“Nobody knows anything about us,” John O’Connell says of West Cork Distillers, the firm he co-founded and has poured 17 years of his life into.
It seems incongruous – at a time when Irish whiskey is booming, one of the most grassroots, ground-up operations in the country is also one of its least well-known. This is partly because they have no marketing department, no PR wing, and any money they have is put into making more whiskey, rather than advertising. As a result, they developed something of an air of mystery in the Irish whiskey scene – rumours circulate that they are the source of much of the third-party stock on the market (they are not), that they were behind Conor McGregor’s whiskey (that honour is held by Bushmills) or that they are some sort of secret state, a North Korea of Irish whiskey (this, they most definitely are not). West Cork Distillers, much like their founder, are simply quiet.
John O’Connell has no official title, a jarring fact given that he has his pick of several – master distiller, co-founder, CEO, CFO, visionary. But he doesn’t want a title, as he likes to run WCD with no hierarchical structure. Even the title of the company he created reflects this ethos – it is West Cork Distillers, not West Cork Distillery; this is about people, not things. When I asked if I could meet him in the Skibbereen distillery, he had one condition – that I meet as many of the staff as possible, as they were as central to the story of WCD as anything. And what a story it is.
From the little fishing village of Union Hall, O’Connell was one of nine children. After school he did a Phd in colloidal chemistry and food science only to discover upon graduation that there were few jobs for colloidal chemists in Ireland. Despite his claims that he ended up in this line and in the sciences generally ‘through confusion’ and that there is no masterplan to his career, his family have a tradition of science – his mother was a science teacher, while his sister is a doctor. His mother’s father was from Reenascreena between Glandore and Leap, and he was also a science teacher and keen botanist – he was also key to the excavation of Drombeg stone circle.
Despite the lack of jobs, O’Connell didn’t want to leave Ireland to find work, but he ended up working with Unilever doing food science research in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, and Japan. Unilever was based on a campus that had so many staff it had its own bank, while staff members could often be seen playing croquet at lunch – this was a vast organisation.
O’Connell realised that he could affect little change at Unilever, so he moved on to Kerry Group, a job which he loved. As head of research, he was in control of a significant budget and travelled all over Europe to food science plants conducting research. He says joining Kerry Group was the second best decision he ever made, and leaving it was the very best – because that was the genesis of West Cork Distillers.
Not far from O’Connell’s family home in Union Hall lived his two first cousins, Denis McCarthy and Gerard McCarthy. All three came from large families, and O’Connell says he can’t remember a time in his life when Ger (one of eight children) and Den (one of seven) weren’t in it. The McCarthy cousins became deep sea fishermen, a brutal job which in its modern form is akin to a kind of indentured servitude, as you are tied to an ever-deepening debt for your boat and gear.
So the three cousins decided to come up with something else to do. First they were going to process seaweed, but the capital expenditure on that was too high. So they set up West Cork Distillers in a room at the back of Den’s house, with two small stills they bought from a schnapps producer in Switzerland. It may seem like an odd choice of venture – this was back in 2003, when Irish whiskey was only starting to wake from its century-long slumber, and it made almost no economic sense to start what a media savvy marketing team would brand as a craft micro-distillery.
It made no sense to open a distillery – but there was a tradition of distilling in the family. O’Connell came from a long line of distillers – albeit the illegal variety. O’Connell’s father came from Coppeen in the Coolea Mountains, the poitin heartland of west Cork, where many families ran their own stills. His father’s brother even took the family’s distilling heritage overseas – working in the 1960s as a porter in a UK hospital he set up what he claimed was a dark room for developing photos, but was in fact an illicit still – run right under the noses of the nuns. So while there was a tradition of science in the family, there was a less well-known tradition of distilling there also. Embracing this ancient art, and using his vast expertise in food science, O’Connell and his cousins set to making alcoholic spirits in a back room, hoping for the best.
The first product from West Cork Distillers was Drombeg, which was not distilled, but was fermented, meaning it benefited from the advantage of a lower revenue rate. However, the State didn’t see it that way, and so it was that the three friends took on the Irish Revenue Service in Dublin Castle, represented themselves, and won. They got the better tax rate. This was going to be one of several skirmishes with the various arms of the state for the west Cork men.
In the meantime, they got to work on their distilling operation, building equipment as they needed to expand. O’Connell says that if you find yourself a fisherman, or a farmer, then you have a person of many skills – chemist, welder, builder, meteorologist, fabricator. As they expanded, they built everything they needed from scratch, and still do – the majority of equipment in West Cork Distillers sizeable operation outside Skibbereen has been built on site. To see how much they have built is inspirational – elements such as The Rocket, ‘the fastest still in the world’ according to drinks consultants Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley. But it’s name isn’t just from the speed it distills at, but the fact that it looks like a ballistic missile, although keen observers will note that the top of it looks very much like a large domestic boiler, because that is, in fact, what it is.
