In 2013, Barry Crockett retired from his role as master distiller in Midleton. His father Max was master distiller before him, and the family lived in the distiller’s cottage on the grounds. It was in this house that Barry was born. It was an old way of life in distilling, one that just doesn’t exist any more.
To mark Barry’s retirement, a local freesheet named The Cork News spoke to him about the change that was coming in his life and how he felt about it. The interview was conducted by the fantastically talented Maria Tracey, who sadly later left journalism for PR. The paper she wrote it for is no more. Their website was still active until recently, but now that too is gone. So here, for posterity, is the interview. Obviously, I have absolutely no claim to this, as it is not my work, nor do I have any copyright over it, but it’s an excellent piece worth preserving on some platform.
“I wake up at about 6.30am, and my first thought is usually influenced by whatever the news headlines were the previous evening. I wonder what has changed overnight, in terms of world news, and turn on the radio to listen to Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1.
A rushed breakfast normally involved cranberry or orange juice and two slices of toast with ham, tomatoes or bananas. It’s never anything too dramatic. I then head to the Midleton Distillery, where I’m head distiller, and get on with all the normal things that one does when they go to work in the morning.
It might seem unusual for those outside looking in that I was literally born into the job. When my father, Max left school, he was offered a position in the Watercourse Distillery in Blackpool and was eventually promoted to Midleton around 1945. He became master distiller and I was born at the Distiller’s Cottage where the old distillery is now.
Looking back, as a child I can remember being around the garden and seeing people coming and going. I remember the horses, one of my earliest memories. At the time, as was the case in Cork city, horses were widely used for transporting materials. There were several in Midleton hauling very heavy carts, just like the horses in the Budweiser ads.
I’ve spent all my life here, but for me, that’s not strange. As a child you accept these things and it’s only with hindsight that you can really evaluate it. Back then, in professions like banking or medicine, it was quite normal for a father to be a bank manager or doctor, and their son afterwards. And so becoming a distiller was a path for me. It wasn’t exactly cast in stone but more of an ‘open door’. I could have done other things but distilling was the way it ended up. If that hadn’t been the case, I was always particularly interested in history so maybe the teaching profession was a route I could have taken.
Every morning I receive a report on what has happened over the previous 12 or 14 hours, as the distillery is a seven-day week, round-the-clock operation. We have a quality meeting, which involves a wider group of people, and of course, part of the head distiller’s job is to assess quality.
The journey of the whiskey starts with the harvesting of the barley in the autumn. It’s all sourced within a 35-mile radius of the distillery but we don’t buy barley directly from farmers anymore, as the volumes are too large. Instead merchants assemble it to our specifications and if we are happy with it, then we will arrange to purchase the stock for the brewing process. The barley is malted and we effectively produce a type of beer that we describe as a ‘wash’, with an alcohol content of 10%.
Then there is the triple distillation sequence. You fill a very large, onion-shaped copper vessel- and when I say large, I mean very large, with a capacity of 750 hectolitres, or about 17,500 gallons- and apply heat. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water so by boiling the wash at around 80°C the alcohol vapours rise out of the neck of the still and through a condenser to return back into a liquid. It is then distilled a second time and ultimately a third time until you have a spirit with the strength of 84% left.
Maturation follows and the alcohol is reduced in strength by the addition of water, which is filled into a number of different types of oak barrels. Of course, by law, whiskey has to be matured for a minimum of three years. In most cases it would be way more. It’s a long-term investment where whiskey’s involved.
During the day, each batch of new spirit is assessed. We produce around 100,000 litres of pure alcohol every 24 hours, so it’s a big operation that’s going to become an awful lot bigger- doubling to 200,000- with the expansion.
Another important aspect of the job is that following maturation, we send tankers of finished whiskey to our bottling facilities in Dublin and we have a tasting exercise set up so nothing leaves the plant until it passes quality control. After that is taken care of, there is administration work to follow up on, and meetings about ongoing engineering work.
It’s all extremely exciting. In my career I’ve seen three separate distilleries being started, which is unusual. There was an expansion at the old distillery back in the late 60s, when I just started working here. And then there was the major expansion in the mid to late 70s and now, of course, there is a whole new development with innovative techniques like energy efficient column stills.
I am stepping back from it. You don’t walk into a job like this and take it over overnight. So, when I retire my colleague, Brian Nation, who has been working with us for years, will be taking over from me. It’s an appropriate time for me to go, as I’m passing on the baton to a younger generation. The fact that the industry is so long-lived is fantastic, you can see generations and generations carrying on and developing the business.
The techniques we use have been tried and tested. What each era brings is a small improvement overall with better technology. What we are distilling today won’t appear in the form of whiskey until 20 years time and while I certainly hope that I’ll be around in 20 years time, the industry will obviously have evolved. We sometimes say we are just tenants or custodians for a brief period of time, before handing it on.
I know my father could never have imagined the success of Jameson. It’s a remarkable story as the Irish distillery industry was in quite a weakened state in the early 60s. The pooling of interests by a rather enlightened group of directors to form the Irish Distilleries Group and the decision to export outside of Ireland followed by the taking on of the Group by Pernod Ricard in the 80s has seen annual case sales of Jameson going from 450,000 to four million cases per annum. That is quite remarkable.
For lunch, I usually eat in the canteen. They have a very good selection there, like roast beef or curry with rice and chips. I also have a few cups of tea throughout the day.
After lunch, I may have to meet with a barley supplier on the prospects for the forthcoming harvest. Commodities are highly volatile in terms of price levels and we have to predict the cost so we can budget for it. Nothing happens without the money there!
The end of the day is about assessing what happened over the previous hours and looking ahead to what will happen over the coming night. I finish up around 5.30pm and may have a dinner to go to or a conference. If I head home, my wife Bridget and I have tea at around 7pm. I can’t eat too much at night, just a salad. I don’t want to have two dinners in one day.
To be honest, I prefer to be out a lot of time if I can manage it. I’m a member of different clubs like the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. I’ve always liked hill walking as well but I haven’t been doing a lot of that recently, so maybe I’ll have more time in the future. I also have a strong interest in sailing but last summer was disastrous!
With it being winter, we’ve been to a plethora of films over the last month, like Argo and Lincoln. In the evenings, I usually read the newspapers after tea, because I don’t have time during the day. I would be a whiskey drinker- not at work obviously- but more for relaxation. Not on a regular basis, but if there are events that I have to attend, then I will have a glass there.
Looking back, being appointed head distiller in 1981 was a defining time for me. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in terms of how things have developed. What is totally unexpected is the Lifetime Achievement award by the Whisky Advocate magazine that I picked up and will be presented with in October. I must say it is something quite amazing as it’s the first time an Irish man has been chosen.
Retiring on Monday, March 18th, might seem like it’s linked to St Patrick’s Day but it’s actually my birthday, my 65th to be precise. So as it’s a public holiday, I’ll probably finish the Friday beforehand. Honestly, I think that will be my real defining moment. It will not be the end or a descent into aimless nothingness. It’s, as I like to describe it, the beginning of my new career.”