The Long Way

Jennifer Nickerson in Tipperary Boutique Distillery

Jennifer Nickerson wanted to be a vet. The Aberdeenshire native was studying in Edinburgh when she came to the conclusion that she didn’t particularly want to spend the rest of her working life outside in the wet and cold, so she switched to accountancy – a drier career, in every sense. 

While she was in college, she took a job in an Irish pub, where she met an engineering student named Liam Ahearn. They were friends, but after graduation, went their separate ways. Then they bumped into each other in Dublin, where Jennifer had risen to being an associate director in the tax department of KPMG just seven years after joining as a trainee. One thing led to another – love, marriage, plans. Liam wanted to move home to Tipperary (‘you can’t put wheels on the lands’ being his refrain), and Jennifer said she would only go if she could find a job that presented her with the right challenge. 

Jennifer Nickerson’s father is Stuart Nickerson. Graduating as a chemical engineer from Heriot-Watt University in 1979, he worked with Arthur Bell & Sons in Dufftown, Pittyvaich, Blair Atholl, Inchgower, and Bladnoch. He previously managed Highland Park, Glenrothes, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Kininvie and Girvan Grain distilleries. In 2008, he purchased Glenglassaugh Distillery on behalf of overseas investors, refurbished it and brought it back into production after 22 years. He has spent more than 40 years working with Scotland’s most famous whiskies and now specialises in providing technical advice to start-up distilleries. Jennifer grew up living beside many of the Scottish distilleries which her father managed and has been surrounded by the whisky business all of her life. 

Liam Ahearn’s family have been living and working on Ballindoney Farm in Tipperary for two centuries. A mixed farm for several generations, in more recent times the focus was purely on tillage, with 165 acres of barley, wheat, oats, and grass, and seven acres of GLAS wild bird cover. The Ahearns are also something of a political dynasty, with Liam’s mother Theresa having served as a Fine Gael TD for the Tipperary South constituency from 1989 to 2000. She died of cancer in late 2000, aged just 49. At the time of her death she was both a member of Fine Gael’s National Executive Committee, and the first-ever female trustee of the party. One of her four sons, Garrett, is now a Fine Gael senator. Liam also happens to be a senior engineer with Cork County Council, meaning that between them, he and Jennifer had expertise in growing barley, planning law, construction, distilling and – perhaps most importantly – taxation (Jennifer’s thesis in college was on the Economic Impact of the Scotch Whisky Industry). It seems almost inevitable that they would build a distillery. 

The plans for a farm distillery were lodged in 2015, but there were plans in 2018 for a distillery as part of a local hotel development which did not come to fruition. In 2020 Tipperary Boutique Distillery came on stream on the family farm near Clonmel. It is not well sign-posted, and unless you have the postcode, chances are you will not find it. Coming from the south you climb through the mountain pass known as The Vee and are rewarded with the sight of a vast patchwork of greens that make up the Golden Vale. After drifting through the pretty village of Ardfinnan, the roads narrow, grass starts to sprout in the centre of the road and you find yourself one thin layer of asphalt away from being on a boreen. Down this winding path is where the farm and distillery are based. The distillery itself is housed in a large, modern steel shed, cut into the fields of barley that surround it on one side, with an old farm shed now repurposed as whiskey maturation warehouse on the other. The warehouse holds approximately 300 casks without any palletisation, but is well off capacity. The shed is also black, meaning high temperatures; maturation improves, but evaporation increases. 

The water for the distillery comes from a well fifty yards into the adjacent field, the concrete cap marked out with a traffic cone to stop it from being toppled by combine harvesters (it still gets hit). It is very much a farm distillery, and has the feel of a proper agricultural endeavour. They don’t do tours – despite being close to beauty spots such as The Vee, the iconic Rock Of Cashel, and Cahir Castle – as with footfall comes any number of costs in terms of health and safety, and right now, the focus is on making whiskey. They have a 200kg mashtun and four stills, made by Hoga in Portugal, the largest of which is 1,000 litres. They can put out 16,000 litres of pure alcohol per annum, or two barrels a week – thus the ‘Boutique’ in their name. They also have a tiny bottling line in another part of the distillery. 

Jennfier had a steep learning curve as, despite growing up around distilleries, she had no experience of running one. Her father, based in Perth in Scotland, oversees the processes – she has twice-weekly conference calls with him to discuss the finer points of making whiskey – ph, temperatures, fermentation – while her mother has a small licenced still in their house which she uses to research new gin recipes, which Jennifer then replicates in Tipperary using neutral spirits which they buy in from elsewhere. Their own Tipperary Farmhouse Gin – distilled in a still named Brigid – is selling well (Jennifer points out that gin is so incredibly easy to make in comparison to the lever-pulling nightmare of whiskey making) and they also made a bespoke gin for the five-star Cashel Palace Hotel. 

Stuart Nickerson’s connections in the industry also helped with the setting up of the distillery – Irish Distillers were able to give advice and help with troubleshooting. Jennifer says she is considering studying distilling but time is not something she has a huge amount of. She covers the distillery logistics, the accounts, she is a brand ambassador, distillery spokesperson, and she carries out 20% of the production rota in the distillery. She and Liam also became parents 18 months ago. So bagging that certificate in brewing and distilling might be a way off yet. 

The whiskeys they released have had two strands thus far – under the Tipperary Boutique Selection brand they brought out a range of sourced single malts from Cooley and Bushmills et al. They released two widespread sourced expressions – Watershed is a non-aged statement single malt, and Knockmealdowns is a 10-year-old single malt. They released a few more single malt expressions in Europe: The Rising (an 11-year-old single malt) and some single casks exclusive to the UK, Germany, and Austria. 

They also used their own Ballindoney barley to contract distill in places like West Cork Distillers and Great Northern Distillery. There have been a number of those releases, which come with a QR code that leads to information on the field, the barley, the weather and the maturation of the liquid within. 

Their own Tipperary Boutique Distillery whiskey is not at legal age and is some time off being released just yet. They mostly make double distilled single malt but they also do triple distilled pot still whiskey, the latter throwing out Jennifer’s efficiencies which bothers the accountant in her. 

The dilemma they face in terms of pushing out to new markets (they already sell to 12, with half of those taking up most of their sales) is that they make small amounts and feeding new markets could see them caught short. Sourced whiskeys are becoming harder and harder to come by and more expensive. They are boutique by design, and by necessity. 

It feels like Tipperary Boutique Distillery is older than it is – I remember meeting Jennifer and Liam at Whiskey Live in 2016 or so and talking about their plans. Over the last five to ten years, numerous distilleries on the island of Ireland have been planned and built. Most with great fanfare and headlines and profiles of the people behind them. But whiskey is a long game. It still feels like this journey is only just beginning. However, to build something with value, with meaning, to create a legacy and a business which celebrates and sustains the land, takes time. In whiskey, just like any part of life, there are no shortcuts. 

Review: Single cask – SMOB0018. Rioja wine finish bottling. 

Distilled from their own Ballindoney-grown spring olympus barley, grown on their railway line field. Sown 15th April 2016 and, 135 days later, on the 28th August 2016, it was harvested; yield was 8.45 tonne/hectare, harvest moisture was 18.5%, drying moisture was 13%. Arrived in Inverness for malting 24 May 2017 and was malted on 5 June that year. 

This liquid was distilled …. elsewhere. It doesn’t say anywhere on the website or the label but I am going to assume Great Northern Distillery. It arrived at the distillery 16th June 2017; fermentation of 3,250kg malted barley started 19th June with Distilamax yeast and lasted 76 hours to a 11%ABV and 1.12 original gravity. 

Distillation started 22nd June; finished 23rd June. Cask was first-fill Rioja and it took 175 litres. The cask was sourced from Bodegas Faustino in Spain, which owns about 650 hectares of vineyards in some of the best areas in La Rioja. Over the last few years, the winery has incorporated new, environmentally-friendly grape growing practices to make the vineyards increasingly sustainable. Bodegas Faustino is one the leading exporters of Gran Reservas and has been making Rioja wines for centuries. This cask has given the whiskey a red tinge and (obviously enough) wine notes on the palate. The cask was filled on 28th June 2017 and disgorged 1,373 days later on 1st June 2022. Bottled at cask strength of 51.5% ABV, 262 bottles were produced, all bottled and labelled in Tipp. 

The glass is made by Dekorglass in Poland, and the cardboard presentation box is made in the UK by Beamglow. Both of these items are recyclable. The labels and box were designed by Craig Mackinley of Breeze Creative in Scotland.  And finally, the most important detail – I got this for free.

Official tasting notes are as follows: 

Nose is full of dried fruits – raisins, sultanas and a hint of candied oranges. 

Mouth: sweet and surprisingly fresh with citrus, cherries and almond notes

Finish: medium long, chocolate cherries linger. 

The big question here is how much closer to a 100% Tipperary Boutique Distillery-made product this is. How much control would you get at GND, how much input would Stuart Nickerson have over the process? The label says approved by Stuart Nickerson, but no distiller is named. Maybe it’s an irrelevance, as GND is a massive powerhouse distillery and what Tipperary are making will be a completely different animal – all small stills, hand-pulled levers, tiny batches. Some of their sourced output is excellent, but that is really only a credit to wherever it was made. This whiskey is nice – no denying its youth, but rich and smooth.

There is still the actual Tipperary Boutique Distillery whiskey to look forward to in a few years, but it will still be a decade or so before it is at that ten years plus sweet spot. It’s hard to get a sense of what journey’s end looks like for Tipperary; its location and its ethos suggests that selling up isn’t part of the plan. In a category with many distilleries built exclusively to flip as soon as possible to satisfy investors, this one is very much a family affair.

Jennifer with her father Stuart and Liam with his father Liam Snr.