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.
What is single pot still whiskey? Is it the past, is it the future? Is it a uniquely Irish style of whiskey, an Irish Irish whiskey, a category within the category? Is it our secret weapon, or is it a marketing trick? Is it a common style, found around the world, a simple mixed mash spirit, a dumbed down single malt? It is a bastard malt, a mongrel? Is it a testament to Irish ingenuity and a spirit born of oppression – is it a flower that grew from ruins? Is it all these things or none, and, most importantly, is it the next step?
When I think single malt, I think of Scotland. There are many exceptional single malts from around the world, and many mediocre ones from Scotland, but it is still there – a century of marketing has linked the concept of the single malt to one nation above all others. But once upon a time they used a mixed mash too. As single pot obsessive Willie Murphy noted, there is this quote the second edition of Whisky: Technology, Production and Marketing:
Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the tax on ale, beer and whiskey (which was still referred to as aqua vitae in all statutes of the period) was essentially doubled, and it was estimated that this provision would yield £384 000 in revenue (Statute 1661, Car II, c.128). To raise this huge sum there must have been several large legitimate stills in existence, such as those of John Haig & Co., who claim that a Robert Haig established their business in 1627 (Anon., 1914). What is interesting, from a technical viewpoint, is the fact that these taxes were imposed not only on malted barley but also on spirit ‘not made of malt’. Other chronicles of this period similarly allude to spirit being made from a mixture of grains, such as oats, barley and wheat (Smith, 1776) as well as malt. So even from the earliest times some whiskey was being distilled from unmalted grain, and not all malt was made from barley. The malt tax introduced in 1701, for example, states that duty shall be paid: ‘upon all Malt, ground or unground, whether the same shall be made of Barley, or any other Corn or Grain whatsoever’ (Statute 1701, 12 &13 William III, c.5).
That Smith they are referencing is none other than the father of capitalism Adam Smith, him of ‘greed is good’/Gordon Gekko fame. In the brutal tome more commonly known as The Wealth Of Nations, Smith notes:
Malt is consumed not only in the brewery of beer and ale, but in the manufacture of wines and spirits. If the malt tax were to be raised to eighteen shillings upon the quarter, it might be necessary to make some abatement in the different excises which are imposed upon those particular sorts of low wines and spirits of which malt makes any part of the materials. In what are called malt spirits it makes commonly but a third part of the materials, the other two- thirds being either raw barley, or one-third barley and one-third wheat.
Smith wrote that back in 1776, and then there’s this from super sleuth Charlie Roche:
So before single malt knew what it was, it was a mixed mash whisky not unlike our own supposedly uniquely Irish style.
Single pot still can never compete with single malt, but it can become something else. There are obviously obstacles, because it’s not just a complex whiskey, it is also a complicated one. Referring to it as a mixed mash whiskey is actually a welcome simplification – single pot still is a confusing name, as it reflects not the style, nor the key element of the mashbill, but rather the device used to distill it. Also, as they are not allowed to call it ‘pure pot still’ anymore, it now sounds like it is only distilled once, or made using only one still. For consumers approaching the SPS category for the first time, there is a lot of baggage to get your head around. Then there is the requisite explanations of the corn laws, because every whiskey should come with a history lesson that focuses on taxation of grain. But SPS has genuine heritage, and this is where it gets even more complicated.
Peter Mulryan knows a thing or two about whiskey. He went from writing books on the subject to being the public face of Irish Distillers Ltd SPS promos and is now the driving force behind Blackwater Distillery. Mulryan has blogged about his dissatisfaction with the technical file – the document that controls what Irish whiskey is and how it is made – and has started making pot still whiskey from old mashbills, as the more recent rules mean that SPS is what IDL say it is. Mulryan notes that in all the old historical SPS mashbills he has come across, not one meets the standards set out by the technical file.
Published five years ago, the technical file was written by the large whiskey producers in Ireland at a time when a boom was looming and the finer points of the category needed to be locked down. The result is a document defining SPS to suit IDL’s in-house style – imagine if Diageo legally declared that Guinness is the only style of stout allowed by law, which, quite frankly, sounds like exactly the kind of thing Diageo would do.
You can read the file itself here, or David Havelin’s excellent dissection of it here and here, but IDL’s influence is all over it, including references to SPS being made ‘usually in large stills’ and even allowing for a little bit of column still distillation in there, which is clearly a gob in the face of history. But SPS as a style was resuscitated and kept alive by IDL, so little wonder that they felt such a sense of ownership over it that they simply went ahead and redefined it.
