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The drinks chief who has a thirst for giving his customers exactly what they want


Margaret Canning with Liam McBride

Margaret Canning with Liam McBride

© Press Eye - Belfast - Norther

Margaret Canning with Liam McBride

With over 40% of the year's sales accounted for in the four weeks before Christmas, it's now the busiest time of year for Liam McBride, sales manager at Dillon Bass.

The Belfast-based wine and spirits firm has many of the drink world's best known brands in its portfolio, from Concha y Tora red wine to Havana Club rum - and closer to home, Jameson whiskey, distilled in Co Cork and the world's number one brand of Irish whiskey.

As you'd expect, Liam knows spirits and wines extremely well - though we play it safe and stick to Diet Cokes with our lunch at The National Grande Cafe on High Street.

Liam was raised in Strabane and now lives in north Belfast. After school, he went straight into work as a civil servant at the then Department of Economic Development (DED) in Netherleigh. He then joined the job centre at Gloucester House, when the rather more glamorous world of the drinks industry beckoned.

"I joined as a PR executive, managing the sponsorship calendar. In those days we had a lot of events to do - events like the Bar of the Year, then race meetings, etc."

He then realised his future lay in sales. And now 20 years on, he's looking forward to the Christmas rush when managers get their sleeves rolled up to shift stock in supermarkets and shops throughout Northern Ireland. It's clear that the father-of-four relishes being part of the drinks business. "I look after the retail end of business - that's all the off-licences and chains, everything from UK multiples to Winemark, Wineflair, SuperValu or Centra.

"It really is a people business. They're all retailers but are just different sizes or different customers. I suppose a customer is always there for the taking by anyone."

He says that independents can offer a little bit more of a "hands-on" touch. And his engagement with the people selling his products is crucial as neither he nor his colleagues will be there if a sale is being made. "It's really nice to engage with people who in turn engage with our customers."

An encyclopaedic knowledge of Dillon Bass' brands is a given, and I receive a neatly-distilled guide on the many distinctions between the company's range of whiskeys.

In tandem with the growth of the whiskey market has been the emergence of the craft-beer phenomenon. And Liam's company has gotten in on the act - in a roundabout way.

Barrels used in the Jameson distillery are routinely loaned to the craft brewers at Franciscan Well, also in Cork. And on one occasion, they were returned to the distillery at Midleton, filled with Jameson again - producing a craft stout-seasoned expression of the whiskey, now sold as Jameson Caskmates.

Liam marvels at the whiskey heritage of Belfast. He reminds me that The National's sister pub, the Dirty Onion, is located on the site of the old bonded warehouse for Dillons, and speaks about the array of branded Irish-whiskey mirrors in the Duke of York.

There's no escaping the water of life, it seems.

  • In next week's Working Lunch, Joris Minne meets Amelio chief executive Catherine O'Neill

The National Grande Cafe, Belfast

Margaret had:

Chicken and avocado salad £7.50

Diet Coke £2

Americano £2.10

Liam had:

Risotto £7.50

Diet Coke £2

Americano £2.10

Total £24.20