The Slow Cut

A bust of Sir Henry Morton Stanley sits beneath a portrait of Daniel O’Connell.

Sir Henry Morton Stanley had quite the life. Born into poverty in 1841, he became a journalist, explorer, soldier, author and politician, before dying at the relatively young age of 63. He is possibly best known for the utterance ‘Dr Livingstone I presume?’ at the climax of his search for the Scottish explorer David Livingstone, but there is another, darker event from his time in Africa that is less well known. 

Stanley led the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, one of the last major European expeditions into the interior of Africa in the 19th Century. It became notorious for the deaths of so many of its members and the trail of disease left in its wake, but there was one especially grim event for which it is best known. An Irish naturist named James Sligo Jameson – scion of the whiskey empire; son of Andrew Jameson, and grandson of John Jameson – refused to believe cannibalism took place within the tribe they were staying with. He called their bluff by handing six handkerchiefs over to a member of the party who said they would arrange it. But it wasn’t a bluff.

What happened next became a significant scandal in Victorian society. The Emin Pasha expedition struggled onwards after the incident, but Jameson never made it home – he succumbed to blackwater fever and died in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1888 aged just 31. Little wonder that Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness was partly inspired by the Emin Pasha expedition, with its exploration of human cruelty, imperialism and what civilisation actually looks like.

I am standing in the tremendously civilised drawing room of Lakeview House in County Kerry, staring at a bust of Sir Henry Morton Stanley sat atop a sideboard. Maurice O’Connell, whose home it is, is explaining that the famous explorer was godparent to a forebear of his wife, Francesca. It seems like a fortuitous connection given that it is whiskey that brought me there. But this is a place, a family, with many stories to tell, although very few of them are as soaked in blood and whiskey.

Sir Maurice and Lady Francesca O’Connell outside Lakeview House.

Everyone who has been through the Irish education system knows the name of Daniel O’Connell. The Liberator, as O’Connell is known, and after which Maurice O’Connell’s whiskey is named, was a thorn in the side of the British establishment as he fought for Catholic emancipation (he also denounced slavery in the US and met with Frederick Douglass in Dublin) in the 1800s.

This isn’t the first time that Daniel O’Connell’s name has been linked to a drinks brand – his son Daniel Jr started a brewery and released O’Connell’s Ale, which The Liberator hoped would overtake Guinness, an ascendancy family who he despised, describing Arthur Guinness as a ‘miserable old apostate’. But Daniel Snr was not a pintman, which might explain his closeness to the Powers family, specifically Sir John Power of the famed John’s Lane Distillery (Power laid one of the foundation stones in Glasnevin Cemetery for the O’Connell Monument). In a curious counterpoint to Francesca O’Connell’s link to the European expeditions in what was then the Belgian Congo, Daniel O’Connell was held in such high esteem by the people of Belgium for his support of their drive for independence, that after they became independent of the Netherlands there was a movement to have O’Connell installed on the throne. Instead, the Belgian people installed Leopold, whose son, Leopold II laid claim to the African nation and whose grotesque abuses there were enabled by the likes of Sir Henry Morton Stanley.  

Maurice O’Connell is a great great great grandnephew of Daniel O’Connell. There is a lengthy history of the family on the Wayward website which shows that when they weren’t fighting for equal rights for the Irish, the O’Connells were smuggling booze and defying various authorities. Wayward as they were, they still managed to land themselves a baronetship, meaning Maurice O’Connell’s full title is Sir Maurice James Donagh MacCarthy Patrick O’Connell, 7th Baronet, and hereditary Lord of the Manor of Ballycarbery Castle. It’s a weighty title but one he wears lightly – he is an aristocrat with a small a, and says the title has closed as many doors as it has opened for him.  