And just so I can play devil’s advocaat, I would make this point – it has been five or six years since the big producers sat down to write the tech file, and a lot has changed. Grain has become a major talking point, with words like provenance and terroir becoming part of the global discussion, so one more question before I launch into an actual whiskey review – is it not possible that IDL themselves would change the technical file definition of SPS, given how restrictive it is? Are their hands not tied by the file, now that they have a micro-distillery where they can compete with the likes of Blackwater? Would they not wish to loosen the ball-gag on SPS and let it breathe a little? Is there not an archive filled with old mashbills in Midleton, recipes for pot still whiskeys of yore that could be resurrected and released in tiny batches, little pieces of history brought alive and offered to the world as part of a celebration of our heritage? Perhaps, perhaps not. But until they do, we have Midleton’s interpretation of SPS, ahistorical as it may be, and hey, it isn’t all that bad.
At a Redbreast masterclass at Whiskey Live Dublin in 2017, attendees were given a gift – a sample of Redbreast 21-year-old bottled at cask strength. I, being both antisocial and impoverished, was not in attendance, but John ‘Whiskey Cat’ Egan was there, and through a circuitous route that involved Omar ‘That’s Dram Good’ Fitzell smuggling the sample up from Kerry, I managed to get my paws on a generous portion of this fabled whiskey (a 100ml sample of it sold at auction for more than a hundred euro earlier this year).
And so to some notes on this rarest of birds:
Nose: Hello again, chocolate, tobacco, leather, raisins, and for SPS Redbreast bingo, Christmas cake in a glass, complete with marzipan and brandy butter. Pear drops and camphor, roasted banana, flambé crepe with Nutella. It’s cask strength, but you genuinely wouldn’t know it – this is about flavour, not strength.
Palate: Really reminiscent of the Dreamcask, so much so that it should really become an annual, relatively affordable release – flog 300 of these for 250 a pop one day a year, g’wan. Up front there is more fruit, those JR ice-lollies from the Eighties, rhubarb crumble, bread and butter pudding; it is dark, rich, deep, like meself. There is a lot of toffee, fudge, dark chocolate, hot chocolate with a drop of Baileys in it.
Finish: That zesty snap of the SPS spice fades slowly, and again a lot of notes reminiscent of the Dreamcask, that bergamot, the sweetness, the leather and tobacco wafting. A beautiful whiskey, and one that deserves to be shared with the world (stocks permitting). Is it automatically better than the standard 21? Not really. It’s great, but to me that 21 is the gold standard for Irish whiskey, SPS or SM or SG or blend or vatted malt or anything. It is accessible, widely available and an absolute beauty. That said, the 21CS could easily be the match of the Dreamcask, especially if it was released at a reasonable price and in a fashion that didn’t become a flipping free-for-all.
Aside from all my grumbling about the technical file, and the fact that it could do with some significant edits, if there is a way to open hearts and minds to our unnecessarily complicated indigenous style, then Redbreast is it. Forget the youthful SPS of Dingle, Teeling and impending ones from Great Northern, or even the multiplicity of well-aged Powers single casks, ain’t nobody got time for that. To hell with the Spot family, beautiful as they may be, because they are an even more confusing pitch than Redbreast. The smart money is on the priest’s whiskey. Redbreast was my epiphany, and look at me now, friendless and alone, writing sprawling thinkpieces on a minor category of whiskey. So here’s to our grains of future past, and to single pot still whiskey, whatever it once was, and whatever it may become.
After the passing of Dr Pearse Lyons of Alltech a year ago, I wrote this tribute piece for FFT.ie:
Dr Thomas Pearse Lyons was a man who looked beyond the surface. Many business empires are built on marketing and spin, but Dr Lyons, a consummate scientist, spent his career looking deeper into animal nutrition, brewing and distilling. His death on March 8 left behind a vast empire, with a business that employed more than four thousand people in ninety countries and spanned agrifoods, brewing, and distilling – a fitting legacy for a man who had an endless thirst for knowledge, and a mind like a razor.
Thomas Pearse Lyons (1944-2018) grew up in Dundalk. One of six children, his mother ran a grocers, and it is she who he credits with his drive and entrepreneurial spirit. Aged just 14 he started working in the laboratory of the local Harp Brewery – his parents were both teetotallers, but on his mother’s side he came from five generations of coopers to the great distilleries of Dublin.
