Renaissance Man

I think Brendan Buckley will be ok. When it was announced in the Irish Independent at the end of September that Buckley – global marketing director at Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard and Whisky Magazine hall of famer – would be leaving the company, I thought, oh. It felt like either the perfect time to exit – Irish whiskey is booming and anyone with his experience is very, very valuable – or a terrible one – Irish Distillers is booming and surely there are a few more rungs on the ladder. Part of me also immediately thought well, another one off to Minnesota to join former IDL master distiller Brian Nation, former IDL brand ambassador Ger Garland, and former IDL regional manager of Jameson in America and latterly Pernod Ricard vice president of whisky, gin and aperitif brands Patrick Caulfield as they chase the American dream with Keeper’s Heart at O’Shaughnessy Distillers Ltd. I’ll be honest, if the Midleton distillery cat went missing for a week or two, I would assume he was on a steamship to the Americas with his bindle full of catnip to join the lads in the land of 10,000 lakes.  

The headline in the Indo was at pains to tell us that Buckley had decided to leave, and that his departure was separate to the announcement by the company that they would be cutting some roles as part of a restructuring to simplify the group structure, which would mean the replacement of its six-person executive board with a nine-person executive committee, and the phasing out of its regional entities – Europe, Middle East and Africa; Latin America; and Asia – regrouping them into 10 separate management entities. To further prove that this wasn’t a redundancy, the announcement was made that Buckley was to be replaced with Joao Rozario, former chief marketing officer for Pernod Ricard Italy. 

This is not the first time Buckley has parted ways with IDL. Joining the company as a marketing manager in 2001 (his first day happened to be 9/11), he rose to brands director before leaving in 2007. A piece in attributed this to having reached a point where his mid-management role could go no further and wishing to do his own thing. It would make sense, as his career is more than a chain of brand marketing roles. 

After he left college, and a stint with the Irish Trade Board, Buckley worked with two companies that helped develop Irish pubs all over the world – the Irish Pub Company and Fado Pubs. Guinness started the Irish Pub Concept idea – where they would facilitate the creation of Irish pubs, but as Guinness rolling out a chain of pubs across America with a focus on Guinness would violate antitrust laws, there was a gap for firms to do fit-outs, and Buckley and co stepped in (for better or worse). Moving from Irish pubs to Irish whiskey might make sense but back when he joined IDL in 2001 there was not much to write home about

When he left IDL after six years in 2007, he joined Impact Media, but returned to the IDL fold almost exactly a year later as project director for the Irish Whiskey Category Development. Given the category’s acceleration since then, you’d have to say he did a pretty good job. 

I spoke to Buckley for a piece which ran in The Spirits Business magazine last month, about Irish whiskey’s past, present and future. Tight on space, a lot of what he told me was cut as I edited it, but below is what didn’t make it to print. First I asked about where Irish whiskey is going now – we have had a decade of growth, can that continue or will it have to plateau sooner rather than later. 

“We are very optimistic for the future of the Irish whiskey industry. According to the IWSR’s 2022 report, the Irish whiskey category has remained the fastest growing whiskey segment over the past five years, with Jameson driving that growth as category leader. There are several factors fueling this. Firstly, the trend of consumers drinking less but higher quality spirits continues, supporting a growing global demand for premium and super premium offerings that the Irish whiskey category is well positioned to respond to. Secondly, we are seeing a diversification in the whiskey drinking consumer base. Our focus and determined brand building has led to impressive growth in less traditional whiskey markets across Asia and Africa, while new generations of consumers and changing lifestyles are boosting growth for the industry among younger millennial and gen-z consumer segments. And finally, the rise of e-commerce during and post-covid has provided more access to our portfolio of whiskeys.  

“While no industry is infallible, we are confident in the continued growth of the Irish whiskey sector, and our investment in the new distillery is a reflection of this confidence. Increasing production capacity will enable us to sustainably meet demand for our products and continue our growth trajectory for many years to come.”

I asked him if Irish whiskey can continue to grow over the next decade, and if there are any threats to the category’s growth, either internally or externally. 

“Irish whiskey only represents 11% of the total global whiskey category, and has incredible potential for growth over the coming decade.  

“One of the greatest threats to the industry is production capacity to meet global demand. In the 1970s and 80s, our visionary predecessors took the initiative to lay down stocks, safeguarding Irish whiskey during a time when sales were struggling. This forward-thinking approach still guides us today as we continue to lay down stock, helping us to keep pace with the growth of our whiskeys now and for many decades to come. Our investment in a new state-of-the-art distillery targeting to be operational on a phased basis from 2025 will of course support our growth ambitions.

