Jameson with a dash of French flair at Irish Distillers

Jean–Christophe Coutures aims to bolster and expand global sales of Jameson

What instructions do you give someone taking the helm at a company whose flagship brand has just recorded 27 years of consecutive growth?

" 'Don't mess it up' is what they told me!" says Jean–Christophe Coutures, the new chairman and chief executive of Irish Distillers, which owns Jameson whiskey.

Sitting in the company’s swish headquarters in Ballsbridge, Dublin, surrounded by bottles of Jameson, the Frenchman is lean, tanned, and altogether far healthier than someone who has spent most of his working life in the drinks sector has a right to be.

Coutures wasn't perturbed by the orders given to him by his superiors at Pernod Ricard, the drinks giant that acquired Irish Distillers in a $442 million deal in 1988.


“Those instructions meant that I had two options really,” says Coutures. “One was to do nothing but go out and play golf day after day, which was of course tempting, and the other was to try and accelerate the growth of Jameson, and make it into even more of a global brand.”

Despite being a keen golfer, Coutures chose to focus on the latter. Luckily for him, he has a firm base from which to build on.

Best-selling brand

The rise of Jameson in recent years has been nothing short of phenomenal. It is the world’s best-selling Irish whiskey with sales of 5.7 million cases. New figures published a fortnight ago show the brand recording a 12 per cent growth in volume for the year to end-June 2016, with growth by value of sales rising 16 per cent.

According to data published by the widely-respected International Wine and Spirits Research , Jameson recently became only the second Irish alcoholic beverage – after the Diageo-owned Baileys – to be included in the top 50 leading spirits brands in the world.

The brand is now phenomenally important to its parent Pernod Ricard, with the whiskey currently representing almost a quarter of the group’s total sales in the United States. Irish whiskey sales have grown by an astounding 409 per cent in that key market over the past decade, led by Jameson, which has a 78.3 per cent market share there.

The success of Jameson has helped kickstart a huge resurgence of interest in Irish whiskey globally. Back in 2003, it made up just over 9 per cent of beverage exports; by 2014 that figure had risen to 28 per cent.

Irish whiskey is currently ranked the fastest growing spirits category in the world. Three years ago, some 6.2 million nine-litre cases of whiskey were being exported globally. This figure is expected to have doubled by 2020 and to double again by 2030.

From wine to whiskey

While it might seem almost impossible to imagine Jameson not enjoying further success no matter who leads Irish Distillers, Coutures might not seem the most obvious choice to head the company. After all, he’s a Frenchman who hails from a winemaking region (Bordeaux) and who has spent 16 years working in Asia for Pernod Ricard, with the past six in Australia, where he served as chairman and chief executive of the group’s wine division.

In his previous role, Coutures was charged with looking after a portfolio that included well-known wine brands such as Jacob’s Creek, Campo Viejo and Brancott Estates. However, he insists that while new to living in Ireland, (he officially took over in the hot seat at Irish Distillers in July), he knows the country and its many whiskies extremely well.

“I have known Ireland for a long time. When I was around 20, I was a big golf player and used to come here every summer to play. During that time and on subsequent visits to watch rugby games, I came to know what a hospitable place it is,” says Coutures.

He’s the first to admit he’s never tried a “Jemmy and Red” (Jameson and red lemonade) and quite frankly looks a little horrified at the idea of one of Ireland’s old-school mixers. Nonetheless, Coutures knows plenty about Irish culture and even has a basic understanding of GAA rules.

A massive sports fan for whom no day is complete without a bit of exercise, Coutures’ local sporting knowledge is a plus, but it was his vast knowledge of Asia that was a critical factor in his appointment.

The Promised Land

Asia is the Promised Land for many whiskey producers, as it is largely untapped territory for them. While consumers are fond of whiskey, they generally gravitate towards local varieties.

Scotch exports have grown significantly in recent years, but are still a drop in the ocean. Irish exports to the region are negligible but Coutures hopes to rectify that during his tenure.

“I don’t see why Jameson cannot be a big success in Asia. The brand is already doing well in some areas, but is still relatively small at the moment. From a taste point of view, drinkers in Asia really like smooth-tasting whiskies, which obviously fits in well with what we’re producing, so it’s all about educating them about our brands.

“I really think that given the right push, Jameson could be an engine of growth for the whole Irish whiskey category in Asia,” he says.