On the insistence of his mother, he studied biochemistry in University College Dublin. Later, in 1971, he received his Phd in Biochemistry from the University of Birmingham, after which he worked for Irish Distillers, playing a pivotal role in the design of the new Midleton Distillery, a facility that was to become central to the battle to save Irish whiskey from annihilation during the lean years of the 1980s.
But while his education and experience in Ireland and the UK laid the groundwork for his success, it was in America that he achieved his most remarkable feats.
Emigrating to Kentucky in the 1976, he worked with local ethanol distillers to help improve their processes. After four years, he finally made the move that would define his life’s work, and, using a loan of 10,000, he started a company in the garage of his house.
At this stage he was married to Deirdre, and they had two young children, Mark and Aoife. It was a risky move for anyone, but especially someone who is married with a young family. The company, Alltech, specialised in animal nutrients, and in its first year it turned over a million dollars.
As the value of his company soared, he diversified into brewing and distilling, as well as authoring a number of texts on the subjects. He became involved in philanthropy, building laboratories for schools, and helping Haiti recover from the devastating earthquake in 2010. While he was a well-known figure in the US, back home he was less well known, save for appearances in annual rich lists. It seemed a shame that one of our great success stories was not as celebrated in his native land as he was in the US – but all that was about to change.
The Irish whiskey category was booming, and Dr Lyons stated to consider bringing his brewing and distilling skills back home. In 2013 he started to search Dublin for somewhere to build a distillery. His choice of location show just how he was able to see beyond the surface – a dilapidated church in the Liberties, the spire of which had been removed. Although the site had a rich history that went back centuries, in recent times the site had been left to decay, with the church itself being used as a lighting showroom. There were other site he could have chosen – places less expensive to build, with less heritage and fewer complications – but he did not shy away from a challenge. A complete rebuild and restoration of the church and its surrounds saw the billionaire spend some 20 million euro creating the Pearse Lyons Distillery At St James’s, complete with stained glass windows showing the saint after which the church was named, and one of Dr Lyons’s cooper ancestors. Opening last September, it is a fitting monument to a man who blazed a trail in the sciences and in his many philanthropic work.
As with any business leader, it can be sometimes hard to get a sense of who they are. Dr Lyons always cut a dash, with his dickie bows, sing-songs and boundless positivity. For a man who was able to look beyond the immediately visible, his death leaves you wondering what drove him to achieve all he did.
There is of course, a very simple answer: Family. His family was built into his success from day one – Alltech takes its name from his daughter, Dr Aoife Louise Lyons, while its signature colour was chosen by his son, Dr Mark Lyons. Mark and Aoife are senior members of the firm. Dr Lyons’s wife Deirdre is director of corporate image and design, and even designed the stained glass windows in St James’s, while she also oversees Alltech’s philanthropic works worldwide. Speaking about his wife upon the opening of the distillery, Dr Lyons said: “The builders said that they loved working with Deirdre because she never changed her mind. Never. She has the vision of what she wants to do. I think this is what makes us a formidable team. It’s telling our story. It’s history.”
Dr Lyons’s death on March 8, 2018 from a heart problem, marked the sudden end to a remarkable life. His son Mark said in a statement: ““He saw farther into the horizon than anyone in the industry, and we, as his team, are committed to delivering on the future he envisioned.”
Dr Pearse Lyons will be remembered as a man who dedicated his life to science, to business, and to making the world a better place. But beyond the empire he created, it is his dedication to his family is the most inspirational aspect of his life – he looked beyond the horizon, but he never forgot that family was life’s most important work.
I can still remember the first time I read Vice. It was a 2009 Babes of the BNP piece that summed up their ethos – sleazy, funny, and cruel. From the get-go I loved their skate-punk nihilism and cartoonish approach to journalism – a mix that that saw them become the go-to resource for disenfranchised twentysomethings. Long before Buzzfeed attempted to bludgeon our attention spans to death with listicles, Vice was the face of a new kind of journalism, one that sparked a debate about what journalism actually is. But whether old media liked it or not, Vice was here to stay.
