In High Spirits

Michael Barry, founder and managing director of Barry & Fitzwilliam spoke to Fionnuala Carolan about the highs and lows of running an independent drinks distributor as the company celebrates its 40th birthday.


For the last four decades Michael Barry has been at the helm of Barry & Fitzwilliam and in that time, he has
built the business into Ireland’s largest independent drinks distributor. It now carries
more than 120 of the top wine, spirits and beer brands including McGuigan, Villa Maria, Michel Lynch, Remy Martin, BrewDog and White Claw. Just this month, Barry & Fitzwilliam was also appointed as the
distributor for legendary master distiller Brian Nation’s new Irish American whiskey range,
Keeper’s Heart. There are 60 employees between its warehousing and administration facilities in Ballycurreen, Co. Cork and its sales office in Sandyford, Co. Dublin.

According to Barry, the company has always
tried to stay ahead of the market by watching trends closely. “We have managed to survive and prosper over the 40 years by keeping a close eye on international trends and embracing them.”

Starting out                                                                                                                                                                                      Barry joined Murphy’s Brewery in Cork in 1978 as a wines and spirits administration manager despite having just trained as an accountant, yet his accountancy background has definitely paid dividends throughout his career. He credits Bob Kennefick, the sales director of Murphy’s Brewery at the time, for taking him under his wing and instilling in him a passion and drive to prosper in the drinks industry. However, the brewery went into receivership in July 1982. Unable to see a future for the wine and spirit division, Barry decided to take the bold step of setting up his own business. Within three months of leaving Murphy’s, he launched Barry’s Wines & Spirits in a 2,500 square foot warehouse in Alfred Street in Cork. Three other employees from Murphy’s joined him and two of them only retired last year.

“When the brewery went into receivership I presumed that Heineken would buy the brewery eventually and that they wouldn’t have any interest in wines and spirits and that was the logic behind that. It was very much about serving the Muster area initially,” he recalls.

So how did he have the means to launch a company at such a young age? “I found a very friendly bank manager and I wouldn’t find him today!” he jokes. You had a lot of confidence, ShelfLife suggested. “Blind enthusiasm and lots of passion that was the foundation stone of the company,” he explains. “If I’d known how hard it was going to be at the beginning I might never have started it. We are all more cautious as we get older and we see roadblocks. When you are young, you take chances. And sometimes they pay off.”

Barry’s partner is Chris Murphy, formerly of Fitzwilliam Wines & Spirits, named so because the business was started in Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin where Murphy held the then fashionable Pernod agency. They merged the two companies in 1989 becoming Barry & Fitzwilliam. Although they called themselves a wine and spirits distributor, wine was only a small fraction of the business at the beginning, Barry explained.

“Well the joke of the whole thing is that we called ourselves a wine and spirits company in 1982, except that 90% of our sales were spirits,” he laughs. “Now 50% would be wine, 30% spirits and 20% would be beers and RTD such as White Claw. Wine has only become popular in the last 25 years in Ireland. The first ten years when we were on the road selling, it was mainly Pedrotti, Black Tower, Blue Nun and maybe Blossom Hill quarter bottles. No one had heard of New Zealand or Australian wines and now McGuigan’s from Australia and Villa Maria from New Zealand are the number one wines so that’s how dramatically things have changed over the years.”

Arrival of Corona                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The company really made its mark in 1990 when it took on the agency for the Corona Extra brand in Ireland and promoted it heavily turning it into one of Ireland’s leading bottled beer brands and the company subsequently went on to launch Corona Light in 2012. “It was the first long neck beer to be launched in
Ireland and we had it for 25 years until January 2015,” he explains.

In 2015 they lost Corona to C&C Gleeson due to Corona’s new parent company Ab Inbev having a contractual agreement to use C&C for Irish distribution. It was a blow to the company after all they had done for the brand but Barry is pragmatic about the loss. “Look, life is a series of ups and downs and when you have more ups than downs, you are a winner.”

A family affair
From Midleton originally, Barry now lives in Douglas with his wife Kathleen who is the operational director of the company. Their three children all work in the business also. “Our daughter Kate is the brand manager. Our son Mike who happens to have Down syndrome, is an administrator. He scans delivery dockets into the computer –he loves routine. We also call him the company therapist as you can’t be in bad form around that guy. And then the youngest is Rory and he combines two roles – sales executive but he is also in charge of our purchasing. It’s wonderful having your whole family together. Not many families could do it but it works for us,” he states.

