All About Our Bonder’s Blending Room Part 2 Why Less is Sometimes More #Irishwhiskey

There are two approaches to making Irish Whiskey that have emerged in recent years:

  1. Sink 25-50 Million Euros in the Thing at the beginning and hope for the best
  2. Sink 500K-5Million Euros in the Thing at the beginning and hope for the best

Both have equal chance of failure and success and I’m not advocating one over the other here. I’ve chosen the latter and I am really glad I did, so far anyway…. I looked to the craft distilling movement in the U.S.A. when I founded my business. Most distilleries over there of which there are now thousands,  tend to start small and grow organically and that is what I have chosen to do as a whiskey bonder. When it came to our first major infrastructure expansion I decided early on not to over-complicate things and to manage the whole build myself. I did this to save money, yes but also to ensure that I am 100% au fait with every nut, bolt and widget and the function of every single thing. This won’t be our last expansion so I wanted to be 1000% hands on with this one. We may do this at a bigger scale in the future so best to have some experience this time round.

I called a few contractors to get quotes for the build, they were all so outrageous I could not justify them, so instead I just went directly to every single supplier myself and project managed the whole thing. The steel structure, the roller doors, concrete, electrics, plumbing the food-safe flooring the whole lot. I built the thing for 40% of the lowest cost I was originally quoted. The cash I saved I ploughed into our distribution efforts.

The bonders blending room is a pretty simple affair, I designed it based on my (not great) experience of blending Batch One The Gael. I learned a lot from that. I also sense checked it with some industry bods, because I’m not full of hubris…though some retirees think I am…more of that later. The main kit in the blending room is comprised of a Vatting Tank, Blending Tank and a Proofing/Marrying tank. Think three tanks in a row, so I was after 3 stainless steel tanks of varying sizes one of which had a mixing blade.

I called a few manufacturers in Ireland for pricing and the like and was asked by all of them for a detailed engineers schematic of three tanks in a row. I said to them, “just imagine three tanks in a row, that’s it.” But it didn’t compute, so I drew three circles on to our floorplan scanned it and sent that over, that did the trick and I was able to get quotes. In the end I bought my tanks from a manufacturer overseas I met at a distillery conference. I called around a few mates who had also bought from them to ensure they were Kosher and 7 months later the tanks arrived on site. All shiny and lovely.  Then I lined them up in a row….with the help of my local agricultural contractor, my Dad  and a few neighbours.

Soon,  everything we make will be end to end done on site from Maturation, Disgorgement, Blending, Proofing, Bottling and DRINKING! I will have 100% control over every aspect of what we do without having to worry about booking a timeslot for bottling, or scrambling for a place to blend. I’ll be self-sufficient, my husband will attest to the fact that this is how I like to be…

My business model is not a whizz-bang/tourist offering/ shiny copper pot still/ type, which is a great business model for many. Rather mine is the small but mighty type. I plough money into sourcing whiskey and investing in its distribution, not in Infrastructure at this early stage. One of the great joys in my life currently is the fact that I learn all the time. I was the consummate corporate drone before I took the leap to do this and after 20 odd years the corporate world, you can plateau in what you can learn in that context. I’m kind of a geek at heart so for me choosing to learn about grades of  stainless steel is really fun…

I occasionally get a bit of stick from people who go out of the way to tell me they have loads of experience in the industry. I’ve been called a “New Girl” in the comments by one of those delightful auld fellas who also let me know he is about to retire….. Their thinking is that there is only one Way to make whiskey and one way to go about technically doing so. That might have been true here in Ireland for a long time, but its not anymore. There are quite a few others in the Indie scene who have approached their build in a smart rather than a spendy way out of a simple desire to do so and to be hands on.

I’m glad I took this approach, I now know every Tri-Clamp, fitting, grate and hose in the place. My business is growing exponentially we are exporting all over the planet now, and soon all my efforts will need to go into managing that expansion. I won’t always be on-site bottling and attaching hoses and all the rest, but I will be for a time to come and I’ll be loving every minute of it.

We just launched the World’s First Tequila/Mezcal Influenced Irish Whiskey #CinqoDeMayo

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I chose Mexican Fiesta Colours for the Label

Right well, there we are then. I’ve just managed to be the first Irish Whiskey Co. to launch an Irish Whiskey incorporating Mezcal and Tequila casks…..I do not think I will be the last…..

