Conor McQuaid, Chief Executive and Chairman, Irish Distillers
Pernod Ricard boss Alexandre Ricard had some salient advice for Conor McQuaid when the Dundalk native took over as CEO and chairman of its Irish Distillers subsidiary in 2018: "There's a standing joke that every time he offers this job, he just gives one objective, which is 'don't f**k it up'."
And it's also little wonder the top brass in Paris keep such a watchful eye on the Irish operation. In the course of just over a decade, Irish Distillers' Jameson has become a global heavyweight.
Somewhat astonishingly, given its long-time role as a wallflower in the international spirits trade, it's now the second-biggest profit contributor for Pernod Ricard after its Martell brandy.
Pernod Ricard spends hundreds of millions of euro every year advertising and marketing Jameson around the world.
In the last calendar year, Jameson sold more than eight million cases worldwide - a record for the brand and the first time it ever breached that level.
In the year to the end of June 2016, Jameson sold 5.7 million cases, while in the 2012 calendar year, the figure was just under four million.
It's been a cracking pace of growth, spurred by Pernod Ricard's decision a number of years ago to make Jameson one of its international strategic spirit brands. The group's dozen others include the likes of Absolut, Beefeater and Chivas Regal.
The journey is far from over, insists McQuaid, as he eyes higher sales, especially if he can crack the Chinese market.
McQuaid (50) has worked for Pernod Ricard, which acquired Irish Distillers in 1988, since 1998, first as a regional manager for its southern European markets.
Prior to landing back in Dublin, he had been attached to the group's Paris headquarters for four years as vice-president of global business development, having previously been the managing director of the group's business in South Africa.
"To come back from Paris to Dublin was a dream come true for me," he says, speaking late in the early evening at his office that overlooks the RDS and the Leinster Rugby ground.
He says he was "completely shocked" at being offered the Irish Distillers role.
While Pernod Ricard is pretty hands-off in terms of allowing McQuaid and his team to get on with what they need to do, Alexandre Ricard has perhaps a keener than usual interest in what goes on. He was CEO of Irish Distillers from 2008 to 2011, having also once served as its finance boss.
"Alex Ricard, having spent his time here in Ireland, is an Irish whiskey fan through and through," says McQuaid. "You only need to see the back bar in his apartment in Paris to know how much of a passionate advocate and ambassador he is for the brand. He's on the phone quite regularly and staying abreast of all that's going on."
What's been going on is that Jameson is now one of the top 10 spirits brands in the world, and among the top five whiskey brands in the world, beaten only by the likes of Diageo's Johnnie Walker, Beam Suntory's Jim Beam and Brown-Forman's Jack Daniel's. Johnnie Walker sold almost 19 million cases in 2018, while the Jack Daniel's tally that year was 13.3 million.
"Now that we're number two in profit terms to the group, our hand is somewhat strengthened," says McQuaid. "They've [Pernod Ricard] a desire to see that continue. We're not quite within touching distance of Martell yet. It's a very profitable brand, given the constraints in the supply of cognac and the premium that it commands as a consequence. But it's certainly an internal battle and a great rivalry."
Pernod Ricard has invested the guts of €400m in Jameson facilities since 2012, expanding production capacity in Midleton, Co Cork and warehousing at Dungourney in the county. It has also expanded its bottling facilities at its Fox & Geese site in Dublin to cope with the increased sales, and invested in its visitor centres.
But it wasn't always clear that Jameson was going to be plucked from the Irish Distillers pack to begin a journey to international stardom.
McQuaid was working with the group in 2001 when Pernod Ricard and Diageo jointly acquired Canada's Seagram, which at that stage owned Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Martell and Glenlivet.
They carved up the portfolio between them, and it was easy to wonder where Jameson was going to sit in the star line-up, or if it would be in it at all. It was the first big acquisition for Pernod Ricard after buying Irish Distillers, recalls McQuaid. "I think there was a sense of trepidation in Irish Distillers at that time, that we would be left behind," he says.
The opposite has been true, he points out. "The journey and the success in the interim has just, I think, exceeded even our own expectations. Pernod Ricard would say that quite openly themselves, that it really has been a fantastic surprise to them just how well it has prospered under their management. They've been great owners for us over the years," he adds.
Pernod Ricard posted sales of €9.2bn in its last financial year, which reflected 6pc organic growth, and its profits from continuing operations were €2.5bn. That was 8.7pc higher on an organic basis.
Jameson sold 7.7 million cases in that financial year, with 6pc organic sales growth. Martell sold 2.6 million cases, with 18pc growth. The group releases first-half results for its 2020 financial year today.
Indeed, so successful has Jameson been for the group that the brand has been stretched to include a range of speciality whiskeys and drinks. They include the recently launched Jameson Cold Brew - a coffee-flavoured whiskey that might appeal as an after-dinner drink, and which McQuaid says capitalises on the long association between Irish whiskey and coffee "in a modern way". There's also the pricey Jameson Black Barrel and a Caskmates range where Jameson is finished in various beer barrels.
But how elastic is Jameson? As with any brand, there has to be a breaking point that any company never really wants to reach. McQuaid says Irish Distillers wants to be the "third way" in whiskey, taking a different path than scotch or US whiskey.
"That puts different constraints on us and puts a challenge back on the team here to be inventive and not just ape what the others are doing," he says, adding that Jameson wants a "distinct stall" as a brand.
