Dana Brunetti, CEO of Trigger Street, Kevin Spacey’s production company, visits Midleton Distillery:
Also an innovator in the realm of social networking, Brunetti launched Trigger Street Labs in 2002, a platform for feedback and exposure for undiscovered writing and filmmaking talent.
In 2009, he produced the film The Social Network, the story of how Facebook was created. The film was directed by David Fincher, written by Aaron Sorkin and based Ben Mezrich’s book, The Accidental Billionaires.
He also worked with Mezrich in 2008, when he produced the film 21, based off his New York Times best selling book Bringing Down The House.
However, he also produced House Of Cards….and Fifty Shades Of Grey.
One of the strangest aspects of memory is how we can be transported back in time by our senses. The smell of vinyl, the cup of tea your parents make – you close your eyes and you are back in a moment from decades before.
This Thursday night, whiskey aficionados are being offered the chance to sample of piece of Cork’s proud distilling tradition when the local branch of the Irish Whiskey Society are hosting a taste of our distilling heritage.
And there is an incredible heritage there – both in the landscape of the city, the distillers, the salesmen and the people who drank it, from the ordinary joe to heads of state.
Take proud Corkonian Jack Lynch. He was famously a man of the people. There is a great story in Frank Dunlop’s book, Yes Taoiseach, about when Jack was on a campaign tour with the rather aloof Erskine Childers in Cork. Crowds cheered the bus as it moved along, and Jack waved to his people, while Childers sat there. Finally Lynch grew tired of Childers’ chilly demeanour, and said ‘Wave Erskine, Wave’. ‘But Jack’ the then president said, ‘I don’t know them’.
Dunlop’s book also details Jack’s love of whiskey, specifically the iconic everyman brand of Paddy. Lynch used to say of an evening that they would ‘get past Tipperary’, referring to the map of Ireland on the bottle, using Tipp as a marker for the evening’s quota. As Carol Quinn, chief archivist with Irish Distillers Ltd in Midleton points out, that map was crucial in an Ireland that did not have 100% literacy; people who couldn’t read the then name of the tipple, which was Cork Distilleries Company Old Irish Whiskey, could simply point to the bottle on the shelf and ask for a measure of ‘map of Ireland whiskey’.
It was another charismatic Corkman who changed the name. In 1882, a young Patrick J. O’Flaherty joined the Cork Distilleries Company as a travelling salesman. Paddy Flaherty, as he became more commonly known, was born in Cork in 1850, the eldest son of Daniel J O ‘Flaherty and his wife Anne M.B. Long. He attended the day school at which his father taught, at 7 Maylor Street, in the centre of Cork city. Paddy was presumably influenced by his mother’s family, who were publicans, as he decided to join the Cork Distilleries Company as a rep in December 1882 at a salary of £150 a year. One year into his job he moved to a house on the Blackrock Road, which he named after his favourite song ‘Carraigdhoun’.
Paddy covered an area stretching from Youghal to Mallow selling the rather unwieldy named ‘Cork Distilleries Company Old Irish Whiskey’. Paddy was a great salesman – in an age long before marketing or PR, he understood how to work the media. When he was going to a town or village to promote the drink, he would send word ahead that he was coming, then arrive to cheering crowds, as where Paddy went, whiskey was sure to flow. His salubriousness came at a cost to the company – his expenses were always well over the staff allowance, but Paddy was so good at his job that they let him do what he did best – foster a love of whiskey in people.
His fame grew to such an extent that the drink he was promoting became simply known as Paddy, and so upon his retirement, the Cork Distilleries Company bought the trademark from him.
As for Jack Lynch, his lasting monument comes in the shape of a bronze statue seated in the mall of Blackpool Shopping Centre, where he sits all day, reading the Cork Examiner. It seems fitting that a whiskey drinker like himself be located there – Blackpool was a hub of distilling at one time, and although much of that was in decline when Jack was born in 1917 in Shandon, he would have grown up surrounded by the culture of distilling and coopering. A stone’s throw from where Jack sits in the shopping centre was one of the great distilleries of Cork – Hewitt’s Watercourse Distillery.
You’d have to look hard to find any evidence of its presence today, but if you look carefully the next time you visit the New Furniture Centre, you will notice part of the old wall and barred windows of the distillery.
