It was only when Conor McGregor won some big fight and came out on stage swigging a bottle of whiskey and talking about counting money that I discovered his existence. I focus mostly on my business and all forms of sport became blurry background noise to me a few yeas ago, I don’t have the mental space for them. But McGregor came very much on my radar as soon as he entered my world and it quickly became apparent to me that is incredibly well known among the millennial consumer bracket. He is a social media darling which is basically 90% of selling stuff these days. He also seems to be an interesting choice as the face of a whiskey brand what with all the questionable out of ring fighting etc. but hey what do I know? He landed the deal so that’s me proven wrong I guess.
I’m traveling here in the USA and got to taste the whiskey here a few days ago. It is a perfectly fine $23 whiskey its standard priced and rightly so for the liquid. He will do well with the whiskey thanks to his social following and to his distributor partners Proximo who I can already see here are just feeding it into their system in the run-up to Christmas. A sales guy I was working with here in MA described it as a Launch/Close Out brand, a cheap brand that comes in hot, sells loads and then is gone within 2 years but everyone made money so its ok. I don’t know if that’s what will happen here and this post is not about that. This post is about what this kind of pricing and consumption approach means for the Irish Whiskey Category as a whole.
The people behind the McGregor Category are the Beckmann Family. In the USA their company is called Proximo. The same people who own Jose Cuervo and Bushmills. We know now that this new whiskey is out of Bushmills. When I worked at Diageo in the Reserve Brands Group, Bushmills was added into our portfolio for a while. Nobody ever wanted to talk about it, focus on it, or even address it. The brand was an also ran in a company with a Huge portfolio of Rockstar Scotch Whiskey. It was an afterthought. It was under the eye of Diageo that the distillery sold off much of its stocks at the low point of the wholesale market. There was never a blockbuster ad campaign or indeed much love for Bushmills at the global office in London during my tenure. The sale then did not come as a big surprise and it all played out really well for Diageo in the end. See my post on that here. When the Beckmann family bought it, it seemed as if things might look up.
With all that astounding reserve stock and a new lease of life away from under the shadow of Johnnie Walker surely it was time for Bushmills to shine again. The expectation was we’d get innovative blends, finishes and a more modern outlook befitting the new age of Irish Whiskey. Pernod have done a great job of reacting to the new indie scene by investing in and coming out with innovative new releases and creating a mini craft distillery down there, which is of course very annoying but a good effort nonetheless
Major upfront investment has certainly gone into launching Sexton and McGregor, its investment coming out of the same pot and it could have gone to a Bushmills rebrand and release, it didn’t. Whilst capital expenditure investment has been announced to up production capacity we’ve not seen a flashy new launch for Bushmills of late, which is odd and its having an effect. Bushmills showed declines of 2.5% to 190,000 cases in the USA in 2017 . Although they did manage to launch the Sexton coming in at $27 whilst this decline was going on so….priorities I guess?
Jameson built the Irish Whiskey category in the USA largely with the absolutely disgusting Pickelback which is now served on tap it’s so popular. For those of you unfamiliar it’s a shot of Jameson followed by a shot of Pickle Juice and it is just a vile as it sounds. Tullamore Dew has gone down the Shot route too to fuel its growth and in the USA proudly promotes itself as a Shot and a Beer (albeit an IPA) kind of whiskey. Its working well as the numbers don’t lie. Tullamore took is in double digit growth in the USA and is now 2nd only to Jameson reaching the million case mark in 2016.
My concern is that out here in the USA market there is still a lot of category education to be done. In the eyes of many new customers I speak with; Irish Whiskey is seen a cheap and for shots whereas Scotch is absolutely not. Often, I have to compare JJ Corry to a scotch whiskey for them to understand what we are trying to do here. We are making considered blended whiskey for whiskey drinkers, not stuff to wash down with a shot of pickle juice after work on a Friday night and then go look for a fight or score some coke.
Brands like Notorious do not help the premiumisation of the Irish Whiskey category in the long run. Scotch whiskey is still kicking our ass in terms of category knowledge and sales by value. We don’t want a long-term image problem developing in Irish Whiskey in the USA. Jameson and Tully are out there firing shots around to beat the band and encouraging it, now we have a huge and very loud launch of a $23 Irish Whiskey which is squarely aimed at what we in the business call ‘Release Drinkers’ i.e. young people getting sh!tfaced in sports bars.
So will McGregor’s whiskey sell a lot, Yes. Will it outstrip Jameson 6.5 Million plus cases anytime soon? No. Will we see Bushmills finally getting the love it deserves from its multinational owners and raising the game? I’m not sure.
Luckily I think Jose Cuervo are the only multinational that have taken this white label downmarket approach so far. Bacardi, Diageo, Beam, and Disaronno have all headed down a different path, playing on and investing in the narratives of heritage, provenance and craftsmanship. Everyone on the Indie side is doing that just by our very nature so there are more considered Irish Whiskey brands than gimmicky ones but we are not getting an equal share of voice just yet.
It remains to be seen if we’ll break out of the \shot and a beer pigeonhole we currently still get put in here in the USA but the Notorious release is NOT going to help that case in any capacity at all. Pass the Pickle Juice Please.