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Published:  23 July, 2008

It's a category that's been in growth for the last decade, but is it too dependent on its star performer? David Williams follows the fortunes of the Irish whiskey team

There's no doubt that for the last decade the Irish whiskey category has been one of the spirits world's happiest stories. Though a relatively small player, with just two companies distilling and global sales of around 30 million bottles last year, it has shown double-digit growth nearly every year for the last decade, a time when global whisky sales have been largely static. To use the language of footballing punditry, when compared with its much bigger rival across the Irish Sea, Irish whiskey seems every inch the giant-killing minnow. The footballing analogy carries over to Irish whiskey's possible failings, too. Because, if there is a cloud attached to Irish whiskey's silver lining, it is one that it shares with that authentic giant-killing minnow, the Irish national football team. Certainly, both have enjoyed unprecedented success during the last decade. But both have also been accused of being over-reliant on their one internationally renowned, world-class' performer. For Irish football's Roy Keane, read Irish whiskey's Jameson, a brand that accounted for 1.4 million of the 2.5 million cases of Irish whiskey sold around the globe last year, and which represents 83% of the total UK Irish whiskey market. According to James Slack, head of marketing for whisky at Pernod Ricard, which owns Jameson and the rest of the Irish Distillers portfolio (including Powers, the best-selling brand in Ireland's domestic market, and the leading Irish malt, Bushmills), there are historical' reasons for Jameson's supremacy. At the end of the nineteenth century, Ireland had about 90% of the world's whisky market,' says Slack. Then it got clobbered by various different factors, things like Prohibition in the States, trade embargoes in the UK because of the Troubles, particularly after the Easter Rising. It was decimated, basically. So when Irish Distillers was formed, and then bought out by Pernod Ricard, they decided that they really needed to find one brand to hang their hat on, to get some market share and get Irish whiskey going again. That one brand was Jameson.' Slack and his colleagues clearly consider this focus part of an ongoing process. We don't have plans to really push the other brands at the moment, not in the short term,' Slack says. The whole focus has been Jameson; Jameson is our world. The momentum is growing, it has delivered double-digit growth pretty much every year over the last decade, and what we want to do is to take the brand to that level where it is firmly established as one of the biggest players in the whisky market. Once we've got to that point, then things can piggy-back on it, the investment will be there to develop those [other] brands.' No surprise, then, that Pernod Ricard's Irish whiskey marketing strategy remains heavily Jameson-centric. Though the company has invested some money both in redesigning the packaging of its Bushmills malt and in ongoing PR and sampling for the Northern Irish blend Black Bush, the bulk of investment this year has been in what Slack calls a 360 degree marketing campaign' for Jameson. Based around the 98% drink whisky, 2% drink Jameson' strapline (so-called because Jameson has 2% of the total UK whisky market), the activity takes in print ads in the quality liberal broadsheets and glossy men's mags such as Jack; a series of 98:2 themed club evenings around the country, featuring DJs and copious amounts of Jameson cocktails; and office-based sampling, with the brand setting up a Jameson cocktail bar in the foyers of offices on Thursday and Friday evenings. Slack says the campaign is very much aimed at hitting younger' consumers, the late twenty- and early thirtysomethings who currently comprise 25% of the brand's market. Looking at the TGI data, we've realised that we have a very strong core market,' Slack says. If you want to put a face to it, it would be Des Lynam's - middle-class, middle-aged, still working in good jobs, maybe he's gone over to Ireland and done the golf trips, that kind of thing. But we also have a younger market, who are looking for something different from Jack Daniel's and Coke the next step. So it's two totally different approaches. For the core market in the off-trade, we're up against brands like The Famous Grouse. For the younger drinkers in the on-trade, we're competing with premium spirits rather than whisky per se, the likes of Jack Daniel's, Bombay Sapphire, Absolut, or even against a bottle of Beck's or a Guinness. It's what we call "share of the vote" What we're trying to do with 98:2,' says Slack, is to say to those younger drinkers that Jameson should be in their repertoire, one of the four or five drinks that they will drink, depending on the occasion. And telling them that they can drink it now, whether mixed or straight - they don't have to wait ten years to be old enough to drink it.' Jameson's ability to appeal to younger consumers, and its continued focus on them, is undoubtedly part of the reason for the brand's admirable growth record (it grew 118% between 1989 and 2001, while total whisky declined by 16%). But why has Jameson, a blended whiskey, succeeded in this strategy, where the Scotch brands have so conspicuously failed, at least in the UK? Slack believes it comes down to cultural baggage'. Scotch was a staple in your father's drinks cabinet,' he says. A lot of people had a bad experience with it when they were young. Irish wasn't really put into that category, because it has only grown in the last ten years or so, so we missed out on all that. Also, it isn't peaty, it's triple distilled, so it tastes smoother.' Henry Stephenson, spirits buyer at Sainsbury's, believes the success of Irish whiskey has more to do with a general trend for all things Irish, or possibly oirish'. I think there's a fashion for Ireland in general,' says Stephenson. There's the St Patrick's Day thing, a lot of Irish theme bars coming through in the on-trade, and there's a definite liking for Irish beer. All of those things are coming through.'