Hewitt’s was not the only distillery in the area – if you ever visit a little close of houses off Thomas Davis Street named Distillery Close, you will see in one corned of the square there is an old stone wall and arch. This is all that remains of The Green Distillery, which was founded in 1796.
Back towards town there was Daly’s of John Street, started in 1807, the cooperage of which boasted the talents of one Seamus Murphy, legendary Cork sculptor. Apart from St Dominick’s Distillery at Crosse’s Green, nearly all of Cork’s distilling industry was on the northside: On the North Mall there was Wise’s, one of the first distilleries in Cork, while back out towards Mallow there was the Kilnap distillery, and closer to town the Spring Lane distillery. This was operated by former Lord Mayor and Freeman Of Cork, French Huguenot Sir Anthony Perrier.
Perrier was a man of vision – while all distillers at that time used the classic pot still – known for its fat belly and swan neck – Perrier patented an updated version, which he hoped would be more efficient than the pot version, used for a thousand years since pilgrim Irish monks borrowed the idea from the Moors. Moorish alchemists had used it to distill essential oils – but the monks ingeniously used it to distill a weak ale into something far more flavoursome. Casking it for winter, they realized that the wood and ageing added to the flavours, and so whiskey was born.
But Perrier’s vision of a new still was not perfect, and the invention did not take off. A Scottish man named Robert Stein modified the plans for his own version, but it was not until a Calais born and Trnity educated Irishman named Aeneas Coffey, whose family had their roots in Barryroe in west Cork, saw the potential.
He designed his own column still, patented it and changed the world of distilling forever. Coffey knew plenty about stills – as an excise man for the British rulers, he had travelled up and down the country smashing legal and illegal stills for years, often risking life and limb to do so. He had been beaten, stabbed and had his skull fractured on different occasions. So he was not a man who gave up easily.
He perfected his invention, which was cleaner and more efficient than the pot stills, and then tried to sell it to distillers. But the Irish, ever slow to embrace technology and eschew tradition, pooh-poohed his work.
There was even a campaign of slander against the alcohol produced by the Coffey still, as it is still known – distillers called it ‘silent spirit’ as it ‘had no tongue to speak of from whence it came’. They said the purer alcohol produced by the still had zero flavor, and was therefore not to be trusted, and some even claimed the liquor it produced was made from refuse. Undeterred, Coffey too his invention to Scotland, and the canny Scots instantly was the potential. They used the cleaner, cheaper alcohol to soften their peaty, heathery whiskey, and so the great Scottish blends were born. Their lighter flavor gave them global appeal, and Ireland lost their edge.
Back in Ireland, the industry was heading for a steady decline – there were economic factors, such as the imperial taxes we faced, the Famine, the struggles for freedom, the economic war, Prohibition and changing drinking habits.
But another Corkman also helped to change the fortunes of distilling across Ireland; the Apostle of Temperance, Fr Theobald Mathew. The Cork Capuchin Friar used his charisma and zeal to turn people from the demon drink, claiming it ruined lives. But the impact on the brewing and distilling trades, including coopers, delivery men, publicans etc, suffered from the Total Abstinence Movement.
Walter Thomas Meyler, a Dublin tea and wine merchant, published a pamphlet some years after Fr Mathew’s death in 1856. In it he wrote, “His disciples spread the monomania like a simona over the land. Brewers, grocers and country shopkeepers were paralyzed, thousands fled the country and their creditors. About one hundred distilleries and breweries had to close down, their owners and workers reduce to destitution.”
The glory days of independent distilling were ending. Consolidation led to the creation of the Cork Distilleries Company, and the gradual closure of the facilities. Hewitt’s was leveled to make way for the Mallow road out of the city, the others have almost completely disappeared. But on Thursday night, you can taste a piece of Cork history, and be regaled by the stories of Cork’s long forgotten whiskey brands and distilleries. We may have lost many of our iconic distilleries, but their spirit, like our own, lives on.
Taste Cork Distilleries Co. Old Irish Pure Pot Still Whisky as available in Cork over 100 years ago; sample discontinued expressions like Hewitt’s Irish Whiskey and a rare 10 year old Paddy expression from the late 1950s/early 1960s.
Those in attendance will also get to sample a dram of Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy and be one of the first to enjoy the 30th Anniversary Edition of Midleton Very Rare – the very first to bear the signature of Master Distiller Brian Nation.
