June 5, 2015 – Another major player in the whisky business is jumping into the Irish Whiskey sector, as Brown-Forman will spend approximately $50 million to take over the Conyngham family’s Slane Castle distillery project. The Louisville-based company has acquired all of the shares in Slane Castle Irish Whiskey Limited, and will partner with the family to complete the distillery at the Slane Castle estate north of Dublin. The family was forced to build its own distillery to remain in the whiskey business with its Slane Castle Irish Whiskey brand after its bulk whiskey supply contract with Cooley was terminated in 2012 following the sale of Cooley to Beam Suntory.
“We’ve looked extensively around Ireland, and we were pretty open to any possibility,” Brown-Forman director of product innovation Lee Tatum said in a telephone interview. “We were open to making an acquisition, we were open to completely green-field and starting from scratch, and we were open to partnering…and what turned out to be the best opportunity for us was Slane.” The Conynghim family has already received all of the planning permits for its project and ordered some of the equipment for the distillery. Tatum says that will allow construction to begin this summer and distilling to begin in 2016, while starting from scratch would have likely required 18 months for design, planning, and construction.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Lee Tatum:
The company’s goal is to begin distilling in early 2016 and launch a blended whiskey in 2017 under the Slane Irish Whiskey brand using whiskey stocks it has already acquired and will finish and blend. The initial launch will focus on the US market, which is the world’s largest market for Irish Whiskey, along with Ireland, the UK, and potentially several European markets. Tatum said the Conyngham family will remain involved in the business and serve as ambassadors for the project, but the new brand will focus on the heritage of the town of Slane. “It’s very small, but it’s really beautiful…and it’s only about half an hour north of the Dublin airport, so we think there’s going to be some decent tourism opportunity beyond just having the ability for us to make the whiskey there,” Tatum said. The distillery will be built by converting old stables on the estate into a production facility and visitors center. The estate has been popular with visitors for years, and has been the site of large-scale concerts in the past.
While this is Brown-Forman’s first move into Irish Whiskey production, the company has previous experience in the sector. Brown-Forman was the US importer for Bushmills Irish Whiskey from 1967 to 2001, and company executives have indicated over the past year that they had been looking for opportunities in both Ireland and Scotland. Tatum said Brown-Forman is still open to doing a deal in Scotland under the right conditions. “We have a little thing we say, it has to have the Four A’s…it has to be attractive, affordable, available, and advisable…and in Scotch, that tends to be hard to find right now.”
The deal comes as Irish distillers are launching an ambitious plan aimed at tripling their share of the global whisky market over the next 15 years from 4% to 12%, with an estimated 26 new distilleries to be built during the period between 2010 and 2025 and around a billion Euros in new investment.