| 5.6°C Dublin

From getting into the spirit of Whiskey in the Jar to creating his own spirit – Alex Conyngham on growing the Slane Whiskey brand

Slane Whiskey’s Alex Conyngham tells Sean Pollock how his rock ’n’ roll childhood and business acumen helped build a spirited venture

Close

Alex Conyngham in Slane Castle Distillery. Photo: David Conachy

Alex Conyngham in Slane Castle Distillery. Photo: David Conachy

Alex Conyngham in Slane Castle Distillery. Photo: David Conachy

Alex Conyngham was just six years old as he stood watching Thin Lizzy and its frontman Phil Lynott belt out rock and roll classics. What he didn’t realise at that point was that one of Philo’s songs would go on to play a substantial role in him starting a now-internationally recognised business.

In 1981, around 20,000 people journeyed to Slane Castle in Co Meath for the 18th-century estate’s first rock concert to watch Thin Lizzy and U2 perform in a field by the banks of the River Boyne.

Despite his young age at the time, Conyngham, also known as the Earl of Mount Charles, was among the crowd, but he didn’t have to travel far – it was in his front garden.

“Someone locally sent me a photograph of that day and in the background next to the castle door is a scrawny little kid, with runners, jeans, no top on and hair all over the place,” he says, with a laugh. “That was me getting into the spirit of things.”

Conyngham’s dad, Lord Henry Mount Charles, owns Slane Castle and has organised its famous rock concert ever since. Thin Lizzy’s Whiskey in the Jar became the song that Mount Charles played as the closing tune at the Slane Castle nightclub, eventually inspiring father and son to create Slane Irish Whiskey.

“Back in the days when the national anthem was played at the end of the night in rural nightclubs, dad felt that this was a much better way to end an evening and so he would play the Thin Lizzy tune, Whiskey in the Jar, instead, and this is what planted the seed for the whiskey project.”

The whiskey brand has been on some journey since it first launched in 2009 as Slane Castle Irish Whiskey.

From the lows of having its supply cut off in 2012 to the high of being bought three years later by industry heavyweight Brown-Forman, which owns US bourbon brand Jack Daniel’s, the brand has been on a real rollercoaster ride.

Since the first gig in 1981, Slane Castle has become synonymous with rock fans worldwide, with acts including icons such as The Rolling Stones, Queen, David Bowie and Metallica. The Slane whiskey project has been inspired by the concert’s success and a desire to diversify income.

“We had built up a brand awareness through the gigs at Slane, and if for any reason live music was under threat, we were overly reliant on that source of income,” says Conyngham.

“It was Dad’s idea, he suggested whiskey, and it made sense for all kinds of reasons.”

Co-founder Conyngham, now a global brand ambassador  for Slane Irish Whiskey, is helping the family’s creation mature alongside owner Brown-Forman.

Since the Brown-Forman acquisition, Slane has sourced whiskey for its core brand, while its distillery produces liquid for future products.

‘We had built up a brand awareness through the gigs at Slane’

The core brand has enjoyed success, with more than 40,000 nine-litre cases sold in its last fiscal year between April and May, an increase of 44pc on the previous year.

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of business.

This field is required

“We are happy with how it is going,” Conyngham says. “The growth in America has been the driving force.

“Just last week, I was in Florida and Nevada, two relatively warm states that you wouldn’t think whiskey salers are that strong, but if you look at the data, there we are flying. We are very happy – we have had double-digit growth since we started. From a small base, we are growing fast.”

Slane Irish Whiskey was bought in 2015 by Brown-Forman, which announced it would invest €50m in the company and a new distillery and visitor centre on the famous estate. The distillery was completed in 2017, with the first cask filled one year later.

Conyngham says Brown-Forman has brought Slane’s whiskey to another level, helped by its ability to access quality casks and experience building quality brands. In addition, he cites the success of Brown-Forman’s strength in the US and global market through its Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve brands.

“Our core blend will remain an accessible-to-premium brand, and that’s where the bulk of the volume will come from,” he says. “But, as our new whiskeys and ultra-premium offerings come online, we will also participate in that market. In terms of Brown-Forman’s ambition, if they can pull off another Jack Daniel’s with Slane, then we will all be happy. That is why they invested – they have big ambitions for this brand.”

International expansion, particularly in the US, is key to further growth.

With its Slane distillery, Conyngham says there are two phases to getting its own liquid into bottles. The first would be starting the transition of putting some of its own liquid into the core blend, which is about “18 to 24 months away”. The second is when Slane releases standalone product entirely made at the distillery. This would be “ready when it is ready”.

“We won’t rush to release stuff,” he says. “The quality has to be right first.”

Filling the first cask in 2018 was a particularly proud moment, says Conyngham. “I had my dad, who wasn’t well at the time, and my son Rory, who was eight, attending. I remember turning around to him and saying, ‘we will be cracking this barrel open on your 18th birthday. It is going to be one hell of a party’.”

