At the end of November, John Quinn, Global Brand Ambassador at Tullamore Dew, was inducted into Whisky Magazine’s Hall of Fame. The recognition is the highest honour awarded by Whisky Magazine and John joins a select group of just over 50 who are part of the hall of fame. In addition, John was appointed as Vice Chairman of the Irish Whiskey Association in December 2018.
It’s clearly been a busy time for John, who spends most of his time in Dublin when he’s not travelling the world training ambassadors, so we decided to sit down with the 40-year industry veteran to get his insights on the current state of play in Irish whiskey.
Food for Thought – FFT.ie: How does it feel to be inducted into the Hall of Fame?
John Quinn: It feels great – a little overwhelming and humbling of course. When I think of all the great people I have worked with, and am working with, it has to be humbling but of course it’s really gratifying too. I feel I am accepting this on behalf of the huge numbers of people who helped me during my career – so for me they’ll always be in my own Hall Of Fame.
Can you tell me how long you’ve been with Tullamore Dew, and about your previous work experience?
Well I started in the Irish whiskey business in the early 1970s with the Irish Distillers group and I worked on all the Irish whiskey brands that were in existence at the time. I had many roles from production through production planning, sales, marketing and eventually into the International Division where I began my career in the development of the business in export markets like Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Africa, some of Europe and the Middle East. It was a very exciting time for a 25 year old to be doing so much travel (early 80s) but it gave me a great grounding in understanding the many business challenges we faced outside Ireland.
In some of these places many consumers didn’t know anything about Ireland – not to mind the Irish whiskey category. You have to remember this was pre desktop computers, not to mind laptops and the early stages of the internet was still over a decade away. Then, in 1994, Tullamore Dew was sold to C&C International and I managed the business in Latin America and Asia and finally Central and Eastern Europe. A lot of travel was required as we were at the early stages of seeding in these places. Nowadays, it’s great to see the standing of Tullamore Dew in places like Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and especially Czech Republic where the brand is the number one selling whiskey of any hue – Irish, Scotch, American or Japanese.
Can you talk a little about your job – some of the countries you’ve visited, people you’ve met along the way and so on.
In total I have visited over 90 countries – when you’ve been doing it for as long as I have that’s understandable. My early years in Australia and New Zealand were very instructive as I got a keen understanding of the need to make sure our distributors on the ground had a good understanding of and love for our business. These guys have a portfolio of brands to sell of which ours is but one – so they need to have reasons to be motivated to sell your whiskey over all the others. That still stands today.
Of course I met many people along the way, some famous and some only famous in their own field. In the 80s I had occasion to meet George Michael in Sydney as his agent was friendly with our local brand manager. That was the 80s and he was a very shy young man back then. I had to tell him where Tullamore was – I gathered he was impressed but it was hard to tell. I also met people who were famous then but not so much now like Dire Straits (shared a few Tullamore Dews with them), Joe Bugner (boxer), and Bob Hawke (ex PM of Australia). I was also in the general company of many famous people at different events but I wasn’t inclined to seek them out – people like Elton John and Pat Cash.
What’s an average day like for you?
I suppose it depends on whether I’m travelling or not. When in Dublin it’s a classic office day with team meetings, planning trips or following up on past trips just completed. Doing my expenses takes up a lot of my time! I might finish off the day in Dublin by visiting a bar or two in the city but not as often as I’d like. I also spend a lot of my time in Tullamore at our Distillery and Visitor Center with many of our VIP guests. These will be a combination of trade visitors like sales teams, bartenders, bloggers and journalists from all over the world. I also work closely with our Distillery & Ireland Ambassador, Kevin Pigott, at our Distillery & Visitor Center in Tullamore. This almost invariably results in dinner in one of the town’s excellent restaurants and of course we work hard to introduce our visitors to the many great pubs in the town before they leave. This generally involves music and, needless to say, a song has to be sung (sometimes by me!).