Ten years on from when I first lolled through their skewering of the BNP, this brilliant long-form dissection of their history shows how they are no longer the crazy punks they once were – they are a massive global media brand, and as such they jettisoned questionable founders like Gavin McInnes, brought in questionable investors in the form of Rupert Murdoch, and sprouted many wings, including Virtue, their advertising agency. The landing page for Virtue shows just how they’ve changed, boasting lines like this one:
Rather than try and fix the agency model, we’ve planted a jungle on its grave. Our DIY punk roots, empathy, and irreverent sense of style breeds work that’s as important as it is attractive.
I read that and all I can hear is the Canyonero jingle, as this is exactly the kind of guff that Vice used to eviscerate. But we all have to grow up sometime.
The greatest trick Vice managed to pull off is maintaining that edgy chic despite their world-conquering position, so it is little wonder that when one of the world’s biggest drinks firms, Proximo, wanted something with bite, they hired Virtue (Jameson went the more direct route with sponsored content on Vice itself). Of course, the only problem with massive firms hiring edgy creatives in order to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of millenials is that massive firms don’t really want edgy – they want safe, and cool, but mainly safe. And this brings me to the new Bushmills promo.
We don’t usually see a lot of TV spots for Irish whiskey here. Our market is in the States, so that is where we aim our advertising spend, and also guides our creative choices. This is why a lot of Irish whiskey ads tend to be a version of Irishness that really does not exist, rooted in a past that never was. Just as The Quiet Man was Maurice Walsh’s daydreaming about a place that didn’t exist, most of the imaginings of Ireland we see in US-based ads are selling a never never land of shirtless youths and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. Obviously, Proximo wanted something different.
They tasked Virtue with creating a more modern whiskey promo for the tragically-named Red Bush, the new Bushmills expression aimed at the American market – the ‘Irish whiskey for bourbon drinkers’. Virtue got one of their shining stars, Jessica Toye, to create something cool and edgy and safe. She explains her motivation thus:
While other whiskey brands show Ireland as a caricature of itself with rolling green hills and tweed suits, we immersed people in the Ireland unseen – the gritty streets of Belfast.
I can only assume this ‘green hills and tweed’ comment is a dig at one of the best Irish whiskey ads of recent years, Tullamore DEW’s The Parting Glass. The multi-award winning advert is a masterclass in emotional manipulation with a comedic twist. Yes it is twee, yes it has tweed, and yes it features many rolling hills and even has Ireland’s greatest natural resource – rain – in copious quantities; but it has wit and it has heart, and despite the fact it was made by a London ad agency and was almost never screened on Irish TV, I still see it as one of the best Irish whiskey ads. It is so good that its premise was flipped a couple of years later by two German film students who made the stellar Dear Brother as a spec ad for Johnny Walker.
But obviously making an ad for Tullamore DEW is a little simpler than making one for Bushmills. As a pitch, the Tullamore DEW brand comes with limited baggage – it is a mix of whiskeys from Bushmills and Midleton, and it is owned by a Scottish firm, but nobody would claim it wasn’t Irish – Tullamore is right there in the dead centre of Ireland.
Bushmills is something else – either Northern Irish, or British, depending on who you are trying to argue with. Irish whiskey may be the category it belongs to, but good luck claiming Bushmills is Irish. But how do you get that message across, if you even want to? How do you retain that magic brand of Irishness, without obscuring the fact that the distillery is in the UK?
The Red Bush promo had a limited range of options as it has to be set in Northern Ireland – a relatively small place, with only a few globally recognised landmarks. This means you can go film crashing waves and rustic charm around the Giant’s Causeway, or you can go urban and feisty in Belfast. Bushmills is seven minutes from the Causeway, and an hour from Belfast, but if they wanted something modern and fresh, they would have to go urban. And so they did, with something Toye’s website describes thusly:
With a pack of 16 Irish red heads running fearlessly through the streets, RED. SET. GO. reflects the feeling of drinking Bushmills straight. The calm before the first sip, the rush of blood coursing through your veins, and the feeling of freedom with nothing in the way.
It’s all very well to trash ‘tweed and green hills’, but don’t follow it up by using the least accurate stereotype of all – that Ireland is overflowing with red-haired people. Scotland has 13% of the world’s population of red haired people, with Ireland in second place with 10%. Perhaps this places Belfast – with its heady brew of Ulster Scots and Irishness – in the eye of a perfect ginger storm, but given the divisions between those two communities, I’m assuming not.
