Rebuilding Irish drinks brands’ global presence key after ‘challenging’ year
Drinks Ireland chair says regaining lost ground due to Covid requires State support
Pat Rigney, founder of The Shed Distillery in Co Leitrim and the newly-elected chairman of Drinks Ireland, a unit of Ibec. Photograph: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography
Regaining ground lost on international markets as a result of coronavirus is top of the agenda for the newly-elected chair of Ibec industry group Drinks Ireland, Pat Rigney. “We need to get boots on the ground in international markets again and we will need Government support to do that,” he says. “That’s how we built the brands over the years and we’ve got to do it again now. We’ve got to rebuild our presence in key markets around the world.”
Rigney knows a thing or two about international brand building as a former executive director with Baileys back in the 1990s. These days he is the majority shareholder in The Shed Distillery in Drumshambo, Co Leitrim, which he founded in 2014. That business is best known for its Drumshambo Gunpowder Irish Gin, which has already made quite a name for itself on the home and international markets.
“I’m excited and exhilarated to be chosen to be chair of Drinks Ireland for the next two years,” he says. “I’ve been in the industry for more than 30 years. That’s quite some time. I worked for Grants and Gilbey’s of Ireland and then worked with Baileys here and in America and the Far East. I went on from there to create Boru vodka which became part of Castle Brands. I was involved in a series of other ventures before founding the Dalcassian Wines and Spirits distribution company with John Dillon. I am also an adviser to the Prince of Baden, owner of the Hardenberg Wilthen drinks company in Germany. But my primary passion at the moment is the Shed Distillery.”
Based in the local food production enterprise centre, The Shed was geared for international success from the very start. “We want to create remarkable brands that can compete with the very best in the world,” he says. “Drumshambo Gunpowder Irish Gin was the first and Drumshambo Single Pot Still whiskey is the second. I’ve worked with great companies with great brands and great values over the years, so I know what it takes. Our brands are marketed in over 60 countries and we distil everything and bottle everything here in Ireland.”
He believes Ireland’s rich drinks heritage works in favour of the new brands which have come to market in recent years. “We have a lot of great iconic global brands here in Ireland,” he says. “Guinness, Jameson, and Baileys are just a few of them. They are examples of great Irish craftsmanship competing with the best in the world. We are also seeing new gin brands like Dingle and Glendalough doing very well.
“It’s a very competitive environment. We are competing with global brands and in order to be successful have to be as good or better than the opposition around the world. It’s not for the fainthearted. You are challenged every day to be the best you can be. You have to be truly outstanding to succeed. You have to always strive for the highest standards of quality and authenticity.”
Coronavirus has dealt a heavy blow to the industry. “2019 was probably a high point for the industry when exports reached €1.5 billion,” he notes. “Consumption in Ireland fell by between 5 and 6 per cent as a result of Covid-19. That hasn’t evenly spread. The hospitality industry virtually collapsed while retail was up. It was probably very similar. The real challenge is to reboot and get our brands in there as the hospitality sector reopens.”
That fall in sales is just part of the story, however. “We are also going to have to look at the visitor experiences at breweries and distilleries around the country,” he points out. “About 88 per cent of their visitors come from overseas. We must find a way of supporting these visitor attractions until tourism comes back and grows again. The industry employs 90,000 people and is a very important contributor to the national economy as well as to towns and villages around the country.
“All these distillers and brewers and cider makers are doing a wonderful job in supporting brand Ireland overseas. They represent all that’s good about Ireland in terms of quality and authenticity. The bigger brands have been doing it for a long time and the newer brands doing it now as well and they deserve support. As chair of Drinks Ireland, I will do my best to help the industry thrive again after a very challenging year.”