Coole Swan cream liqueur has taken the Irish and global markets by storm since its launch in 2010. Maev Martin talks to Coole Swan CEO MARY SADLIER about a family business that is driven by a common goal – to be the best premium cream liqueur in the world and see the Coole Swan bottle
standing proud on every supermarket and off-licence shelf across the globe.
It sounds like a rather lofty ambition, but as so many of the companies in our Meet the Makers series have proven, it is an
ambition that is well on its way to becoming a reality. The business operates from a fifth-generation family farm in the Boyne Valley in Co Meath and has grown to the point where it sells over 250,000 bottles of its premium single malt Irish cream liqueur annually to countries all over the world, while continuing to operate from the family farm. “Studies show that 85% of family businesses are run by ethical standards and family values,”
she says. “This means that family businesses look at more than just revenues. Our business decisions are guided by our values and ethical practices,
rather than profit, so sometimes we may err a little more on quality, value and sustainability, but we think it is the right thing to do.”
The putting quality before profit approach defines how the company operates and Coole Swan’s brand identity. When I ask Mary why they have been so successful in competingagainst a global brand like Baileys, she tells me that they aren’t competing. “I think Baileys are a fabulous brand but we aren’t competing against them,” she says. “I don’t believe that consumers stand looking at a product on a store or supermarket shelf and wonder
whether they will buy Coole Swan or the category leader. They don’t browse in that way when they see us and other brands on the shelf. They buy according to the occasion, the feeling, or the moment.“However, we have found that our entry into the market has brought a bit more excitementinto the Irish cream liqueur category, while raising its profile again and ensuring that itcontinues to grow and innovate. Liqueurs are the third biggest category in the world after vodka and whiskey, and and they cover a wide range of products, so as a nation we should bevery proud of the fact that Irish cream liqueurs, which are in themselves a global category, constitute 20% of the global liqueurs category.”
An impressive CV
Mary cites a number of standout achievements for the Coole Swan brand over the past decade that she believes have put them in a strong position to achieve their ambitious growth targets for 2022. The first big milestone was winning double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2010. “No other Irish brand had done this, so it was a real endorsement of the Coole Swan brand,” she says. “In 2010, Wine Enthusiast, the US bible on spirits and wines, gave it a score of 96 out of 100 and described it as ‘sublime’ and voted it the number one liqueur in the world. Wine Enthusiast invited us back to enter in 2020and we achieved the same score. We are now,once again, the number one Irish cream liqueur in the global market, so this proves that we have maintained the quality of our product over the past decade.”
Another big milestone was securing a listing with Musgrave in 2013. This was followed by a distribution deal with Anzac for theNorthern Ireland market in 2014 and another significant distribution agreement with John Lewis in the UK in 2015. “On the back of these achievements, and the growth that they brought to our business, we could see scalecoming to our operation in 2018,” she says. “Up to that point, we had been a ‘mom and
pop’ structured business, so we bit the bullet in 2018 and restructured our business. That meant that when we were hit by the US tariffs and Brexit it really paid off. In fact, it was the best move we ever made. We were slammed by Brexit, Trump and Covid, but the restructuring helped us to navigate Covid better than we might have if we hadn’t acted.”
Coole Swan appointed a board to the company in late 2018 and its most recent board appointments were announced in the autumn of 2021. The seven board members are experienced industry professionals andinclude Cathal Deavy, customer director in Tesco Ireland, Oliver Thompson, sales directorwith Concha y Toro UK, David Hobbs, transformation director with Boots UK and executive director with Boots Ireland, and John
Beaudette, president and CEO of the leading US wine and spirits importer MHW Ltd.
Pandemic performance According to Mary, the Coole Swan brand has enjoyed ‘steady and solid’ growth over the past 18 months, both in the domestic and overseas markets. “There is a strong customer base for cream liqueurs here and abroad,” she says. “The off-trade compensated for the
absence of an on-trade and the hit to travel retail, while overseas, our best growth came from the US market,” she says. “In Ireland, we focused on increasing our distribution over the past 18 months and we rolled our product out to all Dunnes and Tesco stores in the country. During that rollout there was a tremendous sense of comradery between ourselves and the retailers, who have been extremely supportive of us as we strive to maximise our sales in-store.”
Key export markets
The US, UK, Germany and Canada are the key export markets for Coole Swan. “The UK and the US are our biggest markets, but Germany and Canada are also very strong,”she says. “Our export business to thosemarkets over the past 18 months was verysteady. Everyone that we work with was very collaborative as we were all in the same boat and I think that, over the next few years, we will reap the benefit of our performance over the past 18 months.”
Mary describes Coole Swan as a “steady as she goes, not a boom or bust, brand,” and it is one that took its first tentative steps into the Chinese market this year. “We recently received our first order and we are focusing on the premium market,” she says. “We are trialling with a six star hotel group called the Shangri La Group and we attended a huge trade show in Shanghai earlier this month, so it will be steady as we go in China. We have agood partner out there, so we believe it will be a big market for us in the coming years. Picking a partner that works well with you and is similar to you is the key to being successful in any market, for any business, but that goes double for the drinks business. You have to carefully pick your partner and we
have been very lucky in that regard, but we spent ten years getting it right.”
Coole Swan also recently appointed a new distributor in Ontario in Canada. “Dionysus Wines are huge distributors and great partners
for our business and would be well known as the distributors of Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin in that part of the world,” says Mary. “We will be embarking on a distribution expansion programme with Dionysus Wines in Ontario in 2022, which will involve expanding our retail and on-trade footprint, and will also cover marketing,brand awareness and customer recruitment.”
