Conor McQuaid, Chairman and Managing Director of Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard, must have achieved his ambition. Ever since leaving college he’d yearned to work for Irish Distillers and even hazarded a couple of unsuccessful job applications for same early on in his career. Eventually it paid off.
His first appointment after leaving University College Dublin with a degree in International Marketing & Spanish was with Golden Vale Group plc who’d bought a co-operative in Derry to make cream liqueurs for the international market.
But in 1998 he got a job as Irish Distillers’ Regional Manager for Southern Europe before becoming responsible for all Europe in 2000.
Five years on, he’d become Global Brand Development Director for Irish Distillers, joining IDL’s Executive Committee.
2011 saw him become Managing Director of Pernod Ricard South Africa (which also happened to be one of the strongest markets for Jameson after the US.) Sent out there for three years to build up Pernod Ricard’s brands he then spent another four years in Paris as European Vice President for Global Business Development.
In 2018 he was appointed Chairman and Chief Executive of Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard. Bearing in mind his early yearnings, the Louth-born native must be like the cat that got the creamery!
In today’s global Irish whiskey boom, Conor’s biggest challenges lie in three “focus areas”.
Firstly there’s the building out of the Jameson family of brands to make them truly “global”, so he’s seeking to expand the market in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
He also wants to broaden the Irish whiskey portfolio, particularly at the higher Super Premium end.
And thirdly, as every whiskey-maker must do today, he intends ensuring that Irish Distillers has sufficient stocks going forward.
Powers would be Irish Distillers’ second best-selling global whiskey by volume after the Jameson family followed by Redbreast, Green Spot and the new Method & Madness range, he says.
Here in Ireland, Jameson leads Irish Distillers’ other spirits brands Powers and Absolut by volume.
Innovatory Irish pubs
Returning home after so many years outside the country, he’s noticed a huge difference in the Irish pub observing, for example, the many ways in which today’s publican has to innovate to attract consumers back into the pub – and that includes whiskey-tasting sessions.
“There are light years in the difference from when I left Ireland in 2011,” he comments.
The way in which Irish Distillers helps grow the on-trade business has also changed during this time.
“Normally we’d put our brands to the fore but now we seek to collaboratively build our brand into what the publican would like to do, so we’re adapting ourselves to their on-trade business plans,” he explains, “Experiences for the consumer are to be focused on now.
This might help explain the €11 million investment in the development of the Visitor Centre at Bow Street to enhance that very visitor experience.
So how can Irish Distillers bring them into its portfolio via relevant activities?
“Well the on-premise is still the best way to build a brand. It allows you to bring the world of the brand into the outlet and it’s becoming a requirement globally for Generation Z who’re drinking less but better.”
Recently Jameson underwent a packaging redesign, something that’s carried out periodically every few years.
No small hill of beans goes into keeping the labelling fresh and appealing on global products such as Jameson so Government moves to introduce a cancer warning label onto Irish alcohol products as part of the Alcohol Bill are worrying.
“Clearly” he says, “we’d support the Bill’s intent for the responsible consumption of alcohol and there are aspects of the Bill that clearly we’re not against and would be happy to fall in line with. But we’re most concerned about the cancer warning label requirement. “Alcohol has been placed in the same context as processed meats by the World Health Organisation and for us to be singled out for statutory placement of a warning connecting alcohol and fatal cancers actually has a damaging effect on responsible alcohol consumption,” he argues, “It gives the consumer an expectation that’s beyond reasonable, particularly when we’re driving Irish whiskey around the world and need the support of the Irish authorities on this.
“Tourism needs us all to work together to emphasise such a historical and indigenous part of our culture; this labelling stipulation comes at just such a time of positive momentum for Ireland being a great place to come to. For us to be asked to put cancer warnings on labels at this time doesn’t bode well for an industry on the up.”
And of course nobody at Irish Distillers can ignore the impending consequences of Brexit, for the UK remains in Irish Distillers’ top six global markets.
“It’s one we fought hard in to reframe and refresh the vision of Irish whiskey,” he explains, “Big investment went into building out the Jameson opportunity and in the present context that’s a worry. As with every business today, everything is super nervous with the clock running down so fast.”
And like many Irish exporting businesses, Irish Distillers is making preparations.
“A lot of dry goods (glass components etc) are sourced out of the UK so there would be a logistical impact for continuing to supply these in a seamless manner. We’ve made contingency plans but it’s still very difficult to predict whether these will be sufficient at this point in time.”
Looking to the future
And while we may be cresting along on an Irish whiskey wave, has he planned for a future when the emphasis on Irish whiskey becomes less pronounced?
“There’s still lots of headroom left for the Irish whiskey industry globally,” he counters, “We’ve a relatively small global share of whiskey consumption and my challenge is to make sure that we’ll become a Top 10 global spirit brand.”
Well Impact’s latest figures for global brand domination puts Jameson firmly into that Top 10, one of only four whisk(e)y brands sitting alongside Johnnie Walker, Jack Daniels and Jim Beam.
In fact Jameson now outsells all other Scotch brands globally, other than Johnnie Walker (Red through Black expressions), he tells me.
So mission accomplished then.
“We achieved that with two years to spare!” he beams, “It puts us in a position to take on the global challenge of ensuring that Jameson is really global in nature.”
Thus the push into Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Of course Conor would like to see Irish Distillers’ products ‘future-proofed’ and so Irish Distillers is laying down stocks of Pot Still whiskey etc.
“A decision was taken to do this back in 2008 and since then we’ve launched 11 new Pot Still brands,” he points out.
These use a combination of malted and unmalted barley giving that sweetness and peppery flavour that’s been so well received, he says.
“The grain components used are what make this style of whiskey so unique to Ireland.”
And he remains confident of Irish whiskey’s future.
“The statistic that really rocks me on my heels is that in 2012 there were only four distilleries here; today there are 24, with more to come.”
And he remains confident too of Irish whiskey’s future for another reason.
“One of things my predecessors decided to do was to open Midleton to newcomers to whiskey distilling and help them keep product quality at the level it should be globally. It’s an Open Door policy which is good both for us and for the sake of the category.
“I think it’s the right thing to do. The Irish Whiskey Association plays an important role in bringing the whole Irish whiskey industry together and – while we do not agree about everything – when we go to market, the opportunity for us all is sufficiently large that we can grow together”.
And publicans here have been hugely supportive of that renaissance as it has happened, he says, even down to the domestic consumer seeking great whiskey cocktails.