There are a few reasons for this, first of all, a Mexican family own one of our better known distilleries… and second of all the flavour profile of both these spirits is very hard to resist. Let me be very clear here, this is not a gimmicky ‘look at me’ release. This is something I thought about for a long time based on a desire to marry two flavour profiles that I absolutely love. As a bonder, I don’t distil and I never will, so I have to influence my sourced whiskies flavour in different ways. This is just what JJ Corry did in the 1890’s he had access to casks from all over the British Empire and bought rum, sherry, port, and Bordeaux casks and used those because that’s what he had access to back then. As a modern whiskey bonder with a global outlook, I have the privilege to be able to look farther afield. We live in a globalised world after all.

I have long been a fan of tequila, back in the day, I used to work on Don Julio and had the great pleasure of visiting the agave fields and distillery in Jalisco, Mexico. In the USA and indeed in Mexico; tequila is a more refined drink than perhaps it is over here in Europe. We have been catching on that the past few years, but if you think Limes & Salt and knocking it back when you hear the word tequila, you are doing it wrong.

The Agave plant is the base for both tequila and mezcal, although mezcal is made with a different varietal to tequila. Agave has a lovely vegetal herbal quality about it, and in good tequila this can really shine, put a little maturation on it and you get an incredibly refined spirit. Mezcal has seen explosive growth in recent years and I came to it only recently. I travel to the USA a lot and have had the chance to taste hapes of the stuff and learned about it initially from bartenders. When I started to really explore it, I realised that the production of mezcal is still mostly done by families in rural areas, its almost poitin like in its ethos and I loved that.

I started poking about into the connection between Ireland and Mexico and landed on the history of the Battalion Saint Patricos. This was a group of Irish men who defected from the American Army to fight on the side of the Mexicans in the Mexican/American War in the 1860’s. They were largely comprised of men from the West Coast of Ireland and indeed led by a Galway Man. I bought a few books and read all about this really interesting piece of history and I thought what better name than The Battalion for this whiskey as an homage to those brave men.

So, I decided last year to do a little experiment, while I was visiting a cooperage in Maine that I work with, I came across some tequila and mezcal casks.  I didn’t in this case go to Mexico for casks as I only wanted 4 casks to have a play with. I figured if it went well, I’d head down to Mexico, (it has and I’m planning a trip for the 2nd batch to source casks directly.) I put some 9 year old grain into the tequila and mezcal casks and pulled a 13 year old malt and put it into the mezcal. In the end they were in there for 8 months in total.

When you are extracting cask influence you never really know what is going to happen, especially if it has not been done before. Initially I was hoping to pull loud Mesquite smoke flavours from the mezcal cask, but it didn’t work out that way. Instead we saw delicious herbal notes coming through, so we decided to focus on that and blend the grain into a ratio of tequila/mexcal that we liked and then went ahead and added the malt.  The result then is what I’m calling a Cask Influenced whiskey, because its not a straight ‘Finish.’  As bonders that is an important differentiation, I want to ensure we are influencing the end whiskey at every possible touch point, and with this I feel we really have. I chose super bright Mexican fiesta colours for the label cause its really fun and we put a day of the dead style skull on the neck label, because it sort of reminds me of the Irish pagan symbol for Sile Na Gig.

In the end we went for a 60% grain 40% malt Blend at 41% ABV. Its only 700 bottles and its now on full allocation, it’ll be released in the UK, Germany and Ireland with maybe a tiny bit of the first batch going to the USA and a bigger second batch to follow. I’m super excited about this one, the first of our experimental cask influences, the first of many I hope.

Now its off to Mexico to source more casks for batch 2!

The Top Ten Things You Need to Know If You are Only Launching An Irish Whiskey Brand Today.

So, you’ve decided to become a billionaire by launching an Irish Whiskey Company, awesome, welcome to the Billionaire club.  Here is some advice from your friends in whiskey many of us who jumped on this particular bandwagon several years ago and are riding it all the way to Money town, just like you……