Close

Alex Conyngham in Slane Castle Distillery. Photo: David Conachy

Alex Conyngham in Slane Castle Distillery. Photo: David Conachy

Alex Conyngham in Slane Castle Distillery. Photo: David Conachy

Growing up around Slane Castle and its famous music concert, Conyngham was introduced to music royalty from an early age. He fondly recalls memories of U2 frontman Bono chasing him around his home as a child and guiding visiting VIPs arriving at the 18th-century estate in helicopters to the stage. “Dad put us to work early on in the gigs,” he says. “It was always amusing for those arriving by helicopter because they would be used to being greeted by security guards, but instead, it was young, squeaky kids saying, ‘welcome to Slane’.”

Inspired by the gigs and nightclub venture, Conyngham recognised from an early age the importance of being entrepreneurial to help the estate thrive. He currently has other business interests at the Slane estate, including the day-to-day operations of Slane Castle, glamping site Rock Farm Slane and a new festival called Otherside, which is to be repeated in 2023.

“We have a whole slew of different businesses – as well as the gigs. So all of that is needed to keep the place going,” he says.

After university, Conyngham was first exposed to the world of whiskey in 1999 when he landed a role as an ambassador for Jameson in Australia.

Conyngham returned to Ireland around 2002, starting a business with his brother in the packaging space for CDs and MiniDiscs. Unfortunately, despite some early success, including wins with AOL, it never worked out.

After a career in the world of fine art, he realised he wanted to get back into business and went off to study in South Africa in 2005. He got involved in the renewable energy space, with plans to return to Ireland.

In 2008, the whiskey project started, with Conyngham sharing his time between the venture and work at an Irish start-up within renewables. He decided to focus full-time on whiskey around 2010. Conyngham hoped to establish the Slane Castle Irish Whiskey brand in the US, and the family put in the effort, building up a good bit of momentum before disaster struck.

‘If they can pull off another Jack Daniel’s with Slane, then we will all be happy’

US alcohol giant Jim Beam bought Cooley Distillery in Co Louth in 2012. Subsequently, Slane’s source of whiskey was cut off, forcing it into hibernation. It was a challenging moment for Conyngham, but he wouldn’t let the setback cost them the brand.

Conyngham and his dad set plans in motion to build a distillery on the estate. He recognised it was going to be challenging. “We were on to a good thing at that stage. We saw the potential for the brand idea of Slane being attached to whiskey. We had shown it was credible,” he says.


Conyngham went hunting for a backer, with Brown-Forman buying the brand in 2015. Conyngham’s role has evolved into being the main global ambassador, but he also advises the international team on strategy, geographic expansion, branding and portfolio development.

With the distillery fully functioning, whiskey maturing and the visitor centre bringing in tourists, Conyngham has watched and helped Brown-Forman accelerate growth worldwide.

Conyngham says Slane’s core whiskey product was designed to be accessible and affordable.

“We built our future around a brand with a core offering that will continue to be affordable and accessible, even in difficult times,” he says. “That was always the strategy.”

Beyond consumer confidence, inflation has resulted in other issues for the whiskey industry. For example, input costs across raw materials have surged, including for barley, glass and energy.

“Increases tend to be anywhere between 20pc and 40pc, depending on the item,” says Conyngham. “It is significant, for sure, and that will affect business. However, we are hoping these things will stabilise.”

Competition in the whiskey space is also fierce, with over 40 distilleries either operating or in the planning and construction stage across the island of Ireland.

However, Conyngham says Slane has stayed focused on its offering, with its route to market and price point crucial to its success. He believes there will be a slowdown in the pace of new distilleries springing up.

Despite this, he expects more international investment to pour into the Irish whiskey category.

Despite some of the challenges the sector faces, Conyngham is excited about the future of Slane Whiskey.

The distillery hopes to expand and improve its visitor centre offering, release its own distillery-produced premium products and grow geographically, backed by solid investment and belief from owner Brown-Forman. “We are in uncertain times, but the future of Irish whiskey is very bright,” he says. “There is huge potential there.”

Close

Alex Conyngham and his wife Carina at Slane Castle. Photo: David Conachy

Alex Conyngham and his wife Carina at Slane Castle. Photo: David Conachy

Alex Conyngham and his wife Carina at Slane Castle. Photo: David Conachy

CURRICULUM VITAE

Name:
Alexander Conyngham, Earl of Mount Charles
Age:
47
Position:
Co-founder of Slane Irish Whiskey. Also runs Slane Castle.
Lives:
Slane Castle, Co Meath
Family:
Married to Carina, their children are Laragh (13), Rory (12) and Caspar (10).
Education:
Harrow in the UK. Studied in Trinity College Dublin, as well as an MBA at UCD Smurfit Business School and a further degree in Cape Town.
Favourite hobby:
I really enjoy tennis, but also out walking with the dogs and fishing when I can.
Favourite book:
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami.
Favourite whiskey produced by Slane:
An extra sherry wood that was done for travel retail.
Favourite whiskey not produced by Slane:

Old Forester 1910

BUSINESS LESSONS

What is the best piece of business advice that you have ever received?
Never be afraid to hire someone who can do your job better than you can. I think you have to be prepared to take a risk. Starting a business is not for everyone – there were definitely sleepless nights on this project.
Unless you’re willing to come close to losing your shirt, don’t put yourself through it.

What advice would you give to those starting their own whiskey brands?

You need to think very carefully about route to market plans.
Unless you have a clear path as to how you can get your product out into the world, I would work on that bit first.


Related topics


Most Watched





Privacy