The Equaliser

John O’Connell in one of the Marsh Road warehouses.

It’s Good Friday, and West Cork Distillers is going through an audit for its organic certification. John O’Connell is practically running he is walking so fast. All is going well with the audit; O’Connell seems pleased. Despite breaking the land speed record as he moves from room to room, he still finds the time to show me around. Having visited the distillery 12 months before my Easter visit, my expectation was that little would have changed. I was wrong. The notion that life moves slower down west is disproved by WCD, which seems to be accelerating its already rapid expansion. 

In one lab they have a pilot plant alongside analytical equipment, meaning they can work on experimental washes and play around with locally-sourced fruit yeasts taken from Gougane Barra woods – O’Connell is all about fermentation, and is vocal about the role it plays in determining a spirit’s flavour profile.   

Wild Gougane Barra yeasts.

One of the newer pieces of equipment dreamed up and built from scratch in WCD is an electrodialysis machine. They can analyse new make, isolate components that they might not be happy with, and run the liquid through the dialysis machine to cleanse the spirit of them.  

But while they are relentlessly pushing toward a scientific utopia, they are also pushing for greater transparency in their barrels, now only sourcing from named bodegas, eschewing non-disclosure agreements in favour of greater clarity and information for the consumer. There are few people who WCD refuse to work with, and the firms they do create drinks for run from the aristocratic Baring family behind Lambay Whiskey, to UK TV star (and west Cork man) Graham Norton. But WCD have another project underway, one which may cause ripples in the industry.

Some distilleries here are offering cask programmes as a way of generating some revenue in order to offset the massive cost of getting up and running. It is a great idea – you buy a cask and feel part of a distillery’s story. Some distilleries are charging seven to ten grand a cask. But talk to anyone who has bought casks in Scotland and they will tell you that over there prices are far more reasonable (and thus more realistic as an investment). But with people using Dingle’s founding fathers five grand buy-in as a baseline, the only way is up, and up, and up. This meant that for most of us, cask ownership was just a pipe dream.

One of the Marsh Road warehouses.

Enter then the West Cork Whiskey Co-operative, a small group gathered through word of mouth, who were given the opportunity to buy some of the 5,000 casks released for sale by West Cork Distillers. Some have bought one or two, some have bought many more. And I, dear reader, bought nine, because although I am of meager means, my dual loves of both whiskey and bargains mean that this was an offer I could not refuse: The co-op offered a 200 litre first fill bourbon barrel filled with grain spirit for 888 euro, single pot still for 990 euro, or single malt for 1,086 euro. I bought one grain, four pot and four malt. One is for my godchild, four for each of my kids, and the remaining ones may end up getting bottled at some point (thus the grain). It is a bit of madness, and a bit of fun, and I don’t expect to make any money. Whiskey is a playground for me, not a place to graft.

So here comes the economics; the annual storage and insurance in year one, as well as the administrative cost of running the co-op, is included in the entry price. With a modest price appreciation of 2-5% per annum on current market valuations for aged whiskey, investors could generate 12-15% investment returns per annum over a three-to-10-year period. The co-op will act as the legal trustee and the registered tenant in WCD’s bonded warehouse, and the investor is the beneficial owner and is allocated a share in the co-op: One member, one vote. There is also the online trading platform which offers the ability to bid on other people’s whiskey or auction your existing whiskey to interested buyers. Loss of liquid in the casks beyond evaporation (2.5% per annum) or damage due to fire etc., is fully insured at the purchase price. As for tariffs and Brexit, WCD are a global business with diversified revenue streams so they are insulated better than most. 

O’Connell’s approach to this is much like his approach to business in general – be fair. Of course, there is also a bonus for WCD – they get an injection of cash, and will always have the option to buy casks back from the co-op should they need to. After their massive expansion in the past 12 months, they may need to – four warehouses sit at the end of the Marsh Road site (foundations needed to be set 15 metres underground, as the road lives up to its name), while they are finally throwing open the doors to the public, with a sizeable visitors centre, which houses their new distillery, which comprises of three pot stills, one hybrid and one column.

If WCD make all this look easy, these stills are a reminder that it isn’t – all came from planned distilleries that were abandoned, including the stills from the Niche/Quiet Man. Setting up a distillery is an expensive business – WCD exists largely through sheer force of will, and they still embody that Mad Max spirit of innovation and invention, making any equipment they can, and sourcing everything else in as cost-effective a way as possible (they even have ouzo stills, imported to Skibbereen after they were spotted by a staff member on holiday in Greece).  

How many people bring back stills from a holiday in Greece? Usually it’s just a straw donkey.

WCD have become a force to be reckoned with – their output of four million litres per annum may be dwarfed by the likes Midleton (100 million LPA); or even their main competitors in the wholesale market, Great Northern, who boast a remarkable 11 million LPA, but WCD have something that others do not – diversity. No parent firm, column and pot distillation, on-site maturation facilities, a bottling hall, and contract activity. As Darwin noted, it is not the strongest that survives, but the most adaptive to change. WCD were created out of necessity, invention and desperation – they will try almost anything (hard kombucha, anyone?), create just about any spirit they can if they find a market for it.

WCD also has a four-pronged revenue stream – their own branded products; bulk spirits and fermentates; contract manufacturing and wholesales. Domestically, they deal with the big supermarkets – Aldi, Lidl, Dunnes, Tesco and the Musgrave Group, who own SuperValu and Centra. They also have multiple contracts overseas, and are looking to expand further. They also bought out the Halewood stake in the firm, so the two McCarthy cousins and O’Connell are now the majority shareholders. They achieved all this with no marketing team – which, in the whiskey world, is possibly the most startling fact of all.

It is early days for the co-op – but if WCD can do it, why not others? Do we want Irish whiskey to be some elitist members-only affair where only those of significant means can afford to buy a cask (or a bottle)? Is it right that some brands are charging seven grand a cask, or 300 euro for a 16 year old whiskey? More importantly, is it good for the category? We need places like WCD to create equilibrium. With the co-op, people can get a sense of how much whiskey actually costs, rather than what someone decides it is worth. Obviously I’m going to roll back on this in spectacular fashion in 16 years when I release my own bottling for a grand a pop, but until then we need to calm the fuck down. An overpriced, overheated market draws the wrong kinds of entities into the marketplace.

If you are interested in buying a cask for a reasonable price, shop around – there are plenty of places that ought to cut you a deal, and at least now punters can say well, WCD charge a grand, why are you charging five times that (or more)? As for the co-op, membership is closed, but it may re-open again in the future. Chances are that if it does, it will be done in typical WCD fashion – quietly, fairly, and with as little fanfare as possible.

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