Spotlight on Slane (w/Alex Conyngham)

Posted by Irish Whiskey USA on

In May 2023 the IWSA had the pleasure of visiting Slane Castle and Slane Distillery. We were treated to outstanding tours and an overall wonderful experience which included meeting with founder Alex Conyngham. Pictures and a summary of our trip can be found here. In a new interview, Alex discusses the current status and future of both Slane Distillery and Irish Whiskey.

“The ultra-premium category is going to grow” – Brown-Forman Irish whiskey brand Slane eyes opportunities

Slane co-founder Alex Conyngham has an “ambition” for the Irish whiskey brand to grow to 1m cases.

The then Slane Castle Irish Whiskey was founded by father and son Henry and Alex Conyngham in 2009.

Six years later, Brown-Forman signed a deal with the Anglo-Irish aristocrat Conyngham family to buy the Irish whiskey distillery at the Slane Castle estate in County Meath.

The sale to Brown-Forman marked the Jack Daniel’s maker’s entry into Irish whiskey and was accompanied by a $50m investment to build a new four-acre distilling site.

A triple-casked spirit launched in 2017, with the distiller having used externally sourced liquids in its initial batches. Production at the distillery went fully online in 2018.

The whiskey is made from a blend of triple distilled malt and locally-sourced single-estate malt, aged in oak and Jack Daniel’s seasoned casks from Brown-Forman, and Oloroso sherry casks from Spain. As well as the triple barrel, Slane’s portfolio includes an extra sherry wood and batch strength whiskey, plus a smaller number of limited-edition blends.

Just Drinks sat down with co-founder and now brand ambassador Alex Conyngham to discuss the plans to grow the Slane Irish Whiskey brand and the potential for ‘ultra-premium’ products in Irish whiskey.

Just Drinks: How do you expect Slane to perform this year?

Conyngham: Irish whiskey globally continues to do well. It is very dominated obviously by one particular brand, but the category overall is still enjoying a lot of growth. We’re up to just over 40 distilleries now, so everyone’s got to fight for space. I think there’s room for everyone because the category is getting bigger but also broader in terms of there’s more diversity, particularly as pot still starts to emerge as a bigger category within Irish… it’s going to take time for that category to be mature. We’re looking forward to being part of that space… there’s still a lot of upside for growth.

There are parts of the world where Irish whiskey certainly has a good foothold, but there’s a lot of opportunity, specifically looking at parts of Asia, South America, and Africa where early indications are that there appears to be a good demand for [Irish whiskey]. There’s only a very small number of brands in some of those territories, and I think there’s great opportunity for other Irish whiskey brands, including Slane, to go into those [markets].

I’m very grateful for what that brand [Jameson] has done because it kicked down a door for the category. I think it’s laid the path for others to kind of follow and then diversify within the category but it’s unusual to have a category where one player is so particularly dominant. That’s a balance that will in time correct itself.

Just Drinks: You mentioned Asia, South America and Africa. Are those areas where you’re looking to launch Slane?

Conyngham: Brown-Forman and ourselves only want to go into a market when we know we can give it focus and support. That’s why our geographic expansion has been fairly slow and steady because we want to make sure that if we do go into a market, we can put the resources and dedication behind it to make sure it works.

We will definitely expand over time but for now our core focus is really [the US], which is the number one market for Irish whiskey globally … We’ve got a good hold in the UK, we’re in a few European countries including France, Germany, Czechia, Bulgaria and then we’re in Australia and New Zealand, so that’s only a small part of the world. There’s plenty more to go, but I wouldn’t want to see us go too wide too fast. Building brands requires careful strategy, focus and attention.

Slane’s triple casked Irish whiskey. Credit: Slane Irish Whiskey

Just Drinks: Are there any specific countries you’re looking to expand into?

Conyngham: There’s very exciting markets in Africa like Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana … there seems to be a real appetite. Those who have gone in are doing well, so I think there’s good upside for brown spirits in general but Irish whiskey seems to have hit a certain resonance, which I hope bodes well for Slane. I’d love to see us go there but I don’t think we’re ready to do so yet. We’ve got to manage our inventory carefully as we grow and production increases.

Watch this space. We haven’t completed [talks] yet but you’ll definitely see Slane expanding in the next two to three years.

Just Drinks: Will the US remain your dominant market?

Conyngham: In the US market, I think all spirits’ [growth] have softened somewhat. A good section of that is just to do with changes in how the system was working in the US … the cost of borrowing has gone up, so people are running a tighter ship keeping their inventories lower… I think and hope to a certain extent that’s a short-term blip and it will recover.

Slane will be quite a different business in five years’ time.

Just Drinks: What are Slane’s biggest opportunities for growth in the next few years?

Conyngham: In the next five years, there will definitely be single malt and single pot still coming out of Slane and I’m really excited about adding value from those categories … that’s going to bring some very important value growth. Then, on Slane triple casked blend, as we get more confident about going into new territories, geographic expansion is going to happen as well… It will be quite a different business in five years’ time.

Just Drinks: What do Irish whiskey makers need to do to continue driving sales at a time when consumers are more frugal?

Conyngham: There are some very high-end Irish blends but the general Irish blended category is incredibly good value, so I think Irish whiskey is well positioned. I’m not saying it’s immune to that but it is generally accessible from a price point in terms of entry-level whiskies, so that doesn’t concern me too much.

There is a trend towards less and better and that’s been happening for a while. People are still prepared to pay a little bit more if the product is good, the story is right, and they feel has good connection to the brand. The ultra-premium side of things may be a bit tougher, but I still believe that’s a very undeveloped category within Irish simply because most of the distilleries are relatively young, including ourselves, and so there isn’t a whole lot of older stock or more adventurous expressions around … I think the next five to ten years in Irish whiskey are going to be intriguing because I think the ultra-premium category is going to grow, even if there are economic price pressures there.

