Stephen Teeling: ‘Global opportunity’ for Irish whiskey

When his family company was sold off in 2012, Stephen Teeling and his brother, Jack, set up on their own. Their decision has paid off, and Teeling Distillery has become one of the most exciting players in Irish whiskey.

Stephen Teeling has whiskey in his blood. His father, John Teeling, a pioneer of the Irish whiskey revival, founded Cooley Distillery in 1987 and later reopened the Kilbeggan site. “I spent a huge part of my childhood and formative years between both distilleries,” remembers the younger Teeling. “I was about eight years old when my dad set up Cooley and myself and my brother were two of the first people on the site – we trespassed, I guess.”

But the Teelings’ distilling lineage dates from 1782, when Walter Teeling opened a distillery on Marrowbone Lane in Dublin. Stephen Teeling and his older brother, Jack, re­established the Irish capital’s connection with Irish whiskey with the opening of Teeling Whiskey Distillery in 2015. Before this, he cut his teeth in the family business.

“I worked with Cooley on the brands from a young age through work experience and such. I even remember when I was travelling I would pull bottles forward if I saw them in duty free and things like that.” While Stephen had “always been interested in business”, he initially dismissed the idea of joining the family firm. “As with many people who have grown up in a family where business came first and foremost, and had a father who cast quite a long shadow, I had the idea I would never work in the family business when I got older.”

Stephen went on to study business and economics at Trinity College Dublin before completing a master’s degree in international business. He then joined a finance graduate scheme but after 18 months realised he “overestimated how good life is in bigger companies” and joined his father and brother at Cooley. Jack acted as the distillery’s managing director, while Stephen, with his experience in international business, became commercial manager.

SEIZE THE OPPORTUNITY

Then in 2012 came Beam’s acquisition of Cooley, the effects of which were felt throughout the Irish whiskey industry. “Myself and Jack never really thought Cooley was going to be sold – we were just getting started, and we were just starting to take control of things.” However, while Cooley was a majority­-owned family company, it needed to satiate around 200 shareholders who were looking for cash during the economic downturn, and John Teeling made good on his promise of pursuing an exit if the right offer was made.

For the Teeling brothers, the deal gave them the “kick up the arse” they needed to set off on their own. “We didn’t want to exit stage left,” says Stephen. “We thought the opportunity in Irish whiskey was only going to get better; we saw the opportunity as being then and now, and the idea of walking away just wasn’t an option for us.”

After seeing the revival of distilling in London and the industry’s more general “reversion to urban locations” the pair sought to bring the art of whiskey­-making back to Dublin after a 125­-year hiatus. They had plenty of experience to rely on – good and bad. “At Cooley I saw some of the positives and negatives of being out there in the trenches trying to challenge a big multinational like Pernod, or compete with the older Irish whiskey brands,” says Stephen. “Some of the things that failed us with our brands at Cooley stood for a very hard lesson, but a lesson all the same, to not make the same mistakes at Teeling, and avoid some of the challenges in terms of connecting with consumers.”

Jack and Stephen’s vision for Teeling Whiskey Distillery was unique from the outset, with a “more premium, urban and modern approach” at its core. “We had a blank slate, an opportunity to take a different approach with Teeling,” says Stephen.

“Fundamentally, Cooley was from a different generation of people who produce Irish whiskey, and a different generation who drank Irish whiskey. We wanted to be a newer generation making different styles of Irish whiskey that we felt were missing in the category.”

As such, Teeling Whiskey Distillery focuses on the “segmentation” within Irish whiskey, producing innovative cask-­finished blends, as well as single pot still, single malt and single grain whiskey, and is even experimenting with rye and peated malt. Critically, the brand “does not compete on price”, as Stephen explains: “I don’t think a low­-cost Jameson is the future for any new entrant.”

