In a follow-up to my recent article on American breweries exploiting the St. Patrick’s Day holiday, I wanted to lay out some brief thoughts on popular beverages traditionally enjoyed on this day. When you think of the usual beverage alcohol suspects consumed on the 17th in March, the list usually includes, for beer, Guinness, Harp, Murphy’s, Smithwick’s, and sometimes even Beamish and Kilkenny. And when we think of Irish whiskey, it’s usually Jameson and Bushmills. For liqueur, it’s Bailey’s.
Most drinkers don’t truly comprehend the global nature of the beverage alcohol marketplace and the assault on local heritage that has occurred over the last 20 years. In an age of consolidation, Irish beer and whiskey no longer really exist. Let’s look at Guinness, by far the most popular Irish beverage alcohol consumed on St. Patrick’s Day. With its storied history, Guinness is a global brand whose heart is clearly in Dublin, right? Well, in 1997, a merger between Guinness and beverage alcohol empire Grand Metropolitan, which owned the Smirnoff and Baileys brands along with the Burger King chain, created global powerhouse Diageo.
Based in London, Diageo is now the largest multinational wine, spirits, and beer company in the world and Guinness is only one of dozens upon dozens of brands. (For lovers of Scotch whisky, Diageo also owns and operates the distilleries of Blair Athol, Caol Ila, Cardhu, Knockando, Glen Elgin, Clynelish, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenkinchie, Glen Ord, Lagavulin, Oban, Royal Lochnagar, Talisker, Mannochmore, Mortlach and Glenlossie).
This past year has seen a great deal of controversy for Guinness as Diageo has been considering selling the historic St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin. The heart of Guinness’s operations since 1759, when founder Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease at £45 per year, the value of the land on which the brewery sits is now estimated at nearly £800 million.
Perhaps in recognition of the lack of local connection to the famed brand, Guinness has also seen tremendous reductions in consumption among the Irish themselves. Sales of Guinness in Ireland have dropped by more than 25-percent in the last eight years. In 2007, sales dropped nearly 10-percent. As one writer in The Irish Independent so colorfully put it,
For generation eff-you, Guinness is just a smelly old man drink, although the company is ramping up its marketing activities and ploughing millions into the relaunch of its home drinking products.
So if Guinness is no longer really an Irish brand, what about the other famed Irish drinks? Well, again we have to look to Diageo, which also owns Harp, Kilkenny’s, Smithwick’s, and Bailey’s. For those seeking an alternative from Diageo, you’ll be happy to learn that Murphy’s Irish Stout is owned by Heineken International. And what of Beamish, which is occasionally seen in the United States? The brewery was purchased by the Canadian brewing firm Carling-O’Keefe in 1962, then incorporated as part of a takeover in 1987 by Elders IXL, sold to Scottish and Newcastle in 1995, before passing to Heineken Ireland after the takeover of Scottish and Newcastle in 2008.
Well certainly, Irish whiskey remains Irish, right? Wrong. The most popular brand of “Irish whiskey” in the world, Jameson, was bought by French alcohol conglomerate Pernod Ricard in 1988. The same with Black Bush, Tullamore Dew, Powers, Paddy, Redbreast, and Midleton VR. And what of Bushmills? Once owned by Pernod Ricard, the brand was traded to a familiar name in 2005. So buy a nip of this Irish whiskey and your money again flows into the pockets of Diageo.
According to Beeradvocate.com’s Beerfly, Ireland has only 12 breweries today (compared to more than 1400 in the United States). When you remove the above-mentioned brands, you’re left with 8 breweries. Of those, only the Carlow Brewing Company distributes beer in the United States. So much like with bad weather, if you have to leave the house on St. Patrick’s Day, keep your eyes out for O’Haras Celtic Stout, Curim Gold Celtic Wheat Beer, and Molings Traditional Red Ale if you can find them. Or perhaps an Irish-style ale produced by your local brewery or brewpub. And without question, feel free to smack your friend if he orders you any green beer.
–Article previously appeared on BeerScribe.com in March 2008.