  1. You can’t get away with lying about a non existent distillery/distiller/ master blender anymore. Hyde screwed the pooch on this one a few years ago, and people actually stand up and take notice now and won’t tolerate it. You need to be open about what you are doing and not obfuscate the truth.
  2. You should not lie anyway, its in the bible, and its REALLY BAD for the Irish Whiskey category and all the rest of us if you are not 100% transparent about your approach to making whiskey. Consumers are not stupid and the more liars that come out in Irish Whiskey the worse it is for the rest of us.
  3. People won’t believe any old stuff about your water source or your amazing mind bending distillation techniques. Everyone knows that you are contract distilling at one of like 4 places in Ireland, just like the rest of us.
  4. Please don’t make films in the Nuns Island bonded warehouse, its really obvious.  Most people have their liquid there or at Stafford’s, its not a unique thing and its not your bonded warehouse so you can’t call yourself a Bonder either.
  5. Do read a few books about whiskey and learn about it, its easy to tell when people in the industry don’t understand much about the category. Hint, whiskey is not described as SMOOTH by and large…..
  6. Don’t say the 80% of whiskies flavour thing….I am personally guilty of that myself and I sort of regret it, its too debatable. Also don’t just throw in all the buzzwords, like Terrior, Bonding, hoping something will stick…..It’s too scattergun.
  7. Do realize that the whole CRAFT thing is dead. The term was so overused in the past 5 years that its meaningless now. If you have to shout craft all the time, it means you aint.
  8. Know that the engaged whiskeyphiles on social media will analyse and discuss what you are doing. They do not suffer fools lightly and their discussions are powerful and global in the whiskey media.
  9. Understand that being an Independent Bottler is actually an awesome brand position. Nobody in Irish Whiskey has claimed it yet, its well established in Scotland and if your blends are actually good, you can really blaze a trail.
  10. If you don’t love and want to protect this category for the future, you should not be entering it. We don’t need brands who are going to tarnish the reputation of our industry. We (the collective Indie Brands) are trying to build up the reputation of Independent Irish Whiskey through qualitative  blends and bottlings and authentic stories.  Don’t ruin it for the rest of us.

Irish Whiskey in Asia: Uncharted Territory

IMG_0103I’m whizzing along in the back of a taxi at the moment making my way from Seoul airport into town, its miles away apparently so I have time. I flew in this morning on the red-eye from Singapore managed about 3 hours of sleep on the flight, but I’m feeling energised nonetheless. I’m here with several of our fellow Indie whiskey and drinks producers on a trade mission with Bord Bia. The function of these trade missions is to bring Indie producers to potential markets and to assist in making introductions to potential customers and distributors. Its much more powerful traveling in a group, and we usually get the weight of the state behind us, with Irish Ambassadors in attendance and the like. I find great value in these trips and at the moment there are few things that make me happier than opening new markets for our whiskey and telling the story of Whiskey Bonding and our approach to it. Its also good fun to hang out with the guys from Clonakilty, Tipperary, Boann, and Drumshambo, its a fun group.

The first leg of the trip was a (relatively) big success for  J.J. Corry. I lived in Singapore for a few years and know the market pretty well so I had organised several meetings around the core Bord Bia event. I lined up an importer prior and threw a consumer event at a beautiful whiskey bar on Club street called Tipple and Dram. Ours was the first ever Irish Whiskey event they had ever had, we sold two bottles and after checking IWSR data we figured out that J.J. Corry now has about .03% market share of Irish Whiskey in Singapore…..That is to say guys, from a volume perspective Irish Whiskey is not a thing in Singapore… Yet.

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Our First Two Customers in Asia!!! 

Much of Asia  has a long, long history with Scotch, its tied to the colonial past and entrenched by the long term strategic  focus of Diageo and LVMH and Grants et al, on the region. I met several whiskeyphiles in Singapore at my event who go to Scotland at least once a year to whiskey festivals and have done for about a decade. They are avid collectors of Scotch and money is no object, not a single one of them had ever even considered hopping across the pond to Ireland to try our own wares.  I have always maintained that category education is not the job of Indie producers, we don’t have the resource or time for it. That is Pernod’s job, but unfortunately in Asia; Pernod has not focused on doing that, instead they go hard on Chivas and Ballentine’s both of which do pretty well here given the status of the scotch category.

In a way its sort of refreshing to stand in front of a crowd and tell the narrative of Irish Whiskey from my own perspective, which by the way is VERY BALANCED…. I might rant occasionally on the blog here but I present Irish whiskey in its best possible light at all times with the pubic. Its sort of nice here too that  I don’t get people asking me how my whiskey compares to Jameson as most people have not tasted Jameson anyway. Whiskey palates here are very, very sophisticated due to the entrenchment of scotch, so its nice to introduce people to a higher end Irish Whiskey as their first foray into the category. These guys would not be lower end whiskey drinkers by their nature, Proper 12 won’t fly here….. They are into distillery only bottlings, single casks etc, all from Scotland of course. Another key thing I’ve noticed here is American Craft Whiskey, there is more damn American craft whiskey on shelf here now than there is Irish, I’m a bit flummoxed by that to be honest…

Anyhoo, another reason I’m feeling energized, although less so that when I started writing this, is that I released as we were driving along, that whilst I’m here in Asia, Niamh our UK brand Ambassador is in Germany doing a whiskey show and Blaise our USA based manager is doing tastings in New York. We are all out and about telling the J.J. Corry story and the story of whskey bonding on 3 continents at the same time right now. Jaysys its like we are a bona fide ‘international’ whiskey brand. I kind of can’t believe it and it gives me a slight lump in my throat. Having said that selling 2 bottles in Singapore won’t keep the lights on, so I better sign off here and get back to work. We are in Seoul for a few days repeating what we did in Singapore and then off to Japan, where I’ll be meeting out importer and talking to lots of trade. Onwards and Upwards!

