The just-drinks Interview - Anna Malmhake, Irish Distillers' CEO - Part I

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Last week, Irish Distillers held an event to showcase its EUR100m (US$132m) investment in its Midleton Distillery, near Cork. What hopes does the Pernod Ricard subsidiary have for Irish whiskey? Can it build on the category's renaissance and break out of its niche? just-drinks' deputy editor James Wilmore talks to the CEO of Irish Distillers, Anna Malmhake.


In 2011, when Anna Malmhake was appointed CEO of Pernod's Irish Distillers unit, the then-marketing director of the Absolut Co was pretty nervous about making the move to Ireland. "It (the prospect) was absolutely terrifying," she tells me. The reason for the nerves came in human form: Malmhake's predecessor was Alexandre Ricard, nephew of the group's former CEO, the late Patrick Ricard, and Pernod's CEO in-waiting

"He (Alexandre) had done such an incredible job, how could you not be terrified coming in," says the 46-year-old Swede. "With the way Jameson has developed, anyone coming into that would be terrified." 

We're meeting in a hotel conference room near Cork airport, the day after Irish Distillers has laid on an all-day event for around 900 journalists, bloggers and customers at its Midleton Distillery, to showcase a EUR100m investment in the site.

The 'housewarming', as it was dubbed, featured tastings and tours of the company's new Garden Stillhouse, accompanied by an array of Irish-themed live music, including the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon and, later, The Chieftains. Malmhake herself even took to the stage to accompany The Chieftains, playing a Bodhran, an Irish drum.

The message being relayed throughout the event was: Irish Distillers may be owned by a global spirits firm (this has been the case for 25 years) but it has deep-seated roots and tradition. The term 'craft', meanwhile, was the word of the day from those connected with the company. 

Malmhake is keen to highlight the theme. "Jameson all comes from the same little town in southern Ireland and we intend to keep it like that," she explains. "What amazes people is when they come in and see the pot stills and realise this is craft. They get this eureka moment." 

Globally, Irish Distillers is predominantly known for one brand: Jameson. In some regions, most notably the US, it defines the Irish whiskey category. Now sold in 130 markets, Jameson's sales in Pernod's most recent fiscal year leapt by 17%, while volumes rose an impressive 10%. Forty of Jameson's markets are seeing double-digit, even triple-digit sales growth, I'm told.

So, what does Malmhake attribute the brand's rollercoaster success to? "It's the taste, it really is that simple," she offers.

"I meet people all the time who say I don't really like whisk(e)y, but I say 'try Jameson' and more often than not they are converted." Malmhake admits she was only turned on to Irish whiskey when she became part of Pernod five years ago, following the French group's acquisition of Absolut Vodka. At the time, she was global brand director at the Swedish group, going on to become the firm's marketing director, before moving to Irish Distillers.

She joined the unit at a good time: Irish whiskey has been enjoying a renaissance for a few years now. Admittedly, it's coming from a low base and, as Malmhake flags, Irish whiskey is still only 4% of global sales across the whisk(e)y category. "There are lots of little pockets (for Irish whiskey)," as she puts it. "But it's still very, very tiny." 

In the US, consumers' thirst for Irish whiskey appears to be showing little sign of abating. Category volumes last year were up by 22.5%, according to DISCUS, while Irish whiskey outsold single malt Scotch in 2011.

But Malmhake refuses to get carried away. "The US is definitely from our perspective a big market, but Jameson is not a monolith of a brand," says Malmhake.  "If you go into the middle of the country there are places where there are lots of people who are still yet to experience Irish whiskey."

Is she still excited about the opportunity for Jameson in the US? "Absolutely," says Malmhake, but then adds: "There are opportunities all over the world." 

Jameson's breakthrough in the US was a result of a brand "showcasing" by Irish Distillers to bartenders in the hipper areas of New York City, such as the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. Malmhake says the company is repeating the same trick in Tokyo, where, she claims, "there are lots of bartenders falling in love with the brand".

And yet, Irish whiskey as a category has been unable to make inroads in Asia's other lucrative markets. Why has it not piggy-backed on the success of Scotch? "Traditionally, when a lot of international companies have gone into Asia, they have led with their luxury products. That played into the favour of the Scotch brands," Malmhake says.

But, she senses a turning tide. "Now, the market is shifting ... people are getting a bit tired with the most blingy things and are looking for more craft products. So it's interesting for Jameson," she says. Can we expect to see signs of a breakthrough for Irish whiskey in China, then? "It's a huge market," says Malmhake. "Absolutely, Irish whiskey can have a part of it." 

Part two of this interview, in which Malmhake discusses Irish whiskey's image, Pernod's competitors in the category and the threat of alcohol legislation in Ireland, can be found here.

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