When I tell people how much I spend on whiskey, they are horrified. You mean you can spend upwards of sixty euro on a bottle? they gasp. It usually leads to more questions – what is the most you would spend on a bottle, how much do you earn, what makes it so expensive? All great questions that I’m happy to answer – the most I would spend is about 120 euro; I earn somewhere around the 50k mark each year, and as for what makes good whiskey expensive, that is a heady brew of real-world elements – age, rarity, source – and more ephemeral ones – legacy, branding, prestige – all of which combine to create that most elusive of things; aura.
Super-premium is not a mode of production. It is a price category, and perhaps more importantly, it is a demographic, one which Irish whiskey has only just started to explore. Midleton Pearl was an early foray into the field in 2014, with a six grand price tag – a figure that seems modest when you consider what was coming next.
A price tag like this may seem offensive to us mere mortals, but if you earn half a million a year and want to invest, or if you earn millions and want a treat, the price tag is not that outlandish. Yes, it’s obscene, but that’s capitalism, baby – my purchase of a Redbreast 21 for 180 would be seen by many as completely over the top, so it’s all a question of perspective.
As for the 35k tag, it doesn’t even come close to what the exclusive releases from the Macallan command; nor does it even qualify for this list of the top ten most expensive whiskies. The Scots have been doing super-premium for years, and doing it well – so why not us? And if Midleton are doing it, why not Bushmills?
And so to the liquid itself; John Wilson of the Irish Times has a review of it. It’s a nice bottle, a nice box, and I’ve no doubt it is a nice liquid. Not that this matters, because all anyone needs to know about this is the price. That is the defining factor.
The series opens with a peated single malt from old Midleton. It is worth remembering that there are other bottles of old Midleton out there which you can grab at auction for less than a grand, albeit none of it malt and none of it peated. In fact, this is the first official single malt from old or new Midleton (the Method & Madness one is distilled at Bushmills), and a peated one at that. So it is something of a unicorn. I have no doubt it will sell, because, as McGuane pointed out, we need this offering.
But back to MVRSDCO, and the salient points:
Six releases. The first is a 45-year-old Irish single malt. There will be one release annually until the year 2025, ranging in age from 45 to 50 years old, all from Old Midleton Distillery (1825-1975).
The last release will coincide with Old Midleton Distillery’s 200th birthday, while Chapter One will be the first official release from Old Midleton in 16 years.
Midleton Very Rare Silent Distillery Collection Chapter One is the only release in this collection that is a peated single malt – it has been in a third-fill sherry cask cask for 45 years.
RRP: €35,000 £32,000 $40,000; ABV 51.2%; 48 750ml bottles in Ireland, UK, France and US; two bottles will be sold via ballot system on The 1825 Room, the Midleton Very Rare online members’ programme. Whiskey lovers can register their interest to be entered into a lottery to purchase a bottle from 9pm on 18th February for one week.
You can say that the price is obscene. Many would say the money we, as whiskey lovers, regularly spend on a bottle is obscene. There are people out there who are immensely wealthy, and they want a drink that reflects their status. Super-premium has little to do with how it is made and much to do with how it is sold, and who it is sold to – and in this case, it’s not you, not me, and most likely not anyone we know.
So, in summary – capitalism is bad, whiskey is good, and time is the only commodity of any value.
Carol Quinn is incredibly pragmatic – a couple of years ago during a chat about the lost distilleries of Cork, I lamented that they were knocked to make way for roads and duplexes and various other developments. Carol – IDL’s archivist – pointed out that unless buildings are being used, they no longer serve a purpose. I feel the same way about brands – which awkwardly brings me to the latest Powers rebrand. It seems like only a short while ago that Powers was reborn with a new, more modern label (it’s a little over four years) and here we are again with another, considerably less subtle makeover. I’m going to let the press release do some of the explaining here:
Powers Irish Whiskey, which is made by Irish Distillers in Midleton Distillery, has unveiled a bold new bottle design for its range of premium Irish whiskeys. Debuting on core expression Powers Gold Label in the USA from March 2020, the dynamic new look is set to attract a new generation of drinkers to one of Ireland’s most loved whiskey brands.
The design features a new bottle shape which has been inspired by the distinctive pot still silhouette from the brand’s historical home at John’s Lane Distillery. Another striking aspect of the new design is the label which is styled on the iconic Powers ‘diamond P’ – one of the first ever trademarks registered in Ireland and a link to the legacy of Powers and Irish whiskey history all over Ireland. Each whiskey in the Powers range is presented with a label in a different colour to bring to life its unique story; Powers Gold Label in red, an homage to the original red Powers diamond marque; Powers Three Swallow in blue, a nod to the feathers of the graceful bird; and Powers John’s Lane Release in metallic ink, to reflect the industrial innovation that the Powers family demonstrated at the original distillery established in 1791 on John’s Lane, Dublin.
Carol Quinn, Archivist at Irish Distillers explains, “Powers sense of identity has always focused on the diamond P; that became very clear to me as I worked my way through the historical archive. The diamond P was everywhere; on the casks, stationary, on bills and receipts, emblazoned on everything that left the distillery, and notably on the wonderful Powers mirrors that still hang in Ireland’s pubs today. Workers at the old John’s Lane distillery even took to wearing a diamond P pin on their lapel, such was their pride to be part of the Powers family. For me it’s wonderful to see the diamond P front and centre on this new label, symbolising all the history of this great whiskey since 1791.”
Following the launch of the new-look Powers Gold Label in March 2020, the new design will be introduced across Powers Three Swallow and Powers John’s Lane from mid-2020 in the USA and the rest of the world from late-2020. In Ireland, Powers Three Swallow and Powers John’s Lane will be released in March 2020, with Powers Gold Label to be reviewed in due course.
Conor McQuaid, Chairman and CEO of Irish Distillers commented: “Powers has been famous for its bold taste profile and character since the family distillery was established in 1791. We are excited to introduce this new look to the world and inspire a new generation with the unique history and personality of Powers. At Irish Distillers, we have pride in Powers as one of the world’s leading Irish whiskeys and we welcome this dynamic new chapter for the brand as we seek to continue the Irish whiskey renaissance around the world.”
New packaging for Powers Irish Whiskey underpins recent innovation for the brand as it seeks to reach and inspire whiskey drinkers including; the release of Powers Old Fashioned, the brand’s first ever pre-mixed classic cocktail; and the Powers Quarter; a collaboration between six Dublin bars to tell the story of Powers and its illustrious Dublin history.
IDL are looking for the next Jameson. They sold Paddy to Sazerac so that’s out, Redbreast and the Spots are too premium, and thus it falls to Powers. Powers has a more robust profile, far moreso than Jameson, which many of us here in the rebel county would describe as mockya. A bold liquid deserves a bold look. That said, I hope they keep the single casks in their current format – there are many collectors out there who will be hoping the same thing.
The new bottle is akin to the beautiful Chinnery Gin, while the labels are modern and fresh. The Gold Label may no longer have a gold label, and the John’s Lane release may look a little downgraded by its update, but overall, if this keeps Powers alive for another few decades, then it shall be worth it. All the heritage in the world is meaningless if clinging to it condemns a brand to death.
Sam Black says his firm’s logo has no real meaning. “It’s what the designer gave us,” he says bluntly when asked about the origins of the silhouette of a crow in flight. When pressed he admits that the image does conveniently tie his story together; he is the Black, while his wife’s maiden name was Crowley. It’s a far more fitting explanation – after all, without his wife Maud, there might not be a brewery.
Originally from the UK, Sam Black was travelling in Australia in 2001 when he met West Cork native Maud, an ortho theatre nurse. Sam, an engineer, always had an interest in brewing but it was the gift of a homebrewing set from his future wife one Valentine’s Day that made him rethink his career choices. Returning to live in Ireland in 2003, the brewing bug took hold and in 2013 they opened Blacks Brewery in the picturesque Cork seaside town of Kinsale. It was close to Maud’s home in Ahiohill near Clonakilty, while Sam – the son of a Scottish Baptist minister – had moved around a lot during his childhood and found it easy to settle almost anywhere.
The location was a smart one – as the southern start point of the Wild Atlantic Way, Kinsale has a steady tourist trade. Kinsale also harbours a thriving foodie culture, and their brewery was able to tap into both of these in its early days, when there were relatively few craft brewers in Ireland. The first few years were hard – there were no investors or backers, just their own money and determination. But it got off the ground at an ideal time as there were few competitors. In the last few years this has been reversed, with a wide array of craft brewers, as well as macro breweries pushing brands that ape small-scale operations but are not. But Blacks Brewery products are on all shelves – Tesco, Musgraves etc all carry their wares.
Then they started making poitín on a stainless steel iStill, but the rules changed, meaning you had to distill in a pot, column still or hybrid still. So they moved on to gin, and even made a spiced rum, which they make entirely in-house. But the time had come for whiskey.
Initially, Blacks released a sourced Cooley 12 year old whiskey, which they announced with zero guff:
We could have pretended that it was distilled here or even just matured here giving it some magical Kinsale provenance. We could have even created from a tale of some ancient Kinsale recipe or that it used ingredients foraged in Kinsale. But we would rather just be honest … It’s simple, it was distilled elsewhere.
They then used the whiskey casks they had after they bottled the sourced 12-year-old single malt to finish their rum in, and have since released Black Ops, a blend of malt and grain. They are currently waiting on stills – a 2,400 litre wash and 1,500 litre spirit still – from Frilli in Italy. The stills will be like Teelings’ ‘but smaller’ according to Sam. But even small stills are not cheap, so they are looking for funding through a cask programme.
There are two schools of thought on cask programmes – one, the average founders club price tag of anywhere between 5k and 7k is crazy, and not worth the money.
The second aspect to founders clubs is that they aren’t about investing in a cask, they are about investing in a dream – to feel like you are part of a distillery. This is what Dingle did so well with their Founding Fathers programme; members feel a sense of ownership. So for every person who buys one of those not-entirely-cheap casks, you have a brand ambassador who has your back. If you are looking for a financial return, whiskey probably isn’t the greatest way to get it, especially given the rate at which distilleries have been popping up here and a market that will be, if not flooded, then certainly well lubricated with whiskey casks in ten to 15 years’ time. So if you are going to pitch a founders club, make it a modest proposal, like Blacks:
We realise that many investors may not have ready funds to invest in this scheme and have developed a win- win scenario for people who still wish to be involved. We have partnered with Flexi-Fi Finance company with an exclusive offer. For example investors can take the package option for €6500 Bourbon cask. If you choose to invest this way you will of course have to pay interest on your loan from the finance company but you will still gain some cash if you exit via the Buy Back Scheme.
Package cost €6500. Total amount repayable with FlexiFi over 36 months is €7,493.12
Representative example Total Amount of Credit: €6,500 over 36 month term with 7.99% interest rate. €35 application fee, €3.50 monthly account fee. APR of 9.95%. Total Amount Payable: €7,493.12. The Buy back scheme offers a Guarantee min value via buy back scheme €7910 equal to a cash gain of €426.88.
The €426.88 is the minimum return via the buy back scheme you may also avail of any of the exit options available and maximise the potential of your investment in 5 years time.
Their stills are in the final phase of construction at the moment and are due on-site soon – once commissioned, maturation will take place at West Cork Distillers sprawling facility down the road in Skibbereen. Sam plans unusual mashbills and casks, and hopes to offer an array of releases, just as he did with his beers.
