DUBLIN: Irish whiskey distillers are witnessing surging demand in overseas markets, raising hopes that the industry can close some of the gap with Scotch whisky, its traditional rival.

Overall sales of whiskey grew 10.5% last year to 6.2m nine-litre cases, a long way behind the 96m similar-sized cases of Scotch, but Irish whiskey's rate of growth is faster, the Financial Times reports.

It is growing more quickly than US whiskey, too, as well as tequila and cognac, which has encouraged drinks industry multinationals to invest in the main brands of Jameson, Bushmills and Tullamore Dew.

Irish Distillers, owned by Pernod Ricard, is spending €200m to expand its Jameson distillery after it saw sales growth of 17% in the year to the end of June.

Meanwhile, UK spirits group William Grant & Sons is investing €35m in a new distillery for its Tullamore Dew brand and more than a dozen Irish distilleries are being planned by others.

The surge in demand is being fuelled by changing consumer tastes in the US, where brown spirits are becoming increasingly popular among younger drinkers, including young women.

Peter Morehead, production director at Irish Distillers, said consumer behaviour is also changing in Russia and Eastern Europe, where more drinkers are switching from vodka to whiskey and Scotch.

"Interest in Irish whiskey is huge, particularly in the US, Russia and Eastern Europe. 40 of the 130 markets where we sell Jameson are seeing double or triple-digit sales growth," he said.

Celebrity endorsements from singers Lady Gaga and Rihanna have also helped to improve prospects for whiskey, which for many years suffered from an old-fashioned image.

Entrepreneur Oliver Hughes, who opened Ireland's fourth distillery last year, said: "Irish whiskey was in the doldrums for years and is coming from a low base, but the future is bright with annual growth rates of 15-20% likely for the foreseeable future."

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by Warc staff