Whiskey resists the downturn

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The World

COOLEY, Ireland — John Teeling has a theory: Young people don’t like to drink what their parents drink because the act of drinking is an expression of self.

That, he maintains, is why vodka is now declining in the United States and young men are turning to brown spirits, including Irish whiskey.

If so, it is good news for Teeling, the 63-year-old founder of the only independent Irish whiskey-maker, Cooley Distillery, located on the scenic Cooley Peninsula in County Louth.

“It used to be that sales of Irish whiskey spiked on St. Patrick’s Day,” said Teeling, “but now it is much more an everyday drink, like bourbon.”

In these recessionary times the 22-year-old Cooley Distillery stands out as one of Ireland’s success stories, a rare example of an Irish-owned export company making a profit.

While big multinational companies in Ireland are laying off employees, Cooley is adding to its 70-strong workforce, according to managing director David F. Hynes.

Relying on tradition, craft, innovation and Irishness, the young company has won more than 100 industry gold medals for brands such as Connemara, Tyrconnell and Kilbeggan.

At the 2008 International Wine and Spirit Competition Awards in London last November it was named World Distiller of the Year.

The origin of Cooley Distillery can be traced to the Plough & Stars bar in Cambridge, Mass., where Teeling drank in the early 1970s with fellow Irishman Willie McCarter.

At the time, Teeling was working on a doctorate in marketing at Harvard Business School and McCarter was completing a masters degree at MIT.

They concluded that if they could create a distillery of their own in Ireland they could do a better job than the established brands of marketing Irish spirits in the U.S.

Irish whiskey had dominated the world market until the 19th century, but with the rise of Scotch whisky, it declined to a mere 2 percent of overall global sales.

The established Irish whiskey firms, Jameson and Power’s, now owned by the French firm Pernod-Ricard, and Bushmills, recently acquired by the giant Diageo holding company, had failed to modernize and had languished.

“We are a rock in the North Atlantic with no domestic market worth talking about,” said Teeling, who believes manufacturing is the key to Ireland’s economic future. “One of the very few industries that has to be Irish is Irish whiskey — Irish time, Irish water, Irish location, Irish grain — it is the perfect industry.”

Teeling’s opportunity came in 1987 when he acquired a former alcohol distillery in the Cooley mountains, along with the derelict Kilbeggan distillery in County Westmeath in the Irish midlands.

Both had to be re-equipped, and the first spirits had to mature for at least three years, according to the law, before they could sell a single bottle.

Several times the banks almost closed down the company, but Teeling and McCarter persevered, with the help of private investment.

First licenced in 1757, Kilbeggan had fallen into disuse and had been used for pig rearing and machine storage.

With the help of local preservationists, the old steam engine and waterwheel were restored, the cooperage and stone warehouses put back in use, and the old pot still brought back to life. Today it is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world, its spirits given an exquisite mellow taste by water from the river Brusna, which flows through peat bogs before reaching the village.

Most Cooley whiskey is stored at Kilbeggan in oak wood casks originally used to mature bourbon in the United States.

McCarter proudly showed me cask No. 16110 containing 200 liters of whiskey distilled for President Barack Obama on Jan. 20, the day of his inauguration.

“We will present it to him the day after the end of his second term, when it will be an eight-year-old whiskey,” said McCarter, whose cheerful, bearded face is familiar in Washington following his 12 years at the head of the U.S.-backed International Fund for Ireland.

Today neither Teeling or McCarter drink whiskey themselves. McCarter told me how Teeling, who along with McCarter was once in the garment business, explained this anomaly at a company event: “Willie and I once produced many of the women’s knickers in Ireland,” Teeling had said, “but — as far as I know — neither of us has ever worn them!”

Cooley Distillery last year sold 2.6 million bottles of whiskey in 40 countries, including the spirit used in the Michael Collins and Feckin’ Irish brands in the U.S.

His hair now white but his energy undiminished, Teeling hopes to expand sales in China, India and Russia, where he believes young people are also turning to "brown" spirits to be different from their elders.

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