Friday 24 November 2017

Whiskey trade in high spirits despite economic hangover

Heady brew: Brian Quinn, general
manager, Old Kilbeggan Distillery,
Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath
Heady brew: Brian Quinn, general manager, Old Kilbeggan Distillery, Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath

Siobhan Creaton

Serial entrepreneur John Teeling will be in an upbeat mood when he addresses the shareholders of the world's oldest distillery in Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath tomorrow.

The chairman of the Cooley Distillery group will be telling them that Irish whiskey is enjoying a renaissance and that the dire economic conditions in Ireland won't affect its prospects in the years ahead. It's a good example of how Irish exporters can lead the economic recovery here, he says.

It's been a great couple of years for Cooley. It has picked up the European Distiller of the year award for the second year in a row and is producing five of the world's top 100 whiskies.

This year also marks the unveiling of a complete distillery at Kilbeggan and the refurbishment of its 180-year-old still. The business, which sells its whiskey in 40 countries, is in better shape now than at any time in its more than 250-year history, according to Teeling.

It is "recession resilient" he explains, saying that what happens in the Irish economy in the years ahead is of little interest to him.

"We are not dependent on this country. We sell more in Latvia than we do in Ireland and there are lots of opportunities for us in new markets. In fact, the recession has been great for our business because everything is cheaper. We don't care what is happening here," he says.

This is just as well because the former finance and business university lecturer believes the International Monetary Fund or the European Central Bank will soon be running the Irish economy.

Whenever bubbles burst, the banking system collapses and the political system fails, he says, and Ireland will be no different. "That won't bother us," Teeling claims. "All of our business is abroad."

The Government is relying on Irish exporters like Cooley to revitalise economic growth here and Teeling believes there are plenty of opportunities for Irish businesses to thrive internationally -- although this alone won't be the miracle cure for the ailing Irish economy. "Exports are not enough to save us," he says.

Teeling is an old-style entrepreneur. He never bought property in the boom and believes that businesses such as Cooley highlight the potential opportunities that are endurable for those who have the vision and passion to drive them.

"There are people in Ireland who will become billionaires in the future," he predicts. They are the entrepreneurs who can develop successful international enterprises rather than those chasing fast money.

Cooley, which made more than €3m in profits this year, has delivered more satisfaction than money, Teeling says, and has been a labour of love.

It acquired the old Locke's distillery in Kilbeggan in 1988 with the dream of re-launching some famous old Irish whiskey brands that were dominant in the 19th century.

Locke's had gone into liquidation in the 1950s and it was thanks to the local community -- including the current distillery manager Brian Quinn and his wife Bernadette -- that much of the original machinery was preserved.

Quinn says that if the Kilbeggan community hadn't protected the site it might be another block of apartments in the centre of this midlands town.

The late 1980s was every bit as dark economically as the current situation. It required a long-term commitment. "We knew what we were going into. We had no revenues for eight years. That's why nobody built a distillery for 100 years," he says.

More than 20 years on, Kilbeggan, together with its sister distillery in the Cooley Peninsula, is Ireland's only independent whiskey producer with enough stock to make 25 million bottles of its renowned Kilbeggan, Tyrconnell, Greenore and Connemara brands -- and its prospects are bright.

The reason for Teeling's confidence for its future is that it is producing unique products that can only be manufactured here. "We have the right climate and grain to make it here. Scotch and bourbon can't be as good," he says. "You can only produce Irish whiskey in Ireland."

Irish Independent

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