I interviewed this remarkable young woman last week and it went into print today, but due to space restraints they had to cut it in half. So here it is in full:
The summer of 1975 wasn’t a particularly remarkable one. The somnambulist prog of 10CC’s I’m Not In Love topped the Irish charts, there were lightning storms across the country and in the Munster Final between Cork and Kerry, sparks flew between Páidí O Sé and Dinny Allen. And in an east Cork town, one of the longest surviving distilleries in Ireland stopped producing whiskey. The stills fell silent in Midleton on a Friday afternoon, after 150 years of distilling on the site, and the (largely male) workforce trudged through the gates for the last time. Then, on the following Monday morning, they all showed up for work in the brand new, state of the art distillery to the rear of the old site, and the firm has never looked back since.
The old distillery was turned into one of southern Ireland’s busiest tourist attractions, and the new plant has been the home of Irish whiskey for the last four decades.
But distilling is coming back to the old Midleton distillery, and this time it is not being overseen by the curmudgeonly, cloth-capped chaps of yore, but by a 24-year-old engineering graduate named Karen Cotter. If she has a sense of her importance in the male-dominated history of distilling, she doesn’t show it.
For centuries, the entire whiskey industry has been almost exclusively male – from the barley famers, to the distillers, to the consumers, it was a man’s drink in a man’s world. But this young north Corkwman’s role as the head distiller of the new micro distillery in Midleton is a sign of changing times. She became part of Irish Distillers Limited through their graduate programme, which enables science grads to get a taste for the life of the distiller.
And while chemical engineering might not be a course you would associate with edibles, food and drink play a bigger part than you would think: “Across chemical engineering there would be three mains facets – energy, pharma, and food and drink. I had steered myself away from the biopharma unit because I thought I loved chemistry and then I got to college and realized I didn’t, so when the placement with IDL came up I put my name forward for it.”
But this is no ordinary course – the modern distiller needs to be a scientist and a masterful communicator too – so the application process includes submitting a video. This is Karen’s one:
This blend of an enthusiasm for science and communication skills may explain why seven of the last eight graduates from the programme have been female: “There were plenty of guys at the interview days, but it is a tough interview process – first you have to make a video as to why you should be chosen and after that there is two round of interviews, so I don’t know if it is that girls are more open to doing the video in the first place, and then there is presentations and things like that involved in the process.
“It’s tough – but you can see their thought processes behind it, the job description states that they want someone who is witty, charismatic – they are looking for a personality as well as the education behind it, because you could end up with a role like this where you need to be able to communicate effectively. That’s not to suggest that that is why guys haven’t got through, but the initial idea could put a lot of men off applying.”
But women have another advantage when it comes to distilling: Research released last year by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil revealed why women perform better in scent tests – they have more cells in the part of the brain that controls the ability to smell. It’s believed that this olfactory superpower helps mothers bond with their babies, and also helps them select a mate. It just happens that they are also naturally gifted when it comes to discerning aromas in whiskey. But developing a nose for this spirit, which has one of the most complex flavor profiles in the world, can often pose a challenge for newcomers.
“I’m still working on it; for whiskey it is a very specific set of aromas that you are working with, I’m on the distillery tasting panel – every charge that is bunged, every tanker that goes out, it is nosed by at least two if not three people, and it can’t be released from the site until that has happened, until it has been compared against the standard to see if it is perfect. So that is how I am learning to get into the scents more, where I am now at the stage where I can tell if there is a difference with something, but I’m still working on putting words to the senses.
“Also, if you’re nosing whiskey, it is very subjective, it depends what you’ve been exposed to; fruity notes are one of the things that are synonymous with whiskey, but I don’t like fruit that much, but because I can smell fruit I can still get it, but there are other people who would be more adventurous with their food and they would get different aromas.”
Of course, having Midleton’s Master Distiller Brian Nation to mentor you also helps: “Brian has been the only boss I have ever had, because of the placement and then being taken on under the programme.
“Brian is terrific, he really is. Considering he came from the same background I did, chemical engineering, he knows what areas I would be stronger in and in what areas I might need a little help, and his vast experience through working here over the years.