Just Drinks: Can Irish whiskey ever surpass Scotch in terms of sales?

Conyngham: We were bigger than Scotch historically but the first comment I have on that is the world of whisk(e)y has become more complex. We’ve got more countries including America for starters, it’s not just Irish that’s becoming bigger. We’ve got new countries coming into whisk(e)y so it’s a more diverse landscape. Rather than fixating on taking over Scotch again, it’s just about having a well-established, well-respected industry. I think that’s really starting to happen now and, in time, with the increasing number of ultra-premium expressions, that will have a halo effect on raising the profile and respect for Irish whiskey.

Consumers now are swapping between both brands and categories a lot more than they used to

Just Drinks: How did inflationary pressures affect Slane’s performance in 2023?

Conyngham: Cost of living went up, cost of production went up, and so there were decisions on whether you pass all of those price increases onto consumers and a tougher economic climate…. there was some short-term pain there. Things are correcting now; I mean costs are going back down to more sensible levels again. If you just look at energy costs alone for any manufacturer, they were pretty staggering and everybody was hurt across all industries, but that doesn’t mean that you can abandon your consumers and pass it all to them. It’s not fair and you’ll lose share, so we were very cognisant of that.

Just Drinks: How do you expect inflation to affect the business in the next year?

Conyngham: In the whiskey business there’s a strong time lag. Very expensive whiskey that you were making last year with high energy costs isn’t actually going to become whiskey for quite a few years, so that’s why it’s such a cyclical business and you’ve got to be able to take, to a certain extent, the rough with the smooth, but over time hopefully things will even out. As long as consumers feel that they are getting an element of value in your brand, that you’re over-delivering on the quality of your product through good flavour and there’s believable stories to go with it and good brand purpose that they can identify with, I think you’ll be ok. It’s about building brands that are better designed to last, and that’s what we intend to do here.

Just Drinks: How has consumer behaviour changed towards Irish whiskey since Slane was launched?

Conyngham: Consumers now are swapping between both brands and categories a lot more than they used to which is great news, because I think that is driven by curiosity on flavour and stories and Irish whiskey [answers that].

In order to appeal to that more discerning and better-educated customer, you’ve got to have good liquid and you’ve got to have a good story, but you need to give people opportunities for trials – think trading, consumer education, whiskey festivals – all those things are really important as a chance to get liquid on lips. This is where building a brand in the on-premise and working with the bartending community is… necessary in order to show that your juice can work for them and what they’re trying to achieve. It’s been intriguing seeing Slane for example pushing into tropical-style drinks because of the flavour notes that we have there due to the casks that we use. Irish whiskies prove [we can be] pushing into new territories.

Just Drinks: Is Slane sold in the on- and off-premise? Is it more present in one channel?

Conyngham: I think you need to play in both… That’s been important for Slane and we will continue to invest in advocacy and trade relationships in both [the] off and on-premise, but you cannot build a brand without investing in the relationships in on-premis, and that includes education includes trial includes getting people to come and see the place where the product is made.

Just Drinks: What is your current annual production capacity and do you plan to increase this down the line?

Conyngham: Globally, we’re at around 50,000 cases… That’s almost entirely the triple-casked blend apart from some very limited releases.

I’m hoping that we can emulate the likes of what Woodford Reserve have done, and Brown-Forman have a good track record of that so Slane will get to a million cases. That’s certainly my ambition, but it’s going to be a hard graft to get there.

I’d like to see pot still become almost the Irish answer to single-malt Scotch

Just Drinks: What challenges do you see ahead for Slane?

Conyngham: The cost of goods is going to continue to be a challenge. Climatic change is presenting some challenges in terms of barley cultivation and that’s something we’re going to have to watch carefully… Rain patterns are changing along with temperatures and that’s affecting the growing cycle, so that’s something we all need to be aware of.

I think one of the challenges is [also] perhaps educating people about the pot still category and what that even means. There’s some education needed around what pot still whiskey is and why it tastes the way it does. Single malts within Scotch I think is well understood, but pot still is a category that a lot of people are not aware of. That’s a challenge for the [whole] Irish whiskey category and hopefully we can be part of helping to educate people on the merits of it.

I’d like to see pot still become almost the Irish answer to single-malt Scotch. Now, Irish has single malt as well, but I think longer term play will be that single pot still will become the principal ultra-premium category within Irish, but it’ll be a challenge if we don’t have all the messaging and education.

Just Drinks: And how are you building resilience to climate change?

Conyngham: We need to be very careful around water management… Ireland is a country that is traditionally seen where there’s plenty of rain and plenty of water, but looking for example at water levels along the river Boyne now, there have been periods where that’s dropped pretty low, and at times drought, so we have a real collective responsibility as an industry to manage water very carefully… we need to future-proof against those challenges now, and that’s why we have boreholes in addition to the river, we recycle as much water as possible, we collect rainwater on our buildings to reduce water consumption. I think this industry can’t survive if it doesn’t take care of its water.

We invested in an anaerobic digestor on-site, which we haven’t commissioned yet because we need to get production capacity to a higher level. But when that happens [in the next 12 to 18 months], taking the byproducts of distillation and feeding it to microbes and creating biogas on site, that has the potential to slash our carbon emissions by up to 30%.

We’re [also] looking into hydroelectricity… our ambition is to get to zero waste as a site and we’re well on the way to doing so… financially, it makes sense as well, particularly in the wake of rising costs of energy and waste disposal. I’d like us to get to zero waste [by 2030], and if we could get to zero carbon as well that would be brilliant.


This article originally appeared here.

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