He is philosophical about the next stage: “We’re not trying to change the world, we just want to make products that people will enjoy and engage with, and stuff that we can enjoy and have fun with. We’re never going to hit Jameson levels of sales.”
We all have a journey to whiskey, but for some, it is a more winding path that guides us here. For Daithí O’Connell, sailor, pilot, and founder of WD O’Connell independent bottlers, the journey was geographical as well as spiritual.
The 40-year-old Carlow native started his career in hospitality aged just 15, working in a local hotel. Four years of that taught him that the 24/7 aspect of that was quite the burden – a 60 hour week commanded the princely sum of thirty púnts, with rent and other expenses on top of that – so he moved into the bar side of hospitality, focussing on the late bar and nightclub scene in McSorleys in Killarney. He then shifted to auctioneering, studying property management and valuation in the College Of Commerce in Cork city. He completed his studies, and found himself working in Mulligans in Cork city. Shortly after he went travelling in Australia, then moved to Denmark and worked in a concrete plant. Meanwhile, back in Ireland, the era known as the Celtic tiger was shifting into top gear – the owners of Mulligans, the Rebel Bar Group, were looking for someone to come on board as a partner in one location. O’Connell started back in Ireland with Oscar Madison’s in Kinsale, then Redz in Cork city, and then the Savoy nightclub, which he ran for four years during its heyday. In 2008, Ireland started to change – the Celtic Tiger was ailing and the economy was about to descend into a crushing recession. The Savoy hosted their last gig under his stewardship on New Year’s Eve 2008 and he moved to Australia with his partner 13 days later. Over the next four years his homeland would suffer the worst recession in the history of the state.
In Australia he trained to become a pilot, and was just shy of his commercial license when he moved to Hong Kong in 2010, where he was lured with the prospect of opening a bar with a group of Irish entrepreneurs. He spent five years there – running bars, setting up a boat hire business, and moving into prepay card systems (HK’s Octopus Card being a template). On the back of the latter business he relocated to Dubai, where his firm managed the payment systems for the Sevens, serving more than 150,000 punters across three days.
After building up that business he started looking for a new project, and whiskey was in his sights – 2012 saw the sale of Cooley to Beam and Dingle Distillery firing up the stills. By late 2015 he had a site sorted and was ready to sign contracts with distillers, still makers, maltsters and all the key components of the project. But the globe-trotting and relentless work took its toll. His marriage disintegrated, and he was forced to reassess everything he knew. He moved back to Ireland and shelved the distillery plan. Then came a succession of events – he met a half-Irish German girl named Alina and fell in love, they became parents, his father died after a short illness, and he turned 40. He started working as a consultant with firms looking to upscale, but whiskey was still on his mind. His partner encouraged him to take the risk and follow his passion. In April 2019, he quit his job and threw himself completely into becoming an independent whiskey bottler.
Bottlers are something of a rarity in Ireland – much of this had to do with the scarcity of distilleries. Bottlers need a diverse range – not just of whiskey styles and casks, but of sources. An indie bottler here over the last 20 years would be offering you the products of three distillers – Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley, and that was only if they were able to get access to stock from those three.
But in Scotland, indie bottlers are revered as being able to offer unique offerings from well-known, lesser-known and long-dead distilleries. In fact, indie bottlers are so important to Scotch whisky that the late, great whisky writer Michael Jackson said of bottlers Gordon & MacPhail that if it were not for this firm, single malts as we know them would not exist today.
It is in this mould that O’Connell sees his firm – to be the biggest indie bottler in Ireland by 2035. Working with support from Bord Bia he hired a creative agency to design his brand – with his love of flight and sailing, a compass rose forms a central part of the brand, while the rest is based around family.
Now all he needed was some stock, and this is where Dr John Teeling comes in. Dr Teeling was the original disruptor in Irish whiskey – at a time when Bushmills and Midleton were the only whiskey makers on the island, he opened his warehouses to buyers. He forced the other two giants to up their game and watch their corners, and is still doing the same with Great Northern Distillery.
O’Connell has something old and something new from Dr Teeling’s stable – a 17-year-old double-distilled Cooley single malt and a youthful, peated, triple-distilled GND single malt. The 17 was matured in first-fill bourbon for 17 years, then in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, bottled at 46%, non-chill filtered and limited to 370 bottles. It is the first ‘PX series’ release, the beginning of a limited series of PX-finished single malt Irish whiskeys.
The GND single malt is a single cask of triple-distilled, peated single malt, matured in first-fill bourbon barrels and bottled at 47.5% ABV, non-chill filtered and limited to 306 bottles.
It is the first ‘Bill Phil’ release, the start of a series of triple distilled, peated single malt Irish whiskeys. The O’Connells hail from Mountcollins in west Limerick, a small village which has a surprisingly large number of people named O’Connell, so nicknames were required to distinguish between the different families; Dáithí’s ancestors were the Bill Phils, and they specialised in a type of turf-cutting implement named a sleán. Thus, a peated expression was the perfect way to celebrate this heritage.
So O’Connell has some stock, but an indie bottler needs more than Cooley or Great Northern to offer the punters. O’Connell’s model is a surprisingly new enterprise – there are many, many Irish whiskey brands out there which are effectively just indie bottlings – sourced whiskey released under another label. However, many are either released under the name of an as-yet unbuilt, partially built, or operational but sub-three years old distillery, or are bottlers without telling you that this is what they are. There is a paucity of brands who plainly state they are indie bottlers, who offer full info on the liquid within the bottle, where it came from, who distilled it, and how old it is. But bottlers are meant to be curators – they provide a vital piece of infrastructure in Scotland, and will be required to do the same here.
WD O’Connell Whiskey Merchants comes with a clarity and simplicity in its message – that they are going to source stock from distilleries and bottle it in small batches. The Bill Phil is a light gold liquid, with a bright, medicinal tang on the nose – light but succulent sweetness. On the palate – the youthful heat is balanced by sweet smoke, and for a barely legal dram it is incredibly smooth. O’Connell is quick to point out that the Bill Phil isn’t some smash and grab, where he releases a well-aged 17 and then throws out some firewater as a money spinner. Bill Phil was released because it is quality liquid – and because it shows the power of peat, something O’Connell is keen to explore. The PX is a counterpoint to Bill Phil – mature, deep, heavy with red fruits and dark chocolate. Both were released in tiny batches and are stocked in specialist outlets – Fox, Mulligan’s, Bradley’s – as these are specialist offerings.
Right now, O’Connell is a one-man show, chasing the highways and byways to get his product and his brand out there. Next year he is considering a March release for another Bill Phil, followed by an 18-year-old version of the PX in June, complimented by a small batch cask-strength edition. He is assembling casks from Irish distilleries, especially the smaller start-ups. Beyond that, he is envisioning a central hub, akin to Gordon & MacPhail’s Elgin headquarters, which would operate as a home for the brand. Settled for the moment on Waterford’s Copper Coast, he is still looking for the right place for a brand home. It may well be a long road ahead for Daithí or any indie bottlers – Gordon & MacPhail were founded 123 years ago, Cademhead’s 148 years, but O’Connell is looking to build something that will outlive and outlast him.
Ever the navigator, one of the reasons O’Connell loves the indie bottling model is because of the sense of adventure – finding new distilleries to source stock from, new worlds to explore, and a new chapter in his whiskey journey.
Salou looks like it was designed for the social media age – all wide boulevards, parrot-populated palm trees, mountainous horizons, historical buildings, and multicoloured, interactive fountains. Everywhere you look there are stunning foregrounds and backdrops for those Insta moments. Even as you walk along the coast to where Salou ends, there are platforms on the rocky outcrops for you to take those all-important selfies.
My sixteen year old was delighted – every day we would go for a stroll for her to source content for her social channels, and we weren’t the only ones – everywhere there people waving their phones, filming, snapping and posting. But while Salou had a few wannabe influencers waving selfie sticks, the surrounds of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona was like a particularly chilling episode of Black Mirror – it was like social media had become a virus, transforming people who should be awed by the staggering beauty of the building into witless goons who just want to use it as a backdrop. We even saw one couple standing in the middle of the road in the face of oncoming traffic in their attempt to get the perfect angle on their shot.
Holidaying in Spain makes economic sense, as certain things are cheaper there than here; food, accomodation and medicine to name but three. This meant that I came home with 20 packs of Avamys sinus spray (11 euro over the counter there, thirty euro on prescription here) and some booze. Lots of booze, thanks to this gent on Twitter, who upon hearing I was going to Salou, informed me that the must-see spot in the area was not Gaudi’s beautiful architecture, or the stunning coastline, or even the colossal amusement park, but was in fact the local offie. And lo, so it was that I found myself on more than one occasion in the Wine Palace Salou, enjoying their air conditioning and their remarkable selection of spirits, meats, beers and friendly staff. They have very few Irish whiskeys, but to give an idea of the prices they charge, they had the WCD ten year old for 19.99. Why can’t we have this in Ireland, we cry! I have no idea, but I am generally of the belief that you can never understand a country’s economy without working there – then you get to see what is and is not working, and most importantly, how your taxes are collected and how they are being spent. The average industrial wage is higher in Ireland than it is in Spain, so life here costs more than it does there. As for alcohol, it is taxed at a high rate in Ireland, as the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland recently pointed out, noting that 25 EU member states pay less excise tax on Irish whiskey than Ireland:
A new Drinks Industry Group of Ireland report, Excise Tax Rates in Europe: How Ireland Compares in 2019, authored by Dublin City University economist Anthony Foley, shows that Ireland continues to have the second-highest overall excise tax on alcohol in the EU, the highest excise tax on wine, the second highest on beer, and the third highest on spirits.
Despite Ireland’s renown for the production of some of the world’s most popular drinks products, the Irish government levies a tax bill of €12 on a bottle of off-licence-bought Irish whiskey and 54 cents on a pint of Irish stout served at a pub, restaurant or hotel.
In terms of excise tax, Italian tourists pay four times less excise on a bottle of Irish whiskey in an Italian supermarket than they would if purchasing it for the Irish distillery that produced it.
In France and Germany, countries equally renowned for their drinks industries, excise tax rates on wine and beer are far lower. A shopper in France pays just three cents in excise on a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, while a patron at a German beerhall pays five cents in excise on every pint of lager.
It is a common theme – why come to Ireland to buy whiskey when it is cheaper back home? And therein lies a bigger question about Irish whiskey – why is it so expensive? Partly it is through strategy – it was framed as a premium product almost from day one, and those notions never went away. Smooth, triple distilled, luxuriant. But high taxation domestically ought to be of little concern to producers when the vast majority of it is being sold in export markets and thus beyond paddy taxman’s reach. Just look at the stampede into the sector – surely they aren’t all terrible accountants who grossly misread the Irish tax code? Clearly there is profit to be made.
Taxes on drink here are high and sales of drink are high, and even though those sales are falling, the cost to society and public health from abuse of alcohol has also been high. In fact, the WHO recommend high taxes as a way of negating the ill effects of abuse.
Alcohol deserves a high price because it deserves our respect. Neither should alcohol be seen as a basic human right – perhaps we should reframe our thinking on it and see it, not as one of the central struts of Irish identity, but as a decadent, occasional pleasure. Personally, I cannot imagine my life without it, but I have to accept that no matter how I try to rebrand that, it is still a drug and my love for it makes me an addict, albeit an incredibly pretentious one.