The Walsh Whiskey News is Not About Attrition Its about a Little Spoken of Issue in Irish Whiskey #IrishWhiskey

Our AGM finished up yesterday morning and I waved my Investors off to the airport so they could return to their respective countries of residence. We spent almost 4 days together going over everything J.J. Corry past, present and future. We talked through, overhead, portfolio line up, expansion plans, distribution, marketing, and most importantly FINANCING plans. I am very fortunate to have investor partners who are also now very good friends. We are deadly serious about our business, but we have a very good time along the way (it’s a whiskey business for god’s sake….we better be having fun). It means a lot to me that my brilliant capital partners took the chance to believe in me as a founder and believe in our whiskey business.   Less than 2% of VC funding goes to Women Founded businesses. That sort of number is about right for programs like EIIS and all manner of Irish funding schemes too, however raising money for a whiskey business is NOT easy regardless of your gender.

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My Awesome Capital Partners Convened This weekend.

We never read in the Irish media, about the knock down drag out difficulties of financing what is basically a cash dump business in for the first decade or so. Yet the most important element in Irish Whiskey right now for those entering the market is liquid acquisition and/or production and to do either of those things you need very serious capital if you wish to be a real player in the industry. There are a few ways to get very serious capital.

  1. You either have it yourself personally and are willing to invest it
  2. You have a track record in selling a similar business, you have some capital, but banks will extend you significant credit based on your history
  3. You seek external equity investment
  4. You are a multinational

There are a few examples of 1 and 2 in the Irish Whiskey world and wouldn’t we all like to be in their position, there are FAR more examples of No. 3 that you may or may not know of everyone else is in the 4 bracket.  External investment means that you give up some ownership of your business, but you get access to the capital you need to grow it. The big issue about external investment is that you become accountable to your investor partners. You are taking their money after all. You had better be damn sure that they are in alignment with your business model and long term plans from the very beginning or you end up in a corporate divorce situation like Walsh has with IIlva Saronno, or a fatalistic shutdown like Quiet Man and Luxco.

The Walsh’s built a good business over the last decade or so and after starting off as an Independent bottler sourcing whiskey, went and landed  strategic investment with multinational IIlva Saronno, the people who make Disaronno, Southern Comfort and all manner of other brands you have heard of. This was a smart partnership as it allowed them to raise the capital to grow the business AND to build their own distillery, solving several issues at once. It was starkly and surprisingly announced at the end of last week that Walsh Distillery is no longer Walsh Distillery, rather Saronno have taken control of the production facility and with immediate effect it will be re-branded Royal Oak Distillery and Saronno will now control all products coming out of there. Walsh retains all their brands and goes back to being an independent bottler with a great portfolio and a growing business but no distillery with their name on it anymore, which can’t be fun.

I think its really important to point out for our industry, that these two cases are NOT symptomatic of Attrition in Irish Whiskey. Rather they are simply individual cases where strategic investment deals or partnerships simply did not pan out. What we have here are growing pains around financing the demand for Irish Whiskey Globally, NOT the beginning of the end.

As a fellow whiskey entrepreneur I have great sympathy for both of those brand founders,  I fully appreciate the daily WAR it is to build an Irish Whiskey Brand. Its hyper competitive, the big guys are not that enthusiastic about the small guys and are aggressive in rattling our cages. We have to fight much harder than any multinational ever had to win placements and expand our export markets. These kinds of setbacks are utterly devastating on a personal level, but whiskey entrepreneurs are a tenacious lot. You don’t get into the business or stay in it without being bloody minded. I wish both of these businesses and their people the very best for the future.

However, the reality here is that in the next few years, most wannabe players in the industry will HAVE to court strategic investment in order to grow. It is vital to aid in distribution growth and stock acquisition. Walsh may be the first corporate divorce  we see in the industry but it won’t be the last in the coming few decades, partnerships come and go, but for now Irish Whiskey remains in growth.

