Life of Riley

Christian Davis meets Martin Riley, an experienced marketer who has overseen some of the most significant spirits renaissances, including those of Jameson and Chivas Regal


MARTIN RILEY HAS worked for some of the largest drinks companies in the world and on some of the biggest spirits brands. His CV includes Sandeman, James Burrough, Allied-Lyons/Domecq, Seagram and Pernod Ricard/Irish Distillers.

He has lived and worked in France, Ireland, Russia, Belgium and the UK.

The 62-year-old retired as Pernod’s chief marketing officer in 2014. A member of the Worshipful Company of Distillers and the Worshipful Company of Marketers, he now consults.

Born in Manchester, Riley’s father was a scaffolder. When he was about eight, his dad took him up but views over the smoky, grimy city failed to inspire him. Not for him the heady heights of scaffolding – he got into Oxford to study modern languages. At that point he was a beer drinker and a member of the rowing club, but a friend suggested he joined the university wine society and that was his first experience of taking drinks seriously.

Part of the course was a year in France teaching English. Riley ended up in Revel, a small town between Toulouse and Carcassonne with some 5,000 souls. Yet it had four distilleries, mainly making fruit liqueurs, the most famous of which is Get 27, a mint liqueur still popular in France and now owned by Bacardí. During his time, Riley gained an appreciation of wine and a taste for Armagnac.

At the end of his Oxford days, there was the “milk round, applying for the usual sorts of things”, he says. “Then I saw an advertisement. Sandman was looking for a graduate. It was working in London on Offley port, which was a 50:50 venture between the Sandeman family and Martini.”

The then Canadian drinks giant Seagram bought Sandeman (with Offley going to Martini) around 1980. Riley found himself looking after Seagram in the Benelux countries.

In 1984, Riley noticed an ad from London distiller James Burrough, looking for a UK marketing manager for its Beefeater gin brand. Riley was interviewed by Burrough’s legendary figure, Alan Mays-Smith.

“I had done my research on the company but then Alan went to this wooden cabinet and said: ‘This is what I want you to work on,’” says Riley.

He presented what must be one of the very first RTDs (ready-to-drink). What came to be known as the Mixed Doubles, it was a double Beefeater gin and tonic in a single-serve bottle with a ring-pull lid and a wide enough mouth as to make drinking straight from the bottle easy. At 99p, it was a no-brainier for tired, harassed, commuters needing a drink on the way home, picnickers, golfers and yachtsmen/women.

Riley makes no claim to inventing the concept but he rode its wave of success. “It was exhilarating. It was absolutely taking the tiger by its tail. It was formally launched at the Earls Court Boat Show and went down a storm.”