“Globally, we’ve been doing great, with Jameson a key driver of Pernod Ricard’s growth. We’ve recorded double- and triple-digit growth in 62 out of the 130 markets in which it is available and there’s no reason why we can’t continue to perform well. We’ve doing great in places like Europe, North America, South Africa and I want us to be able to expand this to Asia and for Jameson to become a true global brand,” Coutures adds.

Sales of Jameson have been boosted of late with the launch of Caskmates, a whiskey that is aged in craft-stout-seasoned oak barrels. The brand, which was first launched in Ireland in October 2014 is now being exported to 30 markets, with incremental value growth of 11 per cent last year.

The full portfolio

Coutures isn’t just interested in increasing sales of the company’s flagship brand and its many variations though. Irish Distillers whiskey portfolio also includes Powers and what it terms its prestige products, such as Redbreast, Green Spot and Midleton Very Rare.

“In terms of Irish whiskies, we have a lot to offer beyond Jameson, and all our brands are growing at a healthy rate. I’d like our other whiskies to be a flanker for Jameson as it grows,” he says.

One product that won’t be included in this category is Paddy, the fourth-largest Irish whiskey brand in the world, which Irish Distillers sold earlier this year to Sazerac for an undisclosed sum.

“Paddy is a brand that is very Irish-centric and it was difficult to dedicate the resources to the development of it outside of Ireland. Selling it meant we could concentrate on the core brands we have,” says Coutures.

The Irish Distillers boss insists that what’s good for the company is also good for its rivals.

“There has been a lot of investment going on in the whiskey world locally, with a number of new distilleries opening up and brands being launched. This is great news in terms of growing the category. It can’t only just be about Jameson. Consumers need to have choices and to have different experiences,” he says.

Changing tastes

As well as its many whiskies, the Irish Distillers spirits portfolio in Ireland also includes Huzzar Vodka, Cork Dry Gin, West Coast Cooler and a number of wines.

“Ireland is a large wine market and many of our brands are doing well. Business was difficult domestically during the downturn, but with the economy improving and consumer confidence coming back, there has been a rebound in sales,” he said.

Coutures says he’s very aware of changing consumer tastes, pointing out that here, as elsewhere, people are increasingly looking for something different.

“I see it as an opportunity rather than a threat,” he says, citing the example of Caskmates as an example of how the company is responding to changing tastes.

Irish Distillers, which employs over 600 people across its operations here, recently completed a €220 million investment that has seen it double the capacity of its Midleton distillery, build a maturation warehouse in Dungourney, Co Cork, and expand its bottling plant in Dublin.

It has followed this by announcing a temporary closure of the Old Jameson Distillery in Smithfield for an €11 million revamp. The tourist attraction has attracted more than four million visitors since it first opened its doors in 1997.

“The distillery is a very important showcase for the brand where we try to share what Irish whiskey is about, but we needed to renew the experience,” says Coutures.

On the road

While he’s busy renewing his acquaintance with Ireland, Coutures is the first to admit that much of his time as head of Irish Distillers will likely be spent overseas.

“Given the global nature of our whiskey portfolio, I will be travelling a lot. If I look at the calendar for the next 12 months, there are three or four US visits planned as well as trips to South America, South Africa, Russia and Asia. I’m going to be busy.”

Having given up on his childhood ambition of being a professional tennis player as a teenager, Coutures started out in the workplace as a financial trader before joining consulting firm Arthur Anderson. He says the ability to travel widely was a key reason why he joined Pernod Ricard when he was headhunted by the company in 2000.

Coutures won’t be drawn on how many years he’ll be in Ireland, but says he’s in no rush to move on.

“I’m a little intimidated by the past growth of Jameson but I’m also a very energetic person and am very confident that I can drive the brand further,” he says.

Curriculum Vitae

Name: Jean-Christophe Coutures

Title: Chief executive and chairman, Irish Distillers

Born: Bordeaux, France

Lives: Ballsbridge, Dublin 4

Age: 49

Family: Married to Catherine, they have one son, Victor (24) and two daughters

– Alix (20) and Carla (11)

Studied: ESCP Business School, Paris

Favourite tipple: Jameson and Lime, Martell Cordon Bleu and Pinot Noir from New Zealand

Something you might expect: In his previous role as head of Pernod Ricard Winemakers he circled the globe 74 times in past seven years

Something you might not expect: Jean-Christophe is an avid comic book and graphic novel collector. He has more than 1,000 and his prized possession is a Tintin first edition.