Tuesday 15 October 2019

The great Irish whiskey bubble?

There are 28 new Irish whiskey distilleries either proposed or already underway. Insiders estimate half of them won't make it to fruition. So is craft whiskey Ireland's next bubble? Sarah McCabe spoke to Jack Teeling, David Raethorn and Mark Reynier - three distillers who are making it work - about one of the world's oldest and most complicated businesses and the challenges facing the Irish industry's newcomers.

A glass of whiskey — though many aficionados might not take it with ice
A glass of whiskey — though many aficionados might not take it with ice

Sarah McCabe

Whiskey distilleries are popping up around the country like mushrooms after rain.

Ten years ago the country had no craft industry to speak of; now there are 28 new distilleries under way.

Forget house prices or Bitcoin. Are whiskey start-ups Ireland's newest bubble? The Irish Whiskey Association doesn't think so.

"The potential is massive when we compare Ireland to Scotland, with over 130 Scottish distilleries in operation, bringing investment and employment into rural areas," says Irish Whiskey Association chief executive Miriam Mooney. Exports sales will double by 2020 and double again by 2030, the organisation predicts.

Insiders warn the road is rockier than it seems.

"It is an easy business to romanticise - old product, old methods, old buildings - but the reality is that you are dealing with high entry level costs, a difficult route to market, cash flow challenges, and not enough domestic demand. This whiskey won't be soaked up by Ireland," says Mark Reynier. "I can understand the cheerleading - but we need to be more realistic."

Reynier is one of Scotch whisky's most successful exports. Scotland's industry is the envy of the world, far outselling its Irish neighbour. Reynier is the former chief executive of Bruichladdich, which was bought by Remy Cointreau for £58m in 2012.

Last year he made the move to Ireland, buying the old Guinness brewery in Waterford. He is turning it into a whiskey distillery. It will produce small-batch whiskeys brewed from barley that can be traced back to individual farms. Ireland has the finest barley in the world, Reynier says. Trials will begin at the end of November, a year after he bought the site.

"The activity and support for the sector is very encouraging," he says. "But this sudden perception that Ireland has a very successful whiskey industry? It is a fallacy. You still have three companies producing most of the product."

Jack Teeling says much the same. He and brother Stephen are the founders of the eponymous Teeling Whiskey Company - the success story that many of the other distilleries in the works today seek to emulate.

Of the 28 new distilleries in the works, Jack estimates that half will actually make it into production."Looking back at the projects that were all being announced when we got started in 2013, a lot of them were not completed… I'm not sure how a lot of guys are going to scale.

It costs a minimum of between €5m and €10m to build a distillery and a new brand, he estimates. "Building out your stocks is so capital intensive".

Whiskey is in Jack's blood; in 1987 his father John founded Cooley, the first independent Irish distiller in 100 years, breaking apart an industry monopolised by Irish Distillers.

The brothers helped to build up Cooley up before its sale to Beam for €70m. They founded Teeling in 2013, based at a state-of-the-art new distillery in Dublin 8. Their whiskey has won more than 60 international awards, is sold around Ireland and in 40 export markets.

Their father stayed in the game after Cooley too; John now operates the biggest industrial producer in the country, supplying unbranded stocks to other companies.

The Irish whiskey business is long and distinguished. The spirit has been distilled here since the sixth century. It developed a reputation as a superior product and by the 17th century was in demand around the globe.

By 1800, James Power had already founded John's Lane Distillery and John Jameson had bought into the Bow Street Distillery, both situated in Dublin.

At the industry's height in the mid-19th century there were 88 licensed distilleries - and hundreds more unlicensed facilities - producing 12m nine-litre cases annually, making Irish whiskey the largest selling spirits category in the world at that time.

Decline began in the early 1900s. The industry was hit with the War of Independence, Prohibition in the US (its largest export market) and a Commonwealth taxation policy that locked it out of those markets.

Meanwhile, Scotch whisky was on the march. Distillers such as Johnnie Walker and Teachers were employing new blending techniques that appealed to the palates of the day and embracing the use of Coffey stills (a process which allows for a continuous uninterrupted distillation process).

Scottish distillers were also not afraid to use bootleggers to get their product into America.

The number of Irish distilleries had dwindled to just five by the mid 1950s. In order to survive, the remaining distillers in the Republic (Jameson, Powers and the Cork Distilleries Company) merged in 1966 to form Irish Distillers. Jameson Blended Irish Whiskey became the flagship brand and the group slowly began to rebuild export sales. For more than 30 years Jameson enjoyed almost a complete monopoly in the category.

Then in 1987 businessman John Teeling purchased Ceimici Teo (which produced potato alcohol) and converted it into Cooley. This first independent distillery in a century - which revived many historic Irish brands and distilling techniques and was soon winning awards - was founded in the same year that Irish Distillers was purchased by Pernod Ricard.

