Here be dragons

The meeting of Grace O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth I (a later illustration from Anthologia Hibernica, vol. 11, 1793)

Grace O’Malley lived – this much we know. The full facts of her story exist in the space between history and folklore, the former telling us that she was a ruthless warrior, a veritable Daenerys Targaryen, but with boats instead of dragons. The latter tells us that she was a pirate queen, oft portrayed in the buxom pastels of a swashbuckling bodice-ripper, and described using patriarchal terms like feisty and headstrong. Whichever version you subscribe to, O’Malley, or Gráinne Mhaol, or Granuaile, was an outlier – a woman of power in the late 1500s, a time when women had no power at all. 

Born into the Irish aristocracy, O’Malley was surrounded by men with names like Donal The Warlike and Iron Richard, but stormed her way to power in defiance of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. O’Malley was fighting against more than British tyranny when she commanded her warships – she was fighting against the death of Gaelic rule, a battle that she would never win. Her death in 1603 marked the passing of an old order, and the start of a new Ireland, for better or worse. 

Stephen Cope speaking at the launch in Howth Castle.

Stephen Cope knew he was onto something when he trademarked Grace O’Malley’s name. As the former MD of Lír Chocolates, the Mayo man understood that Brand Ireland isn’t just about quality food and drink, it is also about storytelling, and that this is a nation overflowing with stories waiting to be told. With whiskey sales accelerating, a plan was hatched to release a whiskey that told the story of O’Malley. 

Stefan Hansen loves rugby. He played it professionally in his early years, and still dabbles a little, on and off the pitch. When he was 23 he realised that if he was to become a full-time pro, he would have to leave Germany, and probably never return. So he chose his homeland, and another path, forging a successful career in a global advertising firm, eventually breaking away with his friend Hendrick Melle to found private equity investment company Private Pier Investment and Private Pier Industries. The two had some brand experience with Ireland, via a pet food firm named Irish Pure, but they understood that Irish produce was respected around the world for its excellence. The trio set to work building the Grace O’Malley brand, but they needed product. They were looking for mature stock in the middle of a whiskey boom, when everyone is looking for mature stock. 

John Teeling is famous for being the teetotaller entrepreneur who democratised Irish whiskey, but he is also a rugby fanatic. When the O’Malley team sailed into the boardroom of Great Northern Distillery to talk shop, it ended up being a 45-minute deep dive into rugby lore, with Hansen and Teeling rolling back the years. As the meeting ended, the actual business of the day was casually mentioned – the O’Malley crew were seeking whiskey. Hansen asked for a large amount of mature stock – of both excellent quality and age. Teeling said yes. The deal was done, and Grace O’Malley Whiskey was out of dry dock. They then brought in Paul Caris of drinks consultancy Alteroak. Caris, a Frenchman who works with gin and brandy producers, set to work on the whiskeys, aligning the different age statements with cask finishes, and arranging the releases in three distinct categories. 

The top level is the Captain’s Range: These are all 18 year old single malts, non-chill filtered and without E150a; the first is exclusively bourbon cask, limited to 900 bottles and retailing for 349. There are also 450 bottles of this released at cask strength, and these retail for 649.  The Amarone cask finish edition is limited to 450 and is €449, while its cask strength edition is limited to 250 bottles at €799.99. The 450 bottles of cognac cask finish are €399.99 each – the Amarone and Amarone Cask Strength are available to pre-order on the site now. 

The prices seem excessive, but the team says that they are limited releases and they have also based the pricing ‘on an independent chemical analysis of the composition and objective quality of the distillate’.  They also say the pricing also reflects Caris’s involvement; while they also claim the wood barrels – Italian, Jamaican and French – are the absolute best provided by Caris’s company. The firm also says the finishing – ‘fresh and wet’ –  is unique and they are only able to do this through Caris’s sourcing knowledge and links to the top wine and cognac makers. Cynics might say that the buyer would need to be fairly fresh and wet themselves to splash out 800 on a bottle of 18 year old single malt, but this is a booming category and premiumisation like this was inevitable. 

Some booze at the launch.

Fortunately, for the steerage passengers among us, there is the mid-range Navigator whiskeys – the Dark Char and Rum Cask blend, and the Dark Cask blend, both priced at €64.99. The Crew Range will be the entry level whiskey which will be a blend launching in June with an RRP of €39.99.  This is a blend of 40% triple and double distilled single malts and 60% grain whiskeys of varying age statements up to 10 years old. They will also have a Heather Infused Gin – RRP €42.99 – in their Crew Range and a Golden Caribbean Rum. 

There are plans for a maturation facility on the west coast, and the trio are estimating that they will be generating €6m in revenues within five years. There are no plans for a distillery – the Grace O’Malley brand is going to be independent bottlings, with an eye to bonding in the future. The brand is launching across Europe, but as with so many Irish whiskeys, America is the promised land, where the brand hopes to appeal to the 33 million people who claim Irish ancestry. 

Stefan Hansen, Stephen Cope and Hendrick Melle

With its character-driven narrative you could write this off as a novelty release, and some of the imagery used in the campaign doesn’t do a huge amount to dispel this unease:

However, this is a brand with something for all palates (and wallets); entry level to super premium, blends to well aged single malts. Leather bound bottles make it eye-catching to the average consumer, while those limited numbers on the high end bottles will appeal to collectors. The team behind the brand are keen to celebrate the strength of their links to Great Northern Distillery, but going forward this may need to shift – the idea of independent bottlers is that they are independent, and bottle from multiple sources. It may be hard to convince the whiskey nerds of the value of your brand if all you can offer them is repackaged Cooley/GND. There are others out there building indie bottling brands based on a broad range of distilleries and expressions. But these are early days for the O’Malley brand, and the team are putting in the hard yards on building that identity. 

The narrative is on point – they held the launch in Howth Castle, where in 1576, when O’Malley was refused access to the castle, she took the occupant’s owners relative hostage until they were forced to allow her entry, and as a result, a place at the table is always set for her. Perhaps to balance the all-male team team behind the brand, they are sponsoring a yachtswoman who happens to be a descendant of O’Malley. Westport native Joan Mulloy took part in the 50th La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro Race, which sailed into Irish waters for its Kinsale stopover in June. Dubbed ‘the Tour de France of the Ocean’, Mulloy and her co-skipper raced under black sails emblazoned with the name of her ancestor. Having been the first Irishwoman to compete in La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro last year, Joan’s ultimate goal is to compete in the Vendee Globe, a solo round-the-world-race in 2020. Joan will represent the brand in a number of events and special challenges, including a trip later this year retracing the route of her ancestor who sailed from Clew Bay to London for a meeting with Queen Elizabeth I in 1593. With their supply line secured, and the wind in their sails, the Grace O’Malley line of drinks are heading into relatively uncharted waters – that of indie bottlers in a rapidly developing category. Unlike Grace, history is on their side, whether that will be enough remains to be seen.

See https://graceomalleywhiskey.com/ for more. Below are some photos from the launch.

If you are still reading this, there is an excellent piece by Charlie Taylor in the Irish Times that goes into a lot of the real nitty gritty of the brand, ie, not a load of conjecture and hyperbole like the above.

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