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 competing against 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 excitement into the Irish cream liqueur category, while raising its profile again and ensuring that it continues 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 be very 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 2020 and 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 the Northern 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 scale coming 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 and include Cathal Deavy, customer director in Tesco Ireland, Oliver Thompson, sales director with 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.
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 those markets over the past 18 months was very steady. 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 a good 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.”