Lakeview is just one of the ancestral homes of the O’Connell clan – they also resided in Ballycarbery Castle near Cahersiveen in the 1600s, before moving to Waterville. Derrynane House became the family seat and over the centuries was expanded significantly. It now resides in the hands of the Office of Public Works. Lakeview is, by comparison, a compact and bijou residence but its setting is equally spectacular. Passing through the bustling village of Fossa you would hardly know it is there, but at the end of a long tree-lined driveway the house sits beside Lough Leane, the largest of the Great Lakes Of Killarney. If you are looking for a hideaway, this would be the place (FYI – you can rent it at certain times of the year for €12,000 a week). 

Lough Leane as seen from Lakeview House.

There is a lengthy profile in the Irish Independent of both the house and its owners which details some of the family’s more recent history: The eldest of six, Sir Maurice grew up in Lakeview and his parents farmed the 100 acres that make up the estate. Educated first in Kerry, Maurice then went to boarding school in Scotland (there is a faint Caledonian air in the accent still) before attending Ampleforth, one of the top private Catholic boarding schools in the UK. There his business acumen started to show itself as he was briefly suspended from school for running a clandestine taxi service ferrying school chums to and from the local pub. 

After graduation, he focussed on property investment in the UK, displaying a keen eye for areas ripe for gentrification. As for the whiskey enterprise, he had been looking for a project to keep him busy when he was in Ireland (he also resides in the UK). A seed was planted when he purchased a pub mirror advertising O’Connell and O’Flynn Galway Bay Irish Distillery in an antique store 20 years ago. It later transpired that no such distillery ever existed – the brand was dreamed up by a firm that made pub mirrors for Irish bars. A cynic might say that hypothetical distilleries have been the foundations of many modern Irish whiskey success stories, but O’Connell wanted to build a brand with foundations that would withstand the test of time. This was about legacy as much as enterprise. In 2016 plans for a distillery were briefly considered – they had the barley, they had the story, but the estate was not big enough to create a solely single estate whiskey distillery. There would need to be more to the business. 

There are two strands to Wayward thus far – 300-year-old stone buildings (a well-travelled great-uncle named them The Houses Of Contentment, a codeword for brothel in Asia) to the rear of Lakeview have been converted into whiskey warehouses with space for blending and bottling (one of the blenders he uses is John ‘five regions’ McDougall of Worts, Worms, and Washbacks fame). This is where The Liberator brand releases are born. Mature whiskeys are being aged, blended, and bottled here, and those have made up the releases thus far. 

O’Connell explains the make-up of some of them: “The Port ‘n’ Peat is a blend similar to our core Liberator Small Batch Double Port (42% malt in tawny and 58% grain of which half was finished in ruby port casks) with the malt element increased with the addition of 5% peated malt (Great Northern Distillery’s very tasty 2016). We’d been playing with using the peat to highlight the port finish and 5% was the sweet spot where neither overpowered the other. The batches were essentially the same group of casks.”

As for their later Storehouse Special, the Malt x Moscatel: “This was a 56% cask strength six-year-old double distilled malt from Great Northern finished in really fresh moscatel sherry (not wine) casks for seven months. I got a bottle of the exceptional sherry last year and had to buy the casks.”

A cask maturing at Lakeview.

Alongside this, Lakeview Estate’s own barley has been harvested and distilled at Dr John Teeling’s Great Northern Distillery, casked and returned to Lakeview to mature. These will be specifically marketed as Lakeview whiskeys. There are plans for a boutique distillery within the Houses Of Contentment, but that will come down the road (2024 is the provisional ETA). For now the output consists of sourced matured stocks, while in the background are new-make pot still and malt that they commissioned from seven distilleries around Ireland, the contract distilling at GND of homegrown barley, and a lot of emphasis on the impact of terroir from both the sky and the ground. 

I am a microclimate sceptic. I don’t tend to subscribe to the notion that a warehouse in Location A will produce a very different whiskey from a warehouse in Location B – unless those locations are wildly different points on the globe (eg, Kentucky versus Cork). Perhaps there is a difference in maturation between the warehouses of Bushmills and those of Midleton but I narrow the eyes when I hear claims of microclimates within provinces creating points of difference between whiskeys. 

