It's an odd thing to hear an it-is-ya-know Irish accent filtered through Minnesota real-good-then. Almost as odd, perhaps, as encountering an Irish whiskey named after a couple of redheaded women, dreamed up in a Minneapolis pub, and pitched by a County Mayo lad who landed in the States after a stint in the Saudi Arabian dairy farm business. Say hello to Kieran Folliard, the man behind 2 Gingers, now available in San Diego for your St. Patrick's day indulgence.
I mention the dairy farm adventure because it captures Folliard's self-ascribed tendency to "go left when others go right" (a tendency he is happy to have inherited from the ladies who grace his label: his mother and his aunt). Why not leave home to grow sorghum grass in the desert outside Riyadh, irrigated through American technology by water that started out in the Jordanian mountains, and fed to cattle flown in from California and Australia?
Three years of that landed him with Cargill back in Minnesota, and five years of that showed him all he needed to see of corporate life. So he did what "any self-respecting Irishman would do," and opened a pub, The Local, in 1992. Plus three more, "all different in look and feel, though you could tell they had the same DNA." From the beginning, he was a brand man, looking to hit various demographic sweet spots.
Eventually, he turned his knack for branding to the stuff he was serving. "One of our values was curiosity and improvisation. We'd sit around in the pubs and talk — bartenders, managers, people who worked with me. And I'd joke that we never had a good idea over a cup of coffee — we'd be awake, but we wouldn't have any good ideas. So we'd have a little...[something stronger]. "And I asked, 'What has to happen for us to sell as much whiskey in the summer as we do in the winter? What has to happen for us to sell whiskey to women?' There are women who drink whiskey, but it's not a high percentage. It all came out of the pubs, from people sitting around and talking about it."
The answer to both questions, as it happened, was "a cocktail." Folliard explains that "most people" — women or men — "won't sit on a patio at five o'clock at 80 degrees anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line drinking whiskey neat." So a cocktail it was. But what sort of cocktail? Well, nothing crafty. "We said, 'We're an egalitarian gathering spot. People are not going to wait ten minutes for a drink, and they're not going to pay $15. It needs to be simple, quick, and the same price as a beer: Collins glass, Irish whiskey, ginger ale, lemon, lime.' The lemon and lime are for the citrus, and because they remind me of the Irish flag." Thus was born the Whiskey Ginger, a drink that helped make The Local into the world's biggest seller of Jameson Irish whiskey a number of years running.
But a brand man wants to protect his brand, and there's no better way than via trademark. "I used to wonder how come nobody trademarked names like Manhattan or Cosmopolitan. They could have — as long as the name isn't descriptive." That meant Folliard couldn't use "ginger" in the name of the trademarked drink if "ginger" referred to ginger ale. But of course, the drink that eventually became the Big Ginger isn't named for its ginger ale. It's named for its 2 Gingers whiskey — a brand within a trademark, created by Folliard.
Just now, Folliard is touring the country in an Airstream trailer fitted out like an Irish pub — a luxury provided him by Beam, Inc., which recently purchased the brand. On the wall of that Airstream hangs a Xerox copy of an article by Dr. John Teeling, published in Ireland's Sunday Tribune in September of 1992 and torn out, savored, and saved by Folliard himself, who happened to be home at the time. "Teeling was a great character. He got his Ph.D. at Harvard in the '70s, and his thesis was on the demise of Irish whiskey in America since Prohibition. Up to Prohibition, 60 percent of all whiskey sold in America was Irish. Today, it's about two percent. The article" — on Irish whiskey, naturally — "was very influential to me personally."
For one thing, it led Folliard to contact Teeling, who had founded the Cooley distillery in the late '80s, when it came time to produce a house whiskey for his signature cocktail. That led to a meeting with Cooley Master Distiller Noel Sweeney. "I told him, 'I want to create a seasonless, genderless Irish whiskey. I'm not going to go into competition with Pernod-Ricard and Diageo'" — the owners of Jameson and Bushmills. "'I want to create a whiskey for men and women who don't drink whiskey. Who drink domestic beer and vodka.' He said, 'Tell me more about that.' I said, 'I need the whiskey to stand up more in the cocktail.' He said, 'We'll distill it twice intead of three times.' I said, 'You know how, when people take a drink of whiskey, they go [makes face, shakes head, exhales]? Could we get rid of that? I want a hint of sweet, some heat on the tongue, and no burn on the finish.' He said, 'Yes. We'll age it four years instead of three, in ex-bourbon barrels and a small percentage of sherry, and we'll add 20% malted barley."
Sweeney went to work with his barrels and vials, and the result was, as they say, wildly popular. So much so that Folliard decided to sell his pubs and take his brand on the road around Minnesota. And that went so well that Beam came knocking, bearing promises of Airstreams and national distribution. "It's another leg of the journey," says Folliard. "I like to say we blended with Beam. They got what the brand was about. Our tagline is Bring Your Own Luck. It's not a narcissistic sort of thing. It's, 'Who do you surround yourself with? Do you know who you are? Do you have your own values?' Bringing your own luck is being true to those things. Writing your own story. I didn't want it to be about heritage and tradition."