Close Menu

The big interview: Eileen Livingston

Eileen Livingston, the managing director international of Edrington’s rum brand, Brugal, reveals all about her plans to further premiumise the marque, and expand its reach beyond its Dominican Republic heartland.

Eileen Livingston Brugal

“There have been so many beautiful moments,” reflects Eileen Livingston when I ask about her career highlights. Her passion, evidently, is brand building. And she’s mastered her craft with some of today’s biggest spirits brands. She begins by noting significant profits made during her time at Absolut Vodka, following years of careful investment in the brand.

“Another one that really sticks in my mind, is when I was with Rémy Martin Cognac – not only because I lived in France, very close to Cognac, and I went to university in France – but we made a bold decision to exit the VS category and focus on VSOP and up,” the Scottish native says. “It was all about this journey of premiumisation, and sacrificing some of the nicer, perhaps more profitable parts of the business to meet our goals.

“One of my other big moments was probably delivering product innovation and an advertising campaign, which I worked on in conjunction with [actor] Mila Kunis for Jim Beam. And actually, that was inspiring for me because there’s a little bit about women, and historically many of those dark spirits were stereotyped to appeal to men, but actually this was an opportunity for Bourbon to be shown as a great choice for women as well. The significance of that for me personally, as a woman and a working mum, was really important because it was about recognising the equality of women.”

Channel passion

An experienced marketer with proven commercial acumen, today, Livingston channels her passion for growing brands through her role as managing director international of Dominican ultra-premium rum brand Brugal. She moved from Beam Suntory to join the Edrington-owned brand in June 2020, three months into the global pandemic. Her positivity is infectious, and despite the challenges that period presented, Livingston believes it pushed her, and her new team, to their best.

Brugal Rum sits in the multi-million-case-selling echelons of the spirits world, shifting more than four million cases annually. But three million of those cases remain in the brand’s homeland, the Dominican Republic.

A key part of Livingston’s responsibilities has been to grow Brugal’s international presence. Her efforts are paying off.

“The business was about standard rum in the past,” Livingston notes, but the strategy has evolved. “As market dynamics have changed, growth is coming more from premium and ultra-premium spirits than standard. That is connected to consumer behaviour, the consumer being much more informed, making better choices, drinking less but better, and choosing to learn a lot more about the production of a brand, its history and heritage, and dropping that into moments when they’re connecting with their friends. Our focus now, as we are progressing the brand, is about premiumising Brugal in the Dominican Republic, and focusing on 1888, which is our premium SKU, costing roughly around £45 [US$57].”

Outside of its native country, Spain is the second-strongest market for the brand, followed by the US. The US has been high on the agenda for Livingston, as Brugal moves closer towards its global ambitions.

“Around three years ago we decided to have a much more targeted approach in the US, starting in Florida,” a state Livingston says accounts for a third of all US rum consumption. “So we decided to fish where the fish were. We invested in the market in Florida, and we started a very considered approach to building the brand in the state.” Brugal is now the number-three ultra-premium rum brand in the US, “which is incredible because we were probably about number six two years ago”. In Florida, the brand sits in second place.

The numbers speak for themselves. Therefore, it was logical for Brugal to grow its US footprint, “so we adopted a very similar approach in Texas, just starting last year”, Livingston adds. “We have three areas of focus in the state of Texas, which are Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. And again, we’re seeing incredible results with volumes up over 230% in 2023 versus 2022.”

Europe is also another “tactical market” for the brand, Livingstone adds. “The number-one ultra-premium rum market, even above the US, is France. France has a long history with rum; it’s a very prolific market for it.” In April 2023, Brugal launched its own distribution in the country, a sign that it will “remain absolute priority” for the brand. The brand’s Brugal 1888 expression will be leading the charge there, Livingston says.

Market opportunities

The company is cognisant of other opportunities in other markets, however. Brugal is building its presence in the UK, with a focus on London, and is also looking at Italy, possibly concentrating on Milan.