 

 

All About our New Bonder’s Blending Room & Why Its Important Part 1

It was great to see so many friends last week at Whiskey Live, lots of you came up to me to say hello and most encouragingly let me know you enjoyed following our story and love our whiskey and what we are up to here. I have not been particularly good in the past year on Blog Posts simply due to the fact that we hit the market and I’ve not had the time. I’ve decided to correct that in the coming year and you’ll be hearing a lot more from me. Whether you want to or not.

The last quarter of this year has been utterly bonkers. I have not had a day off since sometime in late September, I’ve been blending and proofing like a mad person, in addition to labeling, boxing and shipping orders. Its been incredibly inefficient and time consuming, specifically because our Bonder’s Blending Room is not ready and neither are we in reality.

I decided to build the Bonder’s Blending Room the day we got the first bottling of the Gael in the bottle. It took me about 4 months to sort out bottling for Gael Batch one, because at a mere 7000 bottles the run was too small for any of the 3 commercial bottlers here in Ireland to take on. There was not a single bottler who could accommodate our blend as nobody had a tank small enough for it.  So, the GND were kind enough to bring in a small tank for us so we could get it done. The tanks did the job as did the guys at GND but did not have external gauges and there was a moment during the blend we thought we had added too much 26 year old…..It was nail-biting.

Once we got the batch blended we could not get a time-slot for bottling as it was coming into September and busy time for the multinationals. In the end at the bottling plant there was a last-minute cancellation by another brand.  I got in the car with my hi-vis vest on and drove down to the bottlers and refused to leave the floor of the bottling hall until the boxes started to roll off the line. I was there for 6 hours and I left as the first box came off the line as I had to go and do a tasting back in Clare. As I drove back I vowed that it would be the last time that I would not have total control over our production and I decided to build the Bonder’s Blending Room.

So, where are we now? Well….waaaaaaaay behind where I would like us to be. Like I thought we’d be finished by now, we are not, we are however tantalizingly close.  Back in June, we were granted planning permission and I got in contractors to quote for it, they all quoted such INSANE numbers I decided to project manage the thing myself. It is not to be frank a complicated build, it’s a damn shed not the Taj Mahal. We are boot-strapping here not building a Tourism Center (Thank God). We needed a basic structure inside of which we could precision blend.

So, I got in all the various sub-contractors myself and off we went in July. I went to an Agricultural shed builders who built my neighbors new cow shed for the Steel Structure and then went on a mad learning spree about tri-clamps, flanges, Y bends and stainless steel. My technical knowledge tends to come from the USA, I spend a lot of time there and have good buddies in the craft distilling scene. The craft distillers in the USA are pro-risk and tend to just bash on and do things, which is what I like to do. They focus on over-speccing the right things and just making do on things that are less important. They understand you don’t need the latest piece of kit for absolutely everything and they are budget concious.  Hence, their set-ups are far closer to what I am looking for here on site so I have learned a lot by spending time with small scale distillers in the USA and learning about their steam-punk set-ups. I gained enough confidence to spec the new blending tanks and put the order in direct to the specialist supplier.

I also started to realise that a lot of the kit I needed can be found in my local Farmers Co-Op or by poking around milking parlour set-ups. Food Grade stainless steel and filtration systems are also used in the diary industry. So, I have sourced quite a lot of kit (where appropriate) from agricultural suppliers. My disgorgement tank is a second-hand Milk Bulk tank that has been re-purposed, I use milk filter socks pretty liberally for removing cask char, they work and absolute treat like any standard 10 micron filter media unit, but instead of ordering them from a fancy Scottish supplier I can nip down the co-op buy a few packs. We are making whiskey on a Farm after all, so I feel its wholly appropriate we pull inspiration and work smart when it comes to kitting things out.

To really become a modern Irish whiskey bonder it is vital that I can control all production (except distillation) on site, for a number of reasons. I feel totally responsible for shepherding new-make whiskey stock from the moment it comes off the still. I buy my own casks and match them to the spirit profile, I mature on site and religiously monitor maturation conditions, it makes total sense then that I would have 100% control and involvement in all elements of blending our mature stock too. Some of the blends we have lined up are hyper complicated. I need to have full control of that it is not a job for a 3rd party. I’m hoping to ultimately get protection for the term whiskey bonding. This Bonder’s Blending Room is not only vital to us continuing to create great whiskey, it sets a standard for the term which is above and beyond Independent Bottling. More importantly it sets a standard that is utterly reachable for anyone actually serious about whiskey bonding. It did not cost the earth.