Following the launch of Irish whiskey bottling firm the Teeling Whiskey Company in 2012, the distillery itself opened in 2015, and has become one of Dublin’s top visitor attractions having welcomed 350,000 people through its doors. Managing director Jack and sales and marketing director Stephen founded the distillery independently of their father, who supplies them with grain liquid through his Great Northern Distillery in Dundalk. Cooley’s former innovations manager, Alex Chasko, was employee number one at Teeling, which is now operated by a team of 95 people.

According to Stephen, he and Jack have an “interesting dynamic” in their working relationship, and “try to be each other’s yin and yang”. He believes their partnership has “gotten better over the years” and is grounded in trust. “The main thing comes down to understanding that no matter what’s going on you would never do anything to the detriment of the business,” he explains. “I’ve heard from a variety of sources that in bigger companies people are very good at managing their own careers, rather than doing the right things for the brands. For something like this to work you had to do all the right things – including experiencing all the pain at the start. There were no short cuts. There was a lot of sacrifices, and there still is. Those are the pros and cons of a family­-run business – you have to take a longer­-term view.”

DEDICATION PAYS OFF

This dedication is clearly paying off, and Teeling is on track to register sales of 900,000 bottles globally in 2018, which is no mean feat for a brand that steadfastly plays in the premium-­plus space. There are now 10,000 barrels of Teeling whiskey filled from Dublin – an indicator, says Stephen, of just how serious they are about the future.

Last year saw the launch of Teeling’s first Dublin­-distilled commercial whiskey, a single pot still expression. The whiskey is produced from a recipe of 50% unmalted barley and 50% malted barley, and is matured in a combination of virgin oak, ex­-Bourbon and ex-­wine casks. “You feel a bit laid bare because it’s your first whiskey,” claims Stephen. “It’s great, just very nerve-wracking.” The launch was limited to 6,000 bottles, and the first batch was made available exclusively in Ireland.

Teeling auctioned off the first 100 bottles, with bottle number one fetching £10,000 (US$12,992), setting a new world record for the most expensive whisk(e)y from a new distillery. Meanwhile, the final Revival bottling, finished in a combination of Cognac and brandy barrels, launched in April. Looking back, Stephen says his team has “used the past 12 months to celebrate what we have done over the past three years”.

Last year also marked 12 months since Bacardi’s minority acquisition of Teeling Whiskey Company, representing the US drinks giant’s first foray into Irish whiskey. Bacardi’s family­-run board said they were “big believers” in Stephen and Jack, who continue to run the business independently and autonomously.

According to Stephen, the deal enabled Teeling to take strides in the competitive and complex US market, whose three­-tier distribution system can be the undoing of fledgling brands. The group was finding difficulty in “getting a seat at the table with distributors” through its previous partner, Infinium Spirits.

“The US is the biggest market for Irish whiskey and in three to four years, 50% of all Irish whiskey will be sold there,” says Stephen. “California as a state adds more cases than the whole of Ireland. It’s growing, led by big multinationals, but it’s crying out for segmentation. We felt that if we didn’t act, someone else was going to take the premium or super-­premium slot in the US.”

Stephen and Jack were impressed by Bacardi’s “long-­term view” and its “work with other smaller brands”, such as Angel’s Envy Bourbon and Leblon cachaça, which Teeling joined in Bacardi’s US-­centred Incubation Brands unit. Crucially, Teeling Whiskey is now able to take advantage of Bacardi’s national distribution agreement with Southern Glazer’s. “Our strategic thought process was: Bacardi is important to Southern Glazer’s, we will hopefully be important to them, ipso facto we won’t get washed away. We had done too much to let the US opportunity go.”

Teeling also recently moved distributors in the UK, joining the team at Maverick Drinks. And the firm isn’t ready to slow down yet – Teeling is producing 750,000 litres of pure alcohol, but has the capacity to distil 1.3­1.4 million if it chooses to fire up two additional fermenters that are already in place at the site.

“We definitely have no shortage of ambition because, honestly, I still feel the opportunity for Irish whiskey is there, and it’s a global opportunity,” enthuses Stephen. “You can’t go half in on a whiskey thing.”


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Author: Amy Hopkins {authorlink}