SB Voices: You can’t fake heritage

16th February, 2018 by Melita Kiely

Not everyone can boast a heritage as colourful as Ireland’s Slane Distillery – and that’s OK, says Melita Kiely. Better to build a brand on quality and authenticity than to push a dreamt-up back-story.

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Slane Distillery has been built on the grounds of Slane Castle

Whether it’s whisky, Cognac, gin or liqueurs, the spirits industry is steeped in history – and as consumers become more discerning, they’re demanding to know more about where and how a particular product is made. For many producers, back-stories about heritage and provenance have become the oxygen to the success and survival of their brands.

The trouble with this, however, is that there are numerous marketing teams re-writing history, so to speak, in order to mould themselves to fit this newfound consumer trend. Their stories often come across as forced, gimmicky, and it’s easy to see through them.

Then, there are times during this line of work when you come across a particular spirits brand whose history is so genuinely fascinating and authentic, you can’t help but drink up their entire ethos. It’s the feeling I was left with after I visited Slane Distillery in County Meath, Ireland, earlier this week.

Stepping into the grand entrance hall of 18th-century Slane Castle, we were welcomed by distillery co-founder and global ambassador Alex Conyngham to “my family home”. It’s an extraordinary building and hard to believe Conyngham’s childhood was lived here “running around and bouncing off the sofas” that now decorate the room.

Mischief was not confined to within the castle walls, as Conyngham recounts multiple occasions when the front door lock was slipped open and his adventures extended to the wooded areas and fields that surround the castle. The same fields that today grow the barley used to create Slane Irish Whiskey.

He remembers pigs running around the yard, horse hooves clip-clopping across the cobbled courtyards, and the old stables, which today have been transformed into the multi-million-pound Slane Distillery. The former horseboxes have been spruced up into one of two bars at the distillery, which will be open to guests once work is complete, while the old pigsty is now the cask holding room.

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Slane Distillery’s cooperage will one day be used for barrel repairs

As we walk through the tour and Conyngham divulges further tales from growing up at the castle, he notes how the Conynghams have always had an entrepreneurial streak that has been key to the family’s survival. His father, Henry Conyngham, established Slane Concerts – which have seen the likes of The Rolling Stones, U2, Robbie Williams and David Bowie bring more than 80,000 music fans to the grounds – in order to keep the castle in the family’s ownership. His grandfather was forced to pay for the castle’s repairs out of his own pocket after a devastating fire ripped through the castle in 1991, destroying about a third of the building.

Now, Conyngham has turned to Irish whiskey to ensure the future survival of the family estate. He’s backed by Brown-Forman, which acquired the Slane brand back in 2015 and has invested US$50 million in the site. But what separates Slane from so many newcomers to the spirits scene is that its back-story hasn’t been dreamt up by a marketing team, it hasn’t forced itself to side with ‘tradition’; the old and new merge together in such a natural fit, and the story connecting family and location to the whiskey is tangible with every step. And what’s more, the liquid is of exceptional quality.

It was incredibly refreshing to see a new spirit brand being so utterly authentic with its identity. There’s no smoke and mirrors here; no ‘quick buck’ to be made. Just an Irish whiskey producer with global ambitions hell-bent on producing the best possible liquid it can. It just so happens that the brand comes with a fascinating history to boot. Few brands will be able to mirror the heritage and provenance of Slane – and none should try to. The Irish whiskey category is already growing at an enviable pace without the need for gimmicks and false marketing stories. Let’s keep it that way.

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