We’ve managed to win Best Irish Single Malt at the recent Irish Whiskey Awards with a whiskey partially filtered using 10 Micron Milk Filter socks after all…. Stay tuned in the next installment we’ll talk about how to unload a Shipping Container full of blending tanks using only your wits and by making a few phone calls to the local Silage Contractor….I bet the Jackeens don’t have those resources on call in the Dublin’s Liberties!

What a lot of People Will Be Talking about at @WhiskeyLiveDub this weekend.

Well, ironically enough I won’t be able to make the first evening tonight of Whiskey Live as I am here on site in Clare awaiting delivery of our blending tanks for our Bonder’s Blending Room which arrive all the way from Ningbo today.  Meanwhile just yesterday we saw our very first shutdown of  a high profile distillery build, The Quiet Man Distillery in Derry. It is a bit of a shocker.

The Quiet Man was initially founded by Niche Drinks who have a good long track record in the lower end of the alcohol market, mostly trading in Irish cream liquors and sugary ‘Oirish’  drinks for the American market. Their Quiet Man whiskey when they launched  did well as they had a good distribution network and they were able to find a market for it. That alone would give them a good chance of success which is what is needed in the sinkhole of capital that is the whiskey business.

There are a lot of distilleries still in various stages of planning and construction around the country and the clock is ticking on that. Whiskey is a cyclical beast, you only have to look at the history of the more robust Scotch industry over the past 50 or 100 years to track the historic commercial trends and changes that our newly re-formed industry is going to be subject to in the coming years. Many would argue that now is not actually the right time to be building a distillery at all, if its not already in production its too late. I’m not sure about that but I think we are fast approaching that moment. The Quiet Man Distillery  I would have thought was just about on the right side of the curve.

Furthermore, they were in my mind one who would absolutely make in a large part due to the brands acquisition by LUXCO earlier on this year. The $15 Million distillery surely would be a goer given they had serious backing, planning permission, an established route to market and a decent brand. Of all the projects underway at the moment it seemed to me that this one was a sure runner. I followed along for a while and noticed that construction had started, and it was all go for The Quiet Man in Derry. It was actually nice for me to see an independent brand make it happen in this way.

It seems though that something may have gone awry in the Summer. The last post on their twitter feed is a picture of their Frilli stills in production in Italy dated 14th August and then there is radio silence on that particular feed, not a good sign. If our twitter ever goes quiet please will someone send in the police and the fire brigade because something is badly wrong……

So what happened?? How bad does it actually have to be to pull a distillery project smack dab in the middle of construction? I mean pulling it when its still on paper is one thing, several distilleries here with planning permission will never have a brick laid, but this was well underway. I mean the stills were being made!  Luxoco are no newbies to distillery construction having recently opened a $38 million distillery in bourbon country, in addition to a tequila distillery in Mexico.  A Luxco representative said to the BBC it was due to ‘commercial reasons’ which is about as vague as it gets. Is this a Luxco capital issue?? (I doubt it) or is it something else? Brexit? Lack of Mature Supply? Something more sinister? What could it be? Does it mean the end of the Quiet Man brand? Or just the distillery? Its not clear.

Furthermore, what does this mean for the rest of the industry? Will this spook investors out there currently eyeing up plans for shiny distilleries and will it make it more difficult for the many, many folks out there trying to finalise capital for their projects? This is a confounding one. I don’t see this as Attrition, I continue to believe we are not at that point in the rebirth of the industry just yet. I don’t know if this is a harbinger of things to come or just a blip. But it will most certainly be something I’ll be nattering about with my fellow producers. I’ll see you there on Saturday folks.

I have a Bonder’s Blending Room (not a distillery) to build today.

My Take on the New Notorious Whiskey

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?

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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.

The Term Irish Whiskey Bonder Must Be Protected Before It Becomes Meaningless #IrishWhiskey

I am currently in discussions with three different entrepreneurs who are hoping to become Whiskey Bonders.  They heard of my story and reached out to me to talk about the practice. I share what insight and knowledge I can with them and we talk every few weeks or months about how they are getting on. All of these entrepreneurs  have plans for Bonded warehouses that they are either constructing or converting. They are working through the issues of securing a bond and all the Mad Stuff that you need to do to become a Modern Whiskey Bonder here in Ireland. It’s a really long road and one that can drive you to distraction. I am really happy that we will soon have more Bonders on this Island, I’ve always said that we would not be the last and I will soon be proven right. Furthermore the company name Dublin Whiskey Bonders has recently been registered so we can conclude this is a bit of a serious  trend.

