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Fastest Growing US Spirit? Hint: You're Probably Holding One

Thursday, 17 Mar 2011 | 2:03 PM ET

As some St. Patrick's Day revelers take their first sip of Irish whiskey to celebrate the holiday, they might be find themselves becoming part of a growing group of people imbibing the spirit, which has seen phenomenal sales growth in recent years.

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“Everybody’s a little bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day,” said Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark, a food and beverage advisory firm.

“The thing that’s good is it’s like a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day, and they realize how much the like Irish whiskey and build a habit to do it the rest of the year. St. Patrick’s Day is a portal to get you in and it’s the gateway to getting the adventure going,” he added.

Irish whiskey is currently the fastest growing distilled spirit category, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. From 2003 to 2010, sales of Irish whiskey in the United States have grown 246 percent.

In 2010 alone U.S. sales of Irish whiskey grew 22 percent, while the rest of the spirits industry was essentially flat, according to the Beverage Information Group in Norwalk, Conn.

Across the board, Irish whiskey brands have been doing well in the U.S., but Jameson, a brand owned by Pernod Ricard, comprises 70 percent of the Irish whiskey market in the U.S., and Jameson has been the growth driver for the entire category.

The brand has nearly doubled its size in the U.S. in the past three years, and late last year broke the 1 million case mark in annual sales.

“It’s tough to compete with the 800-pound gorilla [Jameson] because the brand has become synonymous with Irish whiskey,” said Eric Schmidt, manager of information services at the Beverage Information Group.

And with growth like that, it's clear that it's not just being enjoyed on St. Patrick’s Day. In fact, the brand's biggest sales month is December, not March.

Taste, price and demographics are all working in Jameson's favor.

Unlike Scotch whisky, which has a smoky, peaty aroma, Irish whiskey is known for its light, sweet flavor that’s easier on the palate. Whiskey aficionados often describe the drink as being “smooth.”

But that quality also makes it more accessible to people who are looking to try new things.

“One of the things that consumers tell us is that they really like the flavor of Irish whiskey because it’s not so heavy and it’s easier to drink,” said Pirko.

According to Bevmark, consumers, in general, are searching for more flavor in their spirits so they are migrating to brown spirits.

“People are going back to the brown spirits and they are looking for more flavor,” said Pirko.

This trend is even more pronounced among younger consumers.

“Millennials are a huge segment for Irish whiskey and that segment continues to grow as more enter the market,” said Schmidt.

“Younger drinkers aren’t overwhelmed by the flavor because there is a kind of sweetness the way it enters the pallet. It’s an easier drink,” Pirko said.

Irish whiskey also is less expensive than a lot of other imported spirits.

There also is room for Irish whiskey to grow as the category remains far smaller than vodka and other spirits categories.

“Even with the brand performing as well as it is, we feel that it is still in its infancy, with significant growth potential,” said Wayne Hartunian, vice president of Whiskies and Cognac at Pernod Ricard USA, the importer of Jameson.

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com

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