Thursday 14 December 2017

Irish whiskey supremo called from the Bar to the world of distilleries

A barrister by profession, Miriam Mooney found her true calling promoting Irish whiskey to the globe. And it's a product that's taking the world by storm, she tells Colm Kelpie

Miriam Mooney, Irish Spirits
Miriam Mooney, Irish Spirits

Earlier this month, business magazine 'Fortune' hailed the resurgence of Irish whiskey in the United States. Under a headline proclaiming that the drink wasn't just for St Patrick's Day, the publication - one of America's major business reads - marvelled at its soaring sales in the American market.

"Irish whiskey demand is so strong in the US that it likely leaves other alcoholic beverage producers green with envy," it noted. The industry is booming. Just look at the number of distilleries popping up across the island.

In 2013, there were just four distilleries in operation producing and selling. These included Cooley, Kilbeggan, New Middleton, and the Old Bushmills Distillery.

At the end of 2014, that had doubled to eight, and 17 are expected to be in production by the end of July. A further 17 are planned.

In January, it was revealed that Donegal was set to get its first whiskey distillery in 174 years with the announcement of the Sliabh Liag Distillery. The Connacht Whiskey Distillery, in Ballina, Co Mayo, opened last October.

And the Teeling Whiskey Company opened its new distillery and visitor centre in The Liberties, Dublin, last year. Founder Jack Teeling wanted to rekindle a little family history, as Walter Teeling had a distillery on Marrowbone Lane in the 18th century.

It's a remarkable story, and one that Miriam Mooney, the head of the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA), clearly enjoys telling.

Over a cup of tea.

To have had our conversation over a whiskey, while arguably appropriate from my point of view given the focus of the interview, would have potentially been difficult for Mooney.

Because no doubt she would have had to choose, and that would be a no no.

"We don't have a favourite child," she says, on more than one occasion.

All, it would appear, are equally gifted and destined for greatness.

But the industry has benefited from a little image shake-up.

In its 48-page vision document for the sector, published last year, the IWA notes that Irish whiskey is no longer playing to the stereotype of the "fighting Irish" or as a way to spice up Irish coffee.

It's now carving a niche in the global market, playing to the fact that it has such a long history in this country (Irish whiskey has been distilled since the 6th century), and that there's such a desire among its producers to build on that heritage.

"It's seen as a premium, handcrafted product," Mooney says.

"I think consumers are now beginning to rediscover Irish whiskey and the taste. It's got a really distinctive character. It's very smooth, it's very approachable. It's offering real alternative to other whiskey categories out there."

And then there's the demographic factor. A younger generation has come on board, lured by the ease with which it can be mixed in cocktails, she says.

"It's become a very cool, very sexy drink," Mooney adds.

She recalls that on Christmas night, she invited a neighbour to her house and the pair had a whiskey, mixed with ginger ale, mint and ice.

That neighbour is now a big fan.

In its heyday in the 19th century, there were almost 90 distilleries on the island, producing more than 12 million nine-litre cases a year, making Irish whiskey the largest global spirits category.

But over time, it declined fairly dramatically, and by the mid-1980s, just two Irish distilleries remained, both owned by Irish Distillers. Scotch, Bourbon and Canadian whiskey had all surged, and had left Irish volumes far behind at about 1pc of global sales, the IWA notes.

By the late 1980s, the recovery began. It was modest at first, but was helped by the fact that Irish Distillers had become a member of the Pernod Ricard group in 1988, providing big global distribution opportunities for Jameson and other brands, and then the Cooley Distillery was set up in 1987. That was the first independent distillery to begin distilling Irish whiskey in over 100 years. Over the subsequent years, the expansion began, and in came some of the bigger drinks producers, including Diageo, William Grant and Sons and Beam Suntory.

By 2014, more than 6.7 million nine-litre cases of Irish whiskey were exported to more than 100 countries worldwide.

That's an increase of around 200pc in a decade. The figure is set to exceed 12 million by 2020, and rise to 24 million by 2030. Global market share is now at 4pc.

For Mooney, a lot of the success can be attributed to the passion of those involved.

Such has been the resurgence, the Irish Whiskey Society, entirely separate to the IWA, set up in 2009 promoting the sensible enjoyment of the drink and to foster a greater appreciation. It holds regular tasting events.

