Why the market for Irish whiskey is growing at home

Dessie Roche is commercial manager at Belfast Distillery Company. Picture: Kelvin Boyes/PressEye
Dessie Roche is commercial manager at Belfast Distillery Company. Picture: Kelvin Boyes/PressEye Dessie Roche is commercial manager at Belfast Distillery Company. Picture: Kelvin Boyes/PressEye

RE-ESTABLISHING a 250-year-old indigenous whiskey brand is one challenge, building new markets at home and abroad adds to the complexity, but doing so in a year of unprecedented geo-political turmoil and economic crisis - something that Dessie Roche says is all part of his job at Belfast Distillery Company.

The McConnell’s Irish Whisky brand, now owned and managed by Belfast Distillery Company, has spent the last year cementing its place in the home market while continuing to expand its international reach.

Dessie, the commercial manager, explained how he is leading the drive into new overseas markets for McConnell’s.

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“Thankfully the market for Irish whiskey is growing at home, right across Ireland, and crucially in overseas markets where the potential for brand growth and increased revenue is significant,” he said.

“My role is to work with current markets where we can further grow our business through brand development and consumer engagement, and identify new countries in which we can develop strategic partnerships to bring McConnell’s to an ever-increasing global audience.

“When assessing which markets to target we consider lots of factors: where is the Irish category growing in popularity? Do we have a relationship with a distributor who can help us break into that market? What support structures are available through our stakeholders to better understand market dynamics and identify entry points?

“We are still a small team at Belfast Distillery Company but we have some of the most experienced industry figures on board, and the relationships built up over decades in the drink industry can be invaluable.”

The instability caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year unsettled global distribution markets across all sectors and Dessie explained the impact on the whiskey market.

“Up to that point, both Russia and Ukraine were very significant markets for Irish whiskey, both ranking in the top 10 for overseas whiskey sales. We had spent some time developing relationships in both markets to a point where we saw them as important countries in our growth over the coming years, and both were put on hold overnight for reasons everyone is aware of.

“We have kept the lines of communication open to our partners and friends in Ukraine, some of those discussions have been eye-opening for us as a business, and I’m pleased to say we have just commenced trading there with the first cases of McConnell’s Irish Whisky due to arrive in the coming weeks.”

Dessie addedL “Selecting a distributor to work with is a key aspect in my role. We only want to work with organisations that share our values and ‘get’ our brand. Typically one distributor will take on McConnell’s for one country so the relationship is key, they understand their local market intricately, and we want to collaborate closely to translate the rich history and exciting future of McConnell’s to their consumer base. We have had fantastic support from Invest NI and the UK Department of Trade in identifying and entering new markets.”

Attending trade shows and spending time on the ground in developing markets is all part of the role for Dessie and colleagues. So how did he end up in this trade and this specific role?

“I trained as a chartered accountant a few years back before going into the export business with a local technology company initially, and now Belfast Distillery Company. I love the challenge of finding new markets while steadily building our brand in the 30 markets where McConnell’s is already available.

“It is a busy job and involves a lot of hard work with plenty of overseas travel, but I'm proud of our company, our whiskey, and equally proud to be promoting a home-grown Irish product on a truly global stage. The team at Belfast Distillery Company will expand rapidly in the months ahead, particularly as construction of the J&J McConnell’s Distillery and Visitor Experience continues at pace.

“Our expectation is to see the Irish Whiskey Category continue to grow at pace and we firmly believe that McConnell’s Irish Whisky can play a significant role in that ongoing growth.

“That's the challenge for 2023 and beyond, and I’m really looking forward to it.”