We are Ireland’s First Modern Whiskey Bonder in living memory, what exactly does that mean though? Well, first off the bat it is NOT simply a marketing term, if it was I would just have rented space in a bonded warehouse and called myself a Bonder and used it exclusively as a marketing hook.  That would have been way easier and cheaper. No, Bonding is key part of the very bones and heritage of the Irish Whiskey Industry. When I decided to bring it back I genuinely felt a responsibility on my shoulders to ensure it would mean something to our industry which is in an unprecedented resurgence. It is a clever business model and yes it does make a good and unique selling point. However for me, it is all about being open and honest about sourcing whiskey and dedicating myself to the care and production of that sourced whiskey to create something the Irish Whiskey Industry can be proud to call its own. Further more I am of the firm belief that we need varied and diverse maturation and production locations to foster a sense of regionalism that is so vital to Scotch and that has been all but lost here in Ireland.

Back in March I went through the Airport and picked up some printed information on a brand  who make pretty good whiskey but had been called out in the industry for citing work by a Master Blender and a Master Distiller whose existence or qualifications were questioned.   I was really dismayed to see that the brand had now pivoted to Bonding as their new backstory. They are now claiming the heritage of Bonding and the story that I brought to the world out of the dark as a core part of their brand essence. To the best of my knowledge the brand did not mention it until AFTER they were vilified fairly publicly about false labeling. Annoying for me? Yes but is to be expected, of course, Imitation is the highest form of flattery, it means you are on to something. What really riled me though about what I saw written down is that it seemed like for that brand “Bonding”  was easy pickings. Bonding, because it did not exist for a few generations has no definition or legal protection and I think we need protection. So, I wrote a letter to the powers that be back in March asking for assistance. Below is the basic content and definition of Bonding that I would like to have properly defined, this is paraphrased directly from the letter sent back in March.

My business model as you know is that of Whiskey Bonding. This is landing well in the USA, UK, Germany and other markets we are opening. American Bonded whiskey has a specific protected definition and is a growing trend in the US. Currently in Ireland there is no protection or definition of quality around the term Irish Whiskey Bonder. To that end there are independent bottlers  who are claiming to be Bonders although they do not possess a Bond.
This is the equivalent of claiming to be a distillery without a distillery. 
Our business model and definition of Bonding stands for the following.
  • We are a Revenue Verified Irish Whiskey Maturation Facility
  • We do NOT distill our own spirit
  • We source casks with particular flavour profiles 
  • We source spirit from distilleries 
  • We match cask to spirit
  • We mature it in our own controlled bonded warehouse and oversee the maturation process
  • We blend it and bottle it on site 
  • In the case of mature whiskey releases we source WE SOURCE LIVING CASKS NOT BULK INERT WHISKEY and we blend and bottle on site 
In essence in terms of quality we Shepard the spirit in every aspect from the moment it comes off the still until it is bottled. In the case of mature whiskey we source living casks not bulk whiskey for bottling.
I am currently in discussions with THREE other businesses who are in the process of setting up Bonding Businesses (with their own bond) . This sub category of whiskey is going to grow and we need to protect it. As you will know it was once the most common business model for whiskey in Ireland until the 1930’s we can expect it to grow again. 
I would like to see protection and definition for the term BONDED IRISH WHISKEY in the technical file. If we don’t protect this sub category which is going to grow significantly  the term will be meaningless and abused. ” END 
Now many of you will know I myself am not yet doing all the things I list above, my blending and bottling line is not yet finished for example. But I am working towards all of these things, I expect it to be ready in Q4. Why? Because all of these various elements are a mark of QUALITY CONTROL outside of distillation. I do not distil my own spirit so I better be damn sure that from the moment it comes off the still until its put into bottle that its well looked after and I have influence on it, otherwise why bother? I can just become an Independent Bottler which is TOTALLY FINE. Some of the whiskies I admire most are from Independent Bottlers in Scotland. Here is the difference though. Irish Whiskey Bonding is a part of our heritage. It is as unique as Single Pot Still and for Irish Whiskey to compete properly in the global market we need sub categories that are well defined and stand for QUALITY and uniqueness not just marketing Bumpf.

This where I stand on this subject, if I rail a little on social media about it as I have in recent days, its because I know the struggles those other entrepreneurs are going through to set up their businesses, I know that in spite of the sleepless nights the nail-biting and the fact that I put my house and my horse up as collateral for my bond I would put it all on the line as I do every day and do it all again.

