The Contender

Most drinks categories are old. Beer, wine, spirits – all come with vast and ancient histories that slowly branch out into various subcategories before they eventually end up encapsulated in a kaleidoscope of brands. But there is one drinks category that is a recent invention, built around one idea which blossomed into one category-defining brand, and became a global behemoth. 

By now you will know the story of Baileys Irish Cream – if you have read David Gluckman’s brilliant That S**t Will Never Sell (the title of which was a drinks executive’s reaction to his most famous creation), you will know that it opens with the story of how this world-conquering drink came into being. A chance meeting between Gluckman and a man named Tom Jago on Lake Maggiore in Italy in May 1969 led to a partnership that would bring some incredible brands to life, but it is Baileys that both are best known for. 

Jago, as head of product development for the drinks group International Distillers & Vintners (IDV), tasked Gluckman and his agency with creating a new Irish drinks brand for their Irish export wing, Gilbeys Of Ireland. The brief was typically vague, with no written instructions, to the point that the agency referred to these kinds of briefs as the Wexford Whisper. The only concrete detail was that they should limit the amount of Irish whiskey the new drink required as IDV didn’t have any strong relationships with Irish distilleries and would be at their mercy should the product take off. It seemed unlikely as it was 1973, and Irish whiskey was in the doldrums – there was plenty Irish whiskey to go around, and then some. During a brainstorming session, Gluckman drew on his experience with the hugely successful Kerrygold brand in the 1960s, and suggested using Ireland’s reputation for excellent dairy produce to build a product around. His business partner, Hugh Reade Seymour-Davies, casually suggested mixing Irish whiskey and Irish cream. 

They went to the nearest supermarket, bought a bottle of Jameson and a tub of single cream, mixed it back in the office kitchen, and had a sip. It was not great. They added sugar. It improved. They went back to the supermarket, searching for that key ingredient that would pull the whole affair together, and found it in the form of Cadbury’s Powdered Drinking Chocolate. Gluckman called Tom Jago and brought the product straight to him. Jago liked it. In his book, Gluckman says of Jago, “The real heroes of ideas are not the people who have them – they are the people who buy them.” 

What Gluckman didn’t know was that Gilbeys Of Ireland, who oversaw the product development (the first Baileys prototypes were bottled in Gilbeys’ old Redbreast whiskey bottles with their distinctive sloping shoulders, a style they still use today), had reached an agreement with the then Irish Minister for Finance that export earnings for this new product would be tax exempt for ten years. Gluckman notes that at the ten-year birthday party for Baileys, the company had sold four million nine-bottle cases in the previous year alone. Gluckman and Seymour-Davies were paid about stg£3,000 for the development, and if that sounds mean, he does note that the company kept employing him for another 30 years. Last year Baileys generated volume sales of 8.8 million nine-litre cases worldwide, while Gluckman and Jago both went on to create iconic drinks brands throughout their glittering careers. Jago passed away aged 93 in 2018, and his daughter Rebecca now continues one of his last ventures, Last Drop Distillers. 

Baileys built an entire category, one which needed a technical file, the rules by which it must be created. The Irish cream technical file is held up by farmers as being a great example of demanding that this Irish drink uses only ingredients from the island of Ireland – all of the cream and all of the whiskey must be produced within the geographical region of Ireland (the whiskey, however, is not legally bound by its technical file to be made from 100% Irish grain). But if you are wondering how a bottle of Irish whiskey cream liqueur can cost so much less than a bottle of even the cheapest Irish whiskey, it’s because not all of the alcohol in them has to be whiskey. In fact, the file dictates that the alcohol content of Irish Cream shall contain a minimum of 1% of Irish Whiskey

The file adds: The minimum alcoholic strength of Irish Cream is 15% v/v which is obtained by the use of ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin or from distillates of agricultural origin. A portion of the final alcohol content will arise by reason of the presence of Irish whiskey and additionally any alcohol of agricultural origin present in the flavours used in the production of Irish Cream.

Despite the tiny amount required by law, the presence of Irish whiskey is used as one of the three reasons for Geographical Indication status in the technical file, along with the use of Irish dairy cream, and the fact it has to be made on the island of Ireland. But the bulk of what you consume in your Irish whiskey cream liqueur is neutral grain spirit. Sales would suggest the public do not especially care – it tastes nice, is not expensive, and has a pleasant mouthfeel, or, as the technical file puts it, The product has a homogenous and smooth consistency providing a stable emulsion without appearances of physical instability during its commercial shelf-life. The dairy cream in addition to the process of homogenisation of the cream liqueur, which occurs during production, confers a smooth texture and perceptibly pleasant mouth-feel whilst, on imbibing, the gradual melting of the butter-fat over time delivers a progressive release of the flavour compounds present and improves sensory perceptions during consumption

For all its luxuriousness, Irish cream liqueur had been a relatively mid-shelf affair. All of Bailey’s competitors were cheaper than it, but nobody had tried to create a premium Irish cream. The closing chapter in Gluckman’s book covers how he did just that. 

