For The Ages

Few aspects of the whiskey industry make our eyes roll like marketing. A side effect of being exposed to far too many breathless press releases filled with bunkum, it has come to be seen as part of the whiskey business rather than whisky industry; it’s about hustle, not grind – sales, not substance. Among the nerds there is respect for the craftspeople who make the liquid, who manage the casks, who blend and bottle. But the marketing department? Does anyone ask about them when doing a distillery tour?

Except, marketing is everything – tone, mood, voice, ethos. A world without marketing would be a grey one indeed – every brand has a story, an arc, every product has a spin-off storyline within that universe, and marketing is what brings it all to life.

In Irish whiskey we have – according to Dr John Teeling – more than 700 brands and 42 distilleries, so we have an overabundance of marketing; endless stories about celebrating heritage of or paying homage to some ancestor or place or historical incident. Most of these whiskeys came from the same few places, and may or may not have a non-disclosure agreement in place which prohibits identifying the source, so marketeers are left to fill in the blanks with superficial swirls of the mists of time. And people – ordinary, normal people, not obsessives – love it. Irish whiskey is selling in huge amounts in the US, so all that storytelling is paying off.

But among the 42+ distilleries we do have operating on the island of Ireland, there are many who are doing some wild, creative things, but nobody knows because they don’t push the message out. It’s a crowded market populated with noisy non-distilling producers shouting about heritage, so you need to speak up to be heard. 

It often feels like West Cork Distillers’ affordable, accessible whiskeys didn’t get the love that others in the category do – perhaps there was a reverse snobbery, that they weren’t seen as exclusive or expensive or elusive enough. They are, after all, priced well below their competitors – their NAS single malts with a variety of finishes all retail for less than forty euro, their standard blend is €26 and their cask strength blend is €46.95. These are everyman whiskeys, widely available and affordable. Maybe that is why they never really stood out, or maybe WCD’s ingredients business and third party sales took up all of the time and energy that would otherwise be spent building their own brand. But it would appear that they are entering a new phase. 

The first sign that things might be changing was a Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottling of a seven-year-old Irish single malt released under the not especially cryptic name of Let’s Go West! Given the age and the fact it was a ‘County Cork’ distillery, there could really only be one source – West Cork Distillers. There was a confidence in the release – this was an age stated bottling that would go out to serious whisky heads. In a piece written for the SMWS magazine Unfiltered, Lee Connors interviewed the master blender at WCD, Iven Kelleher, who explained how their spirit was traditional, with fruity elements, but with cereal and biscuit notes not normally associated with the category (there is loads of great nerdy distillation info in the piece so it is well worth a read). So WCD got the SMWS seal of approval, despite the relative youth of the spirit. It showed a confidence on the part of WCD and a willingness to show the whisky world what they are about. 

John O’Connell of WCD speaking at the Cork launch of their new whiskeys in the Shelbourne bar.

The second sign that changes are afoot in Skibb is that West Cork Distillers now has a marketing department, headed up by Sinéad Gilbert, who spent 12 years with Irish Distillers Limited, most recently as their global marketing manager. The Clonakilty native joined WCD at the start of September and has much to work with – a great story, considerable amounts of mature, varied stock, and that wonderful west Cork aura.

Aside from all this, there is also the fact that WCD are booming – according to this piece by Seán Pollock in the Indo, in 2021, WCD reported pre-tax profit of more than €4.5m, up from €1.3m the previous year. So they are in rude health, despite missing out on one of the biggest Irish whiskey brands in the last four years. Recent court filings between MMA fighter Anton Lobov and his former friend and business partner Conor McGregor over the profits from the Proper No. Twelve whiskey brand revealed that Lobov initially worked out a supply contract with WCD, and that the Notorious whiskey branded bottle McGregor brandished at the Floyd Mayweather post-fight press conference was entirely produced by WCD. 

Per the Indo, under the deal Lobov had worked out, McGregor would retain 100pc ownership of the brand and the company incorporated to sell the whiskey, with profits split on a 50/50 basis with the distiller. No investment capital was required. Lobov claims that shortly after the launch, he was sidelined in the project, the source distillery was changed to Bushmills (the grain element which allegedly makes up the bulk of P12 comes from Midleton), and ultimately McGregor went on to launch the fastest growing Irish whiskey brand in the world, and was then bought out by the parent firm in a deal worth millions. So an opportunity missed for WCD, or a bullet dodged, depending on your own particular views. 

Off the back of all this comes two new whiskeys from WCD; one a five-year-old single pot still bottled at 43%, aged in first-fill ex-bourbon casks, composed of a mash ratio of 66:33 malted versus unmalted barley.  The first distillation was completed in the ‘Rocket’, WCD’s  pot still designed and built by the team in West Cork from an old boiler from a hotel. It is known to be the ‘fastest pot still in the world’ – although I’m not sure their new marketing team will be keen to push that message out when slowing food and drink production down is the ethos of the day. On that note however, the second and third distillation is slowed down so much that a second intermediate still was added along with a second spirit still. 

The second release is a seven-year-old single malt, again given the same distillation treatment in the Rocket et al, then matured in Bodega Olorosso casks from the Tolerina Rodriguez bodega in Cadiz, Spain for four years and further aged in first fill bourbon barrels for three years. Bottled at 46%, and again both are non-chill filtered and natural colour. And a final very crucial point: there is a recommended retail price of €49.99 for the pot still and €55 for the single malt. In Irish whiskey, those prices are outliers. 

After milling my way through both bottles I can say that I favour the malt; the Cork Whiskey Society who had a tasting with WCD pre-launch seemed to prefer the pot still. At the RRPs you could buy both for a whisper over a hundred. I would write a review but given that I own nine casks of WCD (four malt, four SPS and one grain) it really does feel like a conflict of interest. This isn’t a pump and dump scheme.

However, if you are in the market for a festive tipple or you are looking for something for the whiskey lover in your life, these bottles are affordable, boldly age-stated whiskeys from a distillery that seems to be finding its voice. 

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