If I’m away it usually involves meeting and educating our sales and marketing teams in markets all over the world. For bartender and whiskey fans I’ll conduct masterclasses on the history, science and craft of whiskey. I will always have someone to take me around, usually a sales person who really understands the market. Frequently there’s a need for a media interview – the guy from overseas is usually regarded as worthwhile interviewee! Often there’s a whiskey show to attend to meet with whiskey enthusiasts.
Every February I attend one of the most interesting shows aboard a cruise ship in the Baltic Sea where we set sail for Aaland Island and return 24 hours later – all the while talking and hopefully entertaining 1500 whiskey fans on board. After 24 hours we return to Stockholm Port to unload the first gang and a different set of fans gets aboard. This is repeated a 3rd day. It is fantastic fun and the Nordic passengers (mostly Swedish) are both enthusiastic and knowledgeable on whiskey. Sometimes I say they are mad – they’re certainly mad keen. As enjoyable as it is I’m always glad when it’s over and I never want to even utter the word whiskey for the next few days.
As the Vice Chairman of the IWA, what are the association’s plans for 2020?
As Vice Chairman I work with the Chairman and Chief Executive in areas like GI application and protection of Irish whiskey. This is hugely important to all of us in the Irish whiskey business as it both defines and protects what it is to be an Irish whiskey. I also work on sub committees like Finance and Trade and Promotion committees to see how we can come together to promote Irish whiskey as a category on behalf of all members and not just our own specific brands. For 2020 we have plans for more GI registrations, for working with our EU colleagues to use available funds for category promotion and of course we will support new entrants with lots of training and support for those who need it.
How do you feel about Irish whiskey’s GI being recognised in China, and does Tullamore Dew have any major plans for that market?
We are delighted with this development, particularly in light of the potential size of the prize. China is a very fast growing economy and with a significant Cognac and Scotch market so there is lots of opportunity for Irish whiskey in the future. At the moment Irish whiskey sales in China are very small and this only tells us of the potential that is still to be tapped. On the other hand, we will still need to invest a lot to make an impact given the relative lack of awareness of Ireland so we’ll need to spend time and money there. In the meantime there’s that other market, the USA, and of course Europe, where there’s still potential to grow further and faster.
Our Tullamore Dew plans for China are modest for the next 12 months but we will continue to seek out any opportunities that may present themselves there. All the while we will continue our aggressive drives in markets like USA, Germany, Russia, Czech, Poland, Sweden and Slovakia, to name a few.
Can you tell me about the Grad programme you’ve involved with?
We used to call it the EOP programme (Export Orientation Programme) – now it’s called the Global Graduate Programme. It’s run in conjunction with Ibec and TUD (Technological University Dublin, formerly DIT). The programme has enabled us to send 40 talented graduates from universities all over the country to the US, focusing on developing their marketing & sales skills. They become the Irish whiskey expert in their assigned city and are tasked with educating sales teams & trade influencers on the product. This grass roots approach gives the graduate the opportunity to develop unparalleled expertise in doing business on the ground in the US. We have worked hard to develop the talent that moves through the programme and, to date, over 20 of these have succeeded in being retained on the Tullamore Dew brand, but also by the parent company, William Grant & Sons, working on other iconic spirits such as Hendrick’s Gin, Sailor Jerry Rum, Glenfiddich Scotch and many more.
How is 2020 shaping up for Tullamore Dew; are there any new releases on the cards you can talk about for example?
Thankfully the business continues to go from strength to strength. This year we will get very close to 1.5 million cases – the official growth figures for 2018 of 15% volume and 18% value means the brand outperformed what is still a very vibrant category. We can’t rest on our laurels naturally as the market gets more and more competitive with new Irish whiskeys being launched almost every month. In 2020 we do hope to roll out some new expressions but we will need to wait for the final launch dates before I can divulge what they look like I’m afraid. We now employ 105 people at our facilities in Tullamore – and selling 17 million bottles a year globally or to put this another way, there are more than 10 drinks of Tullamore Dew ordered every second of every day. That’s what drives us and makes us proud. That puts Tullamore Dew in the Hall of Fame.