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An Interview with John Teeling of the Cooley Distillery, Ireland
By Jim Clarke

Jim Clarke: Given Irish Distiller Group’s monopoly of Irish whiskey at the time, what motivated you to start up the Cooley Distillery?
John Teeling: The decision to set up Cooley originated at Harvard in 1971 after I wrote two papers as part of a doctoral program in business. The papers dealt with the decline of Irish whiskey from a prominent position in the world in the 19th century to a position where its sales were only 2% of Scotch whiskey sales.

The number of Irish distilleries had fallen to two by 1970 from over 100 in 1886. In 1974 the industry became a monopoly when Seagrams sold Bushmills to United Distillers of Ireland. The monopoly remained until Cooley set up in 1987.

Having completed the two papers, I was sitting in the Plough and Stars Bar, 952 Mass. Avenue, Cambridge, with my friend Willie McCarter, currently a director of Cooley, when I realized that I could create a distillery and do a better job than the current distillers. In 1971 I was a student with no money. Sixteen years later with experience, some money, a wife and kids, I set up Cooley.


JC:
When you began distilling were you aiming for a certain style of whiskey?
JT: The original plan called for two whiskeys to meet modern tastes. The older products, Jameson, Bushmills, etc., were perceived as heavier and stronger than Scotch. I proposed to innovate by producing a pure pot-stilled single malt and a lighter, sweeter blend. Believe it or not, 33 years later we still have these products: Tyrconnell Pure Pot Still Single Malt, and Kilbeggan Premium Blend, both distributed by Heaven Hill out of Kentucky.


JC: Which of your labels did you produce first, and how did you market it?
JT: Originally I thought that I could finance the 8 – 10 years from startup to revenue by selling the new whiskey to companies like Diageo and Allied Domeq, who had no Irish whiskeys in their portfolio, but I decided not to do that. Instead, I raised cash and laid down a huge inventory of whiskey. The money ran out before the whiskey matured, and I almost went bust; I was saved in part by Heaven Hill taking a US distributorship and buying 5 years of inventory in advance.

I have been through about 4 marketing strategies: from 1993 until 1995 we tried to market Kilbeggan & Tyrconnell as brands. I had 14 million bottles in inventory and was selling 250,000 bottles. I had 56 years worth of inventory! The banks were not happy. In 1995 we introduced Retail Own Label. We now sell Own Label whiskeys to the top 25 European retailers – Asda (Walmart), Tesco, Carrefour, Aldi, Lidl. Then in 1999 we began to sell whiskey to companies who launched their own Irish [whiskey], and from 2002 through to the present we are trying to focus once again on our own labels.


JC:
Your company’s beginnings coincided with the rise in popularity of the clear liquors – vodka most notably. How did you address this as you promoted your products, and has this changed now that whiskeys as a whole seem to be on an upsurge again?
JT: The rise of Vodka. Of course the decline in brown spirits in the Anglo/Saxon world was a concern. US consumption of Scotch whiskey has halved in 25 years. I had two strategies. The first was to target the new whiskey markets: France, Japan, and now Spain, and the second was to be an alternative to Scotch.

Children tend not to consume the drinks their parents like. This explains the recent rise in whiskey in the U.S. Vodka is now a mature drink for older people. A whiskey and coke is the young drink of choice in many countries. Irish whiskey sales have doubled in the U.S. in eight years to 450,000 cases. Sales grew by 15% in 2003, and there is more to come.


JC:
Your website includes some descriptions of whiskeys in general, especially as regards the whiskey-making process. How important is this kind of consumer education to promoting your own brands?
JT: Education is vital, not only to explain the whiskey process, but to identify the different processes that go into making malt whiskey, grain, pot-stilled etc. It is a big task. We need to show the unique properties of our whiskeys.


JC: Americans may find it strange to hear that France is a strong consumer of Irish whiskeys - it is, in fact, Cooley Distillery’s main market. With such a strong tradition for wines and brandies, what seems to be the special attraction of your whiskeys for the French?
JT: Why France ? Simple. Beginning in the mid ‘80s, French consumers moved from Pastis, their native drink, to an international drink – whiskey. While the U.S. declined, France grew. Spain followed in the ‘90s. Spain and France, at 10 million cases of Scotch a year each, are the biggest Scotch markets – bigger than the U.S. in 2002. Irish did not really sell in France until 1987 when Pernod-Ricard bought the only other Irish distiller – the makers of Jameson and Bushmills. Pernod, with 1,000 salesmen in France, grew Irish sales over 30 times in 15 years. France is currently second only to Ireland in consumption at six million bottles. We have about 15% of the Irish whiskey market in France, mainly Own Label. Spain is the “Next big thing” for Irish whiskey; sales are growing at 30% annually.


JC:
What new tastes or experiences can your whiskeys offer to Americans who are more accustomed to Bourbons?
JT: We have three wonderful products available on the U.S. market. Each of them has aged for years in 200-year-old granite warehouses in Kilbeggan in the middle of Ireland. Bourbon is a top-class product but it differs from Irish. We are the original. Whiskey is a Gaelic name (the Water of Life). The Irish have been making whiskey longer than anyone else. Why? Because Ireland is perfect for whiskey: we have pure, clear, cold mountain water; our grain grows in fields that have been worked for thousands of years; our soft, damp climate and pure air are perfect for maturing. Sleeping in oak casks, the whiskey breathes pure air and is not upset by harsh changes in climate. We mature VERY SLOWLY.

Finally, and I think that this is important, our whiskeys take on the personality of the Irish, light hearted, friendly, sociable, but behind it all, solid and dependable.

Your readers should try an Irish - preferably one of ours. They will enjoy the experience.

The three whiskeys we sell in the U.S. are very different: Tyrconnell is an aged single malt distilled in pots. It is a mellow, slightly sweet single malt. Kilbeggan is a premium blend. This means it has a high percentage of malt. Kilbeggan is very different in taste than most Irish – it is mellow rather than harsh and tending to sweetness rather than bitterness. Both the Tyrconnell and the Kilbeggan have pedigrees going back 200 years.

Connemara Peated Single Malt Irish is unique because it is a peated Irish single malt -there has never been such a product. Some Irish was peated in the 18th and 19th century - don’t mind what the opposition says - but there was no peated single malt. Connemara, distributed in the U.S. by Henry Preiss out of California, is a whiskey drinker’s whiskey; it challenges you. The 12-year-old version is regarded by experts as one of the world’s best whiskeys.


JC: Any special plans for yourself or the company for St. Patrick’s Day?
JT: Plans for St. Patrick’s Day - most of us are working. We have teams in New York and Philadelphia and in Switzerland. I’m almost afraid to tell you what I’m doing – playing “Over-45” rugby against a visiting team from Treviso in Italy.


JC:
Good luck.


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 Published: April 2004
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