Kieran Folliard expands his Irish empire
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."
Introducing Folliard's captive audience of whiskey drinkers to 2 Gingers is only phase one of his aforementioned vision. Folliard hopes to eventually have his bottles lining the shelves of liquor stores far and wide. To kick off the 2 Gingers campaign, Folliard is taking his staff to Princeton, Minnesota, to watch the first bottles roll off the line (the Irish whiskey is being bottled by Minnesota's own Phillips Distilling Company) and brief employees on how to push the highly anticipated whiskey on the regular Cara crowds who've become comfortable with Jameson. "It's the Trojan horse approach to whiskey!" laughs Folliard. "We're going to broaden its appeal even more. We've focused on it, worked at it, and I've drank a lot of it myself."
While Folliard and Killen focus on the whiskey launch, former Craftsman head chef Mike Phillips can be found in the back of the Local's kitchen showing his assistant how to meticulously butcher a pig. ("You counting your fingers?" Folliard teases the assistant, who appeared to be doing a digit check when we enter the kitchen.) While the Local's kitchen staff works around them, Phillips slowly slices apart impossibly small sections of the pig, separating them into two bins: one for salami, one for sausage.
"It's tough for them, and it's tough for us," says Phillips of the noisy shared space, which is meant to be a temporary one. Last summer Phillips and Folliard created Green Ox after being introduced by mutual friend (and former Local chef) Steven Brown, who knew of Folliard's long-running interest in having a specialty meats shop. Partnering with the prolific pub owner was a step that even Phillips thought was strange at first. "I was surprised, for sure, but it makes sense after you start to think about it. I've been dry-curing meat for 10 years, always looking for someone to partner up with to make it more of a reality than just doing it in a restaurant. And Kieran's from Ireland, and they have a lot of great meats in Ireland." Folliard even dusted off the original business plan he drafted in his pre-pub days to share with Phillips.
Since leaving the Craftsman last August, Phillips has been working on getting Green Ox's repertoire of pork products going, and using the four Cara Irish Pubs to launch them to the public. The dinner menus offer a sweet and meaty Green Ox sausage, a dish that easily fits into the Irish pub wheelhouse, which is exactly what makes Green Ox's other offering—the lush charcuterie plate—stand out: You don't expect a buttery chorizo and perfectly spiced terrine along with your Guinness, though Phillips is doing his best to change that.
"Part of the job is educating the public on what this stuff is and what you can do with it," explains Phillips, who acknowledges the Cara crowds aren't as foodie-minded as his former Craftsman patrons. "It's taken a bit for the charcuterie plate to catch on, and that's the education part: getting the staff involved so they can sell it, making sure people aren't intimidated by it." That effort has paid off as demand for Green Ox charcuterie has inched up since its addition to the menu. "We went from selling around 20 plates a week to now we're doing more than 70."
Another part of the job is looking ahead to when Green Ox becomes a freestanding retail entity. Phillips hopes to be offering customers fresh sausage, dry-cured meats like salami and prosciutto, and even sides like house-made sauerkraut and pickles at his own space within a year. "We started here in August with the intention of getting things done for the pubs, getting our meats on the menu, and we did that pretty successfully, so now it's time to concentrate on the retail picture and see where we can go."
For his part, Folliard lets Phillips "put the passion in" and sees his role, for now, as a supporting one. That leaves plenty of time to start thinking about future ventures. Folliard may forget a name or how many business cards he's handed out, but he's never short on the next idea or plan for improvement, the mere mention of which can make Killen sound just as tired as Teeling. "Kieran always has 20 different ideas moving. I'm just happy running the pubs and pushing the whiskey and looking after customers for a while, but you never know...Kieran could throw a curveball."
With Green Ox evolving and 2 Gingers being bottled for next week's launch, Folliard is already musing on the next step for Cara Irish Pubs. "Did you know ginger ale was invented in Northern Ireland?" he offers. It's the other main ingredient of the popular Big Ginger, and Folliard says he's already thought about creating his own version of the carbonated drink—which makes it easy to wonder when the lemon and lime groves will follow.
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