Pubs in Ireland are in crisis – over the last 30 years a gradual (and long overdue) tightening of drink driving laws started a societal shift – much like the declining power of the Catholic church here, the pub is no longer the centre of society. Across Ireland pubs that had passed through generations were shut, never to reopen. Then came the virus, and an already steady decline accelerated. For those that remain, it is a case of adapt or die.
Ivor O’Loughlin’s family have been in the bar business since 1986 when his father Declan bought O’Loughlins Bar on Dublin Street in Carlow. Ivor and the rest of his siblings grew up over the bar, and Ivor, after training as a teacher, followed his father into the family business, which at that stage included O’Loughlins Hotel and Club 23 in Portlaoise and The Irishman pub in Carlow. The hotel was sold in late 2019, and then, in early 2020, disaster struck.
“Not long after the sale of the hotel, Covid happened. It meant that The Irishman has more or less been closed for over a year now.”
Fortunately, Ivor had been thinking about branching out before the virus: “In terms of Tiny Tipple, I had the idea in January 2020, before Covid. Having been following the whiskey business and the constant new releases, I felt there was an opportunity to develop a kind of formalised bottle share element. I’m not claiming to have re-invented the wheel, as this has been done in the UK on a larger scale already with Drinks By The Dram, Flaviar etc. But I feel that there is a market there in Ireland for a similar service.”
A market there is, for a couple of reasons – whiskey is not an inexpensive hobby, and the ability to try a measure before investing in a bottle is a boon. On top of that there is the possibility of trying limited releases that you would otherwise have to hunt at auction or rely on a generous pal to share with you. And besides, with the pub closed, Ivor needed something to do with himself.
“All pubs need to diversify in order to survive and I think that as much as I hate saying it, there will be a lot of pubs closing in the coming few years. I think Covid will have sped up the ways in which Irish people consume alcohol in pubs. Sure, pubs will re-open and there will be great celebrations but I am sceptical that things will return to the way they were before for a long time.
“I started prototyping with bottles and waxes and labels etc back in February 2020. I applied for a Business Innovation voucher through Enterprise Ireland and Carlow Institute of Technology. I worked with the Design+ team in the IT to come up with the label and some packaging ideas (which didn’t come to fruition due to cost). I was insistent on the different colours wax for different styles of whiskey because I felt they stand out and add a premium feel to them.
“Initially the idea was to focus entirely on expensive premium bottles (€100 plus) as I felt that this was where demand would be but as with the nature of purchasing whiskey – you want to buy and stock every single release. I applied for a Trading Online Voucher which helped cover some of the costs of getting the website up and running. One of the main questions that the people in the IT threw out at me was, ‘How can you guarantee what you are selling is actually what’s in the bottle?’. That question is answered every time you buy a drink at a bar or indeed many other forms of retail. Every brand and customer in the country trusts retailers every single day to do what they say they will do. In particular in the bar industry, brands trust publicans not to sell ‘Cheap Knock off Vodka’ in place of an industry recognised brand. That is a simple question of integrity and the knowledge that any compromise in that integrity results in irreparable reputational damage, jeopardising your business. People also buy with their eyes. I am confident that my packaging looks very well. It stands out. It has a level of detail in terms of transparency with batch numbers, cask numbers, bottle numbers etc. that automatically builds a degree of trust in customers.”
A gap in the market spotted, it has been going well despite only launching in recent times.
“The big surprise for me was how enthusiastic all the distillers, bottlers and blenders have been. Within a few days many brands reached out offering support and encouragement. There is a will amongst the brands for a service like this. As Louise McGuane said of Tiny Tipple, ”Liquid on Lips’ is so important for smaller brands who are trying to build their footprint’.
“The best sellers on the site so far have been the tasting flights. There is a real appetite for people to try different whiskies alongside each other without the cost. I have a lot of friends who are only starting their whiskey journey now and it can be a bit daunting to know where to start. Then you spend €60 on a bottle when you are starting out, you don’t like that particular style or release, you may be lost to Irish whiskey forever!”
But aside from offering a great starting point, Tiny Tipples also democratise limited releases and have the coveted Redbreast 10 as part of their offering.
“The Redbreast 10 Year Old has been very popular. It is the likes of that drink that makes Tiny Tipple appealing. 7,000 bottles of Redbreast 10 were released and it sold out in a few hours, many of them to be hoarded away to be auctioned at a later date.
“Along with the RB10, the WD O’Connell range has sold very well (the 17YO PX Series is just about gone), JJ Corry releases like the Old Tom (a cracking release) will be sold out soon at the rate its going (again another bottle that was mostly left on shelves as a collectors item) and the Sliabh Liag (the entire Silkie Range) stuff has gone very well.
“Hopefully, the Tiny Tipples that have been dispersed into the wild will result in many multiples of sales in 700ml bottles for the producers!”
See tinytipple.com for more.