Irish Distillers is upping its focus on its pot still whiskies

Irish Distillers is upping its focus on its pot still whiskies

Last week, just-drinks caught up with Irish Distillers' CEO Anna Malmhake. Part one of the interview ran on Tuesday. Here, in the second and concluding part, Malmhake discusses Irish whiskey's image, Pernod Ricard's competitors in the category and the threat of alcohol legislation in Ireland.

Irish whiskies were once regarded as “the most premium in the world,” Malmhake explains, until the late 19th century when a series of factors, the main one being US prohibition, saw the category lose its status.

“Irish whiskey just started being regarded as cheaper because Scotch was seen as the bigger category,” she says. “Plus, 30 years ago Jameson was sold way below the price it should have been, so Irish whiskey was seen as a cheaper version.”

However, as Jameson expands into new markets, Malmhake says there is an opportunity to re-position the brand. “If you walk into a new country and put Jameson on the market, people see that it should be perceived as a premium product, which helps us keep our price.”

Part of this re-positioning can also be helped by Irish Distillers' focus on its pot still whiskies, which sit at the more premium end of the market. During the housewarming event, the company revealed that it plans to release two pot still whiskies a year for the next ten years. Ambitious plans, certainly, but Malmhake acknowledges these offerings will appeal to established whisk(e)y drinkers rather than attracting new consumers to Irish whiskey.

Irish Distillers is not alone in hoping it can attract new drinkers to the category. Since acquiring Bushmills in 2005, Pernod's old rival, Diageo, has boosted its production capacity, signed some high profile sponsorship deals and launched a flavoured variant. Beam Inc also has a significant interest in Irish whiskey, having acquired Cooley Distillery in 2011 and the 2 Gingers brand last year. While William Grant & Sons has been active with Tullamore Dew recently.  

Does Malmhake regard these developments as positive? “Absolutely,” she fires back. “Anytime someone goes into Irish whiskey, it means they are passionate about it.” She adds: “We are so tiny (as a category), it would be ridiculous to start elbowing one another.” 

But, what if these other companies start taking market share? “Of course they may, but on the other hand if together we can make Irish whiskey over time 10% of the world's whisk(e)y market ... there’s plenty of room for all of us. But of course, competition is always good.”

Domestically, however, Irish Distillers has been having a tough time. Malmhake admits having to deal with a “challenging” situation, due to the poor condition of the country's economy. She suggests many drinks companies have lowered their prices but her firm has not resorted to this. “People know the brands and the quality,” she says. Another threat on the home horizon is the Irish Government's proposal to tackle alcohol abuse, including a ban on drinks companies sponsoring major sports events.

Malmhake says she likes some of the plans but strongly objects to the ones that she calls “unscientific”, like stopping companies from linking up with sports events. “There seems to be this mis-understanding that companies use events to increase usage of alcohol in general, but in reality we do it to get a blip on the radar,” she argues.

Overall, Malmhake is postive about the state of the industry. “Of course, it's alive, it's innovating and investing,” she says. 

Does she think, then, that she made the right choice to up sticks from Absolut? Her face lighting up, Malmhake says: “I love it, how can you not love working for a company like this?” And, even the early fear of replacing a Ricard seems to have vanished. “Yes,” she adds. “It’s taken me two years, but I can see we’ve continued to do the right thing.”