The whiskey writer Fionnán O’Connor has a term he uses to describe the world of whiskey marketing – the ‘theatre of heritage’. It encapsulates the tragic machinations of marketing firms as they struggle to place their brand origins within ‘ye olde days of yore’, or pin Brand X to an ancient narrative or the name of someone ‘too dead to sue’ as Blackwater Distillery’s Peter Mulryan puts it. So when a whiskey brand has the courage to be in any way modern, it is a breath of fresh air. And so to one of my favourite Irish whiskeys, Writers Tears.
Apart from the fact it has the greatest name in the spirit world, it has beautiful Orla Kiely-esque packaging and tall, elegant bottle that makes it a stand-out dram before you even open it. It is also a mix of pot still and malt, which gives it a depth that belies its official status as a blend. Genuinely, this is one of my ‘you gotta trys’ – something that I am not alone in, given that multi-award winning sci-fi author Spider Robinson did the same in 2015, saying: “I’ve tried most high-end Irish whiskeys, and always kept coming back to Bushmills 1608. But I just switched loyalties. I freely confess I was initially attracted by the name alone. I’d have bought my first bottle just to own the bottle, even if the contents had been undrinkable. But it’s not why I’m now already up to my sixth bottle—and at approximately CAN$65 per bottle! In my opinion, it tastes like what God drinks when He’s sitting at His typewriter.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Bernard Walsh, the man behind Writers Tears, last year at the Jameson party here in Midleton. Bernard sources his whiskey here in east Cork, and while he has a long-term supply contract with Midleton, he has also just opened his own distillery in the wonderfully named Royal Oak in County Carlow. Here are the deets from a press release sent out on the day:
Whiskey distilling returned to County Carlow after an absence of over 200 year as husband and wife, Bernard & Rosemary Walsh, the founders of Walsh Whiskey Distillery officially opened their €25million Irish whiskey distillery by the banks of the River Barrow at Royal Oak, County Carlow. Royal Oak is now distilling Walsh Whiskey Distillery’s whiskeys, The Irishman and Writers Tears, which are already sold in 40 countries worldwide.
Officiating at the opening with the Walshs was Augusto Reina, Chief Executive of Illva Saronno SpA of Milan (owners of drinks brands Disaronno and Tia Maria) which has a 50% share in the Walsh Whiskey Distillery at Royal Oak.
Located on an 18th century estate comprising 40 acres of pastoral land, the distillery is the only independent Irish whiskey distillery producing all three styles of Irish whiskey – pot still, malt and grain from its two production lines using both pot stills and column stills.
At full tilt the Walsh Whiskey Distillery at Royal Oak has the capacity to produce 650,000 cases (two and a half million litres of pure alcohol (LPA’s) or 8 million bottles) of whiskey annually which is 9.7% of the total Irish whiskey exports in 2014.
The company actually commenced distilling on Easter Sunday this year and is laying down stocks for release from 2019 onwards after the minimum three year maturation process has been completed.
The new distillery puts Walsh Whiskey in control of its own destiny. The three key differences the distillery at Royal Oak makes to Walsh Whiskey are:
- Increased Supply to Markets: The considerable production capacity will enable the company to increase supply to the 40 markets where The Irishman and Writers Tears are already sold – especially the core markets of the United States, Canada and Europe (including Russia).
- Target New Markets in Asia: The company is already leveraging its partner Illva Saronnos’ established relationships in the Asian markets which hold great potential for Irish whiskey. Illva Saronno has major operations in India and China as well as an extensive distribution network. Countries targeted, other than India and China, include Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.
- Increase the Range of Irish Whiskey Expressions Through Greater Innovation: The keys to whiskey’s character and taste are the oak barrels used to mature them and what they have previously contained. Walsh Whiskey Distillery at Royal Oak has sourced a great variety of barrels and butts from its own and its partner Illva Saronnos’ international contacts to create every taste and hue possible for whiskey drinkers to experience.
These include bourbon barrels from Kentucky (USA); sherry butts from Jerez (Spain); Rum barrels from Saint Lucia (Caribbean) and Marsala wine casks from Illva Saronno’s own Florio Marsala Winery in Sicily (Italy).
Walsh Whiskey Distillery will allocate up to 15% of its annual production to contract sales and has recently sealed its first deal with Altia (a leading wine and spirits company in the Nordic and Baltic countries).
There was a strong attendance by the company’s international distribution partners with representatives from 22 of the 40 countries across 4 continents that already distribute The Irishman and Writers Tears. The countries represented were Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Malta, Northern Ireland, Israel, Italy, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom & the United States of America. There were also some interested observers in the form of drinks industry executives from India and Australia.