“Safeguarding access to high-quality ingredients in a sustainable way is also key to ensuring our future growth. We have a proud history of buying quality grain from Irish farmers and work in partnership with them to support sustainable agriculture now and for generations to come. All our barley is 100% certified and traceable and we have schemes in place to support the long-term viability of the Irish spring barley sector.

“Finally, operating and thinking sustainably is a necessity if Irish whiskey is to continue building on its success over the coming decade. We aim to ensure our new distillery will be a carbon neutral operation. With plans to increase production come, too, plans to make our existing operations more efficient and environmentally friendly. Since 2010, we have invested over €100 million to improve operational efficiency at the distillery and are investing a further €50 million to fund further projects aimed as transforming operations there. We have a clear roadmap to eliminate scope 1 and scope 2 carbon emissions and are leveraging breakthrough technology to reduce energy use on site, by improving energy generation efficiency and recycling waste heat in the distillation process. We will also generate energy from renewable sources including biogas.”

On the subject of America being so central to the Irish whiskey renaissance, I asked if the market there was saturated or if there were still lands to conquer there: “Perhaps most notably, Irish whiskey is becoming an increasingly significant player in the higher-end whiskey market there, with increased supply of super-premium, prestige and even ultra-rare Irish whiskeys. While in the past, as an industry, Irish whiskey has underperformed at this level when compared with Scotch, in recent years things have moved on considerably, with the launch of aged and rare whiskeys such as the Redbreast Irish Whiskey family and the ultra-high end Midleton Very Rare Silent Distillery Collection, Ireland’s oldest ever whiskey collection. In fact, figures from DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States) show that more and more consumers are turning to Irish whiskey as their luxury whiskey of choice in the US. Since 2003, high end premium and super premium Irish whiskey grew a staggering 1,053% and 2,769% respectively.” 

Beyond America, IDL are pushing hard on South Korea and Africa, especially Nigeria. 

“We are still targeting many different types of markets globally as our brands continue to ignite, and re-ignite, a passion for Irish whiskey among new and existing consumers. Jameson has seen remarkable growth, having sold 10 million cases for the first time ever in the last financial year. Jameson is now a top three global whiskey brand and top eight global spirits brand according to the IWSR’s 2022 report.  

“Our strategy has been laser-focused on growing the Jameson brand, and awareness of Irish whiskey more generally, in both historically strong markets like the US, UK, South Africa, Ireland, and Global Travel Retail, as well as developing the brand globally in markets like India, China, South Korea, Nigeria, Zambia and across Asia where new generations of consumers and changing lifestyles are boosting growth. 

“A conscious focus of our efforts in certain markets have yielded great results and has solidified Jameson as a truly global brand.  As always, this has been the result of grassroots bartender engagement and advocacy, localization of campaigns and a genuine appreciation for the taste, craft and quality credentials of the Jameson brand. 

“The opportunity in Asia is also huge and arguably less advanced than a market like Nigeria, as we are at the beginning of our journey to success. For example, in South Korea we are exceeding our ambitious forecasts this year, building brand equity for Jameson through events, media campaigns and sponsorships, as well as grassroots trade activations. However, our impressive growth rates come from a very small base, and brand awareness is still relatively low when compared to our competitors. This represents a huge opportunity for us to grow the market, and with exciting plans for the coming year, it’s one we are extremely enthusiastic about.”

Finally, I asked if single pot still was fulfilling all its great promise – there are mixed reports in the industry about whether it has any chance to become ‘the Irish single malt’ (or equivalent). 

“Single pot still is continuing to establish itself as the whiskey of choice for discerning drinkers and those in the know, certainly rivalling single malt as a category. Indeed, in Irish whiskey’s strongest market, the US, Irish whiskey sales are forecast to exceed scotch by 2030.  

“Innovation is also at the heart of the growth of the Irish whiskey industry and becoming deeply associated with the category. Irish whiskey has ample space to innovate when compared to Scotch, thanks to a broader technical file that allows for varied wood types in maturation. Building on this advantage, our Method and Madness brand is dedicated to pushing the boundaries of Irish whiskey, bringing experimental distillates and wood finishes to consumers around the world.   

“We are also seeing many Irish whiskey brands draw on their rich histories to create new offerings, with stunning expressions being launched that nod to the past. For example, earlier this year we released Powers Irish Rye, made with 100% rye that is Irish grown and inspired by old mashbills from Powers’ John’s Lane Distillery.  

“Ultimately, whether it’s the quintessential style of Irish whiskey in a single pot still, a unique wood finish, or an experimental grain that you enjoy, Irish whiskey breaks down the elitism associated with traditional whiskey drinking and I truly believe its USP is that it has something to offer everyone.” 

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