Donna Ahern talks to David Phelan, co-founder and director, Darker Still Spirits Company, which produces Black Irish, the original Irish whiskey made dark.
How would you describe your role?
My role is to oversee the business and brand strategy, in addition to commercial development and, of course, troubleshooting.
What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?
I was the export area manager for C&C International, overseeing Carolan’s Irish Cream and Irish Mist liqueur in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
It was great, learning about global brand strategies, innovation and NPD, and the power of relationships in distribution expansion.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I love the reaction of customers when they see the Black Irish bottle. Produced in bespoke dark glass, it is inspired by a vintage beer-style bottle, and it also features a unique crown cap and flip-top closure.
It is a completely new experience for the consumer, from opening it and seeing the rich dark colour, and then tasting the unique liquid of delicious whiskey and stout coming together.
We have brought something new and exciting to the Irish whiskey category that is a real innovation.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I am as passionate as ever about the Irish and international drinks business.
There are so many growth and development opportunities for Black Irish and many other growing Irish drinks brands.
I will continue to collaborate, lead and support exciting Irish drinks brands and their businesses as they look to grow and develop globally.
What is your advice to people starting out in the industry?
Observe and listen closely to customers and consumers, to understand clearly what is working and what is not working for your brand.
When creating a product, ensure that quality is at the core of the creation, in addition to superb packaging that grabs your attention from the moment you see it on the shelf – and, of course, a standout brand story also helps!
What was your worst job, and what was so bad about it?
My time as a postman – the job was fine, except for when I got abused for delivering bills and got attacked by dogs a few times!
What do you think the government could do to help business in the current climate?
The hospitality and tourism business has been hit badly, and the stop-start approach to Covid-19 restrictions has caused incredible difficulties, which are leading to closures and staff shortages.
The industry is critical to our future, and the government must urgently bring together all key stakeholders and develop a clear plan and strategy to get businesses back on track, with a focus on maintaining and attracting talent to the industry.
Who are the three business people whom you most admire, and why?
Michael O’Leary, Ryanair – he owns a successful business, his doggedness is often against the odds, and he has also contributed a lot to Ireland; Richard Branson, Virgin – he is an advocate of business and brand with a purpose, he is determined in the face of adversity, and he always believes that anything is possible; and Pat Rigney, the Shed Distillery – a previous partner of mine who built a distillery in Co. Leitrim and has a great brand in Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish gin. He has determination mixed with curiosity, which is very admirable.
What advertising campaign have you most enjoyed in recent months?
Guinness ‘Welcome Back’, for the pubs and bars reopening.
If you could bring back one product that is no longer available in Ireland, what would it be?
Taylor Keith Red Lemonade.
What was your favourite grocery brand when you were growing up?
Like most young people, Coca-Cola, as it always had a simple and consistent message: a great-tasting product, iconic packaging, and great lifestyle branding – not to mention Santa Claus!
Who would come to your ideal dinner party (living or dead)?
What is the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?
Focus on your own game and believe in yourself.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Sailing with friends, hillwalking, going to the cinema.
How much time do you spend on social media in an average week?
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn?
Most likely to say …?
Onwards and upwards!
Least likely to say …?
Does that make sense?