ever notice that there are more than 100 different brands of Irish whiskey? While many might not be on the shelves of US liquor stores yet, perusing any online store such as IWSA partner James J. Fox in Dublin will illustrate the point. However, of the upwards of 40 Irish distilleries, less than a dozen are currently bottling their own spirit. It is not just new distilleries driving the volume of sourced Irish whiskey brands as many independent companies are riding the wave of Irish whiskey popularity. This is not a new phenomenon but just an increasingly popular one.
The Knappogue Castle brand of aged single malts is an extremely popular example. These are not distilled in the historic Co. Clare castle but rather from Bushmills in Co. Antrim along the Causeway Coast. Tullamore Dew is one of the most popular Irish whiskey brands in the world. Until a few years ago, there was no working distillery in Tullamore. Yet, there are 12,14, and 18 year old expressions on the shelves of US liquor stores. Tullamore Dew has had long standing sourcing contracts with both Bushmills and Midleton distilleries to produce their range of products. Teeling Distillery has only been open for six years in Dublin but has released award winning single malts well over 20 years in age due to whiskey stock acquired as part of the Cooley sale to Beam around ten years ago.
Because Irish whiskey must age for at least 3 years before being bottled, many of the new distilleries need revenue while they wait for their spirt to come of age. This is why so many produce gin and vodka in the interim. Many new distilleries want to wait longer to release their first whiskey since not all 3-4 year old stock is market ready or at the quality level desired by the company. Examples of currently sourced products from new distilleries would be Hinch, Clonakilty, Glendalough, and Slane Castle.
Independent companies without a distillery (see below) are selling Hyde, Egans, Lambay, and Writers Tears brands to name a few. With both independent companies and newer distilleries putting out sourced products, where is all this Irish whiskey coming from?
Sourced Irish whiskey is coming from two primary areas: 1) established distilleries with mature stock like Bushmills and Midleton, and 2) newer distilleries with younger but high volume supply like Great Northern and West Cork. Without the latter two distilleries, many of the independent brands launched in the last few years would not exist. Great Northern is following a similar model as the Cooley distillery 15 years ago by contracting with new companies. This should not be a surprise since both were the brainchild of John Teeling. Check out the lists of distilleries and bottlers/bonders that are selling Irish whiskey products.
With so many products on the shelves (and growing everyday) it is very difficult to determine where it comes from or who is actually producing it. This is due to a lack of transparency in most cases as product labelling does not always indicate the whiskey was sourced from somewhere else. Most sourcing contracts require anonymity preventing bottle labels from indicating where the whiskey was produced. Many Irish whiskey drinkers can deduce where it comes from by whether it is double or triple distilled and the age. Older double distilled whiskey is typically Cooley sourced while triple distilled is from Bushmills. The lines are getting blurrier with more sourced product on the market under the age of ten years.
All of this begs the question, does it really matter? If it is good and affordable, do you really care about the details? This is not unique to Irish whiskey as the issue is controversial within the American whiskey market. Unbeknownst to many American drinkers, MGP distillery in Indiana produces liquid under contract for dozens of popular American rye and bourbon brands. Like most things in life, opinions will be divided on this issue, both among drinkers and distillers.
Many people just want a drink at the end of the day without having to think about it. Others want to contemplate everything about a whiskey (where it's from, how it's made, etc.) New distilleries like Waterford and Tipperary are tracking barley from the farms to establish provenance or terroir and making the details available to consumers. Some distilleries sourcing whiskies don't want their arrangement with specific brands public so as to not influence opinion of their own established brands.
Over the next few years, more of the newer Irish distilleries established in the last ten years will be coming to market with their own distillate. A few have already done so including Dingle, Waterford, Drumbshanbo, and Shortcross. This may lessen the confusion but there will likely always be independent brands utilizing sourced whiskey particularly given the existence of Great Northern Distillery in Co. Louth. It was just announced in August 2022 that they are investing another 25 million euro into the facility to expand operations and provide distillate for the growing Irish whiskey market.
Overall, sourcing is very good for the industry. It creates variety and different choices for consumers. Independent companies can foster innovation through different wood types, wine finishing, or even mash bills. Like anything, problems can potentially arise over a lack of transparency or those exploiting uniformed consumers. Entities like the Irish Whiskey Association and the industry's technical file are working to ensure that rules are followed so that consumers can enjoy their whiskey.
The Irish Whiskey Society America provides a great example of what sourcing can provide. Our Limited Edition Commemorative 10 year anniversary bottling is a unique blend made by IrishAmerican from two separate distilleries. Small batches such as these would likely never see the market from large conglomerates.
For further information on this topic, here is another article. If there is a continuing debate on the sourcing topic, at least we can have it while enjoying an Irish Whiskey.