- Conor McGregor is a whiskey “unicorn,” according to his business partner Ken Austin.
- The Irish MMA fighter is the founder of Proper No. Twelve, a brand that’s taking the drinks world by storm.
- The whiskey has sold almost 200,000 cases, or 2.4 million bottles in its first six months of trading and is on track to double that in its first year.
- McGregor was nicknamed the “Mystic Mac” of MMA because his braggadocious predictions mostly came true.
- Now the 30-year-old predicts that Proper Twelve will become the world’s No. 1 Irish whiskey.
- Austin, who previously founded the tequila brand Avión, spoke with Business Insider about what McGregor is really like and how he plans to overtake Jameson.
- Visit Business Insider’s home page for more stories.
When asked about one of the most memorable moments of the past year, Proper No. Twelve whiskey cofounder Ken Austin flashed back to mid-March in Baltimore, Maryland.
St. Patrick’s Day weekend was approaching and it was set to be a festival of green, orange, and white; of quality Irish craic; and, in 2019 at least, Conor McGregor in fine, fist-pumping form.
McGregor was about to be paraded through major American cities sitting on the roof of a Cadillac Escalade, which was custom-wrapped with the distinctive branding of his Proper Twelve whiskey. He would wave the Irish flag in one hand and hold his arms aloft like he’d just won another mixed martial arts fight (he’s already won 21).
But it wasn’t a victory parade to mark a two-weight world-champion status in the sport, and this isn’t a story about his unprecedented journey through MMA’s premier cage-fighting firm, the UFC.
It’s a story about fierce competition against an established name, with ever-lasting legacy up for grabs. It’s a competition McGregor is desperate to dominate as he takes on Big Alcohol, determined to deliver an energy-zapping kick to the liver of his biggest opponent in this new battleground – Jameson, a business that’s been around for 250 years.
McGregor wants his whiskey brand, Proper Twelve, to become the No. 1 Irish whiskey in the world. He doesn’t just want to measure up against the best, he wants to be the best, the recognised and undisputed champion.
Austin, McGregor’s business partner, has gotten to know McGregor better than most, having worked closely with the fighter for more than a year.
He took Business Insider behind the scenes on what the UFC star is like as a businessman, as well as what he’s really like as a human being when the cameras aren’t rolling.
The side of McGregor nobody sees
Austin and McGregor rode in a convoy, in separate Escalades, throughout the US just before St. Patrick’s Day.
Wanting Proper Twelve to be the Paddy’s Day whiskey above all others, the pair promoted what they called their “liquid gold” to the “many amazing Irish communities in the US.”
Between cities, they decided to make an impromptu visit to Cranbrook Liquors, a liquor store just north of Baltimore.
McGregor wanted to surprise the people there, buy them bottles of Proper Twelve from his own pocket, and chat with them.
The store was initially quiet, but word quickly spread that there was a superstar in the neighbourhood, and fans came flocking.
McGregor took selfies and even signed a Harley Davidson motorcycle with a Sharpie, according to Austin.
Then, Austin said a car “screeched into the parking lot.” The driver was a 25-year-old woman who had her mother, brother, and others in the vehicle.
The boy jumped out and called for McGregor, wanting pictures. “Conor says, ‘Sure, sure, sure,’ and he grabs the kid and puts his arm around him,” Austin said.
As more cars approached, McGregor’s security detail became nervous about crowd control, and advised the Proper Twelve team to get back on the road and drive to their next stop on tour.
McGregor’s videographer later told Austin that the family back at the parking lot “looked like they were in need” and may have been living out of their car.
When Austin told McGregor the family may have been homeless, he said his face “completely changed.”
“He got angry, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ he said. I said, ‘I didn’t realise.’ He said, ‘Let’s go back,’ he wanted to go back, and he wanted to pay for a hotel and get them clothing. He said, ‘We’ve got to find them.'”
Unfortunately, the family couldn’t be found, which Austin said frustrated McGregor, saddening him for a while.
This is a drastically different image to the one the rest of the world has had of McGregor of late – of a post-peak athlete who has courted controversy over a recent arrest for stomping on a fan’s phone, a social-media post that was called “Islamaphobic,” and because of a six-month ban from fighting that resulted from the role he played in the post-event riots that marred his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 last year.A New York Times report also emerged in March suggesting McGregor was being investigated by the Irish police over a sexual-assault allegation.