A Taste of Cork’s Whiskey History at the Porterhouse, Sheares Street, hosted by Cork Whiskey Society.
Date: Thursday, September 25th Time: Doors open: 7:30pm (please wait in the bar before this time so we can set up the room) Tasting begins: 8:00pm sharp Tickets:Members: €15 Non-members: €25 Reserve and pay for your place at https://v1.bookwhen.com/iwscork.
In The Untouchables, a journalist asks Prohibition enforcer Elliot Ness what he will do if the American government goes ahead with plans to repeal their anti-drink laws.
‘I think I’ll have a drink’ is his pithy reply.
Calais-born and Dublin raised Aeneas Coffey – the scourge of the distilling trade in Ireland – went one better when he retired from his post as enforcer of the British empire’s suffocating excise laws; he opened a distillery.
But Coffey, a tenacious tax collector who battled the clergy and risked life and limb to obtain the crown coin from distilleries while also smashing poitin stills across the country, was not planning on building an empire on whiskey. Rather he wanted to perfect his vision of a new form of distilling, one that was cheaper, faster, safer and purer than the current form – and his invention would almost destroy the 1,000-year-old Irish distilling trade.
To understand what Coffey did, you need to go back several centuries. Around 1AD, the Moors swept across Europe, bringing with them their technology and knowledge of alchemy. One invention was the alembic still, which used steam to strip essential oils from herbs and other materials. The origins of the term alchohol lie in these times – the word is derived from the Arabic word al-kuhl, which today is termed kohl, and is a very finely crushed up used in the east to darken eyelids. Note: This has nothing to do with the dark circles under your eyes after a night on the hooch.
As Muslims, it never crossed their minds to use this apparatus to purify liquor – but Irish monks who came across the stills, after the Moors were driven from mainland Europe, were not restricted by any such laws.
The monks, guardians of knowledge throughout the dark ages, brought the alembic still to Ireland, where it was refined until it became the iconic pot still, the fat-bellied swan-necked copper apparatus that gave Ireland it’s first and possibly greatest export – whiskey. It’s worth pointing out, for the sake of fairness, that the monks in Scotland appear to have been working on the same invention; and as a result, both countries created their respective variations on liquid gold at around the same time. In the 1500s Queen Elizabeth I was quite the fan of Irish whiskey, and kept a stock of it in her court. By the 1700s, Czar Peter The Great of Russia was quaffing it, and in 1755 Samuel Johnson had insisted the word whiskey be placed in his famous dictionary, and declared ‘the Irish sort is particularly distinguished for its pleasant and mild flavor.’
By the 19th Century whiskey ruled the world, and in the 1880s after a crop disease ruined France’s supply of cognac, we were producing the world’s number one drink.
But at this stage things were already starting to turn. First the Famine, the crippling taxation laws of the British empire imposed by anti-alcohol advocate Lloyd George, our own temperance movement led by Fr Mathew, the Great War, Prohibition, the Irish War Of Independence, the Civil War, the economic war with Britain, our biggest export market, and, into the Second World War, the rise of the great Scotch blends – the root of whose success was Coffey’s creation. But like the man himself, whose ancestors hailed from Barryroe in west Cork, the Coffey Still, as it became known, has its origins in the Rebel County.
It was actually an improvement of an invention by Sir Anthony Perrier, one of the Cork Hugenots, a distiller and merchant prince of note. He operated the Spring Lane distillery, one of many whiskey producing operations scattered across Cork city and county, but Perrier saw that the triple-pot-still method of distillation was costly, and tried to make it more efficient by using columns. His invention was not a success, but it inspired Scotsman Robert Stein to try and create his own version. He was not successful either, but a display he gave was witnessed by Aeneas Coffey and inspired him to build his own, just as Steve Jobs was inspired by the user interface at Xerox to create the Mackintosh.
Coffey had smashed enough illicit stills and surveyed hundreds of distilleries, so he knew how inefficient, expensive and dangerous the stills could be. He could instantly see Stein’s creation had massive implications, if only it worked. So when he retired from the excise office after 25 years of confrontation – including one incident in Donegal when he was stabbed twice in the thigh and received a fractured skull from an angry mob as he went about his duties – he opened the Dock Distillery on Grand Canal Street. After he had it perfected, he tried to sell his invention to local distillers. The big four distilleries in Dublinspurned his creation, seeing it as an affront to a thousand years of tradition.
