I have on this blog repeatedly expressed my gushing affection for Irish whiskey – you may remember my review of Black Bush in particular. If fans were bottles I would be a Melchizedek. So yesterday was a bit of a sad day for me and all my fellow lovers of Irish, or certainly that was my first impression at the unfolding of events. On reflection I feel mixed emotions rather than sadness as such. The trigger was an announcement that Beam Global – the large US liquor group which owns mega-brands such as Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Teacher’s and Courvoisier – had bought Cooley, Ireland’s last remaining independent whiskey distiller. Has a light that has long flickered, and sometimes waned, gone out for good?
In the midst of these morose musings my mood was buoyed by memories of a recent Irish experience. I was lucky enough some ten days ago to attend “Find-the-Craic”, the culminating event in the “Make it 2 Bushmills” global competition. Two young South Africans, Sean Tickner and Jonathan ‘Oros’ Oliff, won this competition, beating out 3600 other teams in the process. As if these guys weren’t righteous enough for having “brought the distillery home” the fact that we share an alma mater elevated them further in my esteem. If I were a rah-rah jolly hockey sticks type, or rather the male equivalent thereof, I’d say “Go School!”, but I’m not so I won’t. There is nonetheless a certain kinship to having been forged in the same fire.
A bit of context at this point. I have attended countless liquor and tobacco promotions. These are industries not known to be shy to flash their cash. They are also categories where brand (the extrinsics) can tend to often overshadow product (the intrinsics), which is all well and fine, but extrinsics are costly and that cost eventually finds its way into the price of the product. I once organised a Benson & Hedges party where we bussed (by luxury coach) a large group of celebrities into the Tswaing meteorite crater for a party of unjustifiable proportions. It bordered on the ridiculous. A few years later I was at a Lucky Strike concert where Violent Femmes played for a crowd of less than 300 people. And I can quote dozens of similar examples. I think I’ve reached the point where I can no longer be impressed by wanton expenditure…although I don’t really mind having this hypothesis tested from time to time :).
At Find-the-Craic I was teamed up with a group of similarly blasé whisky veterans: the legendary Bernard Gutman, whisky supplier extraordinaire Hector McBeth, and Whisky Mag SA digital editor Marsh Middleton, sometimes also known as Miles. This was as hardened a group as for which you could hope, and yet despite our ho-hum preconceptions we were at the end of the day – to a man – all impressed by what we had experienced.
After a leisurely lunch at the Chapman’s Peak Hotel, where we were seated with Master Distiller Colum Egan, we separated into our respective teams and followed clues to the sites of the various challenges that were awaiting us.
The program was essentially a replication of what Sean and Oros had faced during their epic victorious journey; it was comprised of barrel rolling, whisky tasting, beach golfing, and cocktail making, all of which was great craic (fun), especially in good company, and it was followed by a party at the Bascule, the Cape Town whisk(e)y HQ, where we were entertained by an excellent Irish singer with the interesting name of Foy Vance. Foy incidentally comes from the French word “foi” meaning faith, although I can’t confirm that this was the basis upon which this particular Foy was named.
Anyhow, I digress. The day was organised with metronomic precision. It can’t be easy managing six separate sites (seven if you include the collection point) and yet it was all seamless. I didn’t notice a single misstep – even though I tried to throw a spanner in the works by tweeting misleading information to lead the other teams astray.
The fun and games aside, what was most impressive was the whole philosophy of the promotion, and by projection the brand. Money was spent, make no mistake – this can’t have been a cheap endeavour – but there was heart, warmth and a genuineness about the proceedings. I felt this way primarily for the two following reasons:
– The theme of the promotion was closely tied to the core brand message of friendship. Of course this was a marketing exercise, but it was kept relevant, responsible, related to the product, and within reason. The Bushmills team was generous but not excessive. I didn’t at any time feel like I was being arbitrarily schmoozed. This is a brand that seems well grounded, secure and true to itself – no pretence was necessary.
– The event was a standout largely due to the presence of Colum Egan. Colum is a real Master Distiller (the best there is if his tongue-in-cheek comments are to be believed), unlike others who spend more time pounding the PR trail than doing any actual distilling. I had the sense that we were his personal guests, as opposed to invitees at a brand function. He was a relaxed and congenial host, chatting about the cost of a column still one moment, making stirring toasts the next, all the while making sure we had a great time and having a great time himself.
Now, back to my earlier worries about the Cooley situation. Bushmills is owned by the liquor colossus Diageo, and you just don’t get more corporate than Diageo. If it’s possible to substitute a process for any element of human initiative the Diageo machine will typically find a way to do it. And yet, on the evidence of this experience, is there any real cause for concern? The spirit of Ireland – which history has shown can never be tamed – and of Irish whiskey clearly still thrives within Bushmills. I have a feeling that independence in Irish whiskey, despite superficial appearances to the contrary, will not be lost to us.
Photos courtesy of Tony Niemeyer.