• Sun. Dec 3rd, 2023


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One on One with McConnell’s Whisky CEO John Kelly

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So We had the opportunity to have a one-on-one interview with McConnell’s Whisky CEO John Kelly.

Here is what we asked the CEO John Kelly of McConnell’s Whisky.

Well, uh, you know, I’ve been very fortunate to have been working in the whiskey industry from quite a young age. I was a bartender at university. I spent 22 years working for Diageo. Uh, so I’ve really worked since I was 18 in the industry.

I’m now over 30 years in, the alcohol industry and the whiskey industry. Uh, I left the Diageo and I wanted to do something different from the big multinationals. I wanted to do something which was important for my city and my community. and McConnell’s Irish Whisky absolutely filled that opportunity for me.

We’re building a distillery and a visitor experience in my home part of Belfast. and that’s, you know, why wouldn’t I take this opportunity?

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Yeah, McConnell’s as a brand goes back to 1776. It has a huge heritage. It was very successful throughout the 1800s and the early 1900s. Um, not many brands out there have got that heritage and that heritage and that history. Um, the brand fell into a sleep in the 1930s.

But we’ve resurrected the brand and with our packaging, we are paying real reverence to the old bottles of McConnell’s that you see in the marketplace. Okay. One thing that I would say for Dale is that McConnell’s whisky is spelled without the E. Okay. So, that’s an important point. One last thing on the Why, no E in McConnell’s whisky, the E was introduced in the 18 hundreds.

Because the Irish wanted to have a point of difference to the Scots. McConnell’s Irish Whisky pre-dates this, so going back to the question about our heritage, McConnell’s Irish Whisky pre-dates that, and so we spell our whisky W H I S K Y, the old way that it always was spelled in the 1700s when we were first born in Belfast.

McConnell’s has an incredibly bright future ahead. Today we are a blender and bottler of whisky. Irish whisky. In January of this year we will be opening our own distillery and then in March of next year we will be opening our own visitor experience.

That means we are going to be one of those few distilleries on the island of Ireland that have a significant brand home. And having a brand home makes all of the difference. We can welcome over 100, 000 people to the home of McConnell’s in Belfast. And in an ever-evolving spirits market where there is a lot of competition, you know, having something that’s very special in your home city, is hugely important for consumers.

Well, McConnell’s whisky is a blend of Irish whisky, but it is absolutely different from many other blends out there.

And it’s different in two particular ways. One, many of the blends out there will be bottled at three years old. We are bottled at five years old. So that’s significant. We stay in the barrel for those extra two years. Secondly, our blend has a very high malt content. Many blends out there and whiskey brands that are competing with us will have a high grain content and very little malt.

We have a high malt content. So we’re older than many blends and we’ve got a higher malt content and that kind of sets us apart as being different. In terms of our identity, you know, we as a brand have significant History, heritage, and provenance. We date back to 1776, and we maintain and bring forward that identity in our beautiful packaging in McConnell’s bottle, where we pay homage to the great city of Belfast, its shipbuilding nature and history, and also the history of McConnell’s Irish whisky.

So we believe that that identity will be very strong in the years to come.

Well, I kind of have covered part of this, I think, in the previous answer. You know, one of the techniques that we have is to make sure that we mature our liquid for longer than the three years that’s required.

We mature our liquid for five years. Okay. Then, when we’re blending and crafting of blending, We make sure that we have a high malt content and it’s those two things that make us stand apart from others

There are a number of key factors, you know contributing to that. We’ve talked about some of them. The fact that our blend is high malt content, the fact that we’re five years old, the fact that we have history, we have heritage, we have provenance. But other factors are really important for me. Um, you know, we spend time in the marketplace.

with our partners in the markets. You know, I’ve spent the last 10 days here with Ross and the team at Firebrand Africa, making sure that we’re building the understanding of our partners to McConnell’s brand. So that’s really something that will contribute, I feel, to the success of McConnell’s Irish Whisky.

You know, I’ve spent a lot of time Working with our retailers and our customers talking to them about the brand talking to them about our distillery and our brand home I like to call this shoe leather, you know, you’re out there. You’re working the streets You’re building relationships and it’s through great whiskey great packaging and great Relationships that we feel we will build the success of McConnell’s brand here in South Africa

This is, very clear to us. What we have done in the building of our distillery and our visitor experience. is to play a huge part in the regeneration of an old building that was lying derelict. Uh, and we’re doing something for the community. So we could have built our distillery in a greenfield site outside of Belfast, but instead of doing that, we wanted to regenerate something that was an eyesore in Belfast.

So that’s really what we’re doing. We’ve got something that is providing 50 jobs to the community, and we’ve regenerated. a part of Belfast that needs that help and needs that support. Uh, it’s right in the city center. Uh, we’re bringing tourism and visitors to this little part of Belfast, my home city.

Look, being the CEO of a company means that, you know, the buck stops here. Uh, you know, you can’t turn anywhere else or you can’t kind of look at others and wonder, you know, pass on that responsibility to them. So, um, in terms of challenges, uh, you know, the whisky market, the Irish whisky market is a competitive marketplace. We’ve got some great Irish whisky brands out there and we have to be always, you know, on our game let’s say, in order, to win versus that competition. You know, it’s a bit like South Africa. Winning the World Cup, you know, they managed to just win each of those last three games by a point. So, you know, you have to be competitive. You have to be working hard to win. And that’s a challenge, you know. Um, I think, you know, post COVID, you know, getting the people, the right people into the organization, making sure that you’re building a team that’s full of energy and enthusiasm.

A team that wants to collaborate with each other, you know, that’s a challenge, but it’s something I think we’ve really delivered very well in McConnell, so some of the challenges I face.

This week is exactly the time to talk about this. This week we have launched the second expression of McConnell’s Irish Whiskey to the South African market. Our beautiful five-year-old blend. American bourbon barrels have now gone into Oloroso sherry casks. So the Irish whiskey that is McConnell’s from the American bourbon moves into the sherry casks.

It spends up to a year in the sherry casks and we’re delighted this week to be launching the McConnell’s sherry cask finish. We’ve bottled that at 46 percent and this is absolutely Something that whiskey enthusiasts can look forward to only the last two nights at whiskey live here in Johannesburg.

We’ve been able to sample McConnell’s sherry cast finish and I can tell you that the reception has been exceptional. So look out for it

The last question before you leave South Africa.

Very simple advice. Do not believe that it is something that’s easy to do. If you want to establish your brand or your own mark in this industry, you have to be prepared, to work hard. You have to make sure that your company and your brand are well supported in terms of funding. And you have to make sure that you can…

Build the right team. So, there’s nothing simple about building a Spirits brand in the Spirits industry. It requires hard work. It requires investment. And it requires the ability to build a great team. And I’m delighted to say that I feel that we at Belfast Distillery Company and McConnell’s Irish Whisky have been able to bring those three things together.

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