The premium proposition NielsenIQ research is predicting increasing polarisation between the ‘constrained’ and the ‘insulated’ consumer in 2022. “There will be a route to market where the ‘insulated’ consumer will find their product, and for everyone else
MARY SADLIER has nothing but praise for the work of the Love Irish Food organisation, and in
particular for the role that its executive director KIERAN RUMLEY has played in helping member
companies to grow their brands in the Irish market. “Kieran’s work for Irish food and drink
brands is phenomenal,” she says. “He is very open to new ideas and and to helping member
businesses with initiatives that they believe will benefit their business.
“Joining Love Irish Food in 2011 was a terrific opportunity for Coole Swan. One of the first things
that happened when we joined was the chance to meet renowned Irish chef Neven Maguire, so
that was wonderful for our business, and indeed any positive business connections we have made
have come out of our membership of Love Irish Food.
“Being present at the Bloom event every year in the Love Irish Food tent was an unbelievable
experience for us. We met all the big chefs and the proximity to other Irish brands that it gave us
was great, as were the learnings that we got from that experience. We also participated in a
podcast with Flahavans and I have to say that I’m pretty much in awe of a lot of the brands that
are members of Love Irish Food. These are all blue chip companies in the Irish market and many
of them are global as well as Irish brands.
“I also love the organisation’s recent collaboration with Tesco Ireland, which I believe will have a
big impact on the membership over the coming months and years, but the biggest benefit of Love
Irish Food membership is the use of their logo, which has had a great impact on our advertising
efforts and a positive knock-on impact on our sales in Ireland and overseas.”
MEMBERSHIP of Love Irish Food, formed in 2009, is helping to safeguard the future of the country’s food and drink manufacturing sector.
The logo that its members display is equally helping consumers in a big way to make informed choices about buying Irish.
But the brands that came together to form the association are not just confined to the traditional food and beverage products whose raw materials come from the land where dairy and beef cattle graze on nutrient rich grass and crops grow on fertile tillage fields.
They also now include gluten free food products that are essential for the strict diets required by people with coeliac disease. Over 47,000 people in Ireland are believed to have the condition. Many more are undiagnosed.
There are an estimated three million Americans with the condition, which is triggered when they eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and other grains.
A growing demand for gluten free products is therefore reflected in the increasing range of products to be seen in Irish supermarkets and on the menu offerings in hotels, restaurants and other food outlets.
Love Irish Food members such as Tadhg Long Catering (TLC), in Ballinhassig, Co Cork, which specialises in private, retail, corporate and sporting food services, have also responded to the demand by including gluten free food in their range of products and menu offerings.
The company is headed by Ballincollig born Tadhg Long, who has 25 years of experience in the catering and food service sector at home and abroad. Recently, the TLC chefs, working in their dedicated gluten kitchen, examined their recipes.
They discovered how adaptable their dishes were and that by making a few small tweaks the range would be accessible to people with coeliac disease and gluten intolerance. The dishes were sent for labora
testing. All were classified as gluten free.
With the logistics of the manufacturing base it was feasible to divide the workspace into two separate units. A dedicated gluten free kitchen was added. And that is where Tadhg, executive chef Dave Kelly and chef de partie Mark Howley now spend much of their time.
“People are really happy with the quality of the food, the taste of the food and in particular the vast range they can choose from. The desserts are particularly popular but also the TLC brown bread remains one of the more popular choices,” he said.
TLC, which employs 12 full time people, intends to grow this side of the business. The vision is to extend to more urban areas across Cork city and county.
It recently opened a gluten-free shop next door to the company’s dedicated gluten free kitchen in Ballinhassig. The inspiration came from the fact that Tadhg Long was himself put on a gluten restricted diet.
Over the years, he has seen many changes in the food service sector generally with a growing trend of people catering at home, with baby showers, graduation parties, 21st birthday parties and pre and postwedding parties.
“People like to stay at home. Children can run freely and not have to leave the premises at 9 pm. People like to have an input into menu types and service times and they can do this by using a catering company.
“Couples are also thinking out of the box when it comes to getting married and are becoming adventurous when choosing wedding venues. Again, this can become a reality when using a catering company.
“We have catered not only for weddings but other celebrations in many venues, bars, clubs and homes in Cork city and county,” he said.
With private catering, sports catering and glutenfree options, TLC aims to provide healthy food with the minimum effort on the consumers part, so they are able to enjoy the occasion stress- and worry-free.
A growing business which is small enough to ensure that the customer is the focal point of its offerings, Tadhg Long said this allows personalisation of all menu offerings, ensuring customer delight.
“Our private catering offerings include full service or drop off service to a home or venue. Our offerings even include a mobile pizza oven for Artisan pizza parties. We can also offer people a Spanish paella evening in the comfort of their own home.
“We also specialise in protory viding healthy and nutritious meals to sports teams both pre and post games and training sessions and for bus journeys to and from matches. We have worked with Cork County and intercounty GAA teams as well as rugby and athletics clubs for over five years now.
“We work closely with team nutritionists to provide them with the best menus, which are personalised to their team’s requirements.
“This has allowed us to gain a fantastic insight into what it takes to fuel the body for the demands of today’s athletes,” he said.
Tadhg, who is passionate about catering and food service, said TLC caters for people in their private home, local hall, rugby club or pub and also provides a collection and drop off service from its headquarters in Ballinhassig.
Having started his own catering business, after travelling abroad for a period, he said his customers are very pleased that he is affiliated with the Love Irish Food brand as it guarantees them that the products are made in Cork, using fresh local produce when available.
“When you make small changes in your shopping trolley by purchasing TLC Foods, not only are you buying healthy tasty delicious meals for you and your family, you are ticking off many boxes.
“You are also being kinder to the environment by reducing imports, you are keeping jobs in your locality and you are finally doing what you set out to do – just trying to do your little bit,” he said.