“He knows everything from the grain intake, to the cask filling, he has an incredible overview – and because of that he will be so helpful with the micro distillery, and even more so when it grows to have the micro brewery as well – he has the full spectrum of experience.
“And there is also Dave Quinn, he is also involved, all those years of experience – they know everything there is to know about distilling.”
The microbrewery means that the wort, a weak beer which is then distilled to make the spirit, can be adjusted via different brewing techniques or even different grains.
But as for recipes, they already have a few up their sleeve: “We are lucky as our archivist Carol Quinn came across a notebook recently and it was John Jameson’s son’s notebook from 1826s, and it details a lot of the recipes they were trying at the time, and the different ratios of the grains, what grains they used, a lot of different parameters that they would have adjusted, trying to find a new blend, so we will be trying some of those recipes to see what we will come out with, or if we can replicated something that they would have made back in the day.
“We obviously won’t know if it exactly the same, and it is a long waiting period (three years ageing minimum) so it’s trial and error now and then we won’t know for a very long time. But as it is such a small batch they will age it for much longer than three years.
“And if it is a success it could be replicated in the main distillery on a larger scale.”
A lost notebook suddenly discovered just in time for a micro-distillery launch? Sounds like marketing bumpf, but Karen swears it is not: “I didn’t believe it either, but our archivist showed it to me, and it is in very good condition despite its age, because the paper back then was made from linen so it lasted much better than our paper today. They obviously don’t use the metric system, so it is hard to differentiate what they are saying, so Brian and I spent a bit of time going through it trying to figure it out. “
And as for Karen’s family, they are proud as (whiskey-based) punch: “They were delighted; dad’s always had an interest in whiskey, and then more as Jameson upped their marketing a few years before I got my placement he had gotten a bit more into it, so he was absolutely delighted.
“Since then I introduced him to more, each year I give him a new bottle, the first it was Black Barrel, then last year it was Jameson Gold Reserve, so I will probably cap it fairly soon as I can’t be spending that much money!
“But they are delighted – it is something so different and they can actually tell their friends what I do – it’s not like an obscure office job, they know exactly what my job entails because I can bring them here and show them. They are very proud – it’s not exactly what they expected I would be doing after college though!”
As for whether they know how important her place in history is – as the first Irish woman in charge of a distillery – they are starting to realize their daughter is a rather big deal: “I don’t think so I haven’t really said much about that, but I think when I was describing the launch they started to wonder ‘what is she at down here at all, I thought she was an engineer, why is she doing interviews and why is she picking out an outfit.’ “
After the gala launch yesterday, attended by the Tánaiste Joan Burton, there will be little doubt that this is a pivotal moment for Karen and her family – and for Irish whiskey itself.
Mad Men, dames and hipsters: The evolution of whiskey’s demographics
Historically whiskey was considered a man’s drink – the fire and heat of a first sip of the hard stuff was seen as being too intense for the gentler sex. The role women played in the early days of whiskey was often in opposition to it via the Temperance movement and driving the subsequent Prohibition act in the US. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill – himself an enthusiastic whiskey drinker – saw the revenue that could be created for the war effort via the Scotch industry. American GIs fell in love with the drink, and kept that love when they went home. Scotch became tied into notions of the heroic male, home from the war after serving his country – Don Draper’s messy personal life is oiled with the golden liquid. But the rise of Irish whiskey in the past decade has a lot to with a subculture that Draper’s era would have despised – hipsters. They took old tropes of Victorian masculinity – bushy moustaches, sailor tattoos, hard liquor – and played with them, making them the iconography of the flaneur and the modern dandy. Scotch was, however, ‘too mainstream’ so the hipsters of Brooklyn and all the other gentrified ghettos of cool around the world took Irish whiskey as their own. We were the underdog – but thanks to them, but not any more: The launch of the micro-distillery in Midleton also coincided with Jameson selling five million cases of Jameson in the past 12 months – a staggering 60 million bottles. Now we are truly the mainstream.