Because I brought Irish Whiskey Bonding back, I opened a door that I hope will bring our category to a wider audience and that will help make the marketplace more diverse and modern an appealing to new whiskey drinkers. I’m holding that door open for other Bonders who are willing to make the effort and hold themselves to a quality and production standard.

For anyone simply using the term as their heritage pillar in their marketing materials; the door is firmly closed.

Is Brexit & The Looming Whiskey War Actually a Strategic Advantage for Irish Whiskey? #TradeWar Blogpost

I’ve had a few calls this week from various media outlets in relation to the possible fallout from the looming USA/EU trade war. President Trump announced late last week he would slap tariffs on EU Steel and the like. The EU had been readying themselves for this and are finalising their own Volley of tarrifs right back at him. American Whiskey is high on the list of products the EU intend to tariff to the tune of approx 25% I understand. There is a fear that the USA will counter volley and slap tarrifs on EU Whiskey of course the biggest exposure here is Scotch & Irish Whiskey.

I read with dismay Alarmist headlines stating that this would “destroy” the industry. That is super unhelpful for Indie brands like mine. We are in a constant state of either fundraising or belief raising in our businesses. Having extreme negative language thrown around about our industry is unhelpful and makes it a lot harder to do both of those things for a burgeoning business. Don’t get me wrong I am very concerned about tariffs and I am planning accordingly to mitigate my exposure and risk, that is what one does in business. Panic mongering may draw attention to the issue but it will not instil confidence in the category or those considering investing in it, and as an Indie producer I CARE about what those people think……

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Trump Vodka No Longer Exists so is Exempt….

Whilst Geopolitical circumstance decimated the Irish Whiskey industry once before, it was a conflagration of War, Famine, More War, Prohibition, Economic War and a lack of innovation COMBINED  over about 50 years which destroyed the industry the first time around. Whiskey is a very, very long game, President Trump has a maximum of 6 years left in office..

I have another take on the current volatile geopolitical situation  I believe that, this time, we are on the right side of history.  Are you ready for a curve ball?

Our corporate overlords in the Scotch Whiskey Association have had it pretty sweet for a long time. By and large you can argue that they have done more good than harm in Scotch, they protect it like MaMa Bears for sure and they have made life a lot easier legislatively for Scotch producers than it is for Irish producers in-country. However your stance on that may be very different if you are a new Scotland based whiskey producer trying to innovate and release interesting whiskies in good faith. Even Diageo got the smackdown over suggesting Tequila barrel maturation recently. The reason I have to change my label to reveal LESS information about the components in my blend is because of an EU regulation the SWA defend like a pack of wild dogs. By telling you everything in my blend and its exact percentages I can be taken to court for MISLEADING the consumer thanks to EU  regulation 110/2008 that the SWA hold so dear, I am only allowed to tell you the youngest component….Go figure.

This reign of terror/benevolence however you’d like to categorise it is however about to end. Why? Well, after March of next year technically Scotland is not in Europe anymore and technically the SWA looses its seat at the lobbying table in the Hague. The SWA currently sits in the biggest baddest chair right now when it comes to spirits lobbying within the EU. Once Brexit happens they will be cut loose. This will leave a big whiskey shaped hole at the Lobbying table……Enter Ireland.

Now pile on top of that the fact that we have a trade war brewing and the next few years is going to be an “In the Thick of It” or “Veep” style scenario in the Hague between spirits lobbying bodies and MEP’s. The stakes have just gotten higher and EU lobbying intensity is about to kick into high gear and it is Ireland who will need to pick up the mantle and lead the European spirits industry though all of this as the SWA are buggering off in March.

Suddenly we have more control over our own destiny in many ways than we have ever had before. We could if we REALLY wanted to convince the EU to amend regulation 110/2008 to allow producers like me to fully list our blend components totally transparently. Already our Irish regs are a smidgin more progressive than that of Scotland we could if we wanted to lead whiskey into a bright new innovative and progressive future where its going anyway due to consumer demand. This time around it looks like its Scotch is the industry rejecting innovation and Ireland embracing it, a bit.

Now coincidentally the membership make-up of the SWA in terms of multinationals  is basically identical to that of the IWA.  So whilst the most influential spirits body at the EU level is about to change, its membership make-up and their agendas will stay the same. I’d like to think though that because the organisation is fresher & younger (I’m in it for a start!) that the status quo won’t be maintained. We have a real opportunity here to have a voice and to agitate for positive change in our category and to make life a bit easier for the upcoming Indie players who ultimately will shape the future of the  industry and keep it exciting for whiskey lovers.

tenorWith great power comes great responsibility, as Ru Paul would say “Just Don’t F@ck it Up.”