John Teeling is one of the most influential people in Irish whiskey. He was able to see the light of opportunity during the darkest days for the category, when sales were at the lowest and just a handful of brands had survived the series of punishments that the 20th century inflicted on the industry.
Nearly half a century has passed since 1970, when he first realised the huge potential of Irish whiskey while he was studying in the United States. On a recent conversation with TheTaste, John Teeling shared his thoughts on where the industry is going, as well as the the biggest opportunities and possible threats along the way.
John’s interest for Irish whiskey started while he was “researching on ways to develop the Irish economy using indigenous native enterprise.” He explains that he looked at several agricultural products, and soon realised whiskey made perfect sense.
Whiskey is a wonderful industry for Ireland because it uses Irish work, Irish water and Irish grain.”
The spirit’s export potential was another important factor. “In terms of value to the country it is massive, far bigger than you might think.”
And while it might seem obvious today, back then it would have taken a very sharp eye to reach that conclusion. “We once had 60 per cent of the world’s but when I looked at the industry, we had less than two per cent of what Scotch had.”
John puts it in perspective, as he points out that the George Roe Distillery on Thomas Street produced one million bottles of whiskey a week in 1912 but by 1969, the total global sales of Irish whiskey merely accounted for 25 million bottles. This means that by then, the whole of Ireland’s production equaled to about half of what used to be the volume of a single distillery.
“I thought that was wrong, and I thought that I should build a distillery”, John adds. At the time, a single company with a handful of brands was all that was left. It took John sixteen years to realise this vision, and finally in 1986 he became the founder of the Cooley Distillery.
The difficulty was I was a student, I was married, I was broke and it wasn’t until 1986 that I could do it.”
Cooley was sold to American Bourbon giant Beam Inc in 2011 for over €70 million. After the company decided it would stop supplying whiskey to new brands and third parties, John Teeling set out to start a new venture, The Great Northern Distillery, based on the former site of Great Northern Brewery in Dundalk which John acquired from Diageo in 2013, and which focuses on producing single malt, pot still and single grain whiskey in bulk for both Irish and international customers.
The distillery has been in operation since 2015 and John points out that he won’t really focus on developing a brand of his own but in supplying others in need of Irish whiskey.
The Great Northern Distillery currently supplies a chain in the US and has been contacted by Chinese and a Russian chains in the last week which are interested in their spirit. “It reflects that Irish Whiskey has gone completely global.”
When asked what has been the most rewarding part of his experience, John simply points out it’s “the satisfaction of creating something”, the feeling of seeing an idea become reality.
And while he plans to focus on bulk sales for companies who want to source Irish whiskey from him and retailers looking for a supplier for their own-label brands, the Teeling name graces the labels of a very well known distillery located in Dublin 8 and founded by John’s sons, Jack and Stephen Teeling.
The Teeling Whiseky Distillery, which earlier this year sold a stake to Bacardi and just a few days ago was awarded Irish Whiskey of the Year for its Teeling The Revival Single Malt Volume IV at the Irish Whiskey Awards 2017, is a strong name in the Irish whiskey renaissance of recent years. While John always encouraged his sons to work with him, he admits he is glad they decided to do their own thing. “I’m very lucky as a parent that both are very good and very competent.”
“The Critical Factor for Success Is Largely Ignored Now”
For John, finding a route to market is crucial for the success of anyone who owns a distillery, however, there is very little help available to market Irish whiskey. Described by John as “a very time and resource intensive endeavour” whiskey marketing and distribution is often overlooked, but ultimately, it’s the key to seize the existing opportunities.
One specific challenge regarding the international marketing for Irish whiskey, specially in the US, “will be to differenciate Irish whiskey from Scotch”, John reckons, adding that convincing people abroad that Irish whiskey is a premium product will be key for its success in the next 15 to 20 years, as numerous new brands and distilleries will be releasing their whiskeys.
The Next Steps
“I think we’re on an onward trajectory.” John estimates that sales of Irish whiskey will be at least double in nine or ten years and he believes “the opportunity is huge” as people all over the world are drinking more brown spirits. “Irish whiskey is easier to drink than brandy or Scotch” and while he recognises the importance of the American and European markets, John encourages the industry to look beyond that.
The future is further. It’s in Australia, Asia, Russia, India.”
And in order to reach these emerging markets, in which whiskey culture is still consolidating, Irish producers “need to maintain the quality, and ensure that imitations, which will pop up, be stopped when possible.” John highlights the big responsibility in the hands of the Irish Whiskey Association regarding this matter.
It is up to us to take advantage of this opportunity.
Of course, Ireland is not the only country going after these opportunities. Regarding threats, John considers that other emerging whiskey producing countries are the competitors to watch out for. He points out one country in particular: “Japanese whiskey is almost as hot as Irish whiskey and Japan is closer than us to these emerging markets.”
He notes that “Scotch is waking up” and trying to make the product more suitable for young markets so even though it’s the opposite of a newcomer, it’s also one to pay attention to.
John adds that just a very small percentage of market share in a market as big as India’s would be enough to keep the Irish whiskey industry busy in the years to come. “I’m very excited to see how it has changed. It went from being almost dead in the seventies to being so vibrant.”
Irish whiskey has certainly gone a long way, not just compared to where it was in the seventies, but even to where it was at the start of the decade. John is pleased with the efforts that the younger generation is making to raise the profile of Irish whiskey even higher and with informed optimism, he’s ready to continue contributing to the spirit’s bright future.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.