SB Interviews… Simon Fay, Irish Distillers

1st May, 2013 by Tom Bruce-Gardyne

Jameson’s has long been the driving force in Irish whiskey, but has never felt constrained by the category, as Simon Fay explains to Tom Bruce-Gardyne.

Simon Fay Irish Distillers

Simon Fay, international brand director for Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard

”I’ve found out what causes the problem, and I’m going to stop it now,” says Simon Fay trying, but failing, to keep a straight face, as laughter ricochets off the walls of his Dublin office at Irish Distillers HQ.

The 40 year-old international brand development director has just had daughter number five in as many years, starting with triplets. One can only hope there is a generous staff discount at the parent company – Pernod Ricard. With the prospect of so many weddings, he’s going need it when the time comes.

Fay was in his final year at college when he joined Irish Distillers in 1996, almost a decade after Pernod bought it for its principal brand Jameson’s. It was the world’s number one Irish whiskey, though that was not much of a boast in 1988 when total sales were just 466,000 cases, half of them in Ireland. It is still number one, but now sells over four million cases, of which 95% are exports.

Scotch shift

Jameson’s had the luck of the Irish to be bought by the French group before it morphed into a multinational giant. In 1988 Pernod Ricard was known for its Clan Campbell Scotch, Wild Turkey Bourbon, Orangina and its eponymous pastis brands. Even as late as 2000, 38% of its spirits sales were in France. The group’s mantra was “local roots – global reach” and it needed brands like Jameson’s to achieve this before it acquired Chivas, Absolut and Ballantine’s. “It would have been one of the cornerstones of the business,” says Fay. “And still is, of course,” he adds quickly.

After a brief stint in the domestic market, he joined Jameson’s graduate programme in South Africa and became its brand ambassador there.

“Pernod Ricard South Africa reported directly to Irish Distillers which meant there was a complete focus on building Jameson’s from the bottom up. We got great share of time and mind from the marketing team.”

With whisky drinkers hooked on a few Scotch brands like Bell’s and J&B, his team was out “to disrupt the market and get people to think about and discover the taste of Jameson’s whiskey for the first time”.

Success in South Africa and later Russia proved that Jameson’s could stand on its own two feet as a thoroughly modern, international spirit. Had it simply played on its “Oirish” charm in order to supply the handful of Irish bars in Cape Town and Moscow it would have remained very niche indeed.

Meanwhile Pernod was acquiring some serious, global brands which could have side-lined the Irish whiskey, not that Fay was worried. “On the contrary it just helped Jameson’s get to a different level of potential in terms of distribution and focus.” It also helped having Richard Burrows as joint-MD of Pernod Ricard to act as a benign godfather to the brand. Burrows had previously been head of Irish Distillers.

With Jameson’s enjoying a 65% share of Irish whiskey and being virtually synonymous with it in many markets, I wonder if that bothers him at all.

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