Doing it for the kids: Cooney's new €20m distillery and brewhouse
It's a family affair as Drogheda gets its first distillery in almost half a century. Gavin McLoughlin meets the man behind the dream turned into reality
Pat Cooney's new venture isn't about him - it's about his family. Cooney, who agreed to sell most of his drinks distribution business the Gleeson Group to Bulmers maker C&C in 2012, is back in the news after last week announcing plans for a €20m distillery and brewhouse in Drogheda. The project will create 80 jobs, and four of his children are involved.
He's 68 years old - an age where many might think of heading into retirement after selling a business. Not Cooney.
"It's about the family. I've four of the family working with me, Sally-Anne, Peter, Patrick and James are working in the business, all with different roles. "They are now the shareholders in the company, not me. This is really their future. I suppose my contribution is to establish it, put all the kit together. This is something that I have experience in," Cooney told the Irish Independent.
"Every one of them has a different role, they're not competing with each other, and they're all passionately involved in it and they all are really, really ambitious for the future."
The money for the project comes substantially from family funds, with some help from AIB and Enterprise Ireland.
Cooney wants to turn the site, located just off the M1 motorway, into a tourist attraction. He plans to give visitors a hands-on tour of the entire facility - from milling to mashing to fermenting.
It's located in the historic Boyne Valley, site of attractions like Newgrange, and Cooney hopes he'll be able to get in excess of 100,000 visitors through the doors every year.
He's the man who built the Gleeson Group into a major player in the Irish drinks business. It manufactured Finches soft drinks and Tipperary mineral water and was the largest distributor of packaged long-alcoholic drinks to this country's on trade. It grew to employ 750 people and post annual turnover of €300m, but was heavily reliant on the domestic economy.
Then the economy went "through the floor". Cooney sold off most of the business, holding on to the Merry's cream liqueur business and the Group's cider business. Now he's changing his point of emphasis - focusing more on the export market, which for whiskey alone is set to double by 2020, according to the Irish Whiskey Association.
"Bord Bia has identified the Irish drinks industry as an area for real potential future growth - they define the drinks industry as cream liqueurs, whiskeys, white spirits like gin, craft beers and craft cider," Cooney says.
What we're trying to do with this project is tick all the boxes. We have the cream liqueur, we have the craft cider, what we want to do now is the craft beers, the whiskeys and the gins."
The Merry's cream liqueur business is growing by 15pc-20pc a year, mainly from exports. Cooney exports to 35 countries and hopes this will provide a gateway to market for the new products.
"Merry's is doing extremely well. We're just rebranding all the products that are there. Merry's is our main brand but we also do a lot of own-label cream liqueurs for people like Aldi, Carrefour, lots of different supermarket groups... we're just appointing from the end of September our continental sales representative based in Berlin, so we do expect great things from our cream liqueurs.
"If you look at the whiskey business, Bord Bia expects the Irish whiskey industry to grow from at the moment about 6.75m cases to 20m cases by 2025 or thereabouts, so that's really a tripling of the workd Irish whiskey industry over the next 10 years...we do expect to be able to develop quite a strong export sales market for our whiskey offerings."
As for the gin, Cooney says that the rise of the cocktail has made the drink - previously seen as an older person's drink - more popular with young people. Gin is experiencing quite a revival worldwide... it's really coming into its own.
"We'll be launching a fine-dining restaurant when we're fully up and running and we'll have guest chefs matching our beers, and we hope to have guest brewers matching our food, so we want to bring a lot of interest and a lot of curiosity as to how you match beer with food, and food with beer, and we think there's a great future for that.
Cooney has always wanted to make whiskey - calling it a "nagging ambition". He says that to be able to set up the venture in his hometown is an added bonus.
"Drogheda was once home to 18 local distilleries, which slowly declined to just one by 1822," said Miriam Mooney of the Irish Whiskey Association.
"The opening of Boann Distillery today is another clear sign that Irish whiskey is on the way back, with 26 new or proposed distilleries across the country.
"The existing players have driven the global renaissance in Irish whiskey with double-digit growth prospects. The potential is massive when we compare Ireland to Scotland, with over 130 Scottish distilleries in operation, bringing investment and employment into rural areas."
Cooney intends to draw on the mythology of the area - the Boyne Valley - for the products' names. The name "Boann" comes from the goddess of the Boyne river.
"We looked at a lot of places, but I initially wanted some place along the Boyne Valley because of the history and heritage of the river. We looked at a lot of old mills and we looked a lot of old buildings, and then we bought one in Navan.
But while we were completing the deal for the one in Navan, this particular building in Drogheda came up - it's a glass building with glass to the front and glass to the side, it's just 200 metres off the M1, it's actually visible from the M1."
It'll be the first time since 1968 that a distillery has been in the town.