The distillery at Royal Oak will also include two maturation houses with capacity for 60,000 barrels. Work on these buildings will commence in 2017.
The distillery, which is also designed as a visitor experience, will be open to the public from this July. The tours will also incorporate the 18th century Holloden House (c.1755) in a few years when renovations are complete. A total of 75,000 ‘whiskey tourists’ are expected to visit annually by 2021.
The operations at Royal Oak will create a total of 55 permanent and part-time jobs in the Carlow area, over 5 years. The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, through Enterprise Ireland, is supporting the project.
The founder of Walsh Whiskey Distillery, Mr Bernard Walsh said: “After 17 years in business, the opening of our own distillery is both the fulfilment of Rosemary and my own dreams and a game changing moment for the company. We are now in control of our destiny and have the capacity, variety and relationships to play our part in the continued revival of Irish whiskey which is one of this country’s great traditions.”
He added: “That we can do this in a place like Royal Oak which is blessed with an abundance of the best natural ingredients as well as being a place of beauty and tranquillity is idyllic. We look forward to sharing our whiskeys and Royal Oak with the world.”
Mr Augusto Reina, Chief Executive of Illva Saronnno, Walsh Whiskey’s strategic partner said: “Illva Saronno is enthusiastic about the opening of Royal Oak and proud of the partnership with Walsh Whiskey Distillery. We look forward to continuing our support in the coming years through our know-how and expertise in the global spirits’ market.”
Michael Cantwell, Divisional Manager for the Food and Drink sectors at Enterprise Ireland said: “Enterprise Ireland is pleased to have supported this project at Walsh Whiskey Distillery. We have worked very closely with the team throughout the development of the project and welcome the employment that will be created at a local and regional level”
The distillery comprises 4,000 cubic metres of concrete, 60 kilometres s of cabling, 400 tonnes of structural steel and 30 tonnes of copper and steel whiskey distilling equipment.
Walsh Whiskey Distillery has prioritised environmental responsibility in the design of its operations including:
- By product from the production process (draff and pot ale) is recycled back into the farming industry as animal feed.
- Cooling water from the distillation process is recycled back to the River Barrow.
- The entire facility is heated using its own energy generated by the whiskey production processes. This heat supply will also eventually heat Holloden House, which dates back to c.1755, when it is fully restored in a few years time.
- The building materials used are sympathetic to the environs. The buildings are roofed in slate roof in keeping with Holloden House, copper fittings are applied, the warehouses will be clad in green and creeper plants trained up the walls and the roadways are sunken to limit visibility in what is a pastoral rural setting
- Royal Oak is home to seven species of oak tree and Bernard Walsh has commenced plans to develop an oak arboretum by planting more species under the guidance of consultant horticulturalist, Daphne Levinge Shackleton. Three young oaks (Turkey Oak and English Oak) were recently planted in from of the distillery to replace trees lost to storms in recent years.
- A stone wall restoration program will also be implemented.
If Bernard Walsh had wished to mine the past for a brand narrative, Holloden House – above in the background – has an illustrious history:
It was previously the home of Colonel Philip Doyne Vigors, an explorer of some note. His papers went to auction in 2012, and the accompanying bio reads thus:
Philip Doyne Vigors (1825-1903) was a younger son in an Irish Ascendency family who joined the army in 1846 and was stationed in Sydney, New South Wales, from 1849 to 1858. He was an intellectually curious man and his light military duties left him with plenty of opportunities to pursue his interests in natural history and aboriginal cultures. His family had a strong scientific background – his uncle Nicholas Aylward Vigors was one of the founders of the Zoological Society of London – and his writings leave the reader in no doubt that Vigors was inspired by his excitement at the extraordinary landscapes of the Pacific region, and at his exposure to different cultures. During his time in Australia Vigors wrote extensively about his experiences and findings, and put together extensive collections of seeds, minerals, shells, animal specimens, and cultural artefacts.
He also travelled on penal ships, landing on at least one occasion in Hobart in Tasmania (then Van Diemens Land) – now a modern whisky Mecca and home to Old Hobart, among others. As for his later life, in December 1880 he was Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army and stationed in Washington DC, then he was named Vice President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. He died at Holloden on 30 December 1903. The last descendants left Holloden many years ago, and after a lot of neglect it really is great to see its restoration included in Brendan’s plans. This was how it looked when they launched their plans in 2013:
There is some video from the interior of the building in this from the launch: