An Irish whiskey company has told of its bold plans to crack the North American market as it prepares to open a destination tourist attraction in Ireland.
McConnell’s Whisky, which dates back to 1776 but closed in the 1930s amid US prohibition, was revived in 2019 by Belfast Distillery Company.
Since then it has expanded into 32 markets and work is nearing completion on a multi-million-pound distillery and visitor experience in Belfast, which is set to open in November.
Speaking in New York, CEO of Belfast Distillery Company, John Kelly, told IrishStar.com that the company has been buoyed by the response Stateside and sees the US market, where it is available in all 50 States, as key to its growth.
He said: “We’re a top 20 brand in the Irish whiskey brands in the Nielsen charts already and within our price section we’re a top-five brand in the US.
“That comes from a very recent start so from a volume perspective we’re doing very well. From a route-to-market perspective, we’re in 32 markets around the world now.
“The US is a great opportunity. There are probably 100,000 points of distribution so we’re just scratching at the surface at the moment.
“The big states for us are the North-East corner: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Florida. Those along the East Coast: I think Irish whiskey is very big in those states. We’re also doing very well in California which is like a country in itself.”
The brand offers two skus: Its flagship five-year blend and its Sherry Cask finish.
Taking a new product to a competitive Irish whiskey market is a challenge, though, and John is clocking up the miles across state lines.
He explained: “It’s all about shoe leather. That’s why coming out of Covid it’s been great to get out there and get in front of people: Be that in trade shows or in-person meetings. The short answer is there is no easy way to build a brand.
"You have to start with a great brand: We’re fortunate that we’ve got a great brand, beautiful packaging, wonderful liquid and we're quite different in what we’re doing. It’s a five-year-old blend of whiskey, many blends are three years old. It’s 42% ABV rather than 40% so we’ve got something that’s very unique.
“But we call it the hard nine yards. There’s no point advertising on TV if it’s not in the store, so it’s all about shoe leather. You’ve got to have people who are prepared to go out, meet people at events, trade shows, talk to bartenders and sell the brand.
“There are so many brands out there that you have to cut through: You have to mean something to the distributor, you want to be meaningful, you want them to believe in you.
“The bartenders really like McConnell’s because we have two skus to offer. They find that it gives versatility. The bartenders like the story, they love the liquid, they love the bottle.
“If you or I walk up to a bar and say: ‘I’d love an Irish whiskey but I don’t know what’ and the bartender starts talking to you about McConnell’s then nine times out of 10 you’re going to have McConnell’s. That comes back to the shoe leather, building relationships with bartenders takes time. Every Irish whiskey wants to work with the bartenders so you have to have an authentic story and take the time and energy to work with these people. If you get them on your side then they are a huge asset.”
At the end of this year, J&J McConnell’s Distillery will open in its native Belfast in a wing of Crumlin Road Gaol, a former Victoria-era prison.
The $28 million project will bring a state-of-the-art distillery and visitor experience. A key market will be tourists from the United States.
John said: “You have a lot of American tourists who go to Belfast to trace their roots. Belfast is a great city but a lot of those tourists might end up going to the Giant’s Causeway or something like that. What we’re doing is bringing another reason to stay in Belfast.
“We want to help keep people in Belfast when they come as tourists.
“The US is the biggest provider of whiskey tourists - these are tourists who are visiting Ireland for the purpose of visiting distilleries. Very often they go to Dublin and they may go to Midleton.
"Now that we have something really meaningful in Belfast it makes it more credible for them to say: ‘Ok I’m a whiskey tourist, there’s one in Belfast, there’s another one in Belfast, there’s Hinch (Distillery in Co Down) and I can do Bushmills (Co Antrim)'. So we want to be part of an Ulster whiskey tour.
“I think local, Irish tourists will be number one, UK tourists will be number two but US tourists has to be number three. That could even change - in a year’s time we will see. The US is really important. If we can have 130,000 tourists per year at the visitor experience, let’s say 20 or 30,000 of those are from the US. That’s thousands of people who are going back to the US saying: ‘That McConnell’s brand is fantastic, I’ve brought you a bottle, I’ve brought you a sweater..’ the opportunity of sending ‘ambassadors’ back to the US is huge.”
It’s a pivotal year for John and the company and one that could have a profound impact on the Irish whiskey market both in Ireland and internationally.
He said: “We’re over the moon. There’s not another job in the world I would rather be doing right now. I couldn’t be happier with how everything is progressing and the impact it will have. It's a huge six months ahead of us and we’ll bring everything we’ve been building together.”
This article originally appeared here.