But Austin says none of this is the real McGregor.
“Those moments that I’ve seen with him, a side that truly does care about people, about helping … he’s pretty amazing and nobody really sees that side,” Austin said. “It’s what makes him special.”
McGregor is a whiskey ‘unicorn’
The way Austin tells it, there never seems to be a dull moment when you’re spending your life with McGregor.
The Irishman was defeated in a landmark crossover boxing-rules contest against Floyd Mayweather in 2017, stopped on his feet in the 10th round by one of the most masterful and defensive boxers in the modern era. A loss to the unbeaten Mayweather always seemed inevitable.
Still, McGregor walked into the post-fight press conference with sunglasses on and addressed the world’s media while wearing a colourful suit, armed with a bottle of whiskey in hand.
This man is an absolute unicorn, he really is.
Pushing his loss aside, McGregor took a swig and told reporters that he intended to “take over the Irish whiskey market.”
He then said he had a drink that was “delicious.”
It was at that moment that Austin realised the fighter was a rare breed and that working with him would pay dividends for years, decades, and perhaps even centuries to come.
“I looked at him … this man is an absolute unicorn, he really is,” Austin said. “He understands his fan base, loves his fan base, and is incredibly passionate.”
Austin, the founder and former chairman of the award-winning Avión tequila brand, approached McGregor’s long-time manager Audie Attar, the president of the Paradigm Sports Management agency and another Proper Twelve cofounder, to say he would be eager to work with McGregor on the whiskey brand providing it wasn’t something the 30-year-old just wanted to slap his name on, and that he was actually willing to work.
Attar reassured Austin that McGregor was “all in.” McGregor even surprised Austin, a successful 53-year-old entrepreneur, with a business lesson of his own.
“What I learned from him, which I’d sort of forgotten … he always says, ‘Think like a beginner,'” Austin said. “Everything you do, always think like a beginner because that’s where you learn the most. He said to me, ‘I’m a beginner. I want to learn, but I want to learn everything.’ And I was astounded at his true desire to listen, learn, and also to say, ‘Hey, I’m also going to make decisions here.'”
Perfecting Proper Twelve
Austin has met plenty of stars in his time.
Before launching Avión, which appeared on HBO’s “Entourage” and was eventually bought out by drinks giant Pernod Ricard, he was what he calls a “cab driver” for the rich and famous, a modest way of saying he ran a private aviation business where he chauffeured celebrities in the skies.
A lot of celebrities, Austin says, want to be in the spirits business, but very few have McGregor’s passion, drive, and willingness to work for the brand.
“You sit down with them and when you ask them the question of why they’re doing it, many times you can sort of see through and you can see clearly it’s about money,” Austin said. “It’s not necessarily about passion.”
“You can make a lot of money in this business and [people might think] it doesn’t seem that hard, but it’s damn hard. It really is. So with Conor … I saw that twinkle in the eye, I saw the passion, and I also saw what following he has.”
He said McGregor was heavily involved in the conception of the whiskey, which was initially called “Notorious,” as well as the tasting process, the rebranding to Proper Twelve, and the marketing of the product on social media.
For Austin, McGregor is a worker with calculated brilliance in his mind, and Proper Twelve is not just a product with his name attached; it’s also his company, his business, his passion.
Austin says he and McGregor sat through tasting sessions in which they would sample more than 100 single-malt blends that differed in “nuance and complexity” because of how and where the barrels had been stored.
But they weren’t just doing shots.
Instead, Austin and McGregor sampled “8 to 10 glasses” in a typical session. They’d “nose them, taste them, and discuss them.” Austin said that they went through round after round of tastings until they were finally down to two options.
Once a head-to-head between two glasses was established, Austin and McGregor decided the winner by comparing each glass to Jameson. Whichever glass they chose had to at least be Jameson’s equal – if not its superior.
They tasted the final glasses with a master distiller.
“Conor was in New York at my house and we tasted the last two. He looked at me and said, ‘Ken, it’s a tough call, they’re both fantastic.’ But we said, ‘OK, we have to pick one.’ And that’s what we chose.”
Reviews from the drinks industry, including a first tasting by Business Insider, were initially mixed, but the liquid has certainly proved popular with consumers.
The whiskey has sold almost 200,000 cases, or 2.4 million bottles, in its first six months of trading – and is on track to double that in its first year, according to the company.
