Irish Spring

Washing away the stereotype of the elderly drinker, Riannon Walsh's old-style whiskey cleans up with Gen Xers.
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3 min read

This story appears in the May 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Riannon Walsh knows better than to buy into the stereotype of your "typical" single malt whiskey enthusiast. Today's connoisseurs aren't limited to the older generation. No, she insists, they're more along the lines of young professionals and Gen Xers seeking sophistication in their drink of choice. And Walsh should know: She's got a handle on the whiskey business, not only because she's founder of Cloonaughill Distillers Ltd., a start-up in Galway, Ireland, that will export Irish liquor to the United States in the next 18 months, but also because this 38-year-old coordinates yearly whiskey tasting expos in major U.S. cities via her Philadelphia business, Cloonaughill Celtic Malts Inc.

Entrepreneur: You market your whiskey to the younger crowd. Why?

Riannon Walsh: There's been this belief that single malt whiskey had to be relegated to people who were dead. That's because there's been this belief that adults need to grow into the taste, that they need to be 50 before they can develop a palate, before they can enjoy a single malt whiskey. But young adults, especially in the United States, have been discovering refinement, and to ignore that would be stupid.

How do you market whiskey to a younger generation?

Much of it is through the Whiskies of the World Expos I put on every year in Los Angeles and San Francisco-90 percent of the people who show up are between 25 and 45, and the bulk of them are in their 30s. These are people you can't snow; you can't jerk them around. They're interested in learning about single malt whiskeys, and the reception they've given me at the expos has been so validating.

And, you know, these are athletes, people who have healthy lifestyles, [people] who care about what they put in their bodies. They know they can't just, pardon the expression, get shitfaced and wake up the next morning and function. They'd rather have a superior product in small quantities and still enjoy themselves. It seems like a logical concept, but I notice a lot of companies aren't very logical.

How did you get into this, and how do the men treat you in this industry?

My father was a very serious enthusiast. And I've always been extremely interested in food, and this is sort of a natural offshoot of that. But I don't remember when my interest started. It's just a part of who I am. Some companies embrace it, some would just as soon see me disappear in a puff of smoke, and some of them are so huge that they could care less who I am. Out of the hundreds and hundreds of men I work with every month, I've probably had two or three who've been . . . [pause] . . . assholes. That's pretty good, statistically. And you know, working with Brits, the sexism is far more pervasive. Most American women wouldn't put up with the joking around and the stuff that goes on with the British guys. They don't get slapped with lawsuits the way the Americans do.

Geoff Williams admits the strongest drink he usually consumes is a beer, either A&W or Barq's.


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