Diageo's acquisition of Bushmills Irish Whiskey from Pernod Ricard in 2005 heralded a major change for the brand. As Shivaun Lucey, global brand director, Bushmills, stresses in this month's Just the Answer, there is a wealth of difference between being a secondary brand to a market leader and being the only Irish whiskey marketed by the world's largest spirits company. Olly Wehring spoke with Lucey about the brand's future as part of Diageo.

just-drinks: In the Irish whiskey sector, Jameson leads the field (2.2m nine-litre cases sold in 2007), compared to Bushmills (under 500,000 cases in 2007). Is growth for Bushmills going to come from stealing share, or from category growth?

Lucey: A bit of both. Our first priority is to take a bigger slice of the Irish whiskey market. Figures from 1994 show that Bushmills and Jameson were exactly the same size in North America. The previous owner then invested in one brand and not the other. Bushmills has been neglected for 20 years, and we're just getting started. It's the only Irish whiskey in Diageo, so we're hugely serious about it. So, our first step is a bigger slice of Irish whiskey. The second step is taking Bushmills beyond Irish.

j-d: Which markets outside of the US offer growth for Irish whiskey?

Lucey: The first step is to focus on existing markets. The US is number one and almost double the number two, which is Ireland. Then GB and France are neck-and-neck, with Global Travel at number five. We've now started seeding in Central and Eastern Europe - about 30 markets - as well as having launched in Russia and South Africa.

We're also working very closely with Diageo companies in Asia and Latin America - they're our third generation of markets. But North America, in terms of scale, offers a huge opportunity for us.

j-d: Does the current economic climate suggest the time is not yet right for Irish whiskey growth?

Lucey: The way I see it, the timing couldn't be better for Irish whiskey. There's accessibility in terms of the liquid, as well as accessibility in terms of the Irish personality. For men, embarking on their whisk(e)y journey, there's a taste barrier and then there are the 'rules and regulations' of whisk(e)y. The Irish personality allows you to break all those rules, while the taste of Bushmills - with the high malt content - allows you to overcome that taste barrier. The crux of our marketing programme is to encourage sampling among consumers.

Men want to drink whisk(e)y, there's a trend towards 'back to your roots', and authenticity and provenance. Bushmills offers that, so I feel the timing for Bushmills is perfect.

j-d: Jameson plays down its Irish roots, while smaller Irish whiskey companies, Cooley and Tullamore Dew for example, are proud of their 'Irishness'. Where does Bushmills sit?

Lucey: Our provenance is incredibly important, and our advertising reflects this. But if we were trying too hard and over-pushing these elements, I think we'd fail. That's the first step. If we're going to tell people that we're the best Irish whiskey, then we need to let people understand why. We also want to take the academia out of whisk(e)y and let people taste it.

We are the only working distillery that lets people in to see how we work. We believe we portray it as it is - other brands don't. They don't have a fantastic home to boast of and to share. Jameson doesn't talk about its Irish provenance - it's a very different operation down there in Middleton.

j-d: What was the reaction to the purchase of Bushmills by Diageo from Pernod Ricard in 2005?

Lucey: I think the reaction at first was wondering what would happen when big Diageo buys us. Really quickly, though, the first decision was: "Turn on the tap and make as much whiskey, because this is a gem that we've bought." Even before we had decided on a strategy for Bushmills, distilling had already been increased. That showed everyone that Diageo was serious. One of the first things I told people here was that Bushmills is now the only Irish whiskey in the largest drinks company. Before, it was the third Irish whiskey in a different drinks company.

j-d: Was there a feeling of neglect prior to the purchase?

Lucey: Yes. There would have been a sense of feeling disenfranchised. But when we made the investment in advertising for Bushmills that was the big point. We're all really beginning to see a very bright future for Bushmills.

j-d: What other changes has Bushmills seen since the sale?

Lucey: What's happening in Northern Ireland, in political terms, has given us almost a double dose of optimism. There's a great sense of 'Our time has come' at Bushmills, and we're only getting started. That's hugely motivating for people in our organisation. There's a little gem here that was Ireland's best-kept secret - now we're whispering loudly. We did pay GBP200m for it, and that sits on my shoulders!

j-d: What targets do you have in place for Bushmills going forward?

Lucey: In three years' time, we want to be at 1m cases, and in five years' time, we want to be moving into the next million. I don't think we'll do 2m in five years' time, but we'll definitely be at 1m in three years' time.

Shivaun Lucey, global brand director, Bushmills

j-d: This year is the 400th anniversary of whiskey-making heritage in the Bushmills area. Why do you think Pernod gave up the brand three years before such a lucrative opportunity?

Lucey: Within the industry there would have been some very interesting negotiations between [Diageo CEO] Paul Walsh and [then Pernod joint MD] Richard Burrows. We were delighted with the outcome, and we got our hands on this gem of a brand. We were also very fortunate to have the 400th anniversary coming.

People say to us, what about your NPD? On our journey with Bushmills and Diageo, we wouldn't be introducing a new product, but you couldn't let the 400th anniversary pass without marking the event. All markets will have the 1608 for the anniversary year, after which it will live in duty free.

j-d: Have you got Jameson squarely in your sights, then?

Lucey: We have. If we stand back, we want a bigger slice of Irish today, but ultimately I think we will be bigger than Irish. There's a sense of realism as well. Let's get the basics, let's get out the door, let's hit 1m cases and then go from there.

I think, coupling its high malt content with its roguish, spirited personality, my vision is for Bushmills is to be the whiskey of choice for 27-year-old men. But that's longer term. We've got the first set of the programme right, now we need to get some momentum behind us and deliver some results.

Diageo have put their money where their mouth is. The amount of attention Bushmills gets within Diageo is disproportionate to the size of the brand.

j-d: Is that due to future potential, or a sense of romance for the brand?

Lucey: There's no romance when you have to check your share price! People feel the opportunity for Bushmills is phenomenal. It pulls all the right strings. It's small, but in terms of reputation, appetite and optimism, Bushmills is huge in the context of Diageo.