Fighting for a place None of these advantages are the exclusive preserve of Jameson, or indeed the other Irish Distillers brands. But both C&C International, which distributes Tullamore Dew, and Eaux de Vie, which distributes the Cooley distillery portfolio in the UK, admit to finding the task of challenging Jameson's hegemony a tough one. We can't compete with them head to head, though we're quite happy to ride on their coat-tails, because they've done very well,' says Neil Mathieson, managing director of London-based Eaux de Vie. It's really a question of finding the kind of outlets that work for us.' C&C International's marketing manager, Chris O'Shea, adds, It's true [that Jameson dominates the UK], and that's why we're putting a lot more effort into our European markets.' Cooley was founded in 1987 by Irish businessmen John Teeling and Willie McCarter and survived a takeover bid by Irish Distillers in the early 1990s, after the Irish Government ruled the takeover in breach of competition legislation. It now has markets in 40 countries for brands such as Kilbeggan (which was repackaged last year), Locke's, Greenore, Tyrconnell, Millar's, Connemara and Inishowen, but its most marked successes in the UK so far have been with own-label, a gap in the market left by Pernod Ricard's focus on marketing brands, and which has helped Cooley to its 10% share of the total Irish whiskey market in the UK. According to Mathieson, the long-term target is to get to half a million cases worldwide, with 50% being branded and 50% own-label', with the growth for the company's brands largely coming through the independent off-trade. The great interest in the whiskey market is at the premium end, and that's where most of our products are,' continues Mathieson. They are not at your traditional end of Irish whiskey. They're not triple distilled, but that has never been Irish whiskey's USP anyway. We are trying to offer different products with different tastes.' For C&C International, whose Tullamore Dew brand is actually produced under licence by Irish Distillers, the British market remains a small concern, with annual UK sales in the region of 1,500 cases, with 3,000 in duty free and travel retail. The brand does, however, have the distinction of being Big in Germany', where it is the number one brand, with 55% of the total Irish whiskey market. It is also the leading Irish brand in the Swedish off-trade. Perhaps because of these gains, O'Shea says he is very optimistic about Irish whiskey, given the current momentum behind the category from a consumer and trade perspective. The perception of Irish whiskey being poor quality has disappeared, as people discover the real truth and new and younger drinkers search for alternatives to Scotch.' And Tullamore Dew hasn't given up on the UK market, either. We have just finished a third year of pan-European advertising on Eurosport, from which the UK benefits,' says O'Shea. We've also been putting on tastings and advertising on board the Stena Line ferries between Dublin and Holyhead and we'll be having a neck-collar promotion in the UK off-trade in the near future.' Other Tullamore activity includes on-trade point-of-sale kits and, most innovative of all perhaps, sponsorships of local Irish wolfhound associations. Whether that will be enough to convince the likes of Stephenson at Sainsbury's to move beyond the troika of Irish Distillers' brands (Jameson, Black Bush and Bushmills) plus an own-label, which Sainsbury's and most other multiples stock, is another matter, however. In our latest range review, we've just brought two new products (Black Bush and Jameson 12 Year Old) into the main estate,' Stephenson says. We'll have to see how well that grows the category before we can consider anything else.' If it wants to make the move from giant killer to giant, the Irish category needs to prove to Stephenson and others that there is more to it than Jameson, just as the Irish football team proved it could do without Roy Keane during the World Cup this summer. For the moment, however, Irish whiskey remains a promising, if largely one-man, team.