A group of mostly West Michigan investors, led by former Founders Brewing Co. Chairman John Green, has acquired Natterjack Irish Whiskey maker Gortinore Distillers & Co. after partnering with the company’s founder to avoid liquidation, MiBiz has learned.
Dublin-based Gortinore Distillers had entered the Irish corporate examinership process earlier this year to negotiate with creditors after the company struggled to hit cash flow projections during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Irish media reports.
One creditor in the company, identified in Irish press reports as American businessman Joseph Elias, the founder of in-flight commerce firm Retail InMotion, had tried to push the company into receivership in an attempt to force liquidation.
“I was intrigued by it for a number of reasons,” Green told MiBiz. “First and foremost, I love the authenticity of the brand. Natterjack is produced in Dublin, and shipped, frankly, around the world … but they had just scratched the surface here in the States. The fact that they had already established a track record in terms of selling the product was important to me.”
The whiskey itself passed the quality test, and at the price point of around $40 a bottle, Green knew it could have legs with the right sales and marketing infrastructure in the U.S.
After connecting with Mehigan, a former hedge fund manager who left to pursue a dream of creating a modern Irish whiskey company, Green felt compelled by the story to work with the founder to save the business. Still, he said he knew the effort was a long shot.
“I remember thinking to myself: ‘Am I absolutely out of my mind?’” Green said. “But I frankly was disturbed by the way the founder had been (treated) by a secured note holder. Some of the gamesmanship that was being played was a motivator for me to help him.
“To put all of his net worth and his career into this business, and he had been (strung along) to the point where he was going to lose his business and his dream and I did not want to let that happen.”
In a matter of eight days, Green and Grand Rapids-based investment banker Dale Grogan put together a consortium of mostly West Michigan investors, submitted an application and received approval from the Irish courts to take control of the company. Green declined to discuss the terms of the investment, other than to say it was in the millions of dollars.
Grand Rapids-based law firm Mika Meyers PLC advised the investors on the deal.
Grogan chalked up the successful bid to the beverage industry experience that Green brought to the table and the group’s plan to accelerate the Natterjack brand.
“We had to offer a compelling story: ‘We’re going to keep the jobs, we’re working with the original management team, we’re going to capitalize this. Oh, by the way, we have some expertise in this business,’” Grogan said.
“The timing was so hard because part of what we had to do was commit hard dollars to the deal,” he added. “Fundraising is strange here, because this was kind of a contingency deal: ‘If we get this deal, are you willing to put up these dollars?’ … We’ve got basically half a dozen phone calls that we can make, and if that doesn’t work, then we might not make the timing, but fortunately it did.”
A Michigan-based investment group swooping in at the last minute to partner with Mehigan to keep Natterjack afloat offers perhaps a fitting narrative arc for the company. In interviews around the time of Natterjack’s launch, Mehigan described how a trip to Detroit and a visit to Two James Distillery led him down the path of launching his own distillery.
Mehigan recounted how he saw that the American craft distilling industry was bringing new innovations and ideas to the spirits category, and felt compelled to do the same for Irish whiskey, which was dominated by traditional brands that had been making the same product for generations.
Green said he was also visiting Two James’ tasting room in Detroit when he first got word of Natterjack’s story.
“The first time I talked to Aidan, I brought that up. ‘This is really crazy,’” Green said.
In orchestrating the deal for Natterjack, Green is leveraging his past experience with Founders Brewing, as well as his involvement in a number of other craft beverage companies. That includes Libby, a maker of force-carbonated and low-alcohol wines that Green co-founded with Napa Valley winemaker Grant Hemingway earlier this year. Green is an investor in and adviser to The Long Drink Co., makers of a line of canned, spirits-based drinks marketed as an alternative to hard seltzers.
Outside of the alcoholic beverage industry, Green founded and serves as CEO of Caledonia-based Revolution Farms LLC, a producer of hydroponically grown salad greens. He’s also an investor in Florida-based Cirkul Inc., where he serves as board chair. The company, which in June completed a $70 million funding round that valued the company at $1 billion, makes a water bottle that uses a cartridge to add and adjust the intensity of any number of flavors.
At Natterjack, Green and the new ownership group plan to work with Mehigan to accelerate the company’s distribution strategy, particularly in the United States, where consumers have a growing taste for the spirit. The brand to date has sold in a range of Western European and Asian markets, as well as in Australia.
According to data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, sales of Irish whiskies hit $1.3 billion in 2021, an increase of 16 percent. The category has grown from 434,000 cases in 2002 to 5.9 million cases last year, with expectations this year of more than 6 million cases.
“From a business standpoint, what gets me excited is the opportunity to bring (Natterjack) to the States on a larger scale,” Green said. “In order to do that, we need to establish the business here in the States, build a team to sell and market to U.S. consumers, identify distribution partners and work heavily on the marketing and share the Natterjack story with consumers. I’ve done that before, whether it’s Founders or Long Drink or Libby.”
As well, Mehigan plans to move to the U.S. to authentically tell the Natterjack story, Green said.
According to Grogan, who has been involved in six investment deals involving spirits companies, the playbook for success hinges on the authenticity of the company’s story, the quality of the product, solid management and a good distribution strategy, which is certainly aided by Green’s involvement and expertise.
“And I love the idea of being the white horse coming in and saying, ‘Dude, you got shafted. Let’s make this right and let’s help everybody and make some money along the way,’” Grogan said. “That’s a great West Michigan story, isn’t it?”
This article originally appeared in MiBiz here