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A Drink With… Stephen Teeling, Beam

Stephen Teeling’s family business has made Irish whiskey for decades, but a recent takeover by Beam has not only shaken up the Cooley business and its brands, but the entire category too.

Stephen Teeling Irish Whiskey Beam Cooley
Stephen Teeling, marketing manager for Irish Whiskey at Beam, speaks out for the first time since Cooley’s takeover

The global marketing manager for Irish whiskey at Beam speaks to Becky Paskin about the takeover and life under the multinational in his first interview since the landmark deal.

It’s been a big year for you and Cooley. Have things settled down now after the Beam takeover in April?

Coming from the family business into a big multinational, quite a lot of the operational and marketing guys are having to do different things so we’re trying to make sure there’s no communication gap. Beam is just massive globally; we’re making sure everyone’s on the same page and taking advantage of the opportunities that are there. There’s huge momentum behind Irish whisky at the moment so we want to make sure that if our products are going into new distribution channels that everyone knows what they are, how they are different and where we’re coming from.

Cooley has been a family-owned business for decades; this must be a big change for you?

When my dad set Cooley up in 1987 there was only one type of Irish whiskey made for the past 40 years. Now we’ve got four of the biggest drinks companies in the world actively promoting Irish whiskey. It’s a really exciting time to be involved. Now we’re under Beam we are going to need to increase production, upping Cooley to lay down stocks, increase capacity on both of our distilleries for the malt and the grain. We’re looking at investing considerably in warehousing, we’ve done a huge amount of investment in Kilbeggan, which will be the key visitor’s centre, and we’re also producing again down in Kilbeggan too.

It does sound exciting – what are you expecting Beam’s influence on Cooley’s brands to be?

Prior to the takeover we were in 40 separate international markets but this deal has meant that we’ve gone into distribution on steroids. Beam had 850 people at their sales conference in the US recently. They are soldiers. Since they got involved we are now in maybe 50 markets. We had a good global footprint but with specialist distributors so were delivering quite small volume. Beam are a global brand builder and a whiskey company at heart – you just have to look at what they’ve done with Laphroaig, Jim Beam and Makers Mark. Pernod Ricard has really taken note that Beam can now make some inroads against them over in the US, as Jameson is the only whiskey that’s blazing a trail for them.

Of course the US market is huge. Has Beam started looking at how Irish whiskey could fare in Asia, another potentially massive market, yet?

Irish whiskey in Asia is at such an early stage. They don’t seem to be able to differentiate between Scotch, Irish and bourbon; it seems to be led by big brands like Chivas, Johnnie Walker and The Macallan who are building their brands rather than a category. As the Asian palate develops they will start to look for different products and expressions, but when we went out there to scope the market, they couldn’t differentiate between categories, they just saw brands. But that’s the exciting thing about these emerging markets. The volume and the scale of what they could do to your product are just phenomenal. The percentage of the pie is huge.

Have you been able to learn anything from what the Scotch brands are doing in Asia?

The Macallan for me has been a very interesting brand in its approach to Asia, especially how they’ve gone about seeding the market for the future. They’ve done it quite different from Chivas and Johnny Walker in China. They’ve positioned themselves in places like Taiwan and South East Asia and filtered in rather than going in with the bazooka approach of mass marketing and big spend. The people in the know drink The Macallan whereas the people who might be a bit more aspirational drink Chivas or Johnny.

It sounds like Beam is making quite an impression on Cooley’s distribution potential. Are they having an influence on the brands themselves too?

When you initially come into a bigger company you’re worried there will be a lot of bureaucracy but Beam are actually quite autonomous and there’s an entrepreneurial culture within the company. They pride themselves on being custodians of brands rather than marching in and ruining the main reasons they took us over. They’ve been very good at being a bit more hands off.

So what are your plans for the Cooley brands?

Our plan for the future is to concentrate on our four core brands within the Cooley portfolio: Greenore (single grain), Tyrconnell (single malt) Connemara (peated single malt) and Kilbeggan (blended whisky). The Kilbeggan will be the one to drive the volume and be the engine. Our flagship blend has some serious key differentials to our competitions: we’re the oldest distillery, double distilled, creamy and it has maintained all the smooth aspects of an Irish whisky but has more flavour because of our distillation process.

You only produce whiskey for your four brands now, but before the takeover Cooley did supply a lot of third party brands, many of whom are considering opening their own distillery now as a result.

People need an opportunity before they can take a leap. A lot of the third party contracts we had were always looking at building their own distilleries, even before the takeover. Cooley was always seen as just a stepping stone before people set up on their own. But when people looked at the numbers and saw the difficulties from an environmental and regulatory perspective, that’s when they came to us looking for supplies, as it wasn’t as straightforward as they thought. Before the takeover our level of stock was acceptable for Cooley’s growth plans, but Beam needs all the liquid we can produce for their new plans. That means that now the opportunity is there for people to create their own distillery and the pie is growing. It’s a great thing for Irish whiskey because it means our category is growing fast.

You sound pretty optimistic about the future?

We are in a healthy place and we have big marketing plans for 2013. 2012 was always going to be the transitional year after the takeover, but activating the brand is key for Beam. It’s slowly coming together and it’s spurring other producers to take the plunge and get out there and innovate themselves. My brother (Jack Teeling, founder, Teeling Whiskey Co) is very active and people like Alex Mount Charles (proprietor, Slane Castle) who is looking to build his own distillery are what Ireland needs at the moment; entrepreneurs who will be the lifeblood of the recovery, and long may it continue.

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Yes, take me to the Asia edition No