Irish guys still smiling

Irish guys still smiling

Ireland's only independent distillery has had a rollercoaster time since it was established at the end of the '80s. Now it's time to deliver,its chairman tells Dominic Roskrow

People | 21 Jul 2006 | Issue 57 | By Dominic Roskrow

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It’s time to change the record. Time to take off New Kid In Town by The Eagles and replace it with James Brown’s It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World. Or, and let’s not be too cynical about this, Abba’s Money, Money, Money. Time to grow up, stop looking for excuses and come of age.I hope Cooley chairman and founder John Teeling will forgive this somewhat clumsy summary of our 90 minute meeting, but in a nutshell, that’s it.“We talk about ourselves as the new kids on the block but next year Cooley will be 18 years old,” he says in the Dublin offices from which he runs a drilling and mining business as well as a distilling one.“We’re coming of age and it’s time we delivered a bit. We have found it hard in some areas of the business, have made mistakes and at times faced very dark days. But we’re still here and we need to look at our business and where it’s going.” If these words make it sound like Teeling feels that Cooley is slacking and needs to pull itself together, then the impression is wrong.Spend any time with Cooley’s staff and you’re impressed by the energy and enthusiasm within the business.Indeed the company thrives on the fact that it is a rebellious independent, that it has faced up to a giant of a rival and it has survived everything thrown at it. If it has yet to achieve the heights hoped of it, it’s because of circumstances beyond its control.And Teeling’s call to arms is a timely one.For Cooley finds itself not only in great shape, but well-prepared for what looks like a healthy spell for Irish whiskey as a whole.No-one’s getting too excited, though. The folk at Cooley – spearheaded by Teeling, master distiller Noel Sweeney and managing director David Hynes - have been here before and seen their hopes and dreams come crashing to the floor.Speak about what the acquisition of Bushmills by Diageo means to them, for instance, and they’re cautiously optimistic that it will benefit the whole Irish whiskey sector. But isn’t that what they thought in 1992, when the first Cooley whiskey was flowing and Pernod Ricard had just bought Irish Distillers? And didn’t that almost end in tears as recession set in, Pernod Ricard made it clear that it would buy Cooley wholesale and close it, and the company was sailing in to the financial rocks anyway?There are differences, too, though. These days Cooley is on much firmer ground, has a healthy portfolio of products and has established a strong business platform.The company itself is based around three sites which form a triangle stretching from the business offices in Dublin to the distillery directly North on the Cooley peninsula in County Louth and across to Kilbeggan, west of Dublin.Each site has a different task. If Dublin is the good ship Cooley’s bridge, then the industrial-looking distillery (and indeed, it was an industrial alcohol plant before it was converted to a mix of malt and grain whiskeyproducing one) is the engine room.And Kilbeggan? That’s the home of Locke’s, the last example of a small pot still distillery, no longer working but now a tourist attraction and a slice of Irish history harking back to 1757 – metaphorically speaking, the pretty windsails and mizzen mast of the company ship.That date – 1757 - is important for the company, too – for while next year is the 18th birthday of the Cooley company, it also marks the 250th birthday of Locke’s, one of the company’s key brands, presenting the company with a golden opportunity.Not the only one either.Connemara, a peated Irish single malt available as standard, 12 years old and at cask strength; Greenore, a stunning single grain whiskey which has just received an image overhaul, and Tyrconnell, the company’s popular pot still offering, give the company an impressive portfolio to build on.And the big breakthrough – the one that could deliver the company a serious hold in the much sought-after American market – comes courtesy of its newest brand – Michael Collins, which is produced as both a single malt and a blend and is aimed at the US.“Irish whiskey is one of the few areas of the market that is growing so the chance is there,” says Teeling. “And I see the Bushmills situation as an opportunity. With Michael Collins the signs are looking very good.” The brand was born when the company behind the hugely successful Grey Goose vodka, which is bizarrely made in that wellknown vodka region of Cognac in France, approached Cooley about launching a new Irish product.“This company seems to break all the rules and succeed by doing so,” says Teeling. “The mentality seems to be totally different to ours.We’ll make a whiskey and then think of how we might sell it. They’ll look at the market and identify what they think it needs, then they’ll go and find a brand to fill it.“So that’s what they’ve done with Michael Collins. They decided they need a premium brown spirit, settled on Irish whiskey as the best option, and Michael Collins was born.” With its provocative name (to this day the Irish ‘hero’ is a divisive figure, even among Irish Republicans) and eye-catching packaging that has more in common with a Cristal Champagne bottle than a traditional whiskey one, it’s getting people talking.That’s half the battle. The other half is to win people over when they taste it.And it’ll have no problem there, with the single malt version in particular being a delightfully smooth journey through all that is good about Irish whiskey.So as Cooley edges towards full adulthood, Teeling has a right to be bullish.A jukebox selection?Still Crazy After All These Years, maybe?Perhaps I’m Still Standing?Oh what the hell... let’s just go for Everyone’s A Winner and be done with it
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