Kieran Folliard expands his Irish empire

Restaurateur introduces new whiskey and specialty meats

Kieran Folliard hands me his business card. For the third time since our interview began. "Martha," he starts to say. My name is not Martha. "But what about your email address that starts...." Folliard and I have never exchanged emails.

So, yeah, Folliard—whose company Cara Irish Pub encompasses the Local, the Liffey, Cooper's Pub, and Kieran's at Block E—is acting a little scatterbrained. But the man has a lot on his mind: Next week Folliard is launching 2 Gingers, his own brand of Irish whiskey, and within the year he hopes to turn his Green Ox specialty meat company into a retail business. His minor gaffes today make it easy to wonder, though: Has the addition of two more irons in the fire pushed the limit of what Folliard's Irish luck can handle?

Hardly. In fact, the plans for an artisan meat company and an in-house whiskey have been on Folliard's radar for years. Even before Folliard opened the original Kieran's Pub in 1994, he kicked around the idea of opening a specialty butcher shop—to the point of writing up a business plan in 1992 that later got shelved. "I loved the idea of a butcher making stuff that you could see being created, and the whole animal is being used," Folliard explains. And the whiskey? Folliard's partner Peter Killen tackles that one.

"We're both Irish. It's the dream, the next natural thing after owning your own pub." Just a year after Kieran's Irish Pub moved from its narrow birthplace in the out-of-the-way Towle Building to the 10,000-square-foot Block E location, Folliard is using the anniversary—and its proximity to St. Patrick's Day—to launch 2 Gingers Whiskey, his own in-house brand.

While spending a sunny winter afternoon in one of the Local's secluded dark wood booths chatting with the charming pub impresario, it's easy to temporarily forget that he's a hyper-entrepreneur. While the Local's lunch crowd is thick with well-tailored suits and three-inch heels, Folliard is relaxed in jeans and a sweater, casually complaining about how loud television commercials are as he stirs his coffee and considers the question of why whiskey, and why now. "One, I would say we're always asking the question of how can we improve; where are the opportunities? Second, we're moving enough volume within the four pubs that someone would be interested to work with us. And it's an economics issue as well: We can get something at more competitive prices and cut out the middleman."

The move might seem curious for the guy whose bar has sold the most Jameson Irish Whiskey in the world four years running (the Local goes through roughly 25 bottles a day), but Folliard isn't shedding any tears, and he doubts Jameson is either. French distilling giant Pernod Ricard, which owns brands like Absolut and Glenlivet, also owns the popular Irish whiskey, and Folliard sees his sales of Jameson as a drop in their giant French bucket. "They're the second-largest liquor company in the world, so it's not like we're going to be shutting them down," Folliard says. "We have a good relationship, and we'll continue to sell their product, it just won't be as heavily promoted, and it won't be in the Big Ginger."

The creation of the trademarked Big Ginger cocktail—two shots of Jameson Irish Whiskey mixed with ginger ale in a 16-ounce glass and garnished with a lemon and a lime—is what propelled such explosive whiskey sales throughout Folliard's pubs. Normally a liquor associated with men hunkering around a drafty fireplace to discuss hunting dogs and fine cigars (or Bill Murray in a tuxedo pushing the Suntory brand in Lost in Translation), whiskey was suddenly genderless, seasonless, and wildly popular. Putting a premium whiskey like Jameson on the rail at all four pubs didn't hurt either, leading Cara's whiskey sales to consistently surpass vodka, a rarity.

Getting in on the supply side of that success means better profits for the pubs, as well as a chance for Folliard and Killen to work with fellow Irishmen. Their choice to produce 2 Gingers is Cooley Distillery in County Louth, the only independent, Irish-owned whiskey distillery in Ireland. "We liked these guys because they're underdogs, they're a small little family-owned operation, and that's a natural fit for us since we're small and independent ourselves," says Killen. Cooley worked with Killen and Folliard to come up with the ideal Irish whiskey, which required plenty of sampling and a level of exactitude that Goldilocks would approve of ("some were too harsh or too sweet or had too much grain," Killen says). The result is a twice-distilled whiskey aged four years that, while smooth, offers the bite Folliard was looking for.

Creating the perfect non-peaty whiskey to meet Folliard's high standards was a challenge Jack Teeling, managing director of Cooley and the son of the distillery's founder, is still recovering from. "Kieran will tire you out!" he laughs. "He is full of energy, and he has a vision and really believes in it, so no one is going to stand in his way. There is a strong fit between his entrepreneurial spirit and ours."

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