Brown-Forman's new whiskey to rival top Irish brands

29 September, 2015

Brown-Forman yesterday welcomed guests to the site of its new $50m Irish whisky operation, Slane Distillery, which it hopes could create a brand to challenge the top brands of the category.

The venture sees the American family-run group build their first distillery outside of the US and enter into a 50-year contract to lease the grounds and renovate the derelict stables of Slane Castle, owned by Henry Conyngham, the eight Marquess Conyngham.

At the ground breaking, Lawson Whiting, Brown-Forman’s chief brands officer, told DI the company’s family structure enabled it to “think long term” in the Irish whiskey category and with sustained investment over “20, 30, or 40 years”  build Slane Whiskey in to a “global brand”.

Currently unbuilt and opening next year along with a visitor centre, Slane Distillery will have a capacity of 600,000 9-litre cases per annum, which could see its principal brand – leveraged through Jack Daniel’s worldwide distribution network – rival the likes of William Grant’s Tullamore Dew and the Beckmann family's Bushmills, according to Brown-Forman.

“We will be everywhere [with Slane] as fast as we can make it,” Whiting told DI at the event in Slane, an hour's drive from Dublin. “There are not many [drinks groups] that have the distribution [we have].”

Ireland, has seen a proliferation of whiskey launches over recent years,  but Whiting suggested this activity was “more talk" than action and claimed that the market is not saturated.

With IWSR expecting the category to grow 60% by 2019 from 6.3m to 10.3m cases, Whiting said he would not be surprised if other large companies were “poking around”, and admitted “surprise” that Diageo sold Bushmills and exited the category.

He said future growth may not come from Irish brands cannibalising other whisky segments but from the wider trend of international brands eroding local spirits’ share of the global market.

Though the Irish category is widely considered to be in good health, Pernod Ricard’s Jameson is the category leader, with 4.7m case sales last year. Whiting said it was unclear whether the success of Irish whiskey in the US was down to the category or the success of its leading brand.  

The decision to go into Irish whiskey was driven by the view that Irish whiskey is “an attractive category” which is “growing faster than Scotch” and that consumers have “positive perceptions” of the category.

Brown-Forman has experience distributing Irish whiskey in the US, as the former distributor of Bushmills in the market.

Whiting said Brown-Forman had “looked at mothballed distilleries” in Ireland before announcing in June to create its own distillery in the grounds of Slane Castle.

Brown-Forman’s first release will be from bought-in Irish whisky stocks, with Whiting arguing that consumers would not be confused by a change in taste profile when the Slane-produced whiskey is released in a few years. “We will be making lots of different styles of whiskey; consumers love to try other things,” he said.

Slane will operate in the premium, to super-premium position - without age statements, as is the company tradition - and will be “playing above Jameson”.

Brown-Forman will concentrate on the US, UK, Ireland and global travel retail before, stocks allowing, taking Slane global. Initially US cities with Irish connections – New York, and Boston – will be among the first cities to sample the new whiskey.

Brown-Forman intends to extend its expertise in barrel management, setting up a cooperage at the site, and utilising its resources of bourbon, Tennessee and sherry casks.

Slane Castle hosts music concerts, which could figure in Brown-Forman’s marketing as the company hopes to engage with Millennial consumers. 

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