But the real bravery of Toye’s advert comes not from eschewing rolling hills for cobbled streets, but taking a brief associating anything red with anything in the North. Belfast’s streets have literally run red on enough occasions in the past that even contemplating the concept of Red.Set.Go was a bold move. Or perhaps I am overthinking it – after all, the first thing that came to mind when watching the promo was Alan Clarke’s punishingly bleak Elephant, one of the best films about the Troubles. Perhaps America doesn’t know, nor care, about all this history, or what Ireland – North, south and everything in between – is or is not.
I will let the press release fill in the rest of the dead-eyed, joyless details:
Created and produced by Virtue, VICE Media’s celebrated creative agency, “RED. SET. GO.” depicts a fresh, young, real version of Ireland by following a pack of Belfast locals from dusk to dawn on a lively night out, with RED BUSH in hand. The red-hued anthem immerses viewers in the Ireland unseen. Set in Belfast’s alleyways, underground raves, tunnels and cobblestone streets, the :60 spot is backdropped against the gritty and intoxicating single “Louder” by Kid Karate. The ad showcases this group en route from one destination to another, because truly great nights are about the moments in-between and the anticipation of what’s next.
“The next generation of whiskey drinkers craves real experiences and honest brands – we made ‘RED. SET. GO.’ for them,” said Jeffrey Schiller, Brand Director of BUSHMILLS Irish Whiskey. “For so long, Irish whiskey has been about tall tales and green plastic hats on St. Patrick’s Day, so ‘Irish-ness’ has almost become corrupted. We want to show America the real Ireland, and what better Irish whiskey than BUSHMILLS –Ireland’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery – to show the way.”
“With ‘RED. SET. GO.’ we want to show the raw and electrifying Ireland that sets us apart from the romanticized vision of the country that is far too often portrayed,” said Jess Toye, Creative Director at Virtue. “The sounds, the set, the people represent the real Belfast and convey the excitement and energy of the city.”
Ah yes, the real Ireland and the real Belfast. Two places not on any map, as no true places ever are. Except obviously, this ad captures nothing of the city and could have been filmed in almost any city that had a few cobbled streets, or even on a soundstage.
My disappointment with this ad is ultimately part of my despair around one of the great distilleries on this island. Bushmills is a victim of centuries of geopolitics, bounced around from caretaker owner to caretaker owner, with no-one quite understanding what they are meant to do with the place, or how to handle the complexities of identity, culture, and economics in the North. This ad is symptomatic of the policies of remote control have held both Bushmills and the North back – administrative powers that were removed from any sense of place or culture making decisions that assume too much. And as for the liquid it is pitching, I’ll leave the reviewing to someone who knows more about whiskey and the North than I ever could.
I have no idea where Cork Dry Gin is made. I assume Midleton, but I’ve never heard anyone from there talk about the stuff. Perhaps this is because the brand is just so jaded that no-one can be bothered to mention it, especially when all the chatter these days is about whiskey. But gin is huge – especially small gin, from boutique producers. So if anything is surprising it’s that it has taken this long for Midleton to produce another gin.
The microdistillery in Midleton is the perfect source, being the boutique-y-est string to Midleton’s mighty bow, and so it is that the new gin is being released under the Method & Madness label. We know this because an offie in the North blew their wad and uploaded the info about a month before the launch date.
And so it is we have this confusing puddle of product info:
At Method and Madness, we bottle the very best. We expertly blend the smoothest cream and the finest gin and just a hint of lemonyness and Irish gorse flower to create the most exquisite, velvety gin. Served straight from the bottle or draped over ice, Method and Madness Gin is a taste of Midleton Distillery you’ll never forget.
A delicious combination of black lemon,Irish gorse flower and Method and Madness gin.
Victorian cream gin was more like a liqueur – effectively an Irish cream with gin instead of whiskey – whereas the more modern iteration sees cream used as botanical rather than being added directly. Going by the clear liquid in this M&M release, this is the modern style. – Update – there’s no feckin’ cream in this:
Gorse – or furze, or whins if you’re Scottish – produce small yellow flowers that smell like coconut. From the Wildflowers Of Ireland site:
‘Get a few handfuls of the yellow blossoms of the furze and boil them in water. Give the water as a dose to the horse and this will cure worms’.
From the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin. NFC 782:356 From Co Kerry.
There’s also a well-know country saying : “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion”.
So an aphrodisiac that also cures worms. My prayers have been answered.
Black lemons are black, but are not lemons. They are dried limes, and are used in Persian cooking. So you have local hedgerow botanicals, exotic fruity spice, and cream. Should be interesting. Unless the unwitting leak was in fact a false flag designed to discredit dickheads like me who practically soiled themselves in their rush to share it on social media. The presence of the word ‘lemonyness’ suggests it might be.
