• Distiller open to tie-ups
  • Seeks distribution deals
  • Expects strong growth for Irish whiskey
Cooleys Kilbeggan Distillery Reserve Malt, launched in June

Cooley's Kilbeggan Distillery Reserve Malt, launched in June

Cooley Distillery is on the lookout for partners as strong global demand for Irish whiskey has generated greater interest in the sector, the group's managing director has told just-drinks.

Privately-held Cooley needs partners to beef up the distribution of its brands against an impressive list of rivals including Diageo, Pernod Ricard and William Grant & Sons.

"It's not an easy landscape," Cooley's joint-MD, Jack Teeling, told just-drinks in an interview today (8 October). "We've worked with partners before and, further down the line, I'm sure we'll be working with other players," he said.

William Grant's acquisition of Tullamore Dew, together with Irish whiskey's strong growth trajectory, is likely to spark greater interest in the sector from other multinationals. And, in an industry where Cooley owns three out of the six distilleries in operation, Teeling expects a few knocks on the door.

"If our predictions are right, every large drinks company will need a brand of Irish whiskey," he said, adding: "A lot of companies talk to us about Irish whiskey, because there's basically no one else to talk to." Not that 23-year-old Cooley, which is perhaps best-known for its Kilbeggan brand, necessarily wants to sell up. The group is proudly independent and Teeling said that the firm was more interested in tie-ups rather than takeovers.      

Irish whiskey sells around 5m nine-litre cases annually, with Pernod Ricard's Jameson accounting for almost 3m of those. Scotch whisky, in comparison, is nearer the 100m cases mark, having sold 1.1bn 70cl bottles last year.

Yet, market research group Datamonitor expects sales of Irish whiskey to rise by 9% annually up to 2014. Demand is being led by the US, which accounted for 1m cases in 2009 and is projected to grow by another 200,000 cases in 2010, giving Irish whiskey roughly 3% of the whisk(e)y market by volume.

"Cooley has seen a significant increase in interest coming from all aspects of the US liquor industry," said the company in its annual report, published late last week.

"It's not a blip, we see a medium-to-long-term uptrend," said Teeling, on a break from showing Russian clients around Cooley's facilities ahead of the football match between Republic of Ireland and Russia this weekend. "Growth is coming mainly from the US, but this will spread out. We're seeing early signs in Australia, which is probably five, six or seven years behind the US, as well as pockets in Europe. Even younger consumers in Ireland are starting to drink Irish whiskey again. The taps will turn on."

Cooley is strongest in Western markets, particularly Germany, where it and Tullamore Dew have kept Jameson out of the top two in terms of volume.

Life is not all roses, however. Cooley could only report flat net profits for 2009, at EUR3m (US$4m). Net sales fell back to EUR14.2m from EUR18.7m in 2008, with the difference attributed to one-off gains from bulk whiskey sales in 2008.

Teeling said that "underlying sales growth is strong", although he said that branded whiskey sales were "not as high as we would like". He blamed this, in part, on the firm's travails in gaining the right distribution partners; a problem he believes may ease following William Grant's purchase of Tullamore Dew from C&C Group.

"They're going to have to change distribution partners, and when [those ex-partners] come looking for brands, we'll be able to take them up," he said. Grant has already taken Tullamore Dew distribution in-house in the UK, handing the brand to its First Drinks subsidiary following several years with Maxxium UK. It is believed that several distribution deals on Tullamore Dew in other markets are coming up for renewal.
Teeling added that he expects Cooley's strength in depth to improve premium whiskey sales. In June, the firm launched Kilbeggan Distillery Reserve Malt, priced at EUR50 per bottle, in an attempt to broaden out the Irish whiskey category from purely blended expressions. Alongside Kilbeggan, Cooley also owns Tyrconnell, Connemara and Greenore brands, which include expressions such as Connemara Peated Single Malt and Single Grain Greenore.

"The Irish whiskey category is not just a single brand," said Teeling. With consumer demand set to remain strong, Cooley, William Grant and Diageo (Bushmills) have the chance to prove him right.