Close Menu

Irish Distillers CEO: Jameson could become ‘truly global’

A 20-year veteran of Pernod Ricard, Conor McQuaid is now in the driving seat at Irish Distillers. He tells The Spirits Business about his plans to make Jameson a global icon.

Irish Distillers CEO Conor McQuaid

*This feature was originally published in the July 2018 issue of The Spirits Business

Many changes in Pernod Ricard’s executive team will take effect this month. “Our organisation is a living organism, constantly evolving as it adapts to our consumers and environment,” CEO Alexandre Ricard said when the news was announced in February.

As well as moves in its HQ and regional teams, the French drinks group appointed Irish Distillers CEO Jean-­Christophe Coutures as head of its Chivas Brothers unit, taking over from Laurent Lacassagne, who has left the business after 30 years. Stepping into Coutures’ shoes is Irishman Conor McQuaid, whose trajectory at Pernod Ricard has come full circle.

McQuaid joined the drinks industry in 1998 as regional manager for southern Europe at Irish Distillers. He progressed through the brand company over the next 13 years before becoming managing director of Pernod Ricard’s business in South Africa and Namibia, and later moved to Paris to lead its programme of global business development.

“It never crossed my mind that it would even be a possibility I would become CEO of Irish Distillers,” admits McQuaid. “But the experience with Jameson was amazing. It’s been such a fantastic success story, and to have had a small part in that is incredible.”

Jameson’s success was further solidified with the title of Supreme Brand Champion 2018 in The Spirits Business’s latest Brand Champions report. The brand accounts for 70% of the total Irish whiskey market (IWSR), and its performance remained strong last year with 11% volume growth to almost seven million cases.


McQuaid now faces the challenge of increasing the brand’s share, but he is confident that his experience in brand and regional companies, as well as in HQ, has given him a unique perspective. “Giving people the licence to look at their consumers through a local market lens while at the same time maintaining a level of global consistency is a delicate balance, and I can appreciate the challenge from both sides of the fence,” he says.

The experimental Method and Madness range

For McQuaid, fundamental to Jameson’s success has been Pernod Ricard’s decentralised model, which remains “alive and true” within the business. This has enabled the brand to “adapt and be agile” in response to changes around the world, and remain “culturally relevant” to its target audiences. Jameson has undoubtedly led the Irish whiskey renaissance in the US and become a household name in a number of other key spirits markets, but McQuaid spies an untapped opportunity for the brand to become “truly global”.

He says: “Taking the challenge to Asia, to India, and to the rest of Africa [outside South Africa, Jameson’s third-­largest market] is front and centre of our objective for the future.”

McQuaid adds that Irish Distillers “hasn’t in any way penetrated the opportunity that Asia represents for the brand and for the category, so the potential is huge, and ultimately we want to be at the forefront of that”.

Key to Irish Distillers’ strategy for engaging new markets and retaining consumer attention will be a continued focus on innovation. “We know from a global level that 25% of our industry is driven by innovation,” says McQuaid. “A quarter of growth every year comes from a consumer need to see new and distinctive references. At Irish Distillers, we have given ourselves the challenge to be the Irish whiskey revolution, and with that comes a responsibility to put new and interesting references that delight the consumer in the market.”

Irish Distillers enhanced its experimental offering last year with the launch of the Method & Madness range, designed to “push the boundaries” of Irish whiskey. The line consists of single pot still, single grain and single malt liquid aged in a variety of unusual cask types, such as virgin Hungarian oak. McQuaid says that while Irish Distillers has some stocks of single malt, it does not intend to launch an expression under one of its mainstream whiskeys. “To our mind, there is much more of an opportunity to bring the traditional Irish style of pot still whiskey to single malt consumers,” he says.

The executive also confirms that Irish Distillers is content with its current whiskey portfolio – which as well as Jameson and Method & Madness includes Powers, Midleton, Redbreast, Yellow Spot and Green Spot – and is not actively looking to make any acquisitions or divestments. The group’s stable was last reduced in 2016 when it sold Paddy to US group Sazerac for an undisclosed sum.

A lot of investment has gone into the Jameson visitor centre

At the heart of Irish Distillers is Midleton Distillery in County Cork, its main production hub. But as brand stories become increasingly important to consumers and as concerns over stock shortages gather pace, would the company consider opening a dedicated distillery for one of its pot still brands – such as Redbreast? McQuaid doesn’t directly answer, but says: “As with every whiskey business, something you need to stay cognisant of on a daily basis is whether you’ve got capacity, and that you’re planning with sufficient foresight as is necessary to make sure you have enough liquid going forward.” Since this feature was published, Irish Distillers confirmed it is exploring the option of building a new distillery.

With regards to supply, McQuaid is “relatively confident, as much as one can be in the whisk(e)y world”, that Irish Distillers is in a position to meet consumer demand. “I would love to be in a position where we run out of stock,” he quips. “It would be a great problem to have and emblematic of the continued success of the brand. So therein lies my challenge.”


Pernod Ricard clearly sees Irish Distillers as playing a pivotal role in its wider business – since 2012, the group has spent €250m (US$290m) on expanding its operation in Ireland. The investment programme included: the installation of three copper stills at Midleton, increasing the distillery’s pot still output by 30%; a €100m expansion of its Dungourney maturation site; a €17m development of its Fox & Geese bottling plant; building a microdistillery at Midleton to enable greater experimentation; an €11m refurbishment of its Jameson Distillery Bow Street visitor experience in Dublin; establishing an archive centre for Jameson; and additional funds to enhance the Irish Whiskey Academy, which is a training facility for bartenders and advocates.

“This investment is testament to the fact that we have been greatly supported by Pernod Ricard over the years to stay one step ahead,” says McQuaid. “It demonstrates the confidence that Pernod Ricard has expressed in Irish Distillers and supported it with financial gall over a sustained period.”

Single pot still: Redbreast

Pernod Ricard may be the most significant investor in Irish whiskey, but it is not the only one. New distilleries are preparing to come online, and while the majority will be smaller-scale operations, some of the world’s leading producers are also taking note of the opportunities Irish whiskey presents. Last year, William Grant & Sons announced a €25m expansion of its Tullamore Dew distillery, while Diageo re-­entered the category after selling Bushmills with the launch of Roe & Co, and in 2015 Brown-Forman acquired Slane Irish Whiskey.

“I think our perspective on investment from other players in the category is that a rising tide lifts all boats,” says McQuaid. “[Irish whiskey is] still a relatively small proportion of the overall global opportunity in whisk(e)y, so we would be somewhat arrogant to believe that the job has been done. Now my challenge is to maintain my share and ideally grow it within that ever-­increasing pool of Irish whiskey consumers.”

Despite its rapid growth in recent years, McQuaid believes Irish whiskey will maintain its trajectory. The Irish Whiskey Association’s prediction that the sector will hit 12m cases by 2020 is “achievable”, he says, as long as producers showcase quality and seek new markets.

However, Jameson’s ambitions transcend the Irish whiskey category itself, according to McQuaid. He says: “If we continue to reframe ourselves as the dominant player in Irish whiskey, we somewhat undersell what I believe is the opportunity for Jameson as an iconic global brand.

“We will continue to be proud of our Irish heritage and the distinctiveness this brings to the brand, but to frame our ambition simply by being dominant in the Irish category underplays the opportunity that Jameson now has on the global stage.”

He adds: “Going beyond the category is the challenge and seeing ourselves within the top 10 global spirit brands worldwide is our ambition.”

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No