"Irish whiskey and gin can't rest on their laurels" - Interview, Shane Hoyne, CMO, Quintessential Brands

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Last month, Quintessential Brands opened the doors for the first time to its The Dublin Liberties Irish whiskey distillery and visitor experience, making its mark on the city's burgeoning whiskey scene. Ahead of the launch event, just-drinks deputy editor Lucy Britner sat down with Quintessential's CMO, Shane Hoyne, to talk about brand homes, the future of the Irish whiskey category and the company's broader acquisition plans.

Quintessential Brands has just opened The Dublin Liberties Irish whiskey distillery, with the Thomas Dakin gin distillery in Manchester scheduled to open this year

Quintessential Brands has just opened The Dublin Liberties Irish whiskey distillery, with the Thomas Dakin gin distillery in Manchester scheduled to open this year

Hoyne joined Quintessential in March 2018 from Bacardi, where he was CMO of Europe for three years. During his 20-year career in the drinks industry, he has also held senior brand director positions with both William Grant & Sons and Heineken.

just-drinks: How have consumer attitudes towards spirits changed over the years? 

Shane Hoyne: People are a lot more exploratory. They don't look at categories in the way that businesses do. A number of years ago, people would have looked at whisk(e)y and thought 'well it's Scotch or it's Irish, Bourbon or Japanese'. Now, rather than look at it as a vertical, they look at it as a horizontal. This has been encouraged by the proliferation of new brands coming out and the blurring of lines, for example, a Scotch that looks American in design.

Consumers are evaluating brands differently and that has made it really interesting for small brands because you're not competing in a defined set, you're competing in a much broader landscape. You can't put out a standard offering to compete with other standard offerings, whereas you could have in the past because the categories were clear.

j-d: Has this inspired the move by some companies to go from being category-centric to consumer-centric?

"Consumers don't buy categories - they buy brands"

SH: I don't think these are conflicting. Having a category view allows you to organise your portfolio, but consumers don't buy categories - they buy brands. Traditionally, companies would look at it very narrowly in terms of 'where am I going to get my consumer from'.  For example, 'I'll get my Irish consumer from Bourbon'. But actually, if you look at what's happening in the US now, whiskey drinkers are coming from craft beer. People's repertoires are so broad - the notion of being a whisk(e)y drinker is outdated.
You have to be much more inventive, much braver, with the kind of brands you're creating.

j-d: What does that mean for established big brands?

SH: You're always going to get a huge volume of consumers that just want what they want. Big brands struggle to recruit at the moment, although not in every category - in Irish whiskey, the underlying dynamic is raising all ships. But, in a lot of categories, the big brands are struggling to recruit. Look at vodka and blended Scotch whisky. In those two categories, there has been a lot of sameness -  a lot of talk about people who founded the company that died 100 years ago - that story gets played out way too often.

In Irish whiskey and gin, the big category phenomenons are they're at a stage where they can't rest on their laurels.

j-d: What does the future hold for Irish whiskey?

SH: In some ways, the category hasn't changed that much over the last 20 years - a few big brands dominate with a three-year-old whiskey proposition. But, there's a lot of smaller, interesting stuff happening. I have a lot of confidence that Irish whiskey is ahead of the curve in learning from other categories and that it's starting to do things that are interesting.

j-d: When it comes to Irish whiskey stock, how many years before we'll see a wider array of products?

SH: I don't think stock availability is a limiting factor at the moment. There's plenty of stock in the market to do interesting things with. Actually, when resources are scarce you tend to be much more creative - you have to be.  When Scotch couldn't do ageing, they became much more inventive on finishing, and on proposition.

Irish whiskey is inventive and creative around how we finish our liquids, also ageing - ageing has never been a big part of, it but I think it's a really important part of the future.

