A few years back, I was talking to a distiller about gin when Peter Mulryan came up in conversation. I asked what he thought of Mulryan’s approach to gin making – his wild experiments. The distiller admitted he admired Mulryan, but simply said ‘he’s gone too far’. It reminded me of Eddie Jessup, the scientist in Ken Russell’s Altered States – a voyager who had pushed the limits of what man should know. When I told Mulryan this recently, he laughed. Perhaps he was tickled by the irony of it – after all, we were at the launch of his latest madcap experiment, a gin distilled from Barry’s Tea. While it isn’t the first Irish gin to be infused with tea – contrary to popular opinion, Patrick Rigney’s Drumshanbo Gundpowder Gin is not made with gunpowder, but rather with gunpowder tea – it was Mulryan’s variation that caught the public eye. Mother’s ruin and mammy’s best friend, united as one. Mulryan had achieved the singularity. But it wasn’t an easy road.
Back in 2014 he had a revelation. In a short space of time leading up to this moment, his son got sick, he turned fifty and his father passed away. He realised life is short, too short to waste time doing anything other than what you love. So he took a leave of absence from his job with RTE, the Irish state broadcaster, and decided to become a distiller. He knew plenty about whiskey – he is the author of five books on the subject, along with the host of Midleton’s pot still promos. Along for the ride were three others, who all worked in the media with Mulryan. But there is a quantum leap from writing and talking about whiskey to actually making it, and the devils that plagued his earliest experiments were not technical, but bureaucratic.
He got a unit in an industrial estate in Cappoquin, west Waterford, and set to work. From the outset there were problems – he brought in wash to distill poitin with, and Revenue stopped him. So he sold his second still and opted to focus on gin. But necessity is the mother of invention. He opted to push the boundaries of the category – after all, there are dozens if not hundreds of gins on the market here, thanks to the boom in distilling. Blackwater Distillery, as his firm is known, created a gin casked in juniper barrels, a strawberry gin, a hedgerow gin, a classic London dry gin, a navy-strength strawberry gin, and the most challenging of all, the Barry’s Tea gin. What made it challenging, according to Mulryan, was not a technical distilling detail, but just getting the Barry’s Tea company to come on board with his crazy idea. It took two years. As he points out, they are a private, family-owned business that is also a household name – they have a lot to lose, so thankfully they gained quite a bit, with the gin winning rave reviews and selling out in record time.
Mulryan also took part in the AIB Start-Up Academy, where the bank helped entrepreneurs with some of the nuts and bolts of keeping your business on the road. Obviously, he learned a lot, as Blackwater Distillery has made inroads into one of the biggest supermarket chains in Ireland. Their Boyle’s gin – in original and damson – along with Dolmen poitín and Woulfe’s vodka are on every Aldi shelf in Ireland, while they also manage to make vodka so good they can sell it to the Finns, as they won a contract to sell their product to Altia, Finland’s state-led drinks organisation.
The hard knocks of the first three years seem to be turning a corner, as Mulryan is now moving on to the second act. To mark work starting on their new distillery, they are releasing a sourced whisky. That isn’t a typo – Mulryan was of the new breed of distillers here to drop the E (Mark Reynier was the second), pointing out that it is more historically accurate. The Technical File which oversees the whiskey category allows it – so it was only a matter of time before someone did it. As he pointed out on the Blackwater Distillery blog: “For the past forty years it is true to say that Irish whiskey has been spelt without and ‘e’. But that spelling a legacy of monopoly, so as Ireland’s first whisky micro-distillery it seemed only right to mark ourselves apart from the multinationals, to look to tradition and along with dropping the ‘bs’ to drop the ‘e’.”
As for their new whisky, The Retronaut, it is the first of a series of curated releases while they get their distillery up and running, get stocks laid down and get a product to market in five to ten years time. It’s a 17 year old single malt, unpeated and matured 100% in bourbon wood – no caramel, no chill-filtering – with only 1160 bottles at 46%. The next iteration is due in spring next year. In the meantime, Mulryan is as busy as ever.
The development of his new distillery in Ballyduff is going to devour a million euro (breakdown of the funding here), but that will take it from being a pretty slice of 1950’s Americana (with asbestos roof) to state of the art three-still distillery and whiskey school (without asbestos roof). The reason it is a slice of Americana is that it was built in the 1950s by a returning emigrant, keen to start a hardware empire in west Waterford. When Mulryan bought the place, it was like a DIY Marie Celeste, an apothecary of obsolete engineering. It had to be gutted, but even then there wasn’t enough space, so they also bought another two lots – an open space alongside and a old convenience store beyond that, the last shop to close in Ballyduff, a village too sleepy to even keep a Spar going.
But with Mulryan’s business will come the visitors – the whiskey nerds, the tour buses, and the participants in his whiskey and gin schools. With the mass tourism power of Midleton just 50 minutes away to the west and the uber-nerd appeal of Reynier’s Waterford Distillery to the west, Mulryan’s mix of quaint charm, great backstory and zany ideas could make it a real draw over the next decade.
Before the big move from an ugly industrial unit to a beautiful restoration work, there has been one final boundary-pushing experiment – single batch whisky. Writing on his blog in June, Mulryan explained: “Each 50 litre cask of new make spirit starts life as approx. 500 litre batch of wort. Do the maths: one batch + two distillations = one cask. Now as each 50 litre cask takes the guts of a week to make, this isn’t a very economical way of making whisky. But on the up side as each batch is one of a kind, it means each mash bill can also be unique. So this is an experiment in taste and tradition.”
And where, you might ask, is the mashbill going to come from? “We will make the first 50 casks of single batch whisky ordered. Already 4 have gone; one to a Michelin Starred Chef, one to a banker, one to the company directors, and one to a rather stellar American pop type person. So only 46 left and when they’re gone, well you know the drill. As for the juice itself? We’re offering Single Malt, Pot Still Irish and some historic casualties. You know, mash bills that were in their day pot still whiskies, but now (thanks to the scandalous Irish pot still whisky GI) can no longer be called pot still (though they can still be Irish whisky).”
Like Eddie Jessup, Mulryan is a man not just in search of his true self, but also building a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousnesses using flavour and spirit. The countdown to the third act has begun.