Prologues and epilogues

“We have always been storytellers” – Kevin Keenan, Glendalough Distillery co-founder

Glendalough Distillery is one of the success stories of the Irish whiskey resurgence. Founded in 2011 by a group of friends, their prominence in the media came from a combination of being early adopters of an exciting new trend and some high profile investors. One could also say that the business’s proximity to the Dublin media bubble helped (along with the team’s own media savvy), but their brand and their story was always strong – little wonder, given that several of the founders worked in branding, marketing, and advertising for some heavy hitters like Tullamore DEW and Jameson (another two of the founders were data analysts for Davy Stockbrokers). But beyond the brand, and the narrative, I knew little of Glendalough, but here is what I do know: 

Founded in 2011, they didn’t start distilling until 2013 when they made their first gin (which means they are far from being Ireland’s oldest craft distilleryLongueville House was making apple brandy in 1985). They distilled some whiskey in 2015 before the technical file outlawed bringing in the wash from elsewhere. Also, one factoid that always stayed with me was that all of the founders happened to have the same favourite monk.  

I’ve never been clear about the rest of the Glendalough story, despite co-founder Brian Fagan getting in touch in 2018 to explain a bit about where they were in their journey. He told me that they bought a site on Glendalough Green in 2016 and were considering their options about what size and style of distillery to build there. He said that they would have planning in place by the end of that year, but that in the meantime they were ordering more Holstein stills and would be distilling whiskey from their current site (an industrial estate in Newtownmountkennedy) by autumn 2018. In January 2019 Fagan emailed to say their new stills were in situ and were waiting to be commissioned, and that he would give me an update on their plans that I could feature on my blog. I haven’t heard from him since, but then 2019 was something of a momentous year for the firm so maybe it slipped his mind. 

Canadian drinks firm Mark Anthony Brands invested €5.5 million in Glendalough in 2016, and then, in 2019, they bought out the rest of the company, giving shareholders a €12 million euro windfall. Brian Fagan moved on and started another drinks firm into which rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll again ploughed some money, so when I was sent a bottle of the new Glendalough seven-year-old single malt finished in a Mizunara cask, I asked the PR firm for that long overdue update. Firstly, I asked where they were on the planned purpose-built whiskey distillery which had been a feature of their soundbites for more than a decade. This was their response: 

“In line with the continued growth in our gin and whiskey portfolio, our ambition remains to develop a new brand home for Glendalough. Plans are progressing well.”

Eagle-eyed readers will note the word distillery does not feature there. And while plans for whatever a ‘brand home’ constitutes may be progressing well, a quick search on the Wicklow County Council planning website shows there have been no plans submitted by Glendalough Distillery or Mark Anthony Brands for either a distillery, or a brand home, or anything, ever. 

I also asked them about their distillations of whiskey in the past, and what amount they were distilling now –  ie, casks per week – and what age the oldest stock they have of their own whiskey. This was the response: 

“We set up whiskey stills a number of years ago, and have ambitious plans for our own liquid. Watch this space…but it takes time and we are patient.”

Again, a swerve. Setting up whiskey stills and distilling whiskey are not the same thing. From that response I can only assume they never actually got around to distilling whiskey after their initial attempts in 2015. Even the BBC Good Food website seems confused about Glendalough, saying in February of this year that their distillery was still being commissioned.

I also asked what percentage of the whiskey sold under the Glendalough Distillery brand worldwide was actually distilled in Glendalough distillery, and if there was a plan to phase out sourced stock, and if so, when would that happen. This was their response: 

“While we continue to distil our award winning gins in Wicklow directly, our Single Malts, Single Grain and Single Pot Still are currently distilled elsewhere in Ireland to Glendalough’s specification. We are happy to be transparent about that and this is stated on our back labels. As mentioned above, we have our own whiskey liquid in the works. We plan to continue to source stocks while waiting on our own whiskey, distilled in Glendalough Distillery in the future. Between now and then, we will continue our relentless search to find the world’s best, rarest, most flavoursome oak to age and finish our whiskeys.”

Frankly, I am no wiser as to what the Glendalough brand is – indie bottler? NDP? ‘Brand’? Their pot still release from a couple of years back was meant to be the start of a transition to their own stock – the reason it’s not single pot still is they hoped to blend their own with it over time. I’m going to assume that transition never happened. 

As for their claim about how the sourcing of their whiskey is clearly stated on the labels, this is what they were talking about:  

Squint hard, gentle reader, and you will see that it does indeed say ‘produced for Glendalough Distillery’ in there among the jumble of info that nobody ever reads. But another thing I noticed about the bottle is that it no longer has Glendalough Distillery embossed on the glass. 

A screenshot of the Glendalough whiskey webshop showing the new bottle without the words Glendalough Distillery printed on the glass.

Perhaps this is a sign that they are preparing to transition from aspirational whiskey distillers to a simple whiskey brand. Nothing wrong with that, and I’m not saying the founders are the boys who cried distillery but it does feel like a can was kicked far past the point of reason. I can tolerate whiskey being sold under the brand of a planned distillery, but only for so long. There comes a point where I expect you to piss or get off the pot still, and that point was several years ago.

As for the whiskey within – I had a bottle of the old Glendalough seven a few years back and it was a cracker –  very similar to the cask strength Whistler Blue Note. But this Mizunara finished one is a completely different animal – I’m going to assume a different distillery was the source for this. It’s good, odd, not sure I’d be racing out to get myself any other whiskey anointed by the famously awkward Mizunara wood, but it’s a pleasant diversion. A similar price point to the Athru I reviewed recently and I would favour that over this, despite my preference for age statements over NAS. The packaging here is beautiful, but as I said at the start, the branding was always solid – although the Gandalf-esque image of St Kevin is, in fact, crap. A shame really, given that he was their favourite monk.