Conor McGregor chose an opportune moment to announce his plans to launch an Irish whiskey brand. It was the night of June 14, 2017; the Irish mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter had just co-starred in the second-largest- selling pay-per-view event in American sporting history. Having secured a reported $100 million for one night’s work, McGregor strutted into the post-fight press conference wearing sunglasses and an eccentric suit, with a bottle of whiskey in hand. “I’ll put my whiskey down,” he said, briefly raising the bottle to salute the millions watching around the globe, before adding, “Notorious Irish Whiskey: Coming soon.”
It took another year before McGregor’s whiskey hit the market, debuting in Ireland and the U.S. in September 2018. Rather than carrying his “Notorious” nickname as McGregor suggested, the brand instead launched as Proper No. Twelve. Less than two years on, only the cocksure Irishman could have predicted its success. In July 2020, reports emerged that Jose Cuervo had exercised stock options to increase its share in the brand from 20 to 49 percent. Based on the amount paid for shares, the sale valued the Irish whiskey brand at 200 million euros, roughly $235 million at the time of publishing.
As start-ups go — even those backed by a celebrity — it’s an incredible, perhaps unlikely, rise. McGregor is not a household name in the way that George Clooney or Michael Jordan are, and even for those who are aware of him, McGregor cuts a divisive, sometimes controversial figure. It should also be taken into account that his is an Irish whiskey brand. This is a category that has long been synonymous with a single brand: Jameson.
In terms of sales, Proper No. Twelve still lags some way behind Jameson. The former calculates annual volumes in terms of hundreds of thousands of cases; the latter shifted close to a million cases in December 2019 alone. But this should not distract from the rapid rise of Proper No. Twelve. To reach its current sales volumes and valuation in such a short space of time begs the question: How has McGregor achieved such success so fast?
Launching Proper No. Twelve
Part of the answer almost certainly lies in the lesser-known individuals involved in the brand. Proper No. Twelve is owned by Eire Born Spirits, a company co-founded by McGregor, his manager Audie Attar, and Ken Austin. Having previously worked for E&J Gallo and Seagrams, Austin is no stranger to the alcohol industry — nor is this his first celebrity spirit collaboration. In 2013, he founded Tequila Avíon with rap star Jeezy. Pernod Ricard bought a majority stake in the brand for a reported $100 million in 2014, then acquired the remainder for an undisclosed sum in 2018. More recently, Austin teamed up with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for Teremana tequila, which launched in the U.S. in March 2020.
From the beginning, Austin knew a few things would be crucial to the success of Proper No. Twelve. The branding, packaging, and whiskey itself all had to be “unimpeachable,” he says, as many would be hoping for McGregor to fail because of his divisive reputation. “I call him the Howard Stern of fighting,” Austin says.
But it was the draw of McGregor that made Austin want to collaborate on Proper No. Twelve in the first place. (Despite his impressive resume, it was Austin who approached McGregor and Attar, rather than vice versa.) As much as anyone, Austin knows that for a celebrity spirits brand to succeed, it needs to come across as an authentic product. Which celebrity could be a more compelling match to Irish whiskey than a man who celebrates fight victories draped in the country’s flag; who drops Gaelic phrases in media interviews as often as he does f-bombs; and whose ring-walk song is a Sinéad O’Connor cover of a famous Irish rebel song?
“If you were going to look up Irish whiskey in the dictionary, there would be a picture of Conor McGregor there because he epitomizes what being Irish is,” Austin says.
Leveraging the Conor Connection
While Austin highlights McGregor’s “authenticity” as a key draw for consumers, he remains tight-lipped on the specific factors that have fueled Proper No. Twelve’s growth. That’s not unexpected, especially for the co-founder of a company that saw triple-digit volume growth last year, according to market analyst IWSR, and is on course to reach “a few hundred thousand cases” in volume sales in only its third year, according to Austin. But that doesn’t stop us from analyzing the factors that may have fueled its success.
One obvious advantage is the Conor connection. McGregor speaks to a 50-million-strong audience across his social media channels. Close to 37 million of those are on Instagram alone. Bottles of Proper No. Twelve feature heavily in McGregor’s feed, interspersing photos of luxury watches, cars, and yachts. McGregor’s popularity has no doubt translated into Proper No. Twelve’s impressive social media audience. The brand’s 700,000-strong Instagram following is more than four times larger than Jameson’s.
The “notorious one” reaches millions more during his day job as an MMA fighter. Capitalizing on pre- and post-fight press conferences is a tactic McGregor has used time and again since he first announced his impending Irish whiskey. And it’s an incredible opportunity for free brand marketing. To date, McGregor fights have accounted for five out of the top six highest-grossing UFC events, in terms of pay-per-view buys.
The best example came in October 2018, during the build-up to UFC 229. McGregor spent as much time touting his new brand in press conferences as he did discussing his upcoming opponent. That distraction may have played a part in McGregor ultimately losing the fight, but he emerged from the weekend victorious. With 2.4 million pay-per-view buys, UFC 229 remains the most watched event in the sport’s history. No one who followed the event and its build-up walked away unaware that McGregor was now in the whiskey business.
The Overlap of UFC Fans and Irish Whiskey Drinkers
When he’s not promoting his whiskey on his social media accounts or in the UFC’s octagon, McGregor touts his brand to a more mainstream audience on chat shows like “Conan” on TBS and Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show.” But there’s strong evidence to suggest that it’s MMA fans who have been pivotal in the brand’s early success.
According to IWSR data, the Irish whiskey category ended 2019 with a value of $1.5 billion. Between 2014 and 2019, volume sales experienced a compound annual growth rate of 14 percent. “From a demographic standpoint, the category leans heavily towards male over female, with those aged between 25 to 34 accounting for the majority of consumption,” says Adam Rogers, IWSR research director, North America.
This demographic is remarkably similar to UFC’s audience, which skews 75 percent male, with 88 percent between ages 18 and 44, according to IMG ARENA insights. UFC fans are also big social media users: 48 percent spend more than two hours a day on apps like Facebook and Instagram. These data points suggest McGregor had spent years unwittingly cultivating the perfect audience for his brand prior to launching it. Not only are UFC fans highly likely to encounter his Proper No. Twelve posts while browsing social media platforms, they fit the bill for the type of consumer typically drinking Irish whiskey.
A closer look at the data highlights specific, often overlooked, demographics that could be fueling Proper No. Twelve’s growth. According to data from consumer insights firm MRI-Simmons, the number of adults who are of Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino heritage and drink Irish whiskey has increased 28 percent since 2013. The number of Black or African-American consumers who drink Irish whiskey also increased 17.3 percent during this period.
These are important considerations as this once again overlaps with UFC’s core audience. In a May 2020 Statista survey, at least 22 percent of Hispanic and African-American respondents said they were “casual fans” of UFC. Thirteen percent of respondents from both ethnicities identified as “avid fans.” This data places the Hispanic and African-American communities as the most engaged UFC fans.
One final factor that should not be discounted in Proper No. Twelve’s success is the previously mentioned surging popularity of Irish whiskey. It’s hard to tell whether the brand has been a benefactor or beneficiary within this trend. Perhaps both.
If McGregor’s brand is to grow further and one day become the world’s leading whiskey brand, as is his goal, it needs to continue to broaden its appeal beyond McGregor’s fanbase but also past those who already drink Irish whiskey.
“It’s the whiskey category that you’ve got to go after, not the Irish whiskey category,” Austin says. “We’re at the tip of the iceberg still.”