Was I the only person who didn’t see this coming? Somehow among all that beating of the ‘last righteous and independent distillery on the Green Island’ drum I lost the track of what was really happening. Irish whiskey is one of the fastest growing spirit categories in the world, it’s going from strength to strength in the US and it was only a matter of time before one of the big companies snatched up malt and grain whiskey plants at Cooley and Kilbeggan along with several excellent established brands – including Kilbeggan, Connemara, Tyrconnell and Greenore. The lucky (and sensible) bidder is Beam Inc., it was announced yesterday that the company will pay approximately $95m (€73m, £61m). So there you go, this is the news. But what does it actually mean?
Three big distilleries in Ireland – Bushmills, Midleton and Cooley – are now neatly split between big international players, Diageo, Pernod Ricard and (soon) Beam respectively. The first two have been celebrating commercial successes for the past several years, taking new markets by storm and growing fabulously in the existing ones. Irish Distillers (Midleton) made efforts to revive the Irish single pot still whiskey category to add more premium products to their already extensive range. Bushmills have been pushing 2-3 expressions very hard, Diageo style, and they have been just as successful. Cooley, despite being named the European Distiller of the Year for four consecutive years by IWSC, have remained the smallest player within the category by some distance with the sales of 250,000 cases per year compared to 4.6 million cases of Irish whiskey sold by the other two players. Independence is great but it comes at a price. With the global distribution network and (hopefully) all the marketing money in the world coming into play after the Beam acquisition, Cooley family of brands will likely experience the biggest growth spurt Irish whiskey has seen in years if not decades. That’s a good thing.
What they are loosing is a degree of independence. But only time will show how pushy will the new owners be and whether or not they will want to do absolutely everything ‘their way’. Examples of other acquisitions of this sort show that the honeymoon period is likely to last at least a couple of years and then, who knows. I can’t say I know Beam well enough to try and foresee what changes are now to come for Cooley but one thing is for sure – changes are coming.