In Salou I bought two Spanish brandies, then when I came home I ordered another, and my general take on the products is that they are excellent – incredible liquid, exceptional value and a welcome counterpoint to my whisky obsession. Sometimes you just need to recalibrate those taste buds by diving into another spirit altogether. I still love whisky, but even your mouth needs a holiday from time to time. But the bottles I bought were not just Spanish brandies, they were Catalonioan – like any sophisticated pisshead, I like to imbibe some local gatts on my hollibobs. If you want to know more about these brandies, there is an excellent piece here by Joe Micallef which goes into how they are made. Micallef is the chap who wrote of the Irish government’s ‘schizophrenic’ attitude to alcohol in Forbes, an article appeared to earn him some favour with the IWA parent group Drinks Ireland, who hosted him in Dublin a few months later.
It’s worth pointing out that A) using the term ‘schizophrenic’ with such negative connotations, utterly unrelated to any discussion of mental health, is generally to be avoided, and B) governments have always struggled with the dilemma of massive tax gains from the sale of alcohol, and the enormous cost to public health, law and order and society at large from the abuse of it. All nation states struggle to balance this equation – Soggy Sweat’s If By Whiskey still captures the essence of the dichotomy, many decades after he spoke those words.
So booze is cheaper in Catalonia. You know what else is cheaper? Human rights. The images from the marches in Barcelona do make for easy viewing; ludicrous jail sentences being handed down for ‘sedition’, ie, holding a referendum. It cuts to the bone of our approach to ‘cheap’ hols and ‘cheap’ booze – a price is always paid somewhere, and not by us.
Ireland is a progressive, wealthy country. I am happy to live here and to pay taxes here. Certainly there are ways that those taxes could be collected in a fairer manner – don’t treat tiny producers the same as massive transnationals – and spent more wisely – infrastructure, modernisation, etc – but generally I am ok with taxes as long as we don’t see riot police baton-charging citizens. I paid more than thirty thousand euro in taxes last year, this year will be slightly less than that, and I am happy to do it. I’ve lived a life of almost relentless privilege, but when I needed State support, it was there for me. That said, The Wine Palace does ship to Ireland.
I was off on my Scottish jolly when I heard the news – I was nominated for an award. What could it be, I pondered; Prick Of The Year? Gowl Of The Millenium? No, it was Whisky Magazine’s Icons Of Whisky awards – basically the Oscars of getting pissed. I am listed in the Communicator Of The Year section, along with a wild bunch of bloggers, writers, and industry folk. It’s a list that me scratching my head – really, people like me shouldn’t be on there, as I straddle that divide between industry and consumer. In an ideal world, it would be an award to celebrate the fans, for those who just love the stuff and write or tweet about it. Skin in the game, and all that.
Unlike the Oscars, the voting operates by ranking names on a list, and so is basically a popularity contest – AKA, the type of contest that I am unlikely to win. It’s also thusly the type of contest that requires you take to the hustings and engage in a lot of thirsty begging for votes, all the while trying to look like you don’t desperately want to win. Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted and honoured to have even been nominated, but the only reward I need from the whiskey world is my invoices being processed in a timely fashion. There are people on that list who are into whiskey not as a career, but as fans, and they should be the ones celebrated, not semi-pros like me. That said, I’ll be sure to mention all this in my acceptance speech which I am currently drafting.
Ah Kilbeggan – Irish whiskey’s Marie Celeste. A distillery that has that perfect blend – the old side is as if it was trapped in time, all dusty and decrepit, full of charm and character. Then there is the actual functioning distillery, compact and bijou, with a little grit and not much glam, but a real, honest-to-god whiskey making exercise. Really, Kilbeggan should have it all, and yet somehow, it does not. I was there earlier this year and did the tour, and while the person giving it was perfectly pleasant, it was clear that they had no interest in whiskey, and most likely, little interest in giving tours. It wasn’t their fault, and I also have a lot of sympathy for an employer in a rural area trying to find guides with enthusiasm, knowledge and the communication skills to bring the whole experience to life; people like that are a rare breed. Similarly, I have a lot of sympathy for anyone who takes a job in a distillery when they clearly have no interest in anything other than just paying the bills.To spend your day talking to people on a topic you have fuck all interest in must be a Sisyphusian hell, not to mind the odd whiskey nerd asking you about molecular processes when you just want to go home and watch Fair City. After the tour, I popped into the gift shop. I mentioned to the lady behind the counter that Irish whiskey was expensive, and she proceeded to give me a lengthy and wildly inaccurate explanation as to why I was wrong. Irish whiskey is older than Scottish whisky, she said, in a pointedly grumpy fashion. I left shortly after.
Then we went to the Old Bonded Warehouse in Tullamore, which was like being transported to a different world; friendly, well-informed staff, excellent service and an all-round experience I would recommend (even though it isn’t a distillery). It was a reminder that tourism is as much about people as it is about place – Kilbeggan was all place, Tullamore was all people. But Tullamore – a large town – was always going to have the edge on a small village like Kilbeggan when it comes to finding the right staff.
So what then of the big smoke and its recent whiskey boom – how is their tourism offering? Frankly, I have no idea – but I did pop into Teeling, Lyons and Roe one afternoon last month. I was curious to see Lyons and Roe, given that they have colossal firms behind them. Both are located in remarkable buildings – Roe an old power station, Lyons a centuries-old church – and have been kitted out in spectacular style. Yet somehow they lack soul; at least the abundance of rust and dust in Kilbeggan brought character. Roe is very modern, stylish and bold, whereas Lyons has a remarkable and profound history – and yet they opted to stick faux-pub frontage to the walls of a place of worship that has been there for centuries. I have long since thrown off any semblance of faith, but there is something of a desecration about it all – gift shops, stained glass celebrating a Lyons ancestor, and those little stills up on the altar (and presumably a massive outsourced distilling contract resting in the tabernacle). The developers would tell you that they rescued the building, that without the Lyons family’s intervention, it would have fallen to dust – and they are right, as buildings need to be used to live. But those faux pub fronts were just an awful, awful idea. It’s hard not to see them and think of Christ casting out the money lenders from the temple.
Lyons and Roe will make a mint – tourism alone will contribute a sizeable sum to their income.
What then, of Teeling? It is off the main drag, but well worth the short walk – it is very modern, very cool, and has the great bonus of an exhibition space you can walk around for free and learn about the history of distilling. Their tour is the cheapest of the three, and the upstairs bar is full of great little spaces for those Instagram pics. They also have the most interesting bottle-your-own selections – I think of all the distilleries in the last few years charging onto the scene, not many have created so many great expressions from sourced stock as Teeling. But then, could you expect anything less?
So, to sum up – get good staff. Train them well. No need for tatts and moustaches, a smile will be fine, because if you are a drinks giant, sticking a few hipsters behind the bar won’t make you cool. Do try to find people who are interested in either tourism or whiskey or people. Do not tell your tour guides to rattle off the three-years-and-a day line, as it grates on my nerves like a fork across porcelain – you can call me a pedant, but it is just not true, and every time it is spoken aloud to a group, it moves further from myth and into truth. Three years is what it takes to become whiskey, and one day more does not ‘make it better than Scotch’. No point in being insecure about it – Irish whiskey is great, don’t bother comparing it to anyone. I’ve been on plenty tours in Scotland, nobody over there is rattling out the tired old line about how they double distill because they get it right the first time. That’s because the Scots don’t care what we are doing, or saying, or anything. They are going to continue to eat our lunch for some decades yet.
I’m not going to mention the IWA map again, but from my perspective, we have some way to go to get the the level Scottish whisky tourism operates at. It isn’t about having centuries old whisky – we have an incredibly exciting selection of distilleries here that don’t even have stock on the market yet – but it is about avoiding the Irish tendency towards glib backslapping and cheering that you will never beat the Irish (despite history teaching us otherwise). We need to see our own failings and work on them, not don the green jersey and refuse to learn from others with more experience. Anyone here who has a whiskey tourism offering should take a pilgrimage to Scotland and basically steal their ideas. Sher lookit didn’t they steal the drink itself from us? Tis only fair.
Friends, I have been to the mountaintop; I have been there and I have looked beyond and I have seen the promised land. In other words – I have seen Scottish whisky tourism at work, in Speyside in 2015 and 2018. At the Spirit of Speyside Festival you can see first-hand just how the entire region and all the distilleries in it work together to make the event a success. It is in this model that Ireland can draw inspiration. Enter Irish Whiskey 360°:
One shared spirit, many unique characters.
Irish Whiskey 360° leads you deep into the homes and heartlands of Ireland’s extraordinary distilleries. Your journey will take you North, South, East and West, through ever-changing landscapes, from rugged coastlines to historic cities.
This is part of the Taste The Island initiative from Fáilte Ireland, the Irish tourism board, and it takes an all-island approach to food tourism. Bushmills, one of the greatest distilleries in the world, is located in the North, along with powerhouse newcomers Echlinville, to name but two, so no whiskey tourism programme could exclude NI. When it comes to something as niche as whiskey tourism, the last thing we need are divisions.
I was filled with great expectations; the 360 site would operate as a vast guide to all the distilleries, telling you who had mature stocks, who didn’t, who you could visit anytime, who you could visit by appointment only. There would be a section telling you about distillery only bottlings, a complete, all-Ireland map showing preferred routes from distillery to distillery, perhaps even a few other places of interest for people coming here to travel around and really gaze into the heart of Ireland – silent distilleries, great whiskey pubs, the odd brewery that does collaborations with whiskey firms; there would be warehouses, whiskey experiences, good restaurants with a whiskey slant. We need to build those links between distilleries – a trail of breadcrumbs to lure fans out into the wilds. This would be one for the real whiskey tourist, not just the coach tours who just want to use the loo.
Anyway, this is the map:
Seventeen locations, and not all of them are distilleries – Tullamore Distillery is by appointment only, one day a week, so the location they are flagging is the Tullamore DEW experience in the town. Same for Bow Street – it’s a whiskey experience, not a functioning distillery. As for places on that list where you can buy indigenous whiskey, I reckon about half of them have gift shops where you can come away with something that was actually distilled there. So the website’s claims that with their guide you’ll get to know the many very different characters that make up the Irish whiskey family seem more than a little far fetched – you’re far more likely to get to know a lot of Cooley and Bushmills.
The breakdown of the 17 distilleries is thus:
Roe & Co Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.
The Powerscourt Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.
Dublin Liberties Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.
Clonakilty Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.
Slane Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.
Pearse Lyons Distillery – new distillery, mature stock from when they were operating in Carlow, nothing from the new site (as far as I know).
Royal Oak Distillery – new distillery, should have mature stock shortly.
Rademon Estate Distillery – mature stock coming out later this year.
Connacht Whiskey Distillery – mature stock, no idea when it is being released.
The Echlinville Distillery – mature stock, no idea when it is being released.
Dingle Distillery – mature stock.
Kilbeggan Distillery – mature stock.
Tullamore D.E.W. – no mature stock either in the distillery or the bonded warehouse tourism bit in the town.
Jameson Distillery, Midleton – mature stock.
Teeling Whiskey Distillery – mature stock.
Bushmills Distillery – mature stock.
Jameson Experience, Bow Street – has some maturation on site but to all intents and purposes, no mature stock.
The Irish Whiskey Association are keen to point out that this is phase one of the project, so this might explain why they only listed distilleries that can take larger tours. The distilleries listed all also happen to be IWA members, and this is where my nerves start jangling. If the IWA wants to create a whiskey tourism offering that only features their members, there is no problem – some of the biggest drinks firms in the world (Brown Forman, Pernod, Diageo, etc etc) are members of the IWA via their Irish operations, so they can afford to create their own initiative and promote it themselves. My issue is that our national tourism board has partnered with the IWA for this, something which is thus far a remarkably limited view of Irish whiskey in 2019. It’s taste the island, not taste the IWA.
