This time three years ago the news was breaking that Walsh Whiskey and Ilva Saronno were parting ways. It was hard to comprehend – Bernard and Rosemary Walsh had built their Writers’ Tears and The Irishman brands from the ground up, and had the foresight to start doing so well before the multitude of non-distilling producer Irish whiskey brands that are weighing down the shelves in your local drinks emporium. It’s hard to imagine anyone conceiving a whiskey brand all the way back in 1999, but the Walshes did – kind of.
The company started life as The Hot Irishman, a concentrate to be used for making Irish coffees. But as Irish whiskey began its acceleration in the early 2000s, Walsh saw the potential for a whiskey brand and in 2006 The Irishman Founder’s Reserve whiskey was launched. In 2009 Writers’ Tears – a blend of pot still and malt whiskey – was launched. Then, in 2013, as Irish whiskey took off worldwide, Walsh merged with Ilva Saronno – the Italian parent firm of iconic brands Disaronno and Tia Maria. With the backing of a drinks titan, they built a beautiful distillery in Royal Oak, which opened in June 2016. Less than three years later, in January 2019, Ilva Saronno and Walsh Whiskey consciously uncoupled.
In a frank interview with Mark Gillespie on WhiskyCast, Bernard Walsh said that while he wanted to focus on premiumisation, his Italian partners had a different view of the market. If that seemed opaque at the time, the release of Ilva Saronno’s The Busker made clear what he was referring to. It’s hard to imagine brands more disparate than the brutalist, smashable dram of The Busker (which is a quality, affordable, no frills whiskey) and the considered elegance of Writers’ Tears (as imbibed by Margaret Atwood, no less). But while WT is a quality whiskey in a stunning package, The Irishman’s livery was a little dated. A rebrand in 2013 updated it somewhat, but it still looked like the poor relation next to Writers’ Tears. They also made the decision to include Bernard Walsh’s face on the label. I am of the mind that unless the face on the label is a Victorian cameo-style sketch of Rabbie Burns or Paddy Flaherty or some other dear departed icon, your label will not be improved by its inclusion, especially if it’s not an immediately recognisable face (addendum to this – it’s not ok to mock the god-awful line drawing of Paul Newman on Newman’s Own as they are for charity). The Irishman needed a reboot, more than a rebrand. But reboots cost money.
In November 2021 it was announced that Walsh Whiskey had been bought by Amber Beverage Group for an undisclosed sum. An informed source told the Irish Times it could be on a par with the alleged 90 million Sazerac bought the Paddy brand from Irish Distillers for – but the cynic in me suggested that seemed a little high. So I checked with another source in the industry who said they were surprised the figure wasn’t higher.
Luxembourg-HQed Amber Beverage Group (ABG) are a division of SPI Group, which is owned by Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler, a former member of the Russian military who has been locked in a trademark battle with the Russian state-owned company FKP Soyuzplodoimport over the ownership of Stoli brand vodka for decades. Per Forbes, Shefler bought the Stoli brand from state-owned VVO Soyuzplodoimport for $285,000 in 1997. Russia’s Supreme Court ruled the sale illegal in 2001, banning Shefler from selling the vodka inside its borders. In 2014, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium joined Russia in banning sales of Stolichnaya. However, in July of 2021, SPI Group hailed a victory in the ongoing dispute, winning the rights to sell Stoli in eight of 13 European countries. Also, in light of current events it is worth pointing out that SPI’s Stoli is made in Lativa, just in case you feel like boycotting it because it is ‘Russian’.
Update 7.3.2022 – Stoli has rebranded. In a press release, Shefler said: “While I have been exiled from Russia since 2000 due to my opposition to Putin, I have remained proud of the Stolichnaya brand. Today, we have made the decision to rebrand entirely as the name no longer represents our organization. More than anything, I wish for ‘Stoli’ to represent peace in Europe and solidarity with Ukraine.” What this means for the trademarks, I couldn’t say – but it might pave the way for Shefler’s Latvian-made Stoli to be a distinct brand from the Russian made and owned Stolichnaya
While Stoli may be the biggest name in their portfolio, ABG are big and plan on getting bigger. According to a piece published in The Spirits Business in June 2021 –
Throughout the pandemic, the company continued to witness positive sales. Amber Beverage Group saw organic sales increase 11% to €268.7 million (US$347.1m) last year, boosted by its “strengthened” presence in core Baltic markets. Organic operating profit for the full year rose by 21% to €21.9m (US$26.8m). The company had surpassed €30m (US$36.4m) in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) for the second time, reflecting its ability to adapt quickly.
Part of this expansion saw them buy Angelina Jolie’s share of a French vineyard she had invested in with her former partner Brad Pitt. That sale is now the subject of litigation by Pitt as part of their long-running divorce battle. Pitt’s suit claims ‘She sold her interest with the knowledge and intention that Shefler and his affiliates would seek to control the business to which Pitt had devoted himself and to undermine Pitt’s investment in Miraval’.
Obviously, big firms don’t always get big – and stay big – through peace, love, and understanding. Sometimes difficult choices are made. In December 2021 a tribunal ruled that Shefler unfairly sacked a UK senior executive over the phone for objecting to 30% staff pay cuts during the pandemic. You can read the full judgement here.
ABG’s financial prudence meant they were able to spend half a million euro on the renovation of The Irishman. I’ll let the press release take it from here:
The Irishman® range of super-premium whiskeys produced by Walsh Whiskey (part of the Amber Beverage Group) has undergone an extensive rebranding to reflect its dedication to the pursuit of excellence in Single Malt whiskeys. The €500,000 rebranding, which sees wholesale changes to The Irishman’s bottle, labelling and packaging, follows a strategic review which commenced in April 2020. Walsh Whiskey was assisted in the review by Bord Bia’s (The Irish Food Board) specialist Insight Centre – The Thinking House. The extensive design project was undertaken by HERE design agency in London.
Announcing the renewed focus on single malt and the brand redesign, Walsh Whiskey founder Bernard Walsh said: “As the Irish whiskey category continues to develop with increasing variety, it is important that we are clear in our proposition to whiskey consumers. Our message is simple: The Irishman will always be single malt focused – whether championed in pure expressions or blends – and that it will always be triple distilled to leave a lasting impression.”
There are also changes to the composition of the range, with a change of name for one core expression and the addition of a limited edition to the core of the portfolio.
The Founder’s Reserve blend (70% Single Malt & 30% Pot Still) has been renamed The Harvest. This expression, a truly unique blend of two premium styles of whiskey, started life as the first ever whiskey created by Walsh Whiskey’s Founder. The renaming of this core expression as The Harvest honours the great contribution of the farming community in the whiskey-making process. The whiskey is crafted entirely from a mash bill of 100% Irish barley.
First released as a limited edition bottling in 2018, The Irishman Caribbean Cask is being added to the portfolio’s core expressions which also include The Harvest; Single Malt; 12-Year-Old Single Malt; 17-Year-Old Single Malt & the Vintage Cask. The Irishman Caribbean Cask Finish is a rare vatting of Single Malt and Single Pot Still whiskeys finished for 6 months in Chairman’s Reserve Rum casks from the tiny tropical Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, before being bottled at 46% ABV.
A new colour palette of understated cream, green, grey, blue and burgundy is applied to the labels of the six core expressions of The Irishman range.
The trajectory of Walsh Whiskey probably holds some lessons for other producers – you don’t need a distillery to build a valuable brand, whiskey is a long game, and the road to success isn’t always sunshines and roses. Just ask Brad and Angelina.