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Interview: Simon Hunt of William Grant & Sons USA

June 8, 2012

Over the past several years, William Grant & Sons USA has been transformed in terms of scale and portfolio diversity, branching out from its Scotch whisky roots and adding brands in vodka, Irish whiskey and Tequila, to name just a few moves. The portfolio has now shown five consecutive years of growth as William Grant builds brand awareness and prepares to take its business to a new level. Shanken News Daily recently spoke with Simon Hunt, president and managing director-North America, at William Grant & Sons, to get an update on William Grant USA’s progress.

SND: How are you maximizing new opportunities for growth in the U.S. whisky market?

Hunt: We’re certainly benefiting from the whisky resurgence—but also from our decision to dramatically increase investment in our brands, particularly in the on-premise. Both our single malts, Glenfiddich and The Balvenie, had high double-digit growth last year.

SND: How has progress been for Tullamore Dew since you acquired it in 2010?

Hunt: The acquisition of Tullamore Dew was aimed at getting into the Irish whiskey category, and growth since then has been incredible. Tullamore Dew is a brand that hasn’t had a clear point of view or a lot of investment behind it. We’ve increased that investment and started communicating the concept of “Irish True”—which goes to the heart of what Tullamore Dew is all about.

SND: Sailor Jerry rum has been showing exceptional growth, rising by more than 90,000 cases last year to hit 667,000 cases. Can you sustain that pace?

Hunt: Over the last few years, several players have entered the category after witnessing our success with Sailor Jerry. But we think this brand has a unique attitude. Sailor Jerry was the godfather of modern tattooing, and there’s no other brand with such a distinctive identity. It has significant growth opportunity, especially in the on-premise.

SND: Hendrick’s has been strongly outperforming the gin category, rising by 30,000 cases last year to hit 140,000 cases. How do you account for its success to date?

Hunt: We take a long-term view, and Hendrick’s is a good example of that. This overnight success is now in year 12. I would take Hendrick’s steady growth for any of our brands. We continue to do extremely well this year, at a retail price of around $35. It’s the gin of choice for the mixology crowd and is now starting to expand outside that community.

SND: Milagro Tequila is also growing, up 15% last year to 130,000 cases. What are the challenges in the crowded Tequila segment?

Hunt: Milagro is a unique proposition. The two founders who created the brand, Daniel Schneeweiss and Moises Guindi, thought Tequila’s heritage and imagery weren’t being properly reflected in modern Mexico’s brands. They went back to traditional methods and tried to improve upon them. We’re seeing consumers and bartenders get very excited about the product.

SND: You acquired the marketing rights to Stolichnaya in 2008, and the brand has struggled since then. It was stagnant in 2010 at 1.8 million cases, but it did tick up by 1% last year. How’s it doing now?

Hunt: Stoli continues to accelerate, rising by 5.4% over the last 26 weeks, and 7.1% over the 13 weeks ending April 28, according to Nielsen. There’s a lot of pricing pressure in vodka. The $12 price point is seeing growth that just wasn’t there four years ago. But consumers are now returning to premium brands, particularly with the on-premise starting to recover. We’re rebuilding Stoli there.

SND: Has your growing scale and portfolio diversity helped boost your clout with distributors?

Hunt: The addition of Stoli was a significant jump in terms of our impact with distributors. Scale has allowed us to open the door, but our distributor partners—Charmer, Wirtz, Young’s, RNDC, all of them—see the double-digit growth we achieved on our core portfolio in a very tough environment. Over the last few years we’ve more than doubled the number of people in the company. Our brands still have relatively low levels of awareness compared to the market leaders, so we’ve got an opportunity to grow that awareness and continue building our company.

William Grant & Sons USA – Leading Brands
(thousands of nine-liter case depletions)
% Change
Brand Type 2008 2009 2010 2011 2010-2011
Stolichnaya* Vodka 1,980 1,835 1,800 1,818 1.0%
Sailor Jerry Rum 344 400 577 667 15.6%
Clan MacGregor Blended Scotch Whisky 596 637 594 557 -6.2%
Hendrick’s Gin 59 76 110 140 27.3%
Grant’s Blended Scotch Whisky 170 162 136 134 -1.5%
Milagro Tequila 75 92 113 130 15.0%
Glenfiddich Single-Malt Scotch 104 100 107 120 12.1%
Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey 62 67 71 76 7.0%
The Balvenie Single-Malt Scotch 48 50 55 64 16.4%
Total Leading Brands 3,439 3,419 3,563 3,706 4.0%
*includes flavors
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