So I put this query to the IWA’s PR firm: There are some distilleries in Ireland not on the list – what was the criteria for the ones currently on the map? Are other attractions going to be added – such as whiskey pubs? Or is it just for whiskey distilleries? The response I got was this:
“Phase one features Drinks Ireland | Irish Whiskey Association member visitor centres/brand homes who came together to initiate and fund the development of the project. Future phases will see extension to other Irish whiskey tourism partners, including those in the on-trade. The Festival of Irish Whiskey in October will include other participants beyond the 17 featured visitor centres and brand homes.”
All the distilleries here pay a lot of tax, and some of that tax goes towards funding the tourism board – I would be deeply concerned if I thought any whiskey firms might be excluded from any tourism initiative. Granted, some don’t do large scale tours, but places like West Cork Distillers and Waterford Distillery host visitors (albeit it on a very small scale at the moment). So I went back to the PR firm for clarity, asking: Are non-IWA members going to be included in the campaign, including having their presence marked on the map of distilleries, as well as on the website? Or is this initiative purely focussed on IWA members? The mercurial reply was:
“Future phases will see more partners being included, on a commercial basis. The current focus is on the 17 founding members and the Festival of Irish Whiskey, which is open to non-IWA members to be included.”
Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, but there is something about those answers (‘on a commercial basis’) that leads me to think that non-IWA members might end up being left out, or treated as a lower tier in our whiskey tourism offering. Again, there is nothing against the IWA running a tourism campaign, but if this is the Irish whiskey section of the Taste The Island campaign, then we cannot leave out some places because they are not in the IWA, or even because they only take small tours, or are not normally open to the public. Have a look at the Visit Scotland whisky tourism site and how they portray Speyside – all the distilleries are listed. Then read this breakdown of the sheer power of whisky tourism in Scotland as a whole. If the Scots are getting it right, there is no harm in following their lead.
We either have a vibrant whiskey scene, or we don’t. We either have a thriving whiskey tourism offering, or we have a list of 17 places – some distilleries, some not – that you can go and walk around with your mouth open. Festivals are meaningless when the most basic tool of any tourist – a map – only shows a select few sites of interest. Who would look at the 360 map and think Connacht Distillery is worth driving across the country to see? There needs to be a trail, a route, a guide. I find it extraordinary that there is a far more comprehensive list of distilleries and upcoming whiskey projects available on the excellent Westmeath Whiskey World blog than there is on the 360 site.
Part of the problem here is that the IWA has become the body to represent the industry, even though it doesn’t represent all of the industry. The IWA is there to represent business interests, but what happens to those who have no interest in paying a subscription to be a member? What about the smaller, indie firms who can’t afford to join? I understand that there needs to be some benefit to IWA members, but in this particular instance, there needs to be a bigger view taken. Firms can be rivals on the shelf, but should be comrades everywhere else.
I would very much hope that the next phase of the 360 project includes all distilleries; just last week I met up with an American tourist who came here purely to visit distilleries, and those that he couldn’t tour, he went along to and took photos from the outside. That’s the power of whiskey tourism, and understanding how it works will be key to harnessing it. We have a young scene, but it is vibrant, and, much like Scotland, it has one of the most beautiful backdrops in the world. By following the example the Scots have set, we too can find the promised land.
It’s Good Friday, and West Cork Distillers is going through an audit for its organic certification. John O’Connell is practically running he is walking so fast. All is going well with the audit; O’Connell seems pleased. Despite breaking the land speed record as he moves from room to room, he still finds the time to show me around. Having visited the distillery 12 months before my Easter visit, my expectation was that little would have changed. I was wrong. The notion that life moves slower down west is disproved by WCD, which seems to be accelerating its already rapid expansion.
In one lab they have a pilot plant alongside analytical equipment, meaning they can work on experimental washes and play around with locally-sourced fruit yeasts taken from Gougane Barra woods – O’Connell is all about fermentation, and is vocal about the role it plays in determining a spirit’s flavour profile.
One of the newer pieces of equipment dreamed up and built from scratch in WCD is an electrodialysis machine. They can analyse new make, isolate components that they might not be happy with, and run the liquid through the dialysis machine to cleanse the spirit of them.
But while they are relentlessly pushing toward a scientific utopia, they are also pushing for greater transparency in their barrels, now only sourcing from named bodegas, eschewing non-disclosure agreements in favour of greater clarity and information for the consumer. There are few people who WCD refuse to work with, and the firms they do create drinks for run from the aristocratic Baring family behind Lambay Whiskey, to UK TV star (and west Cork man) Graham Norton. But WCD have another project underway, one which may cause ripples in the industry.
Some distilleries here are offering cask programmes as a way of generating some revenue in order to offset the massive cost of getting up and running. It is a great idea – you buy a cask and feel part of a distillery’s story. Some distilleries are charging seven to ten grand a cask. But talk to anyone who has bought casks in Scotland and they will tell you that over there prices are far more reasonable (and thus more realistic as an investment). But with people using Dingle’s founding fathers five grand buy-in as a baseline, the only way is up, and up, and up. This meant that for most of us, cask ownership was just a pipe dream.
Enter then the West Cork Whiskey Co-operative, a small group gathered through word of mouth, who were given the opportunity to buy some of the 5,000 casks released for sale by West Cork Distillers. Some have bought one or two, some have bought many more. And I, dear reader, bought nine, because although I am of meager means, my dual loves of both whiskey and bargains mean that this was an offer I could not refuse: The co-op offered a 200 litre first fill bourbon barrel filled with grain spirit for 888 euro, single pot still for 990 euro, or single malt for 1,086 euro. I bought one grain, four pot and four malt. One is for my godchild, four for each of my kids, and the remaining ones may end up getting bottled at some point (thus the grain). It is a bit of madness, and a bit of fun, and I don’t expect to make any money. Whiskey is a playground for me, not a place to graft.
So here comes the economics; the annual storage and insurance in year one, as well as the administrative cost of running the co-op, is included in the entry price. With a modest price appreciation of 2-5% per annum on current market valuations for aged whiskey, investors could generate 12-15% investment returns per annum over a three-to-10-year period. The co-op will act as the legal trustee and the registered tenant in WCD’s bonded warehouse, and the investor is the beneficial owner and is allocated a share in the co-op: One member, one vote. There is also the online trading platform which offers the ability to bid on other people’s whiskey or auction your existing whiskey to interested buyers. Loss of liquid in the casks beyond evaporation (2.5% per annum) or damage due to fire etc., is fully insured at the purchase price. As for tariffs and Brexit, WCD are a global business with diversified revenue streams so they are insulated better than most.
O’Connell’s approach to this is much like his approach to business in general – be fair. Of course, there is also a bonus for WCD – they get an injection of cash, and will always have the option to buy casks back from the co-op should they need to. After their massive expansion in the past 12 months, they may need to – four warehouses sit at the end of the Marsh Road site (foundations needed to be set 15 metres underground, as the road lives up to its name), while they are finally throwing open the doors to the public, with a sizeable visitors centre, which houses their new distillery, which comprises of three pot stills, one hybrid and one column.
If WCD make all this look easy, these stills are a reminder that it isn’t – all came from planned distilleries that were abandoned, including the stills from the Niche/Quiet Man. Setting up a distillery is an expensive business – WCD exists largely through sheer force of will, and they still embody that Mad Max spirit of innovation and invention, making any equipment they can, and sourcing everything else in as cost-effective a way as possible (they even have ouzo stills, imported to Skibbereen after they were spotted by a staff member on holiday in Greece).
WCD have become a force to be reckoned with – their output of four million litres per annum may be dwarfed by the likes Midleton (100 million LPA); or even their main competitors in the wholesale market, Great Northern, who boast a remarkable 11 million LPA, but WCD have something that others do not – diversity. No parent firm, column and pot distillation, on-site maturation facilities, a bottling hall, and contract activity. As Darwin noted, it is not the strongest that survives, but the most adaptive to change. WCD were created out of necessity, invention and desperation – they will try almost anything (hard kombucha, anyone?), create just about any spirit they can if they find a market for it.
WCD also has a four-pronged revenue stream – their own branded products; bulk spirits and fermentates; contract manufacturing and wholesales. Domestically, they deal with the big supermarkets – Aldi, Lidl, Dunnes, Tesco and the Musgrave Group, who own SuperValu and Centra. They also have multiple contracts overseas, and are looking to expand further. They also bought out the Halewood stake in the firm, so the two McCarthy cousins and O’Connell are now the majority shareholders. They achieved all this with no marketing team – which, in the whiskey world, is possibly the most startling fact of all.
It is early days for the co-op – but if WCD can do it, why not others? Do we want Irish whiskey to be some elitist members-only affair where only those of significant means can afford to buy a cask (or a bottle)? Is it right that some brands are charging seven grand a cask, or 300 euro for a 16 year old whiskey? More importantly, is it good for the category? We need places like WCD to create equilibrium. With the co-op, people can get a sense of how much whiskey actually costs, rather than what someone decides it is worth. Obviously I’m going to roll back on this in spectacular fashion in 16 years when I release my own bottling for a grand a pop, but until then we need to calm the fuck down. An overpriced, overheated market draws the wrong kinds of entities into the marketplace.
If you are interested in buying a cask for a reasonable price, shop around – there are plenty of places that ought to cut you a deal, and at least now punters can say well, WCD charge a grand, why are you charging five times that (or more)? As for the co-op, membership is closed, but it may re-open again in the future. Chances are that if it does, it will be done in typical WCD fashion – quietly, fairly, and with as little fanfare as possible.
Can terroir exist in whisky? I like to think it can, but that’s because I choose to. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. The idea makes sense to me; but then, I have zero understanding of science, zero understanding of the destructive forces of distillation. So maybe I should take a backseat and shut the hell up, which is what I did when I got this email. I can’t remember the context, but the person who wrote it seemed pretty straight – considering they were using a fake name and fake email address. They had worked in distilling for decades (which in Ireland narrows it down to a few dozen potential candidates, thus necessitating the hidden ID) and just wanted to say their piece about their own experience of terroir in whiskey, so here it is:
“We played with that more than a decade ago and took three separate strains of barley and made three totally different malts. The taste difference was notable as new make, but this was expected as most new make batches will have a slight difference in taste and aroma. However, we put them into three very similar casks (all ex-bourbon from the same distillery with the same fill and disgorging date) as identical as possible considering a casks variance, and all the whiskies tasted the same after five years. The barrel is far too overpowering for the tiny incremental changes the terroir supporters suggest. In my opinion, terroir in whiskey is 100% a marketing ploy as I’ve tested both ways – identical whiskey from the same batch in different casks and the opposite test with different whiskies in as identical as possible barrels and on both tests the barrel comes through by a huge country mile. The barrel does the vast majority of the flavour, definitely 70% or more depending on the barrel.
“Try buying a charred or toasted cask, add plain spring water to it and even after 48 hours of the water in the cask, remove some water and taste it and you’ll get those unmistakable whiskey flavours. The cask is honestly the big difference in whiskey.