Anyway, here is the lemony fresh press release that clears up some of my seemingly innate confusion:
Irish Distillers has unveiled METHOD AND MADNESS Irish Micro Distilled Gin; a bold step into the modern premium gin market and the first release from the Micro Distillery, Midleton. The new METHOD AND MADNESS release pays homage to the historic links to gin in County Cork and underlines the company’s commitment to experimentation and innovation.
Bringing together the experience and expertise of Midleton’s Masters and Apprentices, METHOD AND MADNESS Gin is the result of an exploration into historic gin recipes from 1798, which have been preserved at Midleton Distillery, and months of research into how botanicals work together to create unique flavours in gin.
Overseen by Master Distiller, Brian Nation, and Apprentice Distiller, Henry Donnelly, the gin has been distilled in ‘Mickey’s Belly’*, Ireland’s oldest gin still first commissioned in 1958, at the Micro Distillery, Midleton. The new release benefits from an eclectic fusion of 16 botanicals led by black lemon and Irish gorse flower – imparting notes of citrus and spice with subtle earthy undertones. METHOD AND MADNESS Gin is bottled at 43% ABV and is available in Ireland and Global Travel Retail from March 2019, at the RRP of €50 per 70cl bottle, ahead of a wider release in global markets from July.
To inform the creation of METHOD AND MADNESS Gin, Brian Nation and Henry Donnelly consulted with Irish Distillers Archivist, Carol Quinn, to understand the rich history of gin production in County Cork. In the 18th Century, Cork was a mercantile city and a centre of production for gin and rectified spirits. Merchants such as the Murphy family, who founded Midleton Distillery in 1825, imported a rich variety of spices and botanicals to which distillers had access. In the 1930s, Max Crockett – father of Master Distiller Emeritus, Barry Crockett – created the first commercially produced gin in Ireland, Cork Dry Gin.
A notebook kept in the Midleton Distillery archive dating back to the 1790s, written by a rectifier in Cork called William Coldwell, details the recipes, botanicals and methods that informed the creation of Irish Distillers’ Cork Crimson Gin in 2005. A premium pot still gin, Cork Crimson Gin provided the primary inspiration for Brian and Henry in reimagining the recipe for METHOD AND MADNESS Gin over the past year.
Henry Donnelly, Apprentice Distiller at the Micro Distillery, Midleton, commented: “It has been an incredible journey over the past year in pouring over our historic gin recipes, consulting with our Master Distiller Brian Nation and trialing different recipes in the Micro Distillery to bring METHOD AND MADNESS Gin to life. Midleton and Cork are steeped in gin heritage, so to be able to combine the knowledge and tools of the past with the skills of the present to create a gin for the future has been a real honour.”
Brian Nation, Master Distiller at Midleton Distillery, added: “The release of our METHOD AND MADNESS Gin represents the next chapter in the story of us re-writing what a modern Irish spirits company can be. Through our work with the Apprentices at the Micro Distillery, Midleton, we continue to innovate and experiment with different grains, distillation methods and spirit types and look forward to sharing our creations with the world in the coming years. As a Cork native myself, bringing the spirit of premium Irish gin back to the city has been a personal highlight – and one that I look forward to enjoying being a part of for many years to come.”
Brendan Buckley, Innovation and Specialty Brands Director at Irish Distillers, concluded: “At the very core of METHOD AND MADNESS is a commitment to push the boundaries of what we can achieve in Midleton Distillery, and I believe that taking a confident leap into the modern premium gin category is the very definition of this mindset. Many new producers in Ireland are releasing gins while their whiskeys mature, but we are in no terms late to the party – in true METHOD AND MADNESS style, we are entering the gin market using our passion and unrivalled distilling expertise as our guide.”
First unveiled in February 2017, METHOD AND MADNESS aims to harness the creativity of Midleton’s whiskey masters through the fresh talent of its apprentices. Taking inspiration from the famous Shakespearean quote, ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t’, METHOD AND MADNESS is designed to reflect a next generation Irish spirit brand with a measure of curiosity and intrigue (MADNESS), while honouring the tradition and expertise grounded in the generations of expertise at the Midleton Distillery (METHOD).
