ISLAND BREW Sean McKay (Irish American Trading Company) giving then Minister for Rural and Community Development, Michael Ring, TD a sample of Irish American Whiskey at the launch of the product in 2019. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
‘When one door closes, another door opens’. Businesses that have managed to survive the pandemic by adapting have used the phrase often over the past year.
The The IrishAmerican Trading Company faced uncertainty when the pubs closed due to restrictions, cutting off the main market for selling and promoting their whiskey. However, just as Covid closed the pub doors, another door presented itself in the virtual world. The family-owned distillery opened it with both hands, and they started to focus on the online market.
“We had just launched our online sales last year, which coincided with Covid,” explained Michael McKay of IrishAmerican. The pandemic forced the company to focus on online sales sooner than they intended.
“We don’t have a big marketing and online team, it is just a few of us in the family, so Covid did accelerate our focus into online. It got our name out there, especially in the States. Whatever energy we had put into the pub trade we had to refocus that to online and make sure we have a presence.”
Their efforts have been a great success. Now, with so much competition for shelf space, it is important to stay a step ahead of the curve.
“That market has moved online now, and we have seen a massive uptake in people trying to buy whiskey online. The age group who traditionally buy whiskey would normally be more skeptical of buying online, but they have warmed to the idea now during lockdown of getting the premium whiskeys we have to offer.”
Double market reach
While online revenue has not completely offset the loss of the pub trade, it has compensated the company ‘a small bit’.
IrishAmerican was founded by Michael’s late father John McKay in 2015. They opened their first distillery in Achill in 2019. The US is their primary market outside of Ireland, and they have teamed up with the online retailer, Mash and Grape, to sell their whiskey in the US.
“They had been following us for a while in Boston and New York and California, and they liked what they saw and took us online last year. Our biggest market is the States, so it helped that we could sell online in the States especially because you have a bigger market. Having been in up to 20 states physically, we are now in 41 states via online. It has doubled our market reach by going online, and that has been a major boost.”
While Michael says they have been encouraged by the sales growth online, it does have its drawbacks.
“Online is great but you can’t beat face-to-face business. Our biggest selling point is that we are a family-based business and people warm to that. They love that they are meeting the family members when you are doing sales or when they visit the distillery.
“The best way to sell whiskey is by giving out samples in bars, and that has been taken away from all whiskey businesses. We are fortunate we are six years on the road now, so we have our foothold and our name out there. But if we were starting this year it would be very difficult.”
The production side of IrishAmerican has been largely unaffected by Covid, as distilling can continue. Because they only started the process in 2019, their stock is not ready to sell yet.
The other side of the business is based on tourism, with the IrishAmerican Trading Company running tours of the distillery in Achill during the summer months. Last year was their first year giving tours and because of the restrictions they were only open for six weeks of the summer.
However there was a silver lining because the six weeks was so busy, and it brought IrishAmerican whiskey to a new audience in Ireland.
“It was a great six weeks … there were lots of staycations and it brought a lot of Irish people to the west and to Achill who may never have considered Achill for a holiday. The knock-on effect is we got a lot more Irish people through the doors learning about IrishAmerican whiskey. A lot of Irish people who never heard about us before are now aware and follow us on Facebook and keep an eye on the different whiskeys we have.”
Despite the continued closure of the pubs in Ireland, Michael continues to be optimistic about the year ahead. He’s confident of another busy summer if restrictions are eased.
“Last year a lot of people who wouldn’t have come are mad to come back after seeing the beauty of what’s to offer on Achill. If restrictions permit, I would be confident of a good summer, even if its only for a few months and not a full summer. We have to stay optimistic in business, and if we get the staycations we are in for a good few weeks.”