Most of Ireland’s distilleries were built in the last decade. We don’t really have beautiful historic distilleries like Scotland does. Not that their distilleries are all postcard scenes from the days of yore – for every chocolate box distillery like Strathisla there is a more utilitarian operation like Tamdhu. But Ireland has an amazing array of buildings housing distilleries – from Dingle, housed in a steel shed built onto a historic sawmill, to the farm distilleries in what looks like a haybarn, to the purpose built compact and bijou ones like Connacht, we have a bit of everything. While there are some curious distilleries built in curious places, few compare to the setting of Lough Gill Distillery.
Hazelwood House has quite the history – it was the first Palladian house in Ireland designed by Richard Cassels, who also designed Leinster House, Russborough House, and Powerscourt House. It was built in 1731, then occupied by Wynne family for 200 years, then lay empty from 1923 to 1930. The estate around the house was sold to the Land Commission and State Forestry Department in 1937, the house was occupied by the Irish Army in 1943, then purchased by Department of Health in 1947 for use as psychiatric hospital, and then, in what would become one the oddest developments for a stately home, it was bought by an Italian manufacturing company in 1969 and incorporated into a massive factory complex producing nylon yarn. The factory closed in 1983 and was bought in 1987 by the South Korean company SaeHan Information Systems, who produced video tapes on the site until 2005.
This is, to me, the defining image of Hazelwood – this beautiful historic home, sat on a peninsula jutting into Lough Gill, surrounded by woodland, with a sprawling factory out the back. It’s like a Terry Gilliam-directed steampunk dreamscape – aristocracy and industry colliding, Howl’s Moving Distillery. Of course it is easy to furrow the brow and ask, WTF were the planners thinking. But this was an area starved of jobs in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, so when someone came to them and said they wanted to open a factory and create hundreds of jobs, I would imagine aesthetics went out the window. You can’t eat the scenery.
From the Strathislas to the Macallans, distilleries are basically chemical plants. There is a frankness about Lough Gill that makes it stand out – that this is an industrial chemical process, and dressing it up in thatch and slate is deception. Of course, it does have impressive frontage – a stately home to whisper heritage and authenticity, and then a brutal factory reveal to say, we make booze, so suck it losers. I like the chaos of it.
David Raethorne is the entrepreneur behind Lough Gill. A software engineer by trade, he founded healthcare software business Helix Health in 1987, which was bought by US investment group Eli Global in 2014 for a reported €40m. Raethorne was also an early investor in Smiles Dental, which sold to Oasis Dental in 2014 for €36m. After buying Hazelwood eight years ago, he unveiled his plans for a distillery, raising €3.5m through the tax-efficient employment and investment incentive scheme (EIIS) in 2019, and in May 2021 they secured €15 million debt financing from Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank. The old adage about how to make a small fortune in whiskey – start out with a large fortune – springs to mind, but Raethorne isn’t prone to failure.
The extra funds have allowed them to ramp up production since their Frilli stills were commissioned in 2019 – from July last year the plant was to start 24-hour production (resulting in 14 casks filled a week) under the stewardship of their Australian distiller, Ollie Alcorn. Hailing from the wine-producing Barossa Valley near Adelaide, this wouldn’t be Alcorn’s first rodeo – mainly because he used to work in an actual rodeo, as well as working on pearl diving boats, and in the wine industry. Alcorn’s wife Isabel is Irish and after moving to Dublin in 2008 they made the sensible decision to leave it and ended up in Sligo. With his background in drinks he was made head distiller at Lough Gill, and then guided by Scotch whisky legend Billy Walker in all aspects of whiskey production. It’s also worth noting that Lough Gill plans to make single malt, and single malt only – no clear spirits, no single pot still, no grain.
Raethorne’s plans for the house include using its vaults for whiskey tastings, but even as the proud owner of a sprawling distillery and warehouse complex, he admits it is an eyesore and suggested disguising it with a water feature. But in the meantime, while they wait for their own stock to mature, Lough Gill has released some sourced whiskeys.
I have made the point many times that I understand why distilleries source whiskey, but that doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed when they do. I know they need or want money, but it is a lessening of the brand in my eyes when they chuck out another distillery’s product with their own distillery’s name on it. Lough Gill’s whiskey brand, Athrú, is not conspicuously branded with Lough Gill Distillery logos, but they are there, embossed on the glass, and on the label, along with the words ‘produced by Lough Gill Distillery’ which again raises questions about what the definition of producing whiskey actually is. Distilling? Maturation? Fiddling about with cask finishes? Bottling? Branding? Getting it on shelves in Tesco? Lough Gill is currently distilling their own barley to add oomph to their future provenance but in the here and now it’s a bit all over the place. Maybe sticking ‘produced for’ on there would work a bit better.
I was sent a bottle of their small batch blended malt for review. I’ll let the press release take it from here:
Athrú Whiskey has launched its first small batch release, a triple-casked malt Irish whiskey. This inaugural small batch release highlights a blend of three unique casks of six-year old Oloroso, six year-old Bourbon and 17-year old madeira finishes.
Limited to just 3,000 bottles and bottled at 46% abv, this perfect blend of malt Irish whiskey gives Athrú a combination of dried fruits and spiced vanilla with a subtle toffee finish.
Athrú Whiskey Head Distiller Ollie Alcorn said “I carefully select the best of each batch of casks’ to create our small batch, limited releases. After rooting through the warehouse, I’ve picked a moreish combination of Bourbon, Oloroso and Madeira, a Portuguese fortified wine which adds depth and sweetness. Together, they produce notes of dried fruits and spiced vanilla with a subtle toffee finish. This release takes us on a deep dive into further exploration of wood-finishing, allowing us to show a more experimental side to our approach.”
Commenting on the launch, distillery founder David Raethorne said “We are delighted to launch our first small batch release. This release will be of particular interest to those who have followed our journey since our first whiskey release in 2016 but also for those who want to experience the art of the Athrú Whiskey wood finishing process. At Lough Gill Distillery, we always endeavour to create really special and unique products and we think this is evident in this special Small Batch Release. We are really proud of this launch and can’t wait for whiskey fans to try it.”
NOSE: warming dried fruit that mingles with softly spiced vanilla and almond, with hints of lemon zest.
TASTE: the raisin note continues nestled within caramel, praline and butterscotch sweetness.
FINISH: gentle finish that fades leaving toffee and brown sugar notes.
The Athrú Small Batch Release Bottle is priced €85 and available to order from athru.com or select stockists nationwide.
To the cons – sourced whiskey, opaque provenance, high price. Scallywag, a blended malt from Speyside, is about 30 euro less, and similar in flavour profile. But this is Irish whiskey so complaining about the price is pointless. Also, I did get the bottle for free, so there’s that.
The pros – an excellent blended malt in a lovely bottle. A hideous distillery behind a beautiful ruin. An interesting proposition, aesthetically and every other way. Look, they could have resurrected some old west of Ireland whiskey brand and shoved out a sourced whiskey under that, but they didn’t and went for something more modern and bold, and that is to be commended. I really enjoyed this whiskey – shave 20 euro off that asking price and my enthusiasm would reach the point of recommending it to others, although I would probably end up adding numerous caveats about the hows and whys of sourced whiskey. This is why I don’t work in sales.