The French alcohol giant had seen the potential of the resurgent Irish category and opened up distribution opportunities for Jameson around the world. Growth began in earnest.

Ireland's trademark is pot still whiskey, made from a mixed mash containing both malted and unmalted barley, because historically the government levied higher taxes on malted whiskeys than on unmalted. It is traditionally distilled three times, whereas Scotch whisky is only distilled twice.

At each stage of distillation, the output from the first and last hour are discarded because the best tasting product happens midway through the process.

Very luxury brands, like Macallan, only use 16pc of the product produced by the distillation process; in theory, the smaller the cut, the smoother the whiskey.

One of the main contributors to the expense of distilling Irish whiskey is the fact that it has protected geographical status, like Greek feta or Parma ham, meaning it is highly regulated. The product must be aged for a minimum of three years before it can be sold. Many new brands, like Teelings, bought in stock from other producers and put their own stamp on the blend to get the brand going while waiting for their own whiskey to mature.

It is also closely watched from a tax point of view - excise duty must be paid even on stock that is stolen.

"My worry is that the sector could become over-regulated" says Teeling.

"The most interesting things in whiskey are happening in the US where the sector is less regulated; there is no three-year ageing requirement, for example. People there are trying new things - rye whiskey, craft stuff, new techniques."

As it matures, whiskey literally disappears into thin air - because it is aged in porous wood barrels. "After 10 years you have lost a quarter of your volume, literally into thin air," explains David Raethorne. "A barrel of 30-year-old whiskey contains only a fraction of what it started out with - that is why it is so expensive."

That means deep pockets are required to get it right. Raethorne looks like he's getting there. The healthcare software entrepreneur is building an ambitious €30m distillery project on the site of an old video cassette factory beside Hazelwood House in Sligo. The historically significant house is located in the middle of Yeats country (you might recall the Yeats line "I went down to the hazel wood because a fire was in my head.") It will produce a single malt targeted at the premium end of the market. Raethorne also intends to reopen the house for whiskey tasting and historical tours. The aristocratic home which dates from 1720 was designed for the Wynn family by Richard Casells, the architect of Leinster House and parts of Trinity College. It was the first building he designed in Ireland.

Art patron Raethorne and his wife Sue have also begun hosting art exhibitions in the cavernous factory.

Raethorne agrees that probably only about half of the distilleries currently in the planning stage will make it into production.

"In some cases they will be used to make other spirits," he says. "You can make gin, vodka and poitin using the same equipment and sell that the next day. They may not all do whiskey, but I think they'll do something else."

But the doing is only the half of it. Once you have produced your liquor, you've still got to convince people to start drinking it.

"The hardest part isn't making the product, it is selling it," says Teeling. "It is not a case of 'build it and they will come.' There are challenges on all fronts."

Whiskey cannot depend on domestic demand, he explains.

"The domestic market is important for us - but it is not going to make or break us. There are US cities that drink a lot more Irish whiskey than the whole of Ireland does. But they are damn hard to crack.

"Craft beer, on the other hand, can survive relying solely on domestic business. The product is cheaper to produce and a lot of craft brewers get an excise tax rebate if they are below a certain size.

"The route to market is difficult for whiskey. There are only so many good distributors. I used my Cooley contacts so we have the same distributors in the UK, France, Russia and Australia.

"The distributor is key; you end up effectively co-investing in a new market. My advice is to be cuttingly realistic with your business model. What will justify people buying your whiskey? And you have to be different. We tried samey products at Cooley and it didn't work."

There are very few State supports for the industry. Bord Bia makes some contribution but Enterprise Ireland has never funded a whiskey manufacturer.

"In Scotland it's far easier to get State supports if you are a Scottish SME than if you are a foreign multinational coming to the country. It is the opposite here," says Teeling.

Reynier disputes this. "At Bruichladdich we didn't get any help at all - the EU forbade subsidies at that time. I think that has been slightly relaxed since then, they have found ways around it - but to say that the Scottish industry gets lots of help from the government ... it doesn't.

"It is a very hard business to fund - full stop. It requires high-risk investing in a long-term product from sophisticated investors who understand the product. It is not right for corporates and it is not right for crowd-funding.

"That's not to say there is a shortage of funding ... There is a lot of private equity out there, it is just a question of coherently packaging the investment proposition and appeal to long-term investors."

He also disputes the idea that whiskey distilleries who get into trouble, or who need cash flow at the beginning, can turn to vodka or gin distillation.

"That is not a short cut. Sure, it generates revenue. But it is an error to think of it as the panacea to cash flow. You end up with an expensive white spirit in a market that is already full of expensive white spirits. There is no shortcut to waiting for whiskey to mature."

He wants more regulation for the Irish whiskey industry, not less.

"Credibility is what is needed. The industry has got to resist the temptation to reduce integrity."

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