At the time of writing, it is the best-selling Irish whiskey on Amazon UK and, according to Austin, the best-selling Irish whiskey at the duty-free shop at Dublin Airport.
Everything you see in that package has his fingerprints over it.
Austin said that Proper Twelve is attracting plenty of repeat business, a key driver for the brand’s growth.
The brand, which employs just 10 staff, has already been credited as a driver of Irish whiskey surpassing $US1 billion in sales in the US for the first time, as the Distilled Spirits Council said sales increased by 12% last year, according to Metro.
McGregor tweeted his satisfaction at the news last week, saying: “Was there ever any doubt I’d turn Whiskey to a Billi?”
Was there ever any doubt I’d turn Whiskey to a Billi?
I turned “human cock fighting” to 4.2.
I’m gonna toast on this fine Thursday this amazing news.
Sláinte to the only true Irish Whiskey we have left, @ProperWhiskey!
Irish owned forever.
Thank you all.
It has been my pleasure. https://t.co/E9RGpRxAC5
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) April 25, 2019
“Some celebrities are like, ‘Well, make it for me and I’ll put my name on it,’ and so on, but it wasn’t like that with Conor,” Austin said. “It was fun, but harder with him because he is so engaged and he wants to make decisions. He was involved in every single step. Which is not the norm.”
One decision McGregor made that Austin was adamant about changing, however, was the name “Notorious.”
“We want this brand around when your kids are talking to their kids,” Austin said he told McGregor at the time.
The pair were also dealing with trademark issues, so it made sense for Proper Twelve to be born.
“We worked on the package directly with him,” Austin added. “Every single thing you see in that package has his fingerprints all over it. The bottle, he wanted green glass. For the blend, a blend of grain and single malt. Conor wanted single malt because he wanted better taste, more flavour.”
McGregor is equally as involved in the marketing and social-media campaigns.
“If we’re putting something up on Proper Twelve’s Instagram he sees everything that goes up, before it goes up. Sometimes he’ll say, ‘I don’t feel right about that – change it.’ If it’s an image of him, he has to feel right about it. He wants to deliver to his fanbase what is always proper, what’s right.
“The engagement level is over the top and he truly wants to see the numbers. ‘What are the numbers, Ken? Where are we doing it? What customers are supporting us? What customers are not? How can I help? Who can I call? Who can I go see?’ You don’t expect this from people that are celebrities. It just doesn’t happen.”
The thing with Conor that is unbelievable is that he’s up in the morning and training. Then after a meeting, he’s training … he’s training like a fiend.
What sets McGregor apart even further isn’t that he’s genuinely involved in his business affairs; it’s that he’s involved in between energy-zapping mixed-martial-arts training.
“The thing with Conor that is unbelievable is that he’s up in the morning and he’s training. Then after a meeting, he’s training. And now, especially.”
McGregor was linked with a highly anticipated return to UFC earlier this year, following his conclusive fourth-round submission loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2018.
The UFC president Dana White had even explored two fights for him in 2019, the first against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in the summer, followed by a rematch against Nurmagomedov.
But neither fight transpired. McGregor remains without an opponent, and he even announced a shock resignation from the sport in March.
Weeks later, McGregor appeared to double back on that retirement statement by telling fans he’d see them in the octagon.
“Whether he’s retired or not, I can’t comment,” Austin said. “That’s his decision … but he is training like a fiend.”
The predictions of ‘Mystic Mac’
It’s clear there are many sides to McGregor.
There’s the athlete, the businessman, and the family man – the man who takes his 1-year-old son Conor Jack Jr. to press conferences and gives him life lessons about hard work while standing in front of private jets, and who poses with the biggest smile on his face when he’s out with his long-term partner, Dee Devlin.
McGregor has come a long way since his days spent earning his living in Ireland as an apprentice plumber, working 12-hour days before training as a fighter and eventually competing in Cage Warriors and then the UFC.
As an athlete in MMA, McGregor was often called “Mystic Mac” because his braggadocious predictions had a habit of becoming reality – something he has started doing in the corporate world in Proper Twelve business meetings.
When he was 19, McGregor had never even fought outside of Dublin and had a novice record of three wins against one loss, but boldly said he would one day be world champion in the UFC.
“I will be,” he said in resurfaced footage broadcast by the UFC. “I guarantee.”
