Brown-Forman’s John Hudson on Launching Slane Irish Whiskey

Slane Irish Whiskey is a brand-new offering in the fast-growing category from Brown-Forman and the Conyngham family of Slane, Ireland. Brown-Forman has been making whiskey in the U.S. since 1870, while the Conyngham’s date back centuries in Slane.

The blended whiskey is matured three times using virgin oak, seasoned oak and sherry casks. It launched in Ireland in April, and will slowly roll out across the U.S. throughout the upcoming months. It comes with a suggested retail price of $29.99 per 750-ml. bottle.

I recently spoke to Brown-Forman VP of Innovation John Hudson about the launch. The company’s investment included building a new distillery in Slane, which is the first time the company has built a facility from scratch outside the U.S.

Beverage Dynamics: Where did the idea for Slane originate?
John Hudson: It’s really a tale of two families. The Brown family at Brown-Forman has its whiskey tradition, and the Conyngham family’s history of entrepreneurship. Both families are visionaries, and we came together in this partnership back in 2014. Brown-Forman prides itself on being a whiskey leader, and we wanted to enter the Irish category. The Conynghams were looking for ways to expand into distilling. They own the Slane Castle, which is in an area of Ireland with a tradition of whiskey-making and barley-growing.

BDThis is the first time you’ve opened a distillery overseas – with a 130-plus year old company there aren’t many “firsts.” What did the company learn from that experience?
JH: The big takeaway is that we have an innate understanding of what it takes to create delicious whiskeys. The distillery will be world-class with pot and column stills. It’s actually on the grounds of the castle, which was built in the 1700s, in the old stable area. It’s a great visitation site and consumer experience, and we can’t wait for it to open to the public at the end of August.

BD: Why is now the time to launch a new Irish Whiskey brand?
JH: You start with an opportunity, and we think the resurgence that began a few years ago in the category isn’t even close to its peak. There’s a huge opportunity over the next thirty years to see that renaissance continue. When you go back to the early 1900s there were hundreds of Irish distillers. By 2000 there were really only three major distillers.

A lot happened along the way, from wars to embargoes to taxation changes, which hurt a category that used to be the global whiskey around the world. We think the upper end of the category, where we plan to play, is in its infancy and will continue to develop. Consumers’ whiskey palettes are expanding and they’re going to look to the Irish category, and they’ll seek alternatives within the category like Slane. At Brown-Forman we invest over 50- and 100-year horizons, so we think this is sustainable over the long-term.

BD: Tell me a little about the spirits that are blended into Slane and why you chose the triple-cask production.
JH: One of the things we have at Brown-Forman is a great deal of barrel expertise. Our cooperage opened in 1947 and we’re the only major supplier that owns our own. Wood expertise is one of our calling cards, and we really understand the aging process. We were looking for ways to impart our knowledge of maturation to create a new twist for the category. Most Irish Whiskey is aged in used barrels – we’re still using a substantial portion of used cooperage, but also unused barrels to impart deeper, richer, more robust character and flavor in the whiskey.

That’s in addition to what we think is a great finishing aspect: our Sherry casks. That adds the right notes of spice that give it a final finish and complexity.

Jeremy Nedelka is editor of Beverage Dynamics magazine. Reach him at jnedelka@epgmediallc.com

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