"What we have to avoid in Irish whiskey is just becoming predictable, like Scotch became"

What we have to avoid in Irish whiskey is just becoming predictable, like Scotch became. We need to take the opportunity now to do stuff that the whisk(e)y industry hasn't done. I think Japanese whisky has done a really good job of that and you can see how people have attached to it on an emotional level.

j-d: What about industry rules? Do they allow for enough innovation?

SH: I believe rules are in place to protect us. The page is big enough to be very creative and there's nothing within them that I would disagree with. Traditions are very important and they dictate the rules - and, the rules protect the traditions. When you look at categories that have looser definitions around them, they tend to do things that are a little bit off the wall and not necessarily for the good of the category - look at what happened with vodka. I used to work on the Grey Goose brand and we really tried to make sure we didn't fall into those traps.

Shane Hoyne, CMO, Quintessential Brands

j-d: The master distiller describes The Dublin Liberties as "more for experiments and innovations" - can you add some colour to that?

SH: Liberties is all age statement. At the moment the range is 5 ,10, 13, 16,  27. We have interesting whiskeys laid down that we might release at 18 and ones we might release at 30 years. The Liberties range will always be aged, premium and different - it's priced differently as well - our 16-year-old whiskey is EUR340 (US$382). To create the kind of whiskey we wanted, we had to create very small batches with limited availability - it's not our plan to create a mass brand. Liberties will be a 10,000-case-per-year brand in one or two years. I'd be very happy if we have meaningfully built it in six or seven countries.

j-d: How does The Dubliner fit into your strategy?

SH: The Dubliner is a three-year-old whiskey. We expect the brand to be at 100,000 cases per year, in the next two years.

I want to use the word 'inventive' more with The Dubliner. At the moment, we're creating a series of beer cask collaborations with small independent brewers. We've just been doing one with Rascals in Dublin, finishing our whiskey in their chocolate stout casks. We have at least three more lined up: one in the US this year, another one in Ireland and we're talking to brewers in Sydney. These collaborations bring personality to the brand and connect with local consumers - it pushes us to try to add value into Irish whiskey.

j-d: What made you open the distillery in Dublin?

"Brands have to be rooted in a place, especially spirits brands"

SH: Brands have to be rooted in a place, especially spirits brands. It's not enough to be rooted in 'Irish'. Look at what's happening in Irish whiskey, there are a lot of brands coming on board. My belief is that the brands that have longevity are the brands that have a sense of place. When you decide to put a distillery somewhere, you're making a huge long-term commitment.

It would've been much easier, faster and cheaper to build on a greenfield site near a port but that doesn't connect you to a place. We've put the distillery in the heart of a cultural centre. 

For Quintessential, we've never put ourselves so nakedly in front of consumers before. We've been a manufacturer and now we're in a different industry - the world of hospitality, entertainment and leisure. This year, we expect we'll get around 80,000 visitors physically interacting with our brand. That's really valuable. You can apply the same logic to our view on Manchester [with the pending opening of the Thomas Dakin gin distillery]

j-d: Will you set up more brand homes?

SH: I believe we will, but let's get these two going first.

j-d: Are there any new spirits categories that you might move in to?

SH: We're always looking. Whisk(e)y in general is very interesting to us, and not just Irish whiskey. I still think there are a lot of interesting plays to be had in Scotch - there are some really interesting things that are yet to happen in that category. 

We produce a lot of liqueurs out of our plant in France, there are areas there to look at - vermouth and bitters are interesting and, when you're already a gin producer, it's not a huge step. 

j-d: Do you prefer to create your own brands rather than acquire them?

SH: It would be great if we could create all of our own brands but I don't think it's always going to be possible. Any brand that comes up for sale we look at it - you've got to see what's going on in the marketplace. I think it'll be a healthy mix of both for us. Sometimes it's hard to create brands - it's hard to create a Scotch if you don't have a distillery in Scotland. I think in a couple of years time, we will have done both.

Behind the scenes at Quintessential Brands' The Dublin Liberties Distillery – Click here for a just-drinks focus

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