“Think of how many medals Cooley won prior to the sale to Beam. John Teeling couldn’t give his whiskey away at the time (which is why he had so much mature stock). And then all that stock got sold to brands and they did some unique finishes (Teelings 24 year old is a recent example finished in Sauternes casks), Hyde is another and plenty more world awards from that stock. All the same whiskey as Noel never did much to change the mash bill at Cooley.
“The difference came in the finish, which was 100% from the cask. Every single brand in Ireland has known the importance of the barrel for hundreds of years. Even think of Redbreast in 1903. Gilbeys were wine merchants as were the Mitchell brothers with the Spot family. They had leftover wine casks and got them filled by Jameson. It resulted in some of the world’s best ever whiskey.”
Mysterious anonymous email endeth.
In the new make I tasted in Waterford, there were massive differences between farms – but give those different distillates ten years in a barrel, and then we shall see. New make exhibiting what seems like terroir is very different to a 15 year old spirit exhibiting terroir, because how do you eliminate the effects of the cask from your deductions? Do you sell each bottle with a sample of the new make so you can discern which flavour elements are down to where the barley grew, and which are down to the wood? Or is all this completely besides the point? Waterford Distillery has taken the focus off wood and placed it farther back in the process, to an element of whiskey that had been relegated to a walk on part in the narrative. If quality wood programmes are so important, why not grain also? And beyond that – why not yeast, why not fermentation times? Why not people? Reynier’s persona is central to this debate – he is as much part of the terroir of Waterford’s whisky as the grain. This was all his mad idea, his vision. You can criticise him, mutter about people ‘coming over here’ telling us how to make whisky, write it all off as marketing, or some zany experiment – but as experiments go, it is a remarkably grand one, and whether or not you believe in whisky terroir, or choose to believe or not, it is still exciting.
For a more scientific, less nonsensical take on terroir:
Mark Reynier believes the Vikings invented whisky. The nomadic distiller claims that, contrary to the common belief that it was Irish monks who discovered it, it was the Vikings who first started to distill barley to make the water of life. Why would monks make such strong spirit, Reynier counters to anyone who objects to his interpretation of history – surely for men of God it would be heresy? Whatever about his take on the origins of distilling, few can doubt that he is an expert on heresy.
A third-generation wine merchant and independent whisky bottler, Reynier was the driving force behind the resurrection of Bruichladdich Distillery on the Hebridean island of Islay. He bought the mothballed distillery, transformed it into a gloriously wild experiment in the somewhat staid world of Scotch whisky, and then sold for stg£54 million it in 2012. After the sale, Reynier took some time off and went fishing. Many in his position would have simply retired, but Reynier was to prove that his work on Islay was laying down a template for what would follow, as he brought his unique approach to whisky to its spiritual home – Ireland.
Whilst on Islay, Reynier became obsessed with barley. The central ingredient of any single malt, it somehow ended up with a walk-on part in distilling – large firms place almost all the emphasis on casks, claiming that up to 80% of flavour comes from the wood the spirit ages in. Ever the heretic, Reynier queries why, if wood is so important, they don’t just use neutral spirit to make whiskey, or indeed simply water? Why bother with barley at all, if it has so little input? He decided that barley was the key to everything, and that local barley the most important of all.
While many larger distillers quietly imported their barley from warmer climes to ensure supply (and keep costs down), Reynier started using locally grown barley. His background in wine meant he knew about the importance of provenance and terroir – the unique microclimate that makes the wine from one vineyard completely different to wine from one alongside it. So he brought out whiskies that were distilled from certain strains of barley, or from certain farms.
Duncan McGillivray, former general manager of Bruichladdich, happened to mention to Reynier that the best barley he had ever seen was from the south east of Ireland. Fortuitous indeed then that shortly after the sale of Bruichladdich, Reynier managed to snap up the state of the art Guinness brewery in Waterford, the capital of Ireland’s sunny south east, for a bargain 7.5 million euro. He rehired many of the former Diageo staff who were let go when Guinness pulled out, and while he transformed the brewery into a distillery, his staff transformed from brewers to distillers. Now all he needed was some grain.
Reynier put in place an unprecedented network of farms to supply his barley, with a forensic level of detail – Waterford Distillery can track their spirit from grain to glass, and tell you about soil types, field locations, barley strains and even a short history of the farmer who grew it. Their storage facility was named the ‘barley cathedral’ and the distillery itself became a kind of techo-pagan temple created solely for the adoration of grain, with Reynier as chief celebrant. There were to be no white spirits – no vodka, no gin, no poitin – no single pot still whiskey, a traditional Irish style, and no grain whiskey. This is about single malt and nothing else. With a solid business plan and the confidence of his backers – among them Waterford native and pharma mogul Seamus Mulligan – Reynier is in no hurry to get his product out. Yet while many distilleries play it safe in those shaky early years, Reynier is taking his spirit of experimentation to the roots of whisky itself.
From one aspect or another, all interests of human life belong to Agriculture.
Reynier was the first person to distill Irish whisky from organically grown barley. But this wasn’t enough – how do you enhance terroir to the highest possible degree? The answer lay in some of the world’s great vineyards, and the writings of the occultist philosopher Rudolf Steiner. In 1924 a group of farmers were concerned about the impact of modern farming methods on their soil. They enlisted Steiner’s help, and he gave a series of lectures which went on to form the central strut of biodynamics. This modern-sounding agricultural philosophy sees the farm as an organism, one which is self contained and does not need outside interference. Fertilizer should come from the farm itself through a series of preparations – one of which is a cow horn packed with manure and buried for a period of time, while a spray for aphids comes from water that nettles have been soaked in.
Steiner was the father of anthroposophy – a philosophy led by the belief that there is a spiritual world accessible to us all through inner development. With biodynamics, he drew on this and the teaching of mystics from the 16th century, and thus some of the guidelines of biodynamic agriculture are somewhat left of field. To quote some of the instructions on the Biodynamic Association website: The six compost preparations are made from specific herbs: yarrow flowers, chamomile blossoms, the whole areal portion of the stinging nettle while in flower, oak bark, dandelion blossoms and valerian flowers. Four of these six preparations are enveloped in sheaths of animal organs. All are made with a sensitivity to the rhythms of the sun and zodiac. All but one are buried in the ground for a specified period of time. When the preparations are finished, they have the appearance of well-ripened compost, with the exception of the valerian preparation, which is in a liquid form.
Whilst much of biodynamics is an engaging form of holistic agriculture, the use of ‘sheaths of animals organs’ and lunar phases as a guide for planting is a stumbling block for many. However, Steiner’s views on agriculture may cause furrowed brows, his thoughts on other issues, such as race and education, raise even greater questions about his deductions.
The body which awards biodynamic certification, the Demeter Association, does not enforce the lunar calendar planting, but does ensure the preparations are as laid out by Steiner. Yet while biodynamics has its critics, it hasn’t stopped some of the great wine producers from using it – Domaine Zind Humbrecht, Romanee Conti, and Chateau Margaux all adhere to the rules laid down by the Biodynamic Association.
As Reynier has shown consistently throughout his career, if it works for wine, then why not whisky – after all, he openly admits that he is making a whisky for wine drinkers. This is for those who want to delve deeper into the liquid, to understand its provenance and to answer the bigger question of ‘why’ – why does this drink have the flavours it does?
“Soil here is the medium,” Reynier says. “It’s made from the subsoil which is made from the bedrock, which is filled with minerals, and the roots of whatever it is growing down into those different soils gets the most minerals. This is why we chose biodynamics – if you as a farmer keep putting nitrates on the ground, what incentive is there for the roots to go down, if they are just being fed on the surface? So the more fertiliser you use the less likely it is that the roots will dig deep.
“Most whisky drinkers are going to have no idea what we are talking about – I don’t care – but wine drinkers will. They will understand, or at least the guys I am talking to, will understand how biodynamics has influenced the greatest winemakers to take the ultimate step up.
“Biodynamics is agricultural management philosophy that is the culmination of ten thousand years of farming know how – call it folklore, call it old wives tales, whatever. But this is accumulated knowledge of how to grow, and how to look after your land, from before a time when you could go to the shops and buy what you needed to care for the land, you had to use what you had on your land, and they knew that everything they needed was right there.
“Fertilizers, pesticides, all naturally produced. Everything was done from within the farm. It was codified by Rudolf Steiner, who was approached by the farmers who felt that all this accumulated knowledge about caring for the land was being lost to modernity, and to the agro-chemical industry that really started after the First World War, when all these munitions firms went into selling chemicals to farmers.
“You can see the results of this, where chemical oversude has created a pan in the soil, soil that is to all effects dead, thanks to all the chemicals. So the soil is dead, the erosion is high, the fertility is zero, it’s almost like hydroponics. It creates an ever increasing need to put more and more things like into the soil.
“What Steiner realised was that what the old farmers knew actually worked. So he wrote it up in a code, which is called biodynamics. It’s more than organics – biodynamics is a way of life. It is a way of keeping a live soil going.
“Vineyards are where you see it most – the biodynamically farmed vines become healthier, they are able to resist infection. Of course, this doesn’t mean a biodynamic winemaker will be a good winemaker – it just means you will produce very good grapes. But if you are a great winemaker, and you have the best terroir, then your biodynamic grapes will make an incredible wine. It’s no coincidence that many of the top ten or fifteen winemakers have biodynamic vineyards. They don’t say much about it, perhaps because they are a little embarrassed by it – biodynamics is easy to ridicule, easy to pooh-pooh.”
Reynier says the roots of biodynamically farmed crops go deeper, the plants dig for nutrition as they are meant to, rather than relying on a shallow surface layer of regularly sprayed chemicals. His belief in biodynamics is overwhelming – he says that the lunar planting cycle makes sense, for just as the moon controls the tides, so too must it control fluid like sap within plants.
As for Reynier himself, he is slower to put down roots. He still lives on Islay but commutes to Waterford on a weekly basis. If that seems like a trek, it is a short hop in comparison to the journey he undertakes to his latest project, a rum distillery on the island of Grenada, a development even more challenging than Bruichladdich and Waterford combined. But Reynier is undaunted.
In Ireland he has encouraged farmers to resurrected heritage grains – two barley strains named Hunter and Goldthorpe – which haven’t been used commercially for decades, and were brought back from a seed bank. These strains of barley fell by the wayside in the agriculture industry’s shift away from choices based on flavour towards strains picked due to their yield.
The distillery is also working with Dr Dustin Herb from Oregon State University to prove that terroir exists – first they have micro-distilled samples from two varieties, grown and harvested at two test sites independently, and Dr Herb now matching up the environmental data with independent sensory analysis. Then they will be sending the samples off for gas chromatography to get compounds/sensory/environmental data matched up, so they can interrogate environmental changes and the compounds that result from it. The full report is due towards the end of 2019. Until then, the great whisky terroir debate will rage on, with Reynier in the eye of the maelstrom, and relishing the role.
He seems to be driven by a desire to prove that conventional wisdom is a form of complacency, whether it is in his belief in terroir, biodynamics or his claim that the vikings invented whisky. Reynier’s detractors would say that he is an agitator who uses conflict to keep the conversation steered in the direction of his whisky project, that all the bluster is marketing – but his actions in Waterford speak far louder than any words. Waterford Distillery’s experiment in terroir has taken Irish soil, Irish grain and Irish farmers and placed them back where they belong – at the heart of Irish whisky.
