Ok, folks I’m finally weighing in on the Public Alcohol Health Bill. I am doing so from the perspective of being a rational human being and an independent spirit producer. Let me caveat this entire thing by saying that Alcohol misuse, addiction and abuse is a terrible malady and tragedy for many. I think its correct that the government is stepping in to try to help, but I can’t agree fully with this approach.
This bill as a whole is really a risk averse knee -jerk reaction to Ireland’s old fashioned former not so grown up attitude to alcohol. Having lived abroad from 1992 to 2015, I can confidently make that observation. That attitude has changed in the last decade or so, to a good degree. Overall consumption is down with youth and in general we have become more discerning. The fact that so many independent drinks producers have sprung up in the past few years shows the change in attitude. There are certain factors though that have exacerbated problem drinking and the puritans have latched onto that. Cheap alcohol is an issue. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that minimum pricing laws are a good idea. Making alcohol more accessible than ham sandwiches in terms of pricing is not a good idea, it enables misuse and nobody will convince me otherwise, I can agree with that part of the bill. I place the blame for this with Supermakets and loss leader pricing, they forced that issue and something needs to be done about it.
There is also an Ad in my local off license which really bothers me, its for a well known red-top vodka and it literally says “20 Shots Per Bottle!”That is just stupid and is irresponsible advertising on the part of the manufacturer. It is promoting quantity over quality to shift bottles and its that kind of advertising that has put us in this mess, along with low supermarket pricing. Those two factors mean this Bill is now actually realistically on the table.
However, show me a single independent producer who would put more emphasis about the amount of “Shots” in a bottle over the care that went into making the liquid and the quality of its ingredients. There is not a SINGLE ONE who would advertise like that. But here we are. Lumped into this catch-all bill that will affect our bottom line exponentially greater than our multinational Overlords. The independent spirit producers in this country are out quite simply to survive for the next few years, we are not out to hit the Million Case Mark globally. We need every advantage we can get.
This proposed bill will take away most of them.
If you are NOT a multinational spirits producer in this country getting shelf space is already very difficult. This has been well documented. There are a few big players who have established in-house strategies of pushing out smaller brands with cold hard cash. So for example Busy Bar X in Dublin will have a cash and free booze deal with their beer or spirits supplier. Written into or agreed as part of this deal is that small crafty competitive set brands are kept out. Or Diageo for example will pay for the refurbishment of a bar and in return they will own all the beer taps and let’s say the, whiskey, Gin, and vodka categories in the bar for two years or so. The guy behind the bar who is your biggest fan is simply NOT allowed to take your product on until the deal runs out. This is impossible to compete with for new small brands as you can imagine.
Let me make clear, in the olden days I did quite a few of these deals myself, mostly with Champagne in New York Nightclubs its just the way business is done in Booze; Twas ever thus. The issue is here on our tiny Island of Ireland and our tiny capital city where most of the booze on this Island is sold, is that there are in reality not THAT many high volume bars/off licenses. So if you can’t pay to play you are out in the cold and you are selling individual bottles to pubs and shops outside of Dublin. Revenue-wise in a high cap-ex business like whiskey that is a long road but it is a harsh reality and one that is not going to change.
Similar things happen across the pond, but in the case of USA for example if you do get shut out of an account you can just go to one of the several million others there are. There is enough room for Multinationals (just about) and Independents to live side by side. Then you have the excise issue, making this country one of most expensive in the world to buy Irish Whiskey, for a small high-end independent brand Ireland is one of the toughest markets to do business already.
In good conscience you have to sell your product in Ireland locally surely to be truly Irish? Ireland is our shop window, but the curtains are about to be drawn.
For a start, this bill will be force all spirits produced here to have labels with Cancer Warnings on them. It is unclear at this time whether these would be required just for selling in Ireland or also for exports. Irish Whiskey will become the only whiskey in the world with a cancer warning on it. Scotch, American, Japanese, Australian, New Zealand, German, French, none of those whiskies will need cancer warnings.
Our Government is about to pass a bill to highlight to people that Irish Whiskey specifically may cause Cancer. That is the message we are sending. Line up an Irish, Scotch, Canadian and American Whisk(e)y and the Irish will be the only one with Cancer on the label…..To make that 100% clear; The irish Whiskey renaissance is being “supported” by our Government by a requirement to be the only whiskey in the world obliged to put MAY CAUSE CANCER on the label.
For independents this hits hard, not only because at the micro level we have to pay for new labels (its expensive in small volumes) but also because independents unlike Multinationals don’t have a global portfolio of spirits that can compensate for sales dips caused by something like this. People are scared of Cancer they just are it is a nuclear option to put the word on a product.
Secondly, the wonderful (and I mean that) Craft Drinks Bill currently snaking its way simultaneously though the Dail will be largely negated by the Public Health Alcohol Bill. The former bill allows small producers to sell alcohol legally to tourists without forking out for a 120K license. It is a game changer. It will allow rural distilleries to make a real crack at their tourism business model with a negligible start-up cost. However the public Health Bill will forbid them from advertising their tourism offering…..
Bit of an issue there lads. Rural distilleries are not in the center of Dublin and are not served by drop-in city coach tours. Many will need Wild Atlantic Way Warrior style spontaneous tourism to get going. They need billboards at Shannon or Cork Airport and signage on various routes to create drop-in footfall in the vital peak tourism season.
Also advertising & promotional images that have people in them and evoke place other than that of production and specific provenance like these below will be banned. This is a disaster for independents. One of the elements that makes independent spirits special and appealing to consumers is that they are produced by founders and interesting people on a mission, often on very unique places like my family farm. That passion and that inherent authentic provenance is our ONLY competitive advantage over industrial scale producers. We need those images to be able to tell our unique stories. Showing a generic copper pot still or a generic barrel as provided for by the Health Bill, won’t hack it for independents. We can’t afford 2 Million euro campaign and a full creative and media buying team at Publicis to dream up a solution to that ban.
There is only so much hassle I will put up with to do business here in Ireland. I’ve moved home to set up a business devoid of broadband and cellphone coverage, I constantly wrestle with disorganised labeling enforcement, I had to put my house on the line to get a bond and had to become an expert in alcohol laws that were written in 1840 to do so. My focus has always been leant towards export because that is where the potential lies for a brand like mine and also quite frankly it is simply easier. I had hoped to expand out in Ireland once our revenues were really moving for no other reason than a sense of Pride.
From my perspective I can tell you, the health bill has made me totally re-think our tourism plans, which means totally re-think our local employment plans. Furthermore any in market sales staff I was planning on will likely be shifted overseas and lastly if the cancer warning comes in, I may just pull my whiskey from the Irish Market entirely. Nobody in Ireland will get any advertising revenue from me either once it becomes generic.
This unbalanced bill may be the last straw for me and the worst part is, it still shows an old fashioned immature attitude to alcohol in this country, except this time its by our own Government.