The Workhorse

Daithí O’Connell is in the rare position of being an Irish person who aspires to ending up in a workhouse. As one of the few bona fide independent bottlers here, his business is not only thriving, but is expanding – and now he wants to give his brand a physical home, in a historic building once used to accommodate the destitute during Ireland’s hardest years. 

Two years on since we last spoke, much has happened – his Bill Phil peated whiskey sourced from Great Northern is in its fifth iteration, and he has pivoted from being an aspiring Irish whiskey bottler to announcing his intention to bottle five Scotch whiskies – one from each of the so-called whisky regions, starting with a 10-year-old Bruichladdich Lochindaal. 

“The Caledonian series has four more regions to see a bottle and complete the initial set,  before we can start being able to bottle Scotch ad hoc,” he told me via email.

“I have my eyes on all major whisky regions plus some other spirits and wines I would like to add which compliment our business model and tie the story together.” 

And just as Gordon and Macphail and Cadenhead have a physical presence you can visit, O’Connell wants a home for his brand. 

“Our new headquarters will be at The Workhouse in Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford, and I’m delighted to say we have a 25-year lease agreed. We will be the single largest tenant on the site with over 25,000 square feet of space plus ancillary parking and access. We will develop the site over three phases and will start phase one in September with equipment landing in October and November.”

Specifying that tourism is not his priority – despite its ideal location along the Waterford Greenway – maturation, blending and bottling will all be brought in house. But tourism will surely be a component, as aside from the benefit of having all that history and heritage on-site, O’Connell will also be neighbours with Aidan Mehigan’s Gortinore Distillery when it gets up and running, making this one of the few places outside of Dublin where two significant whiskey attractions will be within walking distance of each other. 

But whiskey is a challenging business, and despite his extensive background in the corporate world, I asked him what three things he has learned since getting into the category. 

  1. “While whiskey maturation might be a slow process the business itself is a lot more fast paced and demanding than I imagined in these early days. 
  1. “My position controlling as much of the process as you can is essential, I guessed it would be but I now know it is for fact.
  1. “Route to market is paramount.”

But on that last note, he appears to be doing well: “We just launched in Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg and will be launching in South Africa and the US in October. It’s going to be a busy time for us with those and the new brand home so I decided we should do some contract distilling also after we just harvested our first crop of barley.” 

He is also one of a group of smaller producers who came together as a kind of indie Irish Whiskey Association, under the name The Irish Whiskey Guild. I asked him what they hoped to achieve: “We will represent our members on items our members request to be represented on. We are currently preparing a submission for the DAFM on the Irish whiskey technical file. We will also be working with Bord Bia on items. There is opportunity for commercial cooperation also so all this will happen over time. We are all volunteers who run our own businesses so things move a little slower. 

“I can’t speak for other members of the guild as to why they do or don’t join the IWA. We do have some members who are in both and we see no issue as to why the two can’t work side by side.  I do know that IBEC membership fees are off putting for some. 

“Our common goal is the betterment of the Irish whiskey industry. The benefits are that we are essentially a self help group for small producers. We have very different issues than the bigger players and can help each other out by transfer of knowledge and cooperation. We can also lobby for change and have our voice heard as a unified group. 

“We pay a flat €100 per annum membership sub that is to be used for administrative costs. There are two membership levels. Full and associate. Associates-are allowed sit in on meetings, part take in events etc and express opinions however they have no voting rights. Each full member has a single vote. 

“Full membership is based on your status as a whiskey producer. Have a distillery that definitely distills whiskey or have whiskey in market plus your own bond or a bonded tenancy in place. Each membership application is taken on a case by case basis.”

O’Connell is refreshingly honest about the business he is in and how capital thirsty it is: When I asked what the biggest obstacle to getting into the industry was, he was blunt: 

“Money is essential. Double what you think you need and then double it again.” 

So just like when pouring a dram, it’s always best to make it a double. 

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