There is something oddly Catholic about Non Disclosure Agreements, with their omuerta approach to supply – ‘you can have this, but you can never tell who gave it to you’. These common, legally binding documents meant that for many modern non-distilling Irish whiskey brands, a crucial element of a spirit’s identity was immediately out of reach for their marketing – the origin story was a secret, so they had to get creative. They looked to the biggest brands, saw what they were doing, and copied them. This, in turn, led to issues around our credibility at a crucial time in the category’s history, but much of that was a hangover from an era when we were struggling to survive.
Just over a century ago, Irish whiskey was booming. The Scots were in the ha’penny place, we were kings of the spirit world. But times changed – there were wars of independence, world wars, economic wars, and ultimately a change in drinking tastes. Irish was no longer the whiskey of choice, and we entered an almost terminal decline. All over Ireland, distilleries were shuttered. Even the biggest Dublin distillers had to unite to survive – they joined forces, and soon the only operational distilleries were in the south in Midleton and in the North at Bushmills.
But it was the former that had the most impact, as the consolidation of the old firms meant that you had brands like Powers and Jameson that called Dublin home but were being made in Cork. In the case of Jameson, the labels had Bow Street on them until it was changed late last year (the shops still have the Bow Street bottles in them). As the category struggled for survival in the Sixties and Seventies, historic brands were untethered from their spiritual birth places, and geography, provenance and home all became fluid concepts.
To compound matters, John Teeling’s entry into the market with Cooley saw him sell whiskey to anyone who wanted it – this meant that all you needed to put out a whiskey was a brand. So we had limited sources, and many brands. In retrospect, it is little wonder that we ended up with issues around transparency, but it feels like that while the big three players were working out the technical file which governs how you can make whiskey, they might have given some time to coming up with guidelines for selling the stuff too. However, they were all in the business of third-party supplies, so why would they want to start schooling their customers on what to put on the label? But change has now come for whiskey in Ireland, in the form of an official guide from the Food Safety Association of Ireland, in conjunction with Irish whiskey producers. This moment was always going to come, and is a sign of our growing strength. Here, I’m going to offer my own utterly inconsequential thoughts on some of what lies within.
After the intro and a lengthy explanation of labelling with regards to category, it moves on to marketing, which is where it gets interesting:
It is important that any marketing materials (including labelling, claims made and/or terms used) are not false, misleading or inaccurate. The use of voluntary information should be considered in the context of legal requirements under Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers. Voluntary information is often used as part of the marketing of a spirit drink, where the information and terms used highlight particular messages and/ or attributes that the producer/brand owner wishes to convey to consumers, as part of the promotion of their product. Such information is often used as part of the labelling of the product itself; this includes statements made on the labels of the products themselves, as part of promotion on websites, and/or on other media formats.
Voluntary food information In accordance with Article 36 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011: Food information (including spirit drinks) provided on a voluntary basis shall meet the following requirements: (a) It shall not mislead the consumer, as referred to in Article 7 (see below) (b) It shall not be ambiguous or confusing for the consumer, and (c) It shall, where appropriate, be based on the relevant scientific data.
The guide then links to an existing document which goes back to 2011, which states: According to Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 January 2002 laying down the general principles and requirements of food law, establishing the European Food Safety Authority and laying down procedures in matters of food safety (3) it is a general principle of food law to provide a basis for consumers to make informed choices in relation to food they consume and to prevent any practices that may mislead the consumer.
So there have been laws there to prevent shenanigans for some time, but whiskey isn’t the only category that needed to do some housekeeping in this regard – how often do we buy vegetables sold under fake Irish farm names that are actually imported goods? False provenance is an issue across the food and drink sector, but until every consumer has a moment of clarity when they suddenly realise that they don’t really know where their food comes from, things are unlikely to change. But back to Irish whiskey, and the FSAI guide:
In accordance with Article 7 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011: 1. Food information shall not be misleading, particularly: (a) as to the characteristics of the food and, in particular, as to its nature, identity, properties, composition, quantity, durability, country of origin or place of provenance, method of manufacture or production (b) by attributing to the food effects or properties which it does not possess (c) By suggesting that the food possesses special characteristics when in fact all similar foods possess such characteristics, in particular by specifically emphasising the presence or absence of certain ingredients and/or nutrients
On that last note, St Patrick’s were already hammered over their claims their spirits were gluten free – as all spirits are gluten free (their pushing of this aspect possibly has something to do with the fact that St Patrick’s started out as a food allergy testing firm). I’ll come back to St Patrick’s later.
The first point in that section is the interesting one, mentioning that whiskeys should not be misleading in relation to country of origin or place of provenance. Now we are getting to the crux:
Any statements on labels that would appear to give the impression of distilling where distilling is not yet taking place is not permitted. Any specific claims made on the packaging regarding where the product was distilled, matured or blended must be accurate. Any information provided must be factual, and evidence will be required to support any claims.
This is where we start to enter Irish whiskey’s twilight zone – building a brand to build a distillery. Releasing a sourced whiskey is a common way to raise capital for your planned distillery. Naturally, if you are creating a brand for your future releases, you name it after your future distillery. So you have a whiskey on the market that is named after a distillery that doesn’t exist (yet), or has no mature stock (yet). So how do you shoot straight with the consumer? Look at Tipperary Boutique Distillery and how they handled it – their sourced stocks are released under Tipperary Boutique Selection. The question then is – is there still a chance that consumers might think the whiskey within those releases is from Tipperary, when it is not? How do you counter that, or can you? What about Glendalough Distillery – they actually do have a distillery as they made a small amount of their own whiskey and then went on to create other spirits, and they also have a range of sourced whiskeys – should they have taken the word distillery off their labels until the stock in the bottles was 100% their own spirit? I don’t think so. It seems like this could hobble the development of distilleries. And what if you want to bring out a spirit named in celebration of some local beauty spot – if you wanted to release a single cask bottling under the name Carrauntoohil, is it reasonable to expect that consumers would know it’s a mountain and one that doesn’t have a distillery perched at the summit, or anywhere near it? Again, this is the sort of branding that wouldn’t be a problem if you didn’t already have people claiming there is a distillery where there isn’t one.
Back to the guide:
For example: ‘Distilled by St Mary’s Distillery, Dublin, Ireland’: This voluntary text ‘Distilled by’ could be understood to mean that the ‘whiskey’ was wholly distilled in this distillery. ‘Place of manufacture’ as defined in Regulation (EC) No 110/2008 means the place or region where the stage in the production process of the finished product which conferred on the spirit drink its character and essential definitive qualities took place. Consequently, ‘Product of’ can be used if distilling, blending or maturing of the product took place at the named distillery.
This sets it all down in plain English. Don’t say it’s from a place that it is not from. If you know of any brand who is doing this, or who you think might be confusing consumers, contact the FSAI. On that note:
Care must be taken with the use of brand names and company or trading names, which may be taken by consumers to be the name of a distillery (when they are not). For example: brand name – (X Distillery) with an address at St John’s Bridge. This statement could mislead the consumer, as they might think there is a distillery at St John’s Bridge, whereas, in fact, this could just be the brand name of the whiskey. Care must be taken when giving this kind of information, as this implies that the distillery is in a certain location that may not actually exist, and this could potentially mislead consumers, which would be in breach of Article 7 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011.
No mention here of the use of ‘distilling company’ as a term – as in the case of Kilbrin Distilling Company’s Kilbrin whiskey, which, the website told us, was from the parish of Kilbrin. I’ve pointed this out before but I’m going to do so again – there is no distillery in Kilbrin, nor are there any plans for one. The brand was cooked up by a subsidiary of Wm Grant & Sons. No consumer could be expected to know by looking at a bottle of the stuff that it wasn’t from Kilbrin, especially since the label also claims the whiskey was distilled and matured by the Kilbrin Distilling Company. This is bullshit. But rather than just make this point on the internet and get angry about it, I contacted the FSAI to see just how serious they were about sorting out this sort of shit. Within a week the branding on the Kilbrin site had changed to a more generic, less geographically rooted narrative (aside from the name, which stayed the same).
Back to the guide, and a note on place:
In the case of Irish whiskey products that use a place name as a sales name or brand name, it is important to ensure that any claims which specify where the product is distilled, matured or blended are accurate and do not confuse the consumer as to place of provenance.
This goes back to my earlier point about place names generally – is there an assumption on the part of the consumer that this is where the whiskey is from? Should whiskeys using place as an identifier offer clarity on whether the whiskey is actually from there? Again, if you are building a distillery in a specific place, then you more or less have to use that as your brand name. But if you are bringing out a whiskey with no plans for a distillery, or some vague plans to possibly build one in the future, then you need to make sure your whiskey has some connection to that place other than vague marketing concepts. And no, I don’t mean the local water used to cut the whiskey down. On the water-as-an-element-of-place move, the guide does include this:
With regard to ‘spring water’, please note that Directive 2009/54/EC on the exploitation and marketing of natural mineral waters reserves the term “spring water” for a water that meets specific criteria. If an FBO wishes to use this term on their label, they must ensure that the water used meets the criteria set out in this legislation. (See Article 9(4) of Directive 2009/54/ EC for the specific requirements.)
This is from another part of the FSAI site: The requirements for a water to use the term ‘Spring Water’ are set out in Article 9(4) of Directive 2009/54/EC on natural mineral waters. Spring water is a description reserved for water which is intended for consumption in its natural state, comes from an underground source, protected from all risk of pollution and is bottled at source. Only very limited treatments are permitted.
So they are even cracking down on the ‘local water’ aspect. Hallelujah.
On to the use of official titles:
Equally, any reference to the distiller must be accurate. Any information provided must be factual, and evidence will be required to support any claims. The labelling, packaging, advertising or promotion of an Irish whiskey should not, having regard to the presentation of the product, create a likelihood that the public may think that the whiskey was distilled by any person other than the person who distilled it. A ‘master distiller’ is responsible for the quality of the product that a distillery produces and any reference to a ‘master distiller’ must reflect a person who has acquired such a responsibility and skill set. If using this phrase, the company must explain the meaning of this term bearing in mind Article 36 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011.
I think the notion that you can put any name down as master distiller is a side effect of NDAs. Brand owners felt that if they were forbidden from putting the name of the person who distilled it, as it would then reveal where it was distilled, then they could put any name into that slot. Some were clever and used that space for ‘selected by’, some just stuck their own name in there. Avoiding this sort of faux pas really isn’t rocket science – just dress the label up like a distillery bottling but change some of the language. If you’re a bottler, you don’t need a master distiller. In a few years time, NDAs will be less common, and indies can release put a distillery’s name on the bottle, details about the cask, the year, the strength, so much detail that you won’t have room for the master distiller’s name. For the last few decades, we had a market dominated by massive entities with fuzzy logic on their labels (Bushmills’s establishment date being another great example) and a lot of newcomers who thought this was the norm. I’m not saying the mess we had was inevitable, but I can see how it came about. Neither do I want to use a lazy generalisation by saying ‘everyone was at it’ but if you analysed every Irish whiskey label of the last 40 years, you would see how common these sort of fudges were.
The guide rattles through a range of terms, rules, regulations and generally is worth looking over. While the action taken on Kilbrin gave me great hope that they were reining in the nonsense, I was positively clicking my heels when I saw that the FSAI and IWA were tackling St Patrick’s Distillery. Fun fact – St Patrick’s Distillery have been in existence for five years now and they have never distilled, as they don’t have a distillery. The have a dusty gin still, and that’s it. To be fair to St Patrick’s, they do state that they source their whiskey, but the fact remains that they don’t explain that all their spirits are made elsewhere, and that they call themselves a distillery when they are not. They got dragged over this recently in the Irish Times:
When contacted, the company said it made no secret of the fact that it bought “new-make whiskey” from other distilleries and then aged the product in oak barrels by the sea.