Seven years later he knocked out the long-reigning featherweight champion José Aldo with a powerful left cross – the same shot he said would flatten his opponent during the promotional tour. He was finally a UFC world champion, like he had always said, and had won with a punch he predicted would win him the fight. Mystic indeed.
Now he’s determined to give Jameson the Aldo treatment. He wants to topple the renowned brand, which is also owned by Pernod Ricard, and he’s completely confident that he’ll make it happen.
McGregor predicted in a Proper Twelve board meeting that the company would sell out of stock as soon as the product hit the shelves, Austin said. His colleagues in the company, it seems, believed that was as bold as saying he would concuss Aldo with a single blow.
But the whiskey sold out so fast late last year that the company had to ramp up production to restock shelves for December.
“The forecast for this brand, the amount that we sold in the first wave of product was more than we expected to sell in six months by our distribution partner,” Austin told us, joking that this “was an unpleasant time” for him with McGregor.
“It was fun at times when he was saying, ‘Ken, we need more glass.’ I have been in the business for many years, and I said to Conor, ‘Please stop saying, where’s the glass, where’s the glass … we sold more in 10 days than what we thought we’d sell in six months. We couldn’t have predicted it.’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘Ken, I predicted it! But nobody listened to me. I predicted it!'”
He added that McGregor did “not enjoy apologizing” to customers when they ran out of product.
“I said, ‘Conor, it’s a high-class problem to have. It’s a good thing.’ He said, ‘It’s not a good thing!’ And he was very serious, and he pushed us very hard at our distribution partner in terms of going to the glass suppliers and creating magic in getting product back into the market before Christmas, which we did, and it sold out again in a week.”
Raising money for ‘Proper Heroes’
Last year, McGregor told Austin it was important for him to “give money” for every Proper Twelve bottle sold. Austin thought this was a “complicated” procedure but loved the idea of contributing funds to a charitable cause.
McGregor decided he wanted to give back to first responders around the world – the men and women with specialised training to provide assistance as the first on the scene of an accident, disaster, or terrorist attack.
“Conor said, ‘Ken, I get the chills when I think about it,” Austin said.
Celebrities don’t think that way, but he’s iconic.
It was decided that for every case sold, $US5 would go toward first-responder groups, capping at $US1 million annually.
“He calls them Proper Heroes,” Austin said.
The company has already raised close to $US1 million in six months, and Austin suggested McGregor might be willing to remove the cap and maintain the commitment for the rest of the cases they sell in 2019.
The bottle donation isn’t the only way McGregor tries to give back to this community.
In October last year, McGregor bought tickets for Boston Red Sox World Series games at Fenway Park and hand-delivered them to a Boston firehouse so the firefighters could attend the games.
“Celebrities don’t think that way, but he’s iconic,” Austin said.
“There’s a side to him that is what you see, but there’s also brilliance in that mind. Yes, he does some things at times, when I say as a businessperson, ‘I wish you hadn’t done that,’ but he says to me, ‘Ken, stay in your lane.’
Police arrested McGregor on charges that he slapped a phone out of a fan’s hand, stomped on it, and then walked away during an incident in Miami in March.
It all happened at Fontainebleau Miami Beach about 5 a.m. on March 11. Hours later, police found McGregor at his local address, charged him with robbery, and held him on $US12,500 bail.
Austin said all McGregor wanted to do when police arrested him was cooperate, apologise, and talk.
“All he does is shake their hands, says he wants to apologise, spend time with them, and talk to them,” Austin said. “You don’t see that with celebrity.
“He has certain feelings and emotions. While they’re not expressed how I would express them, he is who he is.
“He may not say it the right way, but the media spin it around. He doesn’t want to offend anyone.”
The ‘dictionary definition of Irish whiskey’
McGregor has undoubtedly had a massive, enduring influence in MMA, where his legacy as the hard-punching and charismatic Mystic Mac will likely last for decades.
He, too, has clearly had an influence on Austin, a man who had already built an impressive reputation as Mr. Tequila.
“I enjoy the time with him,” Austin said. “I see a different side of this human being. That’s had the passion and the aggressive attitude, but who also talks about family, about the future, and about legacy.”
Together, they’re planning to turn McGregor into Mr. Whiskey.
“If you looked up Irish whiskey in the dictionary today there would be a picture of him,” Austin said. “He represents so much of what Irish whiskey is.”
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