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Slane Distillery   As the completion of the much anticipated Slane Distillery draws nearer, we were kindly given the opportunity to tour the grounds and granted an interview with Co-Founder Alex Conyngham. Slane Distillery is set to open at the end of August.   IWM: Alex, could you tell us about the wonderful castle here and its beautiful landscape. Could you talk a little bit about the memories from your childhood growing up here and what it was like? Alex: Growing up at Slane I guess it was a slightly extraordinary childhood but for me, it seemed very normal. The challenge of trying to keep a place like this going, a big heritage property, particularly in the late 1970s and early 80s wasn’t easy. My Dad (Lord Henry Mount Charles) took over in 1976 and immediately had to start thinking on his feet about how he could keep the place going. They opened a restaurant and that has just recently re-opened which is the space that we’re sitting in now and the room out the back. Dad was the head waiter and Mum was front of house and my godfather was in the kitchen and it was roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. They had a lot of fun but it was very hard work. We were living upstairs while the building was open to the public so we always shared it with more than just ourselves and I think that it was probably quite hard for them to have privacy. But as a kid it was great fun and having the landscape to run around in and the woods and all the natural environment to explore, it was a wonderful childhood. In 1981, in the middle of the hunger strikes, Dad had the idea of putting on a rock concert! He needed to come up with something to basically save the place financially. That first show, with Thin Lizzy headlining and U2 in support, brought in a crowd of about 25,000 people and that effectively changed the future of this place. It brought in an income that helped to save us. The following year, in 1982, we hosted the Rolling Stones and that really put Slane on the map and was the start of building the Slane brand. One of the reasons Dad suggested getting us into the whiskey business was because that income stream that he had built up, the concerts, in around 2009, 2010, started coming off the boil and we identified that we needed a new family business. In doing that you look at what you have around you. I had previously worked in Irish whiskey so I had a bit of background but Dad suggested the idea initially. We were already growing the barley on the estate anyway. The river Boyne flows right through the heart of the land and we know historically that there had been quite a few distilleries located in the Boyne Valley which also provided a good point of export to Drogheda. So, rock and roll ended up bouncing us into whiskey because rock and roll were potentially under threat. Now it’s all the rage again, you were at the Guns N’ Roses show, so you can see we’re fully back. But the whiskey business is a great fit, and really, it’s about using the resources and the Slane brand which Dad has built up over 30 years of doing the concerts.    - "having the landscape to run around in the woods and all the natural environment to explore, it was a wonderful childhood" -   IWM: What do you think was the motivation that your father had to save the place because it would have been easy to walk away? Alex: I don’t think it’s ever easy walking away because if your family has been in a place like we’ve been at Slane since it was acquired by my ancestors in 1703, to be the one that walks away, that is not an easy thing to live with. Dad chose to knuckle down and fight and hold on and he’s done a wonderful job. IWM: You mentioned that you had been involved in Irish whiskey. There was the Slane whiskey brand before, now it’s in a very different format, but what was your involvement than with Irish whiskey, and how and why did you get interested in it? Alex: I was into whiskey probably when other people were maybe experimenting with other drinks. Through Dad and Grandpa before that, I got interested at an early age. My first experience of working in whiskey was back in 2000 as an ambassador for another Irish whiskey brand and that got me even more interested. Back then I realised the potential for growth in the category. It took a few years for myself and Dad to actually get the project off the ground in 2009. Even going back to those early days, I just saw that internationally there was huge potential for Irish whiskey. You just had to look at the historical precedent of Irish whiskey having been as big as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. Also, the sheer size of the Scotch category meant that there had to be potential there for Irish whiskey to grow.  - "I just saw that internationally there was huge potential for Irish whiskey" -     IWM: How do you see the recent developments in the market for Irish whiskey? Alex: Very positive. What is very rewarding is having been in the US quite a bit this year already, the size of the Irish whiskey shelf in retail stores has grown considerably. A few years ago, you would have been pushed to find an Irish whiskey section but now it’s labelled separately and getting bigger and stronger all the time and that’s great for everyone. IWM: Is that primarily your market for the foreseeable future, the US? Alex: We are quite focused on the US in the first few years because we do, to a certain extent, have a supply constraint. We are being very focused on where we are launching the product in the first few years. For example, even in the US, we are not going into every state. We’re doing 19 states, to begin with, and then the UK market, but again on a limited basis, in seven cities. The Irish market is obviously important to us and a little bit of travel retail. We are keeping it tight mainly because until our own whiskey from the distillery here comes on line we’re not able to ramp up volumes hugely. But there’s significant potential to build demand in those markets that I’ve just mentioned anyway. IWM: The reach that you have in the US already, it seems to have grown rapidly. You seem to have gone into a lot of States and gained a lot of visibility very quickly and so I presume it’s going quite well there? Alex: It’s very early days but the initial signs are extremely positive and people love the story, the package and most importantly the liquid. The feedback is great from both consumers and trade, including bartenders. Although distribution has been quite wide, the real key now will be seeing what level of rotation and repeat purchase start to come through. IWM: How did the merger come about with Brown-Forman? Alex: Myself and Dad took the project as far as we could by ourselves, including financing all the distillery design and planning permission, and even made the down payment on the distillation equipment. However, we couldn’t finance the building of the distillery alone. We set out looking for a partner and Brown-Forman were always our number one preference. We met with Garvin Brown who is the Chairman of the Board and we had a really engaging lunch and identified that we had many things in common. Principally we both wanted to get into Irish whiskey, Brown- Forman has publicly declared that. The Brown family still have a significant shareholding and a very active role in the business. They are effectively a family business and they think about the long term and the next generation. We, like the Cunninghams, do the same. That’s how we’ve survived being here since 1703. If you were going to allow another company to come into, effectively the heart of your family home, there’s got to be a lot of trust and we felt comfortable because of that family perspective. Although negotiations were lengthy the partnership was finalised in June 2015.    - "number one, above all else, is people" -   IWM: A partnership like that means that you have access to great barrels, technical expertise, distribution and marketing knowledge. Are these the things that really attracted you to Brown-Forman? Alex: I think there are three things that are probably most important to me. Number one, above all else, is people. This is a long-term partnership and they are just good people and a good company with strong values and principles. Secondly, the route to market. They are very good at selling their products and they have a great portfolio already. And thirdly, their maturation expertise and access to wood. We can now customise barrels for Slane as we have access to full traceability of American whiskey casks. The whole wood expertise is probably the most exciting technical aspect that they bring to the table. IWM: What is it that motivates you and what’s your vision for the future short and long term? Alex: In line with Brown-Forman, this is a brand that we’re building and I hope a brand that’s here to stay for many, many generations, which will help to secure the future of the Conynghams at Slane and make better use of the resources of the estate. My short-term vision for the brand is to get it well established and working in the launch markets. In the longer term, our ambition is to turn this into a significant global brand that can sit alongside the other brands, global brands that Brown-Forman have like Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniels. We have big ambitions for this brand. IWM: How do you see the people employed within the distillery developing? Alex: On the production team, we’re about to hit six full-time members and that will potentially double over the next couple of years. The visitor centre will actually be a bigger employer because we’re expecting to get good crowds in here. You have everything from the retail side to the tour guides, to guest relations and everything else. That team is initially goin
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