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Interview, Part 2: Brown-Forman President And CEO Lawson Whiting

April 23, 2020

In the second part of our interview, Brown-Forman president and CEO Lawson Whiting discusses the outlook for the company’s founding brand, Old Forester, opportunities in imported whisk(e)y, gin, and Tequila, and the potential for acquisitions moving forward.

SND: Old Forester recently earned Impact “Hot Brand” honors after rising 22% to 271,000 cases in the U.S. last year. What’s driving that brand, and where do you see it headed?

Whiting: Old Forester is the founding brand of the company, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that it’s our 150th anniversary this year. Old Forester has been one of the fastest growing brands in our portfolio for four or five years in a row, showing increasing popularity for both the core brand and the innovation pipeline that goes around it. That includes our Whiskey Row series, which has been very strong in the on-premise. The other part of the story is the Old Forester Distillery. We had 80,000 visitors in the first 12 months of the distillery being open, introducing a lot of new people to the brand.

SND: Tequila has also been a growth area lately. How is your upscale Herradura brand faring?

Whiting: Herradura is our ultra-premium label, growing at around 20%. With the Tequila category’s success, it has also gotten very competitive. Everybody has gotten into the ultra-premium Tequila business. It’s one of the reasons why the cost of agave has spiked. We expect that to ease somewhere in the back half of calendar 2021. There’s been a massive increase in planting over the last four or five years, which should take supply much higher than what the demand is today.

SND: Brown-Forman has made moves in imported whisk(e)y with the investments in BenRiach Distillery Co. and Slane. How are those efforts progressing?

Whiting: About five years ago we were looking at our portfolio outside of the Jack Daniel’s family and trying to get ourselves into some of these faster-growing categories. We sold Southern Comfort and bought the three malt brands, GlenDronach, BenRiach, and Glenglassaugh, and built a distillery in Ireland called Slane, on the grounds of Slane Castle. Those four whiskey brands are all performing really well, albeit off of a small base. We have a dedicated emerging brands team working on those, focusing on the ultra-premium, heavy on-premise brands that need attention and dedication and aren’t sold right next to Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey. Slane is at more than 30,000 cases, and it’s only been a couple of years that it’s been out there. The Slane Castle and distillery itself is different from most of the other Irish whiskey experiences. Most famously, it’s known for the music festivals that happen there every summer, featuring the likes of U2 and others.

SND: You’ve also added Fords gin recently. Do you foresee more acquisitions?

Whiting: Gin has exploded in places like the U.K. and Spain. In the U.S., it feels like it’s about to explode but it hasn’t really happened yet. I do think some of the health and wellness trends among consumers play well for the gin category. And I’m confident we’re going to build Fords into a key player. Simon Ford did a beautiful job building it in the on-premise. It’s got enormous opportunity. We’re always on the hunt for brands we think would do well in our portfolio. It’s not easy to find them. The multiples that people are paying are off the charts these days. We have to find the right brand at the right price. We’d like to find some bigger ones too, but there just aren’t many out there right now. So we continue to look—there are still categories that we don’t play in.

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