I’m writing this on a train ( I love a good train) en route from Providence to New York Penn Station. Today I had my first REAL distributor meeting about J.J. Corry. We met the division head buyer and presented my whiskey talked, roll-out, sales targets, marketing and PR support pricing. It was definitely one of the best meetings I have ever had in my life and I have been in probably close to 30,000 meetings. Not because of the content but because THIS is what ultimately my business is all about. This is the pointy end of the stick. I’ve spent two years creating a whiskey so that I could secure a meeting like this. The head buyer has hundreds of requests for these kinds of sit downs with new producers. As a new brand, getting the meeting is a big deal then you need to nail it as hard as you can. I have several of these meetings all this week in our planned roll-out markets.
The USA has the most complicated alcohol distribution system in the world. It harks back to the days of prohibition. When that ended, the Federal Government handed control of alcohol licensing and laws to each individual state. So every state is quite different. In some states the state government is the only body allowed to sell alcohol, everyone has to buy from the State Liquor stores, in other states when you sign with a distributor you can never leave them even if they don’t sell any of your product, there are states where you are not allowed to sample the product with consumers and states where you can. There are states that have dry counties entirely and others with 24 hour licensing. If you don’t want to fall flat on your face as a new producer you need to understand the nuances of each state. THERE IS NO GUIDEBOOK.
For a foreign producer like me it is even more complicated. I cannot sell direct to a distributor. I am obliged to sell to an importer, he/she sells to the distributor, the distributor then sells to the retailer or bar and they sell to the end whiskey drinker. As a producer I am 4 times removed from the consumer and my margin ends at the Importer level. Everyone else takes a margin too, so doing business becomes costly. You get one shot to launch in the USA, if you get it wrong, it is over. The system is so tight its unforgiving.
I’ve spent a good year plotting my entry into this market and weighing up various options. I have had to change tack a few times. In the end I partnered with an old colleague of mine from way back and we are knocking out these meetings together and it feels fantastic. From a business perspective, this is what matters. Closing deals and shipping cases, finding the right distributor partners so that we can build the brand together the right way. Everything has been leading up to this and I’m feeling a bit teary eyed about it all. There have been a few moments since I set up this business that I have felt pervous (proud and nervous.) The day our first casks arrived on site, bringing Blaise on board, the day we put the Gael into bottle, the day we shipped our first pallet to Germany. But today feels like the biggest achievement yet, the U.S.A. is the toughest but the biggest Irish Whiskey market and we are opening it. A little start-up Irish Whiskey brand from West Clare.
Even cooler is that today I got the keys to our satellite office right on Main Street and across from RISDI in Providence. I’ve not had any funding through yet from any state body in Ireland, a source of major, major effing and blinding on my part. However, kind of amazingly, my local Enterprise Office have hooked me up with the Irish West International Trade Center. A trade mission of sorts between Rhode Island and the West of Ireland. The function of the Center is to facilitate trade between their lovely state and our lovely counties on the Western Seaboard. Shannon Airport is now directly connected to Providence via Norwegian air so el-cheapo flight connections are possible. I can be door to door from my Cow-shed Office to my Providence Office in 7 hours, not bad. I see great potential for this in the future. Also, we have an office in the USA!! That is so cool.
When I was on the way to that office this morning my phone rang and on the end of the line was another old colleague of mine and one that I greatly admire as do many people in the industry. He is currently in New York and we were hoping to meet up, but could not make it work. He said that he was really proud of how far we have come which meant a lot to me. He went on to say that many people have lots of plans but never ship a single case and that what I’d managed to prove is “The Power of Doing.” There have been rough times in this journey so far and I’m sure there are more ahead, but he is right. In the end starting a business is very simply about just doing it and more importantly continuing to do it every single day.
I finally feel like we are well and truly doing it now and that is a powerful thing indeed.