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Jameson supremacy will remain ‘unchallenged’

It will be impossible for Irish whiskey brands to challenge the supremacy of Jameson in the next 10 years, John Teeling, founder of the Cooley Distillery has claimed.

John-Teeling
John Teeling, founder of the Cooley Distillery, talks about his third party plans at the Great Northern Distillery in Dundalk

Speaking to Becky Paskin, Teeling, who sold Cooley Distillery to Beam in 2012, also reveals further details about his Great Northern Distillery in Dundalk.

Scroll down to see the interview in full.

How is work progressing on the new Great Northern Distillery in Dundalk?

We should be on-stream with Dundalk at the end of the year, so we’re way ahead of most people. We have the benefit of Dundalk’s existing brewery facilities that included these beautiful 1959 copper kettles we’re adapting into pot stills. That means we’re able to build both a grain and pot still distillery in the same still room. Our full capacity will be three million cases, so we’ll be big. It frightens people, including me.

The majority of that stock will be sold to third parties, right?

It will be almost entirely for third parties, and the biggest customer is likely to be Teeling Whisky Co., run by my sons Jack and Stephen. All the new distilleries in Ireland are doing malt and single pot still, but when they get into the market in 4-5 years’ time, there will be demand for blends. We hope to supply those distilleries with the grain whisky for those blends.

Will there be a Dundalk Irish whisky at some point?

We’d like to work with an international partner to launch a brand of whisky, maybe one of the Dundalk brands. That’s the ideal. We’re now in discussions with 2-3 potential partners. The major problem for Irish whiskey is route to market; that broke the heart of Cooley, it really did. We banged our head against the wall for 24 years trying to get our product out there. So with Dundalk we are looking for someone that has a route to market and will build a brand right now.

Was distribution difficulty the reason you decided to sell Cooley to Beam?

Yes it was, exactly. Jack and Stephen would disagree with me on that, but even in 2011 when we were really growing very fast – volumes were on track to be up by 60%, we worked out that even by 2020 we would still be in negative cash flow. Even if you’re very successful in this market, you need to be laying down stocks and spending money on warehousing, facilities and A&P, so we were finding no matter how big we were we always needed more and more money.

Are you glad you sold the business in hindsight?

Beam made a short-term mess of it, but I think they’ll be a very good owner. There are a few teething problems which will take a few years to fix but they’ll get it right. Cooley has good brands and they’re good distilleries (Cooley and Kilbeggan). I think it’s going to do well under Beam.

Some have said the sale sparked the Irish whiskey renaissance, would you agree?

Wouldn’t I like to think so, and be the father of the renaissance? I’d love that! The renaissance might have happened, but what did we do? You could credit us with one significant thing – we gave choice to customers, and forced Irish Distillers to up their game.

With so much investment in Irish whiskey now, which brand will you put money on to catch up to Jameson?

Nobody will catch up to Jameson. By 2024, Jameson will still have 60% of the market; it may well be a 14m case brand. The next two brands are likely to be Tullamore Dew because William Grant is focused on whisky, followed by Bushmills provided Diageo decides to focus on it, which they currently don’t.

For all your work in Irish whiskey, you still never drink a drop. Do you feel condemned for being a teetotaller?

You have no idea. It was a huge problem at Cooley. Someone once told me ‘I don’t trust a man who doesn’t drink’. Way back I had lunch with a French company in their board room with lots of wine, but I didn’t touch a drop. On my way back to the airport my colleague told me it hadn’t gone very well – it was the first time since 1775 that there’d ever been a non-drinker in the boardroom. But I really don’t care what other people think. I’m very comfortable in my own skin and it doesn’t bother me. I also controlled the largest ladies underwear maker in Ireland (Glen Abbey), but I never wore those products either, certainly never in public.

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