Close up of a bottle of rum
Colección Visionaria Edición 01, Cacao was crafted using an aromatic cask toasting process

Product innovation is crucial to Brugal’s endeavours to generate further intrigue among rum lovers. Most recently, Brugal brought out the first expression of a limited edition sipping rum collection, called Colección Visionaria. Created using what the brand claims is the world’s first aromatic-cask-toasting technique, Colección Visionaria Edición 01, Cacao, was developed by Brugal family member and fifth-generation maestra ronera Jassil Villanueva Quintana.

Starting with virgin European oak casks, each one is toasted with hand-picked Dominican cacao beans, infusing the wood with aromatic notes. Bottled at 45% ABV, four batches were made available worldwide for RRP £80 (US$101) per bottle.

“When I joined, we looked at how we reinforce our journey to being an ultra-premium rum brand, and how do we have innovation, which really builds our capability? With Colección Visionaria we’ve used a proprietary process with our cask-toasting technique. This shows our skill and craftsmanship with wood. Our heritage and our expertise really shines through this rum,” Livingston says.

Brugal is also just about to launch a new product in the Dominican Republic, which will be a permanent addition to the brand’s portfolio. Set to cost RRP US$200, it’s another push towards elevating the brand in the prestige sector, Livingston notes, refraining from sharing too many details so as not to spoil the imminent official launch event.

“We have an innovation pipeline to take us forward into the future,” she says. “And I think the other part of innovation and brand elevation is artist collaborations.” This started with a famous Huichol artist in Mexico, Cesar Menchaca. A second collaboration was between Brugal and Alexander Mijares, a well-known artist in Miami, US. Traditional Italian mosaic producer Orsoni Venezia was the third collaborator. “We created beautiful pieces of art across our Brugal bottles, which again allows us to connect with people and tell our story,” Livingston says.

Premium focus

As it stands, Brugal’s production capacity is more than sufficient to meet its needs, Livingston maintains. “In terms of the journey for Brugal, we are premiumising in the core markets – Dominican Republic and Spain – which has meant we are moving away from standard products. Our focus is on premium and above, which means we don’t need to increase capacity; we just need to change our liquid, just what we’re doing in terms of how it’s used. So production capacity, not a challenge.”

Warehousing is where it becomes interesting. “We have been laying the foundations for new warehousing at our plant in the Dominican Republic, which will open in January. So we have brand new, high-tech warehousing facilities, which is exciting.”

In the initial phase, the new warehouses will store around 80,000 casks (over four warehouses). “However, the site is future-proof, and we have space enough to keep growing and building five additional warehouses,” Livingston confirms.

The new buildings will have temperature control, but Livingston says it’s not something the brand wants to moderate too much. “Part of what makes Brugal is that it is aged under the beautiful Dominican Republic sun. So while we can control things, we want to remain authentic in what we do.”

It will certainly get 2024 off to an exciting start for Brugal. What more can be expected from the brand? “I like to think Brugal is at the head of trends, particularly with launches like Colección Visionaria,” Livingston says. “If you look at market projections, economically, some of the markets are struggling right now. But what’s reassuring is markets continue to predict growth. Therefore, I think we will continue to see that focus on premiumisation with rum, not just from ourselves, but from others in the category as well.”

There were some significant rum acquisitions in 2023. As such, Livingston believes “we’ll see competitive intensity increase. I hope we can stay one step ahead of the competition by continuing to enlighten consumers about the quality of our liquid,” she adds.

Livingston is in this for the long haul – and is not coy about her dream to turn Brugal into the world’s top ultra-premium rum brand.

“What I’m most excited about is for us to continue advancing towards our vision and our goals, and to do that across exciting new markets,” she explains. “Then I can walk away, in however many years’ time, and know that I’ve left my fingerprints on a brand that I’m incredibly proud of.”

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