Throughout 40 years he has experienced a lot of ups and downs in the trade but he remembers the currency crisis in the early 90s as being a particularly tough time in business. “In 1992/93 the banks were charging 21% interest, so if you were a borrower you were paying almost 20% on your mortgage. Trying to get paid was very difficult at the time,” he recalls. However he dismisses that hiccup as just financial woes. An awful tragedy befell the company in 2003 which put everything else into perspective.

Change is constant                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Ironically at the end of that annus horribilis, the company signed a huge deal when they took over Maxxium to market all its brands in Ireland gaining big brands like Absolut vodka, Famous Grouse, Remy Cointreau and Jim Beam.

“We were Barry Fitzwilliam Maxxium for a few years. We doubled Maxxium’s business in Ireland and it gave us a great reputation internationally and got us more brands over those years.” The company reverted back to Barry & Fitzwilliam in 2008 because the companies who owned Maxxium decided to go their separate ways.

Barry says that in the drinks industry you have to be ready for the next big thing and adapt quickly and over the years the company did not shy away from taking a punt on a new product. In recent years they’ve enjoyed much success with celebrity endorsed wines including Graham Norton, Kylie, Sarah Jessica Parker, Gary Barlow and Gordon Ramsey. Barry says that they are hugely popular and the celebrities are more involved in the process than you might think. “They all have been involved in the blending process for the wine so they are not just putting their name to it.”

The non-alcoholic market is one they have also had to embrace and they hold one of the most popular non-alcoholic brands, Brewdog Punk Zero. They also have a non-alcoholic wine offering with McGuigan Zero which Barry says has taken off. “A lot of the hospitality accounts are waking up to the fact that they do require a non-alcoholic offering
so we see that growing. I think we have the most fashionable product on the market at the moment with White Claw and we are always on the lookout for new things,” he says.

So what does the man who knows more about drinks than most, choose as his favourite tipple? “Between wine, beer and spirits, it would have to be wine,” he says. “It can be red or white depending on what I am eating. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a sauvignon and sometimes I feel like chardonnay. People associate New Zealand with great sauvignon blanc but I’m just back from New Zealand and for most of the time I was there, I was drinking chardonnay. My point is don’t underestimate the quality of New Zealand chardonnay.” Well you’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth. Chardonnay is the one to watch.

The company not only trades with all of the multiples and independent off licences but also a large number of accounts in the hospitality sector. In 2019, 40% of the business was hospitality and that was gone overnight when Covid hit. Despite this the company managed to maintain the same turnover in 2020 as the previous year due to the increase of off-trade sales in the retail sector.

“A lot of the cocktail brands grew dramatically during 2020 and we’ve maintained most of that. The likes of Tia Maria, Cointrea, Bols Liquers and the one product that went ballistic altogether was Passoa – which is a passion fruit liqueur and the main ingredient for a Pornstar Martini.”

He says that hospitality is back to about 80% of what it was in 2019 but turnover has risen by 20% since then so it evens out. He’s inclined to think that there is a bit of pain to come for hospitality in the coming years though.

“I think cash and carries are going to suffer because of the cost of fuel, getting staff and the Ukrainian war which is all going to have a negative effect on business. I don’t think that tourism in Ireland will bounce back for 4/5 years so I think retail will be fine but hospitality will find it tough for a while,” he says.

Speaking of Ukraine, one of the most high profile moves of late is the introduction of Ukraine’s national beer brand Obalon to their portfolio. Irishman Dave McCarthy is a drinks consultant for Obalon and he introduced the brand to Barry & Fitzwilliam. “Dave McCarty approached me and we are all for it but logistically it has been a struggle to get the stock in but it will be on the shelves before
Christmas. The brewery is still working in Kiev and it’s one of the largest breweries in the whole of Europe. We will be donating money from every case we sell to the Irish Red Cross.”

So with the 40th celebrations well under way, he says he still has to pinch himself when he thinks about the milestone. “It puts shivers up my spine. When I opened Barry’s Wines & Spirits in 1982 I had the ambition to be Ireland’s leading independent drinks company and that is what we have become. We were supposed to have had celebrations in October at our sales conference but I got Covid,” he explains. “We’ve kicked everything out until November. I don’t care how many are there, it’s going ahead. I can’t wait any longer!

Barry believes that the company is in good shape and that the future is very bright for Barry & Fitzwilliam. “We have a great portfolio and a great team, brand owners, and great relationships with them. So my sole ambition now is to celebrate fifty years in business in 2032!” Congratulations to the team at Barry & Fitzwilliam on their 40th birthday from all at ShelfLife.