*Mickey’s Belly is named after Michael Hurley, a Distiller at Midleton Distillery for 45 years. Michael Hurley worked in the Vat House at Midleton. He worked for Irish Distillers for 45 years, beginning his career with the Cork Distilleries Company where he was employed as a clerk in the Morrison’s Island Head Office. He then transferred to the watercourse Distillery where he worked for 6 years before coming out to Midleton. A Customs official or ‘Watcher’ named Dickie Cashman gave the still the nickname ‘Mickey’s Belly’ in his honour. It too had come in from Cork to work in Midleton.
METHOD AND MADNESS Gin Tasting Notes by Master Distiller Brian Nation
Nose: Lemon balm and shredded ginger with a unique flavour from the wild Irish gorse flower
Taste: Spicy pine and notes of earthy woodland frost balanced with a burst of citrus
Finish: Clean and long with a lingering rooted orange citrus and slowly roasted spice
I’m at this thing today, so will post 10,000 images from it later on. Til then, some thoughts: Another gin in a crowded market. I assume IDL have done their homework and see that there is the demand for a new gin, and at least under the M&M brand they can release and shelve if it doesn’t gain traction. Also – another notebook? I have no doubt that there is an actual notebook or ten in those archives, but as this is the second release to come from ye old fifty shades of grain, I’d wager you will be good for one or two more before drinkers get a little sceptical. Finally – that is one beautiful bottle. I look forward to falling into a case of them today. On that note: Let’s get facked aaaaaaaaap.
I am posting this press release because A) I want to seem like I have a clue about yeast and B) I would like to get on the free beer gravy train. Don’t you dare judge me.
O’Hara’s Brewery has collaborated with Tullamore D.E.W. to brew the limited edition ‘Irish Wit’. The beer is a take on the classic Wit style and is brewed using 50% wheat malt, flaked oats, local ale malt and fermented with Tullamore D.E.W.’s own yeast.
The collaboration was based on the idea of designing a beer specifically to pair with Tullamore D.E.W. whiskey.
Seamus O’Hara, founder and CEO of O’Hara’s Brewery commented on the collaboration,
“Usually when we think about working with an Irish whiskey it’s for our award-winning barrel-aged series but this time we’ve done something a little bit different and novel. While not as common in Ireland, the idea of pairing a beer with a whiskey is nothing new, in fact I’ve found that Tullamore D.E.W. pairs particularly well with our Irish Red Ale. When the possibility of collaborating with our good friends at Tullamore D.E.W. came up we considered the idea of a barrel aged version of our Irish Red, but then we thought why not try to create the perfect beer to pair with Tullamore D.E.W.? How could we collaborate outside of simply using Tullamore barrels?
“When the opportunity arose to work with the Tullamore D.E.W. yeast, we jumped at the chance, and once we decided this was the route we were going to take, it was obvious that a wit style beer would best show off the yeast and evoke some of the fruity and spicy notes typical of the whiskey, while at the same time allowing us to keep the ABV at a manageable 4%, perfect for pairing with a glass of Tullamore D.E.W.”
Kevin Pigott from Tullamore D.E.W. echoed Seamus O’Hara’s sentiments,
“Our belief is that the blending of cultures, thoughts and ideas creates a world infinitely more interesting. We were super excited to work on this collaboration with O’Hara’s to create the perfect beer that pairs with Tullamore D.E.W. and we achieved just that. The beer is a Belgian wit style with an Irish twist, appropriately titled Irish Wit. It is a limited edition small batch where we wanted to reinvigorate the art of the boilermaker. Tully and beer are good friends and good friends always meet over a good drink.”
The Brewing Process: O’Hara’s take on the classic Wit style is brewed using 50% wheat malt, flaked oats, local ale malt and fermented with Tullamore D.E.W.’s own yeast as part of a mixed culture fermentation.
The Look: Dark amber colour topped off with a white head.
The Aroma: A complex and full aroma bursting with sweet orange and zesty lemon notes. The Flavour: A mix of sweet and dry with strong citrus flavours of orange followed by hints of lemon, banana and grapefruit leading to a clean and refreshing mouthfeel.
The Food Pairing: Some might like it hot, and this Irish Wit certainly does, pairing particularly well with spicy dishes, seafood, shellfish, and also offsets the clean saltiness of a Greek Salad perfectly. If you are serving the beer with a cheeseboard, it works best with goat’s cheese or feta.
Irish Wit will be available in select independent bars, off-licences and retailers with a RRP €2.55 for 33cl bottle.