After their Drombeg release came the Kennedy range, which brought more controversy as whiskey fans felt it was an insult to their category; it was a brown spirit at a lower ABV that was aimed at the Asian market, a field that O’Connell knew from his travels. He says himself that with their earliest products they were ‘clutching at straws’ to get the firm off the ground. Undaunted by drinks snobbery, they ploughed on with their firm, despite the fact that at times it must have felt like the whole world was against them.
O’Connell’s family were shocked that he had left a dream job as head of R&D with Kerry Group to make booze in a back yard, so he had to make it work. WCD didn’t have time to pander to whiskey snobs, so they released Kennedy as a savoury brown spirit. However, they were making straight up whiskey as well. They started laying down new make in 2008 and increased the volumes they were laying down in 2012, with higher volumes again in 2014. O’Connell went on a fact-finding mission to MGP, Indiana’s super-producing distillery, saw how they worked, both as a producer and as a commercial entity, and replicated it with WCD.
After five years in Den’s yard, they moved to Skibbereen’s Market Street in 2014, and with the expansion they now had rates to pay, staff to pay, and all the pressures of a growing business. Fortunate then that they landed what was a massive new-make contract, which helped them turn a corner. This was also a turning point for the Irish whiskey category – sales were accelerating, but rather than cash in, WCD have kept a level head – as O’Connell says, if they are selling their whiskeys for more than Redbreast, they are losing. They need to keep that competitive edge against the big guns.
O’Connell has a fantastically down to earth attitude about WCD. He is polite, and good company, but he isn’t one for schmoozing. He recently pulled WCD from the Irish Whiskey Association, as he felt it was an unnecessary expense for his firm. WCD just keep their head down and work, quietly growing all the time. They don’t do tours of their distillery, but they never turn anyone away.
The site they bought in 2016 – a former fish processing plant – is a 12.5 acre area where they do everything – fermentation, distilling, warehousing, bottling – and almost all the equipment was built by hand right there in west Cork.
“Desperation is great motivation,” O’Connell humbly says, but they have clients all over the world – more than 65 countries, from Japan to Belize, the latter being a country that O’Connell had to try and find on a map after the deal was closed.
Underneath all of this work, all this blood sweat and tears, is O’Connell’s vision to just make Irish whiskey accessible – it’s an ethos reflected in both their pricing and their range. Their sourced range – the ten and 12 year old malts finished in sherry and rum casks – retail for about 42 euro a bottle. Most of the sourced ten year old malt on the shelf in Ireland is around 60 and upwards, even though they quite possibly come from the exact same distillery (either Bushmills or Cooley, most likely the former).
O’Connell is one of the most disarmingly open and honest people you will meet in Irish whiskey – he will tell you anything if you simply ask. At talks or tastings he shares spreadsheets of their production output, and talks openly about buying equipment to analyse their own and their competitors products to get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. He is an extraordinary man, a man of great faith, in science, in religion and in people, who has never backed down and never given up on WCD. He says that, if he could go back, he wouldn’t do it all again, that the price has been too high, all the heartbreak and battles too their toll. But it is hard to imagine him anywhere else.
Asked if he would sell if the money was right, his response is a straight no: “I wouldn’t know what to do. I work six days a week, on Sunday I go to Mass and have dinner with my mother and father, but then I’m back in here in the afternoon. I love working here with my friends and I love that our business has a positive effect on the economy locally.”
With 54 staff – many having come from the fishing industry – and an ever expanding operation, WCD is a significant employer in a region where jobs can be harder to find than they are closer to the urban centre of Cork city. WCD have sourced whiskey, produce for third-party sales, release their own stock under their own labels as well as celebrity brands such as Pogues Irish Whiskey, and are not afraid to experiment, releasing a whiskey finished in a cask that has been infused with peat smoke, an inversion of the famous scotches made with peated barley. They even make small amounts of rye and rum, and also buy in rum from eight different islands in the Caribbean. They also have about 20,000LPAs of mature pot still whiskey. Half of their new make is sold to other people – bourbon, scotch and Japanese whisky producers – but they still have plenty for themselves, and have built an excellent relationship with the McLoughlins of Kelvin Cooperage, a relationship that saw WCD getting their hands on ex-Michter’s rye casks that were toasted, rather than charred, a relative rarity. Everything with WCD is kosher – literally, as they were the first Irish distiller to receive kosher certification. WCD is growing, quietly, and with little fuss. There are no headline-grabbing PR stunts, just heads-down whiskey business. At the heart of it all is O’Connell’s wish to make Irish whiskey accessible, no frills, no bells and whistles, no spin – a whiskey for the people, produced in a distillery for the people.
This interview ran on FFT.ie during the week.