Irish produced whiskey has never been as popular, garnering international acclaim and recognition. Maev Martin talks to Diageo Brand Ambassador and Master of Whiskey Peter O’Connor about the drinks giant’s decision to move into the premium Irish whiskey category.
Diageo recently launched a new premium blended Irish whiskey, Roe & Co. The move into the premium Irish whiskey category comes as the company announced plans in February to invest in a whiskey distillery in the former power station at St. James’s Gate. The total project investment comes to ε25m (£18.6m) over three years. So what is Diageo’s strategy for Roe & Co in the Irish market? “In crafting Roe & Co we explored the demands of today’s consumers for more premium drinking experiences and the desire of bartenders for an adaptable, flavourful whiskey that works in both traditional and new cocktails,” says Peter. “For its first year, Roe & Co will be focused on the on trade across Europe. We want to place it with leading bartenders across the key cities in Ireland and we have picked 440 accounts that we will support with it. We will then move into the off trade next year. We regard Roe & Co as a European city brand, so we want to see it in the right bars and the right cities.”
Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit in the world. “When we examined the whiskey market two years ago we looked at how Irish whiskey stood in the market globally,” he says. “92% of the Irish whiskey market globally was taken up with the standard brands and only six per cent was taken up by the premium sector, so that is where we decided to focus. The trend in spirits is that premium spirits are growing and we want to capitalise on that – Teelings and Jameson are taking the same approach. I see Irish whiskey continuing to grow and the premium sector of Irish whiskey really taking off. About 30% of the US whiskey market is premium whiskey so, given that statistic, there is plenty of scope for growth in Ireland. We really want to see Roe & Co grow in the cocktail sector. Our vision is for a quality and visually appealing whiskey that stands up well in cocktails, as well as on its own.”
Roe & Co is made from hand-selected stocks of Irish malt and grain whiskies and aged in bourbon casks. It is named in honour of George Roe, the once world-famous whiskey maker who helped build the golden era of Irish whiskey in the 19th century. His distillery, George Roe and Co, extended over 17 acres on Thomas Street in Dublin and was once Ireland’s largest distillery. As neighbours for hundreds of years, George Roe and Co and Guinness were the two biggest names at the heart of Dublin’s historic brewing and distilling quarter. Diageo will now build on this heritage with the creation of a new distillery by converting the historic former Guinness Power House on Thomas Street.
The new St. James’s Gate distillery will be situated just a stone’s throw away from where the George Roe and Co distillery once stood and, subject to planning approval, will begin production in the first half of 2019. “A lot of renovation will take place before the new distillery is fully operational but when it is it will produce half a million litres of single malt whiskey a year, which is a pretty average output for an Irish distillery,” says Peter. “Using her 30 years of experience, Master Blender Caroline Martin has created a luxuriously smooth blend with a perfect harmony between the intense fruitiness of the malt and the mellow creaminess of the grain whiskies. The high proportion of first-fill casks gives notes of creamy vanilla balanced with its hints of fruit and soft spice and a remarkable depth for such an elegant and refined whiskey.”
Roe & Co is non-chill filtered and bottled at a higher than usual ABV of 45%. The first blend of Roe & Co has been available in key European cities since March 1st as part of Diageo’s growing Reserve portfolio. Peter O’Connor has been a brand ambassador for Diageo in Ireland for the Reserve portfolio for the last three years. Prior to that he worked as a Master of Whiskey for New York and New Jersey for Diageo for a four-year period, before returning to Ireland in April 2015 to take over the Reserve portfolio.
“Before joining the team at Diageo I ran a number of bars in Dublin, including The Morgan Hotel bar, which was a big cocktail bar,” he says. “That is how Diageo approached me about eight years ago. I was food and beverage and bar manager at The Morgan. Ketel One was very popular in the Morgan at that time and we were one of only a few bars serving it, so my working life has been in the drinks industry.”
What does the industry lifer see as the next big trend in the Irish whiskey market? “I think the premium sector will continue to grow,” he says. “The Scots have done it very well and now the golden era of Irish whiskey has made a comeback. New casks are being used – Teelings are doing great stuff with wine casks – so there is going to be a voyage of discovery and collaboration between the bartender and the consumer, which will be very exciting over the next few years. The more distilleries that open the better – it will bring more tourists into Ireland and benefit the country, as well as the whiskey industry.” ν