"I became interested in Irish whiskey before I came into this role, genuinely," Mooney says.

"I was at a whiskey tasting, and I was really transfixed by the history, the heritage and the passion of one of the brand ambassadors, which I won't name. I was really taken aback by this. Then I went home one day, and 'Whiskey Advocate' [magazine] was on the coffee table and I read the story about the Teelings and I thought this is such an incredible story."

The Irish Whiskey Association was set up in 2014 to lobby on behalf of its members, and ensure support for the industry.

Chief among its list of requests is adequately resourced infrastructure, for the whiskey business is an expensive one to tap into for new entrants.

It's estimated that the capital cost of building a nine-litre case distillery from scratch is €15m-€20m per litre of annual capacity, and three years is the minimum ageing period by law for Irish whiskey. The IWA says that the working capital required to distil, mature, bottle and ship before the first cases are sold, would be in the order of €15m.

"We need financial supports for the newer entrants to make sure that they are facilitated in any way that they can," Mooney says. "The capital costs to getting into this industry are very high."

Mooney believes the Government should consider setting aside some of the money in the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) for investment in the sector. The banks, she says, seem unwilling to provide the capital required.

"There is an issue with the banking system here in that they're not familiar with the possibilities and the Irish Whiskey Industry per se," Mooney says.

"I think we've got Ulster Bank and RBS, who would have had more insight into it because of their association in Scotland. So I think in the interim, something from the ISIF is needed."

The IWA's strategy also calls for technology grant aid, reduced rates for warehousing and brand building and market research. The requirement for a skilled workforce is also high up on the list, with a graduate programme and greater interaction with third level colleges required, the body has said. And there's a need to build and develop the tourism potential. Mooney points to the fact that the IWA will be launching an Irish Whiskey Tourism Strategy later in the year.

She also points to the importance of protecting the Irish Whiskey brand.

In Ireland, the category is defined and protected by the 1980 Irish Whiskey Act. At EU level, it is protected by EU legislation, and underpinned by what is known as the Technical File.

"It states the manner in which Irish whiskey must be made in order for it to be permitted to be labelled as Irish whiskey," Mooney says.

And the IWA, in the coming weeks, will be launching its own protect Irish Whiskey campaign.

Mooney hails the collegiality in the industry.

Participants are more than happy to help out competitors and ensure their business can survive and thrive, she says. Because the better the industry as a whole does, the better for everyone.

To that end, the association has been devising its own mentoring programme for new entrants to avail of.

"The large entities and more established players have indicated their willingness to start this programme so we're going to be putting the framework around that at the minute and I think that's going to be really exciting and key and will help to come to build those figures."

"There's a great sense of collegiality within the association and I think that one of the reasons for this is the mutual benefit. When you see the category grow, each company benefits from that and it increases the opportunity to go into different markets as the category is better known."

The US and EU are by far the largest markets for Irish Whiskey. Within the EU, Latvia is the largest export destination as it is a re-sale destination for Russia and the Baltic countries.

Mooney sees scope for expanding further into destinations in South America, South Africa and Asia.

The association has close ties with its much bigger cousin in Scotland, to talk export opportunities and other trade issues.

Ireland has a long way to go to reach the heady heights of Scotch whisky, which exported over 90 million nine litre cases, compared with Ireland's seven. But the ambition and demand for further expansion is evident.

For Mooney, a barrister by profession, a career in the whiskey and spirits sector has allowed her to marry her two professional passions - an interest in licensing law, and business. She worked for a period in college in the old Jameson Distillery, where she quickly picked up an interest as she spoke with the phalanx of tourists that it attracted. After college, she worked for one of the big accountancy firms, initially on a merger, and subsequently in tax. The latter wasn't for her.

"My father, God rest him, always said to me, 'whatever you do in life you have to make sure that you have a passion for it'," she says.

"If you enjoy something, you'll have tough days and there'll be obstacles, but you'll always surmount them. And it won't be work and it'll be something you want to achieve because you're driven. But if it's something that you don't have a passion for, then it becomes work and it's not a labour of love."

Such is her passion for the industry, she took her bridal party on her wedding day last October to Dingle Distillery.

So does she have a favourite whiskey brand? Cue awkward silence, a nervous laugh, and the remark about choosing a favourite child again.

"If the next question was what was the last whiskey I had, I'd say 'Greenspot with ice'," she says.

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