Paddy J O’Flaherty was a celebrity. He wasn’t always that way, but it’s how he ended up. He started his career in the drinks trade as a sales rep for what was known as Cork Distilleries Company (CDC) Old Irish Whisky. He was one of the first brand ambassadors – think The Simpsons’ rambunctious brewery spokestoon Duffman, but in a bowler hat, and instead of firing merch out of a T-shirt cannon, he fired out free drinks in pubs across Cork. He was so good at his job that he became synonymous with the brand. CDC saw an opportunity, bought the rights to his name and image and used them both to sell what was now known as Paddy Whisky.
This wasn’t a case where the brand was renamed after a distiller, or a maltster, or a cooper – it was named after someone who had nothing to do with production and was only concerned with selling the stuff. O’Flaherty had as much input into the creation of the liquid in the bottle as McGregor has in Proper Twelve, or Ryan Reynolds has in Aviator Gin, or George Clooney had in Casamigos. So what I’m saying here is, Paddy whisky was one of the first celebrity drinks brands, while Paddy was one of the first influencers.
Fast forward to 2016 and Pernod Ricard Irish Distillers sell Paddy to American drinks giant Sazerac for an undisclosed sum (there is this suggestion that it was €90 million euro). The sale didn’t raise much of an eyebrow – even for a proud Corkman like myself, Paddy was an also-ran. Despite its position as one of the last Cork whiskey brands, I didn’t have much of an opinion of it. On a night out in an average pub, you’d always have three choices – Powers, Paddy or Jameson. Jameson was, as we would say in Cork, mockeyah. Not a serious option – a bit too bland and safe. Powers was the best option, with its pot still spices and robust profile, because Paddy had a bit too much personality. And by that I mean I found it to be rough as fuck. Paddy was the whiskey you drank when all else failed, when the host at the wake hadn’t stocked up properly, or when dawn was breaking and you didn’t care about flavour profile all that much anymore.
But there was potential there – it’s an historic brand with a great story behind it, with a healthy dose of ture-a-lure-a-laddie for our cousins across the Atlantic. It was also the fourth largest Irish whiskey brand in the world at the time of its sale. It just needed a bit of a refresh. Irish Distillers had enough to worry about with other portfolio reboots, rebrands and expansions. To reanimate Paddy would take a sizable amount of investment and effort. So they sold it to Sazerac, a firm comprising seven American and one Canadian distilleries, and some 450 brands (they already owned Michael Collins Irish Whiskey).
After the sale, Paddy was revamped, but in different ways in different markets. Here in Ireland, it was tweaked ever so slightly. In the US, it was cranked up to 11 – and placed in the possessive, complete with an ocular irritant of an apostrophe (Powers should technically carry one also as the family name is Power, but they don’t as it looks shit).
The sale of the brand may not have been seen as such a big deal, but the rebirth as Paddy’s was a bit unsettling. I think it was just so….American? But if there are a people on god’s green earth that we want to buy Irish whiskey, it is our friends to the west.
Sazerac appears to have big plans for the brand, as according to the Sunday Independent, they are looking for a physical home for Paddy. Obviously they can’t run tours in Midleton distillery since they don’t own it, so they are apparently looking to either buy a distillery or enter into a partnership with one. On the latter: Where would fit their needs? You’d have to assume they will need a distillery with column and pot stills if they mean to produce the brand there, and it would need to be sizeable. Or, they could buy/build a very small distillery for tourism purposes and outsource the bulk of production to one of the workhorse distilleries. They could also look outside Cork (if this thought worries you, be reassured by the fact that Cork is heavily featured on their corporate website as the home of Paddy).
But does it really matter if Paddy is made in Cork? Does it matter that virtually all the other brands made in Midleton are originally from Dublin – Jameson, the Spots, Powers, Redbreast? Almost none of the brands made in Midleton are historically or intrinsically linked to the place – Irish Distillers limited could sell almost any of their brands as none of them are geographically anchored. The only ones whose identities are tied are Midleton Very Rare and maybe the single casks. Even Method & Madness is a moveable feast. I’m not saying they should jettison some of these iconic brands but it does show how some of our biggest names are nomads, a byproduct of all the consolidation and contraction in the industry.
But if Sazerac wanted to partner or outright buy an Irish whiskey distillery, they will just have to wait. There are some which will, sadly, fail, or will have to take painful and humiliating write-downs of their valuations. Such is life.