"There's a broad consumer context, which is that people are largely drinking less but seeking to drink better," insists the drinks boss.
"In doing so, we have an opportunity to trade them up through the Jameson franchise - Jameson Black Barrel is the logical trade up, or Caskmates with its different flavour profile," he explains.
"That gives us breadth and scope, and an opportunity to premiumise through the Jameson franchise."
So where is the limit?
"We've got to be mindful of the fact that you don't want to stretch it too far," he concedes.
"There's a limit to how far you want it to look on shelf, and what's credible to the brand."
So what duff Jameson ideas have crossed his desk?
"There's been plenty of them," he laughs, but won't divulge any of the clangers. "We try to use Ireland as a test-bed, and the Irish consumer has given us great feedback on some of the ideas that we've had."
But the surge in growth for Jameson may soon be tempered, at least in the short term.
The coronavirus has already hit broader travel sales at airports, especially in Asia, while on the other side of the world, a potentially bigger problem is brewing.
Last autumn, the United States slapped a 25pc tariff on scotch whiskey - and whiskey from Northern Ireland - as well as French wine and a raft of other products made in the EU.
Those duties came after the World Trade Organisation permitted the US to impose them because the European Union did not fully end an illegal loan subsidy to aerospace firm Airbus.
Then, in December, the US threatened to widen the scope of the tariffs, potentially bringing whiskey made in the Republic of Ireland into the net, with the prospect of tariffs as high as 100pc.
It would be a disaster for Jameson in America - the single largest market for the brand.
McQuaid points out that the drinks industry is "collateral damage" in the fallout from Airbus.
"I just genuinely hope that doesn't come to pass," he says of the renewed tariff threat.
"A large part of our competitive set are North American whiskeys, so Crown Royal or Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's, and they wouldn't be impacted. I just hope against hope that it doesn't happen. To a degree, we would seek to weather the storm as best as one can, but some of the smaller Irish players would be massively impacted."
Many of those smaller players in Ireland owe their existence to the doors that were opened by Jameson around the world to Irish whiskey. Without its success, they would have had a much harder time taking on the dominance of scotch and US whiskey. Entrepreneur John Teeling showed what smaller players could do when he sold his Cooley Distillery to Beam in 2011 for €71m.
So what's the battle plan for Irish Distillers if its single biggest market suddenly gives it a major hangover?
"We have no choice. If it was to be to the extent of 100pc [tariffs], we would have no choice but to pass the majority of that forward and take the consequences," admits McQuaid.
"That would put us a lot more expensive than the competitive set, but that would be, financially, the only way to approach the challenge if that was to happen."
It would also hamper the global growth ambitions Irish Distillers and Pernod Ricard have for Jameson.
"It would have an impact clearly," he adds. "Natural elasticity of demand would suggest that it would reduce the volume that would be sold in the US. Our intent is very clearly to globalise the brand. We would have to double down on some of the other growth markets in which we operate and really see if we can bring them on stream."
The unpredictability of markets is also one reason why it's difficult for Irish Distillers to precisely pinpoint when it needs to invest in production to meet projected demand for Jameson.
"To what degree do you need to invest in additional capacity?" McQuaid muses. "You do so with a perspective that things are going to be relatively predictable over time. Once you throw curve balls into that situation, which we could potentially experience, it throws all that planning up in the air. It makes the job an awful lot more difficult."
One more cloud on the horizon for the drinks industry in Ireland is the upcoming introduction of minimum unit pricing and other measures aimed at curbing alcohol consumption.
They'll come into force next January. It will see retailers prohibited from offering loyalty card rewards for alcohol purchases, ban short-term price promotions of booze, and ban the sale of alcohol at reduced prices or free of charge when another product or service is purchased.
The measures may not impact sales of whiskey too much, but is it right that the Government interferes in pricing and promotions?
McQuaid does think there's a role to play. But he also points out that the explosion in the number of distillers around the country in recent years, sometimes in rural areas lacking employment opportunities, should be a cause of pride.
"We are an industry that should, to a degree, be seen as something that there's a huge amount of pride in," he says.
"Given that positive environment and positive story when people come here - and we've seen it in the tourist numbers - the opportunity for further growth into local communities and providing quality employment is something that from a governmental perspective would be hugely beneficial."
"Per capita consumption of alcohol in Ireland is on a very clear decline [14.3 litres per person of pure alcohol in 2000 versus 11.5 litres in 2016. It trebled between 1960 and 2000, however]," says McQuaid.
He insists that younger consumers in an "Instagram world" clearly "do not want to be seen out of control".
"They probably have more of the attitude towards alcohol that you'd see in continental Europe," he maintains.
"The objective of the night is not go out and drink to excess; the objective is to have fun and alcohol can play a role within that. We are having a more mature relationship with alcohol."
And after filling the top role at Irish Distillers, does McQuaid think he might like to climb the ladder a bit further in Paris?
His three teenage children stayed there when he moved back to Dublin, to complete schooling and exams. One recently started university there.
"Would I move again beyond Irish Distillers? It would take a lot to get me to pack up my bags and go again.
"It's an upheaval from a family perspective, for all the ambition you might have from a career point of view. There's a lot of sacrifices that you associate with it, in terms of time away from home, family and whatever."
But one good thing certainly came out of living in France. His children are all now fluent French speakers.
"Yeah, they are," laughs McQuaid. "More street French than academic French. It's what you'd speak on a football pitch as opposed to a classroom. They can curse brilliantly in French."