Comment: Diageo re-enters Irish whiskey sector

on 31 January, 2017

Diageo’s announcement that it is re-entering the booming Irish whiskey sector with a brand new brand, Roe & Co, caught most of us by surprise.

Roe & Co is described as a ‘premium’ malt whiskey blended specifically for long drinks and cocktails and will be available only to bars and bartenders in UK, Ireland and continental Europe.

The likes of Pernod’s Irish Distillers with Jameson and William Grant with Tullamore Dew may dispute Diageo describing them as ‘only’ standard Irish whiskey. With an abv of 45%, it is priced at a premium, £30, slightly under Teeling's whiskey and Jameson Select.

The fact that Irish Distillers is about to launch a “new generation of Irish whiskeys from the Midleton distillery”, in a few weeks, could be a coincidence….

According to Diageo’s head of whisky outreach, Dr Nick Morgan, 92% of Irish whiskey is “standard”. So, the opportunity is there. He said that Roe was not “going head-to-head with Jameson”.

Many of us seasoned industry observers were puzzled by Diageo’s decision to sell the Northern Irish brand Bushmills. Okay, it made sense in the greater Diageo scheme of things - getting outright ownership of the super premium tequila brand Don Julio (growing at 18%) from Jose Cuervo and securing production and distribution of Smirnoff (growing at 36%, according to Diageo) in Mexico, also from Cuervo. After all, most of Diageo’s business is in the US (Donald Trump: make a note).

Nevertheless, with Irish whiskey booming and lots of companies lining up to come in, one did just wonder if it was sensible to give up what is a good, if hitherto somewhat neglected, well established Irish whiskey brand.

Well, Charlie Greener, Diageo’s European innovation director, told the assembled masses of specialist whisk(e)y writers in London yesterday (Jan 31) that it was only after Bushmills had been dispatched to Cuervo, that they started thinking…

A new distillery at a cost of €25 million (£18.6m) within the Guinness Brewery’s St James’s Gate site where the old power station used to be, will be operational in 2019. Until then all the constituents of the Roe blend will be sourced from outside (we could do a version of the board game Monopoly guessing who is supplying what).

When specifically asked about suppliers, Dr Morgan told Drinks International that, in line with custom and practice within the overall whisky industry, companies do not reveal to whom they sell what.

Inspiration for the name and blend came from the George Roe distillery which closed in 1926. Close to St James’s Gate, is St Patrick’s Tower, which used to be the windmill that powered the distillery. Below the tower is a pear tree which is said to go back to at least 1850. Hence the poached pear notes on the palate. Those Diageo guys and gals think of everything.

Peter O’Connor, a bartender well known in Irish circles and Roe’s European brand ambassador claims that most Irish whiskeys get lost in cocktails as their flavours do not “hold up.”

Hence, with a little help from Diageo’s master blender, Caroline Martin and Johnnie Walker’s Jim Beveridge, after more than “100 prototypes”, have come up with a blend that is at least five years old and the large proportion of which goes into first fill bourbon barrels to give Roe more depth.

O’Connor talks of soft mellow vanilla notes, poached pear and some white pepper spice with a creaminess when water is added.

O’Connor also pointed out that most Irish whiskeys are light golden in colour. Whereas Roe is dialling the clock back to the 17th and 18th centuries when teal was the more common colour of Irish whiskey.

So, Diageo is back in Irish whiskey. One wonders what the likes of Pernod, Beam Suntory, William Grant, Jose Cuervo et al, all of which have invested heavily in Irish, make of that.


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