Irish Distillers CEO: maturing stock ‘isn’t the issue’

22nd January, 2016 by Becky Paskin

Irish Distillers CEO Anna Malmhake is playing a central role in leading the Irish whiskey category back to greatness. Here, she talks strategy, stock shortages and inter-category competition.


Anna Malmhake, CEO of Irish Distillers, believes Irish whiskey is “righting” its position against Scotch

*This article was initially published in the August 2015 issue of The Spirits Business magazine

In the early 19th century Irish whiskey was the most consumed spirit in the world. Its triple-distilled, smooth character was widely accessible and as a vine-munching pest began destroying France’s brandy production, sales of Irish whiskey soared. At its height there were around 90 distilleries operating in Ireland, but as US Prohibition, civil war and famine hit, the industry collapsed, leaving just two distilleries supplying the world’s Irish whiskey thirst by the mid-1980s. Of course that’s the abridged version of its rise and fall across two centuries.

Now, some 200 years after Irish whiskey was at the top of its game, the category is experiencing a renaissance, riding the wave of consumer demand hitting brown spirits. As the industry eyes some 300% growth to more than 24m cases over the next

15 years, the message booming from Ireland is that there’s no reason the category cannot achieve the same widespread success as Scotch. But with some 85.6 million cases separating the two, there is still a hell of a long way to go.

There are currently around 24 new distilleries expected to open during the next 12 months, and even more brands set to flood the category over the next few years, but according to Bernard Walsh, chairman of the newly-found Irish Whiskey Association (IWA), it has been “the existing players that have driven the global renaissance in Irish whiskey”.

Jameson domination

None would argue that the company leading that revival has been Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard, whose iconic Jameson brand has consistently grown year-on-year to 4.7m cases, up 6% in 2014 (Brand Champions), and accounts for some 70% of the entire category. So strong are its growth predictions too that the company has already invested a whopping €220m in expanding its Irish whiskey distilling, maturation and bottling production over the past few years.

Bridging the sales gap between Irish whiskey and Scotch may seem exhausting for most, but for Anna Malmhake, CEO of Irish Distillers since 2011, the category is already well on its way to catching up.

“Irish whiskey used to be 50 times bigger than Scotch in the early 1800s and we are only now on the road to righting the balance in the worldwide whisky category,” she says. “The wonderful thing of course is that more people around the world are coming into whisky so Irish whiskey growing will be good for Scotch, and Scotch growing will be good for Irish, because it’s all about people being interested in whisky full stop.”

Malmhake joined Irish Distillers at the perfect time, leaving a position as marketing director of the Absolut Company in Stockholm, Sweden, just as the decision had been made to invest significantly in increasing Irish whiskey production.

“I wish I could say I made a heroic, smart move, but I must say the forecasting work had been excellently done, so I was lucky enough to be able to trust and feel really good about them,” she explains. “Right now of course the challenge is for us to keep repeating these forecasts in the event we need to expand again which is of course the question I’m working on. So I hope someone someday will be able to thank me for doing the forecasts well.”

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