“Our view is that the character and personality of a whiskey comes from the barrels it’s been matured in and the location where that ageing takes place,” the company’s general manager Cyril Walsh said.
“We don’t claim to be a distiller but the legal name of the company is St Patrick’s Distillery and our international trademark is St Patrick’s Distillery,” he said, noting that the company was primarily an exporter with growing sales in the US, China, Russia and Canada.
The emphasis there is mine, because my jaw is still on the floor from when I first read that. But the second line is also worth noting, because this notion of over there is central to much of this. Irish whiskey’s market is overseas. The USA is the kingmaker for an Irish whiskey brand, but there are other places. So a certain amount of what went on was fuelled by the notion that people overseas would not rumble what we were up to – Kilbrin is a great example, as when I contacted the FSAI, they weren’t aware of the brand at all, because it seems to be solely aimed at the US market. So there was this idea that the poor foreigners need not know that the placename on the label has fuck all to do with the whiskey in the bottle. Spoiler alert: It’s a small world, and the internet has made it very easy to click a few links and see through this sort of nonsense. I am hearing more rumblings about tourists coming here expecting to find distilleries where there are none. Any brand out there who is selling sourced whiskey with a view to building a distillery needs to make that journey part of the brand – make sure your consumer is informed about your hopes and dreams; help them believe. That way they won’t show up at your lock-up wondering why you only have a forklift and pallets and nary a glimmer of copper to be found.
It is still early days in our resurrection, and while there are still operations like St Patrick’s ‘Distillery’, they are fast becoming outliers – the FSAI labelling rules are there, and they are being put to use. Whiskey is quite a confusing world, and it’s up to people in the know to inform those who might not be au fait with NDAs and the multitude of other factors that make provenance such a minefield. In ten years time, none of this will matter – distilleries will be up and running with maturing stocks, but for now it helps to have people who love Irish whiskey and who understand how it works to ensure people don’t get misled. You can download the guide here, and you can contact the FSAI here: https://www.fsai.ie/makeacomplaint/.
Kerry is Ireland at cask strength. As a Cork man, it pains me greatly to say anything nice about our neighbours to the west, but The Kingdom is a place of raw and startling beauty. Obviously there is a danger here of over-romanticising it, engaging in some noble savage mythos with proto-fascist symbolism of pure mountain air and fresh faced natives, as though anywhere with a population of more than ten thousand is a place of corruption and filth. So Kerry is beautiful, and in its rugged persuasions, it is not unlike Scotland. Which might make moving from one to the other a smooth transition, if not an immediately logical one.
Michael Walsh has a bright future ahead of him. After taking a job in the new distillery in Dingle back in 2012, at a time and in a place where there was little employment, he learned the craft on the job, and became head distiller. But we are now in the middle of the boom, and the time was right to move on – and so he did, becoming head distiller at Boann in Drogheda as they get set to make whiskey. This obviously left an opening in Dingle, a distillery that has mature whiskey (mature in comparison to those who came after, if not in comparison to those who came before), a great reputation and the special aura that comes from its remarkable location and the fact it is the first point in Irish whiskey’s most recent timeline. But master distillers can be hard to come by – few claiming the title in Ireland would have more than five or six years experience, unless they work for one of the big guns. So the latest announcement from Dingle about who they have appointed is even more startling.
Glen Moray Distillery is in Eglin, in the heart of the Speyside region of Scotland. It’s a great little distillery with great output – solid, bang-for-your-buck whiskeys with a side order of experimentation. Their master distiller, Graham Coull is one of the more engaging voices in whisky Twitter, shooting straight about the workings of a distillery and speaking his mind plainly. The son of science teachers, he undertook a chemistry degree in Edinburgh University before working with Wm Grant in Kininvie, Balvenie and Glenfiddich as distillation manager, before going on to become master distiller in Glen Moray. His no-bullshit approach means that he should really fit in in his new role as master distiller of Dingle Distillery.
And now for some personal thoughts – my inital one being, ‘fucking hell’. Coull has been with Glen Moray for 15 years, and is not just leaving his distillery, and his homeland, but a solid job in a big company (Glen Moray is part of La Martiniquaise, which is owned by French drinks billionaire Jean-Pierre Cayard, who does not like publicity).
I like age statements, but I’m not precious about them. You can get a six-year-old in a first-fill cask which is better than a much older expression in a refill cask.
Dingle is in a NAS holding pattern right now, but soon it will be coming of age – over the next four years it will be heading into ‘entry level ten’ phase, and then looking beyond. That ten-year point is like graduation – you have a ten year old that be carried in supermarkets alongside all those other tens in Tesco. You have something that ordinary consumers will be interested in, provided the price is right. Up to this point Dingle’s NAS releases have been in tiny batches with a sizeable price tag. I would hope that this will be a little better balanced in future, as Glen Moray was an excellent value-for-money whisky. And while Dingle currently has that special aura, if it is going to complete on the world stage it will need to engage in a little experimentation – Waterford is coming out of the blocks in the next 12 months, as is PJ Rigney’s grand cru whiskey, so really, there is some stiff competition.
Coull’s move here is an exciting development – and an endorsement of just how boomy our boom is becoming. All that said, he still has to wrestle with single pot still, which one Irish distiller eloquently described to me as ‘an absolute cunt to make’. So best of luck with that Graham!
I’ve no doubt the Coulls will get a céad míle fáilte here, and seeing what they do with Dingle is going to be really interesting. But man, good luck to them dealing with that Kerry accent.
There are three key strands to any whiskey marketing campaign. First, there is place; your water is the cleanest, your loch is the coldest, your warehouses are kissed by the sea, your home is where the hearts are.
Then there are the people; tales of founders, their ancestors, coopers, barrelmen, distillers, gaugers, bootleggers.
Finally, there is the product – the wood, the copper, the yeast, the liquid gold. Given the importance of the liquid itself, you would think that product should come first, but the stories that are easiest to tell, the ones that capture our hearts, are not the ones about the liquid, but about people and place, and how they interconnect.
For all its aristocratic beauty, there is an air of gothic doom about Powerscourt House. Once home to the Powerscourt Conferences, when people of God would gather to discuss unfulfilled biblical prophecies, it has survived being almost completely destroyed by fire, and decades of decay. The stunning gardens are even home to a pet cemetery – this is Brideshead, revisited by Stephen King.
But any of the great houses will have their share of tragedy, of highs and low, for they have existed for centuries, with Powerscourt House dating back to 1741. But it has bounced back, with a thriving marketplace within the house, bustling tourist trade, and now, in its most recent addition, a distillery. At a time when there are distilleries popping up across the country, Powerscourt Distillery is not only impressive because of the size of its operation, but because of the pedigree of the project.
Two local entrepreneurs, Gerry Ginty and Ashley Gardiner, initially approached one of Powerscourt’s current owners, Sarah Slazenger – a descendant of the sporting empire’s founder and current MD of the estate – about opening a distillery on the grounds of Powerscourt. It was the perfect venue – incredible scenery, a steady flow of tourists, abundant arable lands, and centuries of history. Slazenger was in, but there was an opportunity for another investor, and this time they got one was an impressive background in whisky.
Alex Peirce was halfways through his veterinary studies in Edinburgh when he discovered that he was allergic to animals. During some large animal training he suddenly puffed up and struggled to breathe. This would mark the end of his career as a vet. He was crestfallen, but coming from a family of entrepreneurs – his father Mike was a founder of Mentec, which played a central role in Ireland’s tech boom – Alex was quick to reroute into studying economics, consoling himself for his veterinarian Catch 22 by drinking a lot of the local spirits – ie, high-quality scotch. Then, in 1995, his father became one of the primary shareholders in the Isle Of Arran Distillery off the coast of Scotland.
With Pierce The Elder’s experience in Arran, and the pedigree of the proposal Ginty and Gardiner had put together, it wasn’t long before Powerscourt Distillery was ready to join the ever-growing list of new Irish distilleries. So they had vision, they had location, they had money, they had experience. But they needed one final piece of the puzzle – a master distiller. There are many distilleries in Ireland, and many of the newcomers have either distillers, or head distillers, but very few have bona fide master distillers. The pressure was on Powerscourt Distillery to get someone who would live up to the pedigree of the project.
Having had experience of making neutral spirit in one the state alcohol plants, Mayo man Noel Sweeney joined John Teeling’s legendary Cooley Distillery – itself formerly another one of the five state Ceimici Teoranta plants, along with Carndonagh, Ballina, Carrickmacross and Letterkenny – in 1989.
Qualified in analytical chemistry and total quality management, he was mentored in Cooley by a Scottish distiller named Gordon Mitchell, who later went on to work for the Peirce family on Arran in 1995. Teeling’s Cooley Distillery was a game-changer in Irish whiskey – up until then, Irish Distillers Limited owned the only other distilleries on the island, in Bushmills and Midleton. Nowadays, IDL are a picture of support for newcomers, back then, they were less so, with Sweeney recounting one attempt being made by IDL, then headed by Richard Burrows, to buy Cooley so they could bulldoze it into the ground. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the competition authority blocked that deal, and Cooley continued to disrupt – they double distilled, they made peated whiskey, they sold to whoever wanted it, and they made excellent malt and especially excellent grain whiskey. But consolidation is the way for distilling – especially when a boom strikes, as one has in the past five years in Ireland.
Cooley distillery was sold to Beam in 2012 for more than seventy million. In the aftermath, Beam cut off supply for third party sales, and created a vacuum, one that was soon filled by John Teeling, who set up Great Northern, a sort of Cooley Mark II. Sweeney was still with Cooley, but was looking for a new project. At this point, the Irish whiskey boom was punching through the stratosphere, so it was only a matter of time before someone headhunted Sweeney – he was inducted into the Whisky Magazine ‘Hall of Fame’ in 2017, a title held by only two Irish distillers to this day. So when the Powerscourt team came knocking, he was ready for a new challenge.
With Sweeney on board, the group were able to secure stock from what they coyly refer to as an undisclosed distillery. NDAs, or non-disclosure agreements, are the unfortunate contracts that forbid mention of what distillery you source your stock from, but the spirits released by Powerscourt – a ten year old grain, 14 year old single malt and a blend – all bear Sweeney’s name as master distiller, because, as the man himself says, he is the person who distilled them. You can tell, because the grain whiskey has that soft, sweet element that Cooley – and Sweeney in particular – did so well.
“In Cooley we used fresh bourbon barrels for an excellent smooth grain whisky. It’s creamy – a nice introduction to whiskey. Lots of vanilla, citrus – this is not any way harsh. Fercullen ten is finished in first fill bourbon. I made it, watched it for nine and half years, bought it and watched it for another six months. Well, Alex and Sarah bought it and I watched it.”
The location of Powerscourt Distillery is enviable – centuries of history, remarkable scenery, and a torrent of tourists coming for all the estate offers – the big house, the gardens, the garden centre, and the five-star hotel which is also located on the grounds.
Then there is the team: With Sweeney, they have more than just an excellent distiller – they have a seasoned communicator, a man plugged into the world whiskey network, and knows who has the best barrels and how much you should pay for them, and who also brought some of his excellent sourced stock to keep them ticking over while their own stocks mature. It is hard not to be impressed by the sheer quality and strength of Powerscourt Distillery.
Powerscourt Distillery is also offering a cask programme to would be investors – Alex Peirce sees it as more of a club rather than a purely transactional entity. With asking prices of 7,600, and only 397 casks (honouring the 397 foot high Powerscourt waterfall) this will be a somewhat exclusive club.
Peirce is quick to point out that this distillery isn’t about building a business and then flipping it – they are in it for the long run, and a sign of how serious they are is seen in the fact they are not bothering with any intermediary spirits to bring in revenue over the next five to ten years. With the Irish whiskey boom showing no signs of slowing down, and this project’s accumulated wisdom, skill and prestige, Powerscourt – from the great house to the still house – look to a brighter future together.
Fercullen Premium Blend Irish Whiskey (RRP€42), Fercullen 10-Year-Old Single Grain Whiskey (RRP €55), and Fercullen 14-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey (RRP €90) will be available to purchase at The Powerscourt Distillery & Visitor Centre, and at selected outlets country wide.
A million photos from the launch night last December:
And now for my Jerry Springer-style final thoughts: There is no doubt that Powerscourt is a force to be reckoned with. In the years to come, there will be some distilleries that will fail. I doubt that Powerscourt will be among them. Into the future I expect them to replicate an Arran-style operation here – rock-solid, quality whiskey, with interesting finishes and an abundance of class. But can they excite? That’s the big question. Operations like Blackwater, Waterford, even WCD in their quiet way are doing things different, and those are just three close to where I live. Not everyone can reinvent the wheel, and while a distillery that is dependable is a great thing, it will be interesting to see how Powerscourt stands out. It is very much to the manor born, but it may need more than lineage to capture hearts and minds in a crowded market.
Grace O’Malley lived – this much we know. The full facts of her story exist in the space between history and folklore, the former telling us that she was a ruthless warrior, a veritable Daenerys Targaryen, but with boats instead of dragons. The latter tells us that she was a pirate queen, oft portrayed in the buxom pastels of a swashbuckling bodice-ripper, and described using patriarchal terms like feisty and headstrong. Whichever version you subscribe to, O’Malley, or Gráinne Mhaol, or Granuaile, was an outlier – a woman of power in the late 1500s, a time when women had no power at all.
Born into the Irish aristocracy, O’Malley was surrounded by men with names like Donal The Warlike and Iron Richard, but stormed her way to power in defiance of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. O’Malley was fighting against more than British tyranny when she commanded her warships – she was fighting against the death of Gaelic rule, a battle that she would never win. Her death in 1603 marked the passing of an old order, and the start of a new Ireland, for better or worse.
Stephen Cope knew he was onto something when he trademarked Grace O’Malley’s name. As the former MD of Lír Chocolates, the Mayo man understood that Brand Ireland isn’t just about quality food and drink, it is also about storytelling, and that this is a nation overflowing with stories waiting to be told. With whiskey sales accelerating, a plan was hatched to release a whiskey that told the story of O’Malley.
Stefan Hansen loves rugby. He played it professionally in his early years, and still dabbles a little, on and off the pitch. When he was 23 he realised that if he was to become a full-time pro, he would have to leave Germany, and probably never return. So he chose his homeland, and another path, forging a successful career in a global advertising firm, eventually breaking away with his friend Hendrick Melle to found private equity investment company Private Pier Investment and Private Pier Industries. The two had some brand experience with Ireland, via a pet food firm named Irish Pure, but they understood that Irish produce was respected around the world for its excellence. The trio set to work building the Grace O’Malley brand, but they needed product. They were looking for mature stock in the middle of a whiskey boom, when everyone is looking for mature stock.
John Teeling is famous for being the teetotaller entrepreneur who democratised Irish whiskey, but he is also a rugby fanatic. When the O’Malley team sailed into the boardroom of Great Northern Distillery to talk shop, it ended up being a 45-minute deep dive into rugby lore, with Hansen and Teeling rolling back the years. As the meeting ended, the actual business of the day was casually mentioned – the O’Malley crew were seeking whiskey. Hansen asked for a large amount of mature stock – of both excellent quality and age. Teeling said yes. The deal was done, and Grace O’Malley Whiskey was out of dry dock. They then brought in Paul Caris of drinks consultancy Alteroak. Caris, a Frenchman who works with gin and brandy producers, set to work on the whiskeys, aligning the different age statements with cask finishes, and arranging the releases in three distinct categories.
The top level is the Captain’s Range: These are all 18 year old single malts, non-chill filtered and without E150a; the first is exclusively bourbon cask, limited to 900 bottles and retailing for 349. There are also 450 bottles of this released at cask strength, and these retail for 649. The Amarone cask finish edition is limited to 450 and is €449, while its cask strength edition is limited to 250 bottles at €799.99. The 450 bottles of cognac cask finish are €399.99 each – the Amarone and Amarone Cask Strength are available to pre-order on the site now.
The prices seem excessive, but the team says that they are limited releases and they have also based the pricing ‘on an independent chemical analysis of the composition and objective quality of the distillate’. They also say the pricing also reflects Caris’s involvement; while they also claim the wood barrels – Italian, Jamaican and French – are the absolute best provided by Caris’s company. The firm also says the finishing – ‘fresh and wet’ – is unique and they are only able to do this through Caris’s sourcing knowledge and links to the top wine and cognac makers. Cynics might say that the buyer would need to be fairly fresh and wet themselves to splash out 800 on a bottle of 18 year old single malt, but this is a booming category and premiumisation like this was inevitable.
Fortunately, for the steerage passengers among us, there is the mid-range Navigator whiskeys – the Dark Char and Rum Cask blend, and the Dark Cask blend, both priced at €64.99. The Crew Range will be the entry level whiskey which will be a blend launching in June with an RRP of €39.99. This is a blend of 40% triple and double distilled single malts and 60% grain whiskeys of varying age statements up to 10 years old. They will also have a Heather Infused Gin – RRP €42.99 – in their Crew Range and a Golden Caribbean Rum.
There are plans for a maturation facility on the west coast, and the trio are estimating that they will be generating €6m in revenues within five years. There are no plans for a distillery – the Grace O’Malley brand is going to be independent bottlings, with an eye to bonding in the future. The brand is launching across Europe, but as with so many Irish whiskeys, America is the promised land, where the brand hopes to appeal to the 33 million people who claim Irish ancestry.
With its character-driven narrative you could write this off as a novelty release, and some of the imagery used in the campaign doesn’t do a huge amount to dispel this unease:
However, this is a brand with something for all palates (and wallets); entry level to super premium, blends to well aged single malts. Leather bound bottles make it eye-catching to the average consumer, while those limited numbers on the high end bottles will appeal to collectors. The team behind the brand are keen to celebrate the strength of their links to Great Northern Distillery, but going forward this may need to shift – the idea of independent bottlers is that they are independent, and bottle from multiple sources. It may be hard to convince the whiskey nerds of the value of your brand if all you can offer them is repackaged Cooley/GND. There are others out there building indie bottling brands based on a broad range of distilleries and expressions. But these are early days for the O’Malley brand, and the team are putting in the hard yards on building that identity.
The narrative is on point – they held the launch in Howth Castle, where in 1576, when O’Malley was refused access to the castle, she took the occupant’s owners relative hostage until they were forced to allow her entry, and as a result, a place at the table is always set for her. Perhaps to balance the all-male team team behind the brand, they are sponsoring a yachtswoman who happens to be a descendant of O’Malley. Westport native Joan Mulloy took part in the 50th La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro Race, which sailed into Irish waters for its Kinsale stopover in June. Dubbed ‘the Tour de France of the Ocean’, Mulloy and her co-skipper raced under black sails emblazoned with the name of her ancestor. Having been the first Irishwoman to compete in La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro last year, Joan’s ultimate goal is to compete in the Vendee Globe, a solo round-the-world-race in 2020. Joan will represent the brand in a number of events and special challenges, including a trip later this year retracing the route of her ancestor who sailed from Clew Bay to London for a meeting with Queen Elizabeth I in 1593. With their supply line secured, and the wind in their sails, the Grace O’Malley line of drinks are heading into relatively uncharted waters – that of indie bottlers in a rapidly developing category. Unlike Grace, history is on their side, whether that will be enough remains to be seen.
I sometimes joke that if our house went on fire, the first thing I would save is the computer. I usually qualify this by explaining that obviously, I would drag people out first, but of the personal belongings, the computer would be the only one worth running back into a burning building for. This isn’t because I want to erase my browsing history, but because I want to save our family history. The transition to digital photographs means that the last 15 years of our lives are recorded on the harddrive of the kitchen computer, and just as my parents generation said they would save the photo album from a burning house and little else, I would risk life and limb for those 60,000+ images.
If I could give you one piece of parenting advice, apart from the obvious ‘don’t have kids’, it would be to go and buy a decent camera. When my parents were young, photos were a luxury, like having your portrait painted. Then cameras got cheap, and photos equally so. Then, once phone cameras became slightly better than an Etch A Sketch at capturing moments of our lives, we just gave up on cameras, and on good quality photos generally. Sure, we are snapping away at everything we see – meals, homeless people, road traffic accidents – but it is purely for our social media channels, to posture on Insta, to virtue signal on Twitter, or to horrify on WhatsApp. Photos of our kids all seem to end up on Facebook, in fact Zuck’s black hole consumes 136,000 photos a minute, with more than 300 million photos per day being uploaded to the site. This is all well and good, but as we change phones almost annually, Facebook has become our photo albums – a worrying thought when you realise that someday our world will be rid of it, and all your photos might go too. Good luck explaining to your kids that the reason you don’t have any photos of them is because when society finally fell to the fake news zombie armies, nobody was left to run the servers and the internet collapsed. I mean, you won’t have to tell your kids that because we will all have died of preventable diseases that came back because of morons on Facebook telling us vaccines are making us addicted to fluoride, or something. My camera is an entry level DSLR. It only needs to be entry level because the photos most people are throwing onto Facebook are so bad that I look like Ansel Adams in comparison.
Most people baulk at the idea of paying three or four hundred euro for a basic DSLR, but think nothing of throwing down a grand on an iPhone simply because it has a camera that is almost as good as a DSLR. The photos I take serve two purposes – they are a visual record of a hectic life, when days can run into each other, years whip by and memories become muddled. They also serve to reassure me that I am getting some of this right. You can say, well maybe if you just existed in the moment and enjoyed things, rather than obsessively recording them, you might feel better about your attempts at life. Perhaps, but there will come a point where memory fades, and having a record will matter. I scroll back through the albums on the computer and realise that I haven’t got everything wrong. It’s like a compilation of my greatest hits, because nobody takes photos of the arguments, the sleepless nights, the worries – our photos are all perfect moments (with the exception of the ones taken by the four year old of his brother mooning) – chips and seagulls at Knockadoon, chasing after mara in Fota, bobbing about in a boat somewhere off the coast, all smiles and laughter. It’s like Rappaport’s Testament in Primo Levi’s Moments Of Reprieve: “While I could I drank, I ate, I made love….I studied, I learned, travelled and looked at things. I kept my eyes wide open; I didn’t waste a crumb. I’ve been diligent; I don’t think I could have done more or better. Things went well for me; I accumulated a large quantity of good things, and all that good has not disappeared. It’s inside me, safe and sound. I don’t let it fade, I’ve held onto it. Nobody can take it from me.”
So get a camera, take nice photos, bear witness to your life; record all the things your kids won’t remember and you will someday forget, store them where they are safe, and for the love of god, check the batteries on your smoke alarms.