O’Connell is a staunch advocate of the microclimate, claiming as he does that the unique location of Lakeview offers a climate not enjoyed by other parts of Kerry (worth noting that as far back as 2012, Dingle also worked the microclimate angle when discussing maturation). However, if you were to make a claim of microclimate in any part of Ireland, the south west is where you would do it – with the highest mountain range in Ireland greeting the North Atlantic Drift, Kerry is a prime spot for pockets of unseasonably warm, humid weather (and enthusiastic levels of rainfall). 

Sir Maurice breaks down the sample he sent me: “The Lakeview Single Estate Whiskey sample you have was distilled by Great Northern Distillery on 12th March 2019 to our 50/50 mashbill, using barley grown in our Hilly Field and harvested on 28/29 August 2018. The barley was delivered to Athgarrett Malt the next day and small batch malted in January. Some 23 casks were filled that first year, initially into first fill bourbons. After three months, most was transferred into NEOC casks [New Era Oak Cask is a proprietary cask type from ASC Cooperage in France] – Premier Cru Bordeaux casks that have been hand shaved and retoasted. 

“They returned to our storehouse to rest. We felt the nose needed something so 10% was finished in an ex-peated malt cask for three months. We’ve been cutting this to bottling strength (46%) over six months compared to our usual six weeks but still shorter than the two-plus years in Cognac where the tradition originated. This will be released as a 250-bottle Coming of Age Release priced at €195.”

Wince all you like at that price, but most of the upcoming releases are already spoken for by those who tried it at Whiskey Live Dublin back in June – so there are many out there who are willing to pay. O’Connell realises that this young whiskey is a work in progress: “I’m being careful to say that I don’t feel that this is the final product (my view is that some more time in the cask will make it the exceptional whiskey it can be) but we wanted to release some now to start a conversation about whether where a spirit is matured – ‘maturation terroir’ for want of a better phrase – affects ageing. It obviously does for extremes but I believe our Kerry microclimate does too and we’re putting this release out there to see if others agree that this tastes beyond its age and beyond other three-year-old pot still releases. “

“We’ve been measuring our temperature and humidity for the last four years and attached [above] is a graph for the last two showing we have a ‘maturation season’ (defined loosely as less than seven degrees celcius from which spirit interacts with wood) of 10.5 months versus six months in Speyside, for example, together with high humidity. In addition, the ‘four seasons in an hour’ Killarney weather, from the collision of Gulf Stream, mountains and lakes, equates to frequent changes in pressure governing spirit/wood interaction.”

Sir Maurice O’Connell with his new whiskey.

The bottle design was inspired by a bottle of D’Orsay perfume that had sat in Lakeview House for decades, and while it may not win favour with mixologists looking to slap it into a speed rail, it’s an elegant first release. The liquid feels older than its years, but smooth and flavoursome. Fresh notes of fennel bulb and light citrus make way for velvet aniseed, coffee, figs, and dark fruits. It’s good, new, fresh. We can argue about why that is – is it the slow cut, is it that Lakeview grows great barley, that GND make great whiskey, good wood, microclimate, or all of the above – but in the end it is meaningless because it passes the only test that really matters. It tastes good. 

As for the Jameson connection to Sir Henry Morton Stanley, it doesn’t seem to bother the current custodians of the world’s biggest Irish whiskey brand, as they held a massive party in Lakeview’s Hilly Field recently. Perhaps the relationaship would change should Wayward whiskey start to cannibalise their market, but until then there is peace in the Kingdom. 

Blended and bottled on the Estate at 46% ABV, just 300 numbered bottles of the Lakeview Single Estate Irish Whiskey Coming of Age Release are available from Celtic Whiskey Dublin, James Fox Dublin, Carry Out Killarney and Irish Malts. RRP is €195 with a 40ml miniature bottle included.