After 36 years with Diageo, he retired but felt that at 67 he still had plenty to offer the drinks world, so alongside David Phelan and Adrian Walker, who he knew from when they built the less-than-successful ‘Baileys The Whiskey’ brand, he helped create a new, premium Irish cream. 

Baileys had its distinctive warm colour tones by pure chance – in the first mix they had used drinking chocolate powder which made the liquid brown, so when the brand came to life in its final form, caramel was added to give it that same tint. But there was no technical reason for it. 

So this time they pledged there would be no caramel, no colourants, and no additives. They would steer clear of the sickly sweetness of some Irish creams, ensuring their drink would be 30% less sweet than those of their competitors. They also adhered to transparency and would declare all ingredients on the label, opting for fresh cream from County Cavan, vanilla from Madagascar, cocoa from Cote d’Ivoire and Belgian white chocolate. But they focussed more on the whiskey than any other element – this was the mid Noughties and they had three options, Midleton (the original source for Baileys’ whiskey element), Bushmills, and Cooley. After extensive research, they settled on a single malt. The source is never disclosed directly, but messaging about sourcing from the oldest distillery in Ireland could only mean Bushmills (less celebrated than all the above ingredients is one referred to as charcoal filtered spirit). 

Then came the name – after a brief flirtation with the name ‘Rainbow’, they stumbled across WB Yeats’ The Wild Swans At Coole, and opted for Wild Swan. After sussing out some distributors in America, they were informed that the name flew a tad too close to one of the great American brands, Wild Turkey (a fact discovered by the Wild Geese Irish whiskey brand when they were challenged over their ™). The team settled on Coole Swan. 

The whole look of Coole Swan was a rejection of the Baileys aesthetic – the bottle was tall and elegant with clear frosted glass, akin to Grey Goose. Instead of ‘serve cold’ they opted for ‘beautiful chilled’, and instead of ‘product of Ireland’ went for ‘made only in Ireland’. As for the liquid, it only took them 231 goes to get it right. Then came the selling, and the selling, and the selling. It won multiple awards, it won hearts and minds and palates, but in the end the battle to challenge Baileys’ dominance of the market – and its ownership of the entire identity of Irish cream – was too great. After a stellar opening, by 2014 it was languishing and the founders were looking to move on. Mary Sadlier, who had been CEO of Coole Swan since 2011, stepped forward. 

Sadlier is one of nine children. When I ask if perhaps coming from a large family is more likely to give someone an entrepreneurial spirit – where fighting your corner and making yourself heard is part of the day to day – she says it may have had an influence: “Maybe kids from big families are also better risk takers.  Or maybe it is in the stars and the opportunity finds you. Whatever it is, the drive, determination and will needed is personal.”

Six of the nine siblings are self employed, so it may simply be the case that they are a family blessed with a will to go it alone. From Blackrock in south Dublin, she graduated from college with an economics degree and started working as an accountant. Feeling hemmed in, she trained as a pilot and started flying commercially between the UK and Ireland delivering newspapers. After that she took a role as corporate finance director in Diageo, which involved travelling the world.

Husband and wife team, Philip Brady, Head of Operations and Mary Sadlier CEO of Coole Swan.

She met Philip Brady, who was to become her husband, and they came home to run his family farm in Meath (they supply dairy for Coole Swan). In 2014, they took over Coole Swan, and with their three daughters, set to work – selling, selling, and even more selling. Horse shows, agricultural fairs, Ireland’s national ploughing championship; they knocked on doors, got listed with supermarkets and travel retail, and pushed into new markets. 

The Irish cream category is growing – in 2022 sales grew 8% and are closing in on 10 million nine-bottle cases per year. It is a long way off Irish whiskey sales, but the situation facing smaller producers in the Irish whiskey category is akin to the battle that Coole Swan, and the plethora of other Irish cream liqueur producers, face; in Irish whiskey there is a monolithic Jameson, in Irish cream, Baileys, both defining their respective categories. For smaller producers, they are both being carried along in the wake of behemoths and struggling to find their own path. Sadlier, however, says that having Baileys leading the charge is neither a help nor a hindrance: “There are many roads to success.  One thing I have learnt is – make your own way in your own way and success will follow. Plus Baileys and Coole Swan are not on the same road.”

Currently Coole Swan sells around 300,000 bottles a year, miniscule in comparison to the Goliath that is Baileys, but this could still be the mouse that roars. Sadlier has the experience but more importantly, she has the belief. When I ask what it was that she saw in herself that convinced her she could take the brand forward from 2014, she replies: “Passion, enthusiasm, energy and belief.  I can see its future; it is a world-class brand and will be still winning accolades and customers long after I am gone.”

To find stockists see the Coole Swan website.

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