Also, Coffey’s still produced alcohol so pure that they deemed it ‘silent spirit’ – as it had ‘no tongue with which to speak of whence it came’. It lacked the elements that gave new-make pot still spirit its distinct flavours, and many in the industry blackened its name, claiming that because Coffey’s end product was so pure there was no way of knowing what went into it – many claimed rotten potatoes and refuse were used. This, of course, was nonsense – but it did lead to the beginnings of the struggle within that held the Irish whiskey industry back while their canny neighbours charged ahead.
Always ones to spot a bargain, the Scots took to the Coffey still straight away; but they realized the alcohol produced was incredibly pure, so they blended their peaty pot still whisky with the ‘silent spirit’ – now known as grain whiskey – and so the great Scotch blends were born. The Irish distillers turned up their noses, and have been lagging behind every since. Scotch went from strength to strength.
During World War Two a cash-strapped Winston Churchill saw the potential tax haul from flogging scotch, and exported it to every country he could. Americans in Europe during the war made it their drink of choice, and drank it still when they went home, and so it became a cultural icon – a symbol of masculinity, maturity, with a worldly sophistication. Scotch had won the war, and whiskey was left in its dust. After World War Two, only seven Irish distilleries remained from approximately 160 in 1880.
As for Coffey, he was never hailed as a brilliant genius who revolutionized an industry, in fact he was nearly hated more as an inventor than he was as a still-smashing tax collector for the British empire. Disillusioned after being rejected by his own, he settled in Britain and faded into obscurity. Like Virgil’s Trojan hero, from whence his name came, he was left searching for a place to call home after the greatness of earlier days:
I am Aeneas, duty-bound, and known
Above high air of heaven by my fame,
Carrying with me in my ships our gods
Of hearth and home, saved from the enemy.
His invention is still used across the drinks industry today, distilling alcohol for whiskey, scotch, gin and industrial purposes. As for the Irish whiskey industry, it finally embraced the still, and the blends that brought the Scots such success. The Irish industry is thriving now; perhaps this is tribute enough to the man who tried to save it and was shunned for his efforts.
So I wrote an article for the Irish Examiner about researching genealogy. I went on a bit, and they rightly cut it down. However, given that this is the unregulated, self-indulgent wasteland of blogging, I’m going to post the unabridged version for you to snooze through:
You probably remember the scene in Dead Poet’s Society. Robin Williams’s character tries to teach his students about the importance of existing in the moment, always being aware of your own mortality. He gets them to look at a cabinet of photos of the school’s oldboys as young men – young men now long dead – and tells his students that they too will some day turn cold and die.
For me, the internet is like that cabinet: Old photos much like the ones in this scene regularly appear on Flickr. Portraits from Guys in Cork often pop up on accounts around the world, uploaded with no knowledge of who the people in the photos are, or what their links to the family might be, found in a shoebox after a relative passed away, too late to ask why these photos were taken. Were they parting gifts from Cork’s emigrants chasing a dream in the land of opportunity, forget-me-nots to long lost loves, or just a need for something permanent in lives that in a short space of time endured so much change? Their stoic, emotionless poses hint at a million narratives. Finding what those stories are, what our own stories are, can be a difficult task.
Now in it’s eighth year, Who Do You Think You Are? Live drew thousands last year, and this year it’s set to do the same, running as it does from February 20-22 in the Olympia in London. But the TV show on which the conference is based make genealogy look easy – and in the UK it may be slightly moreso. They can move with relative ease through several centuries of records. Here, where we had an oral tradition – and a lot of conflicts that destroyed records – it is more of a challenge. The uploading of the census from the last century is a great starting point – and beyond that, subscription websites like FindMyPast.ie are an invaluable resource, offering a vast array of documents and search advice and tips, access to newspapers across the world that can be sifted through using a basic word search, or more advanced time sensitive searches if you have more of an idea of what you’re looking for. The archive helps greatly in fleshing out those official documents; we may have had an oral traditions, but thankfully, as Arthur Miller said, a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself.
When I set about searching out my distant relatives, I soon realized that having a slightly obscure name like Linnane helps – good luck sifting through the Murphy clan to find those you’re directly related to. Searching the archives of the then Cork Examiner – recently added to the FindMyPast archive – turns up quite a few stories about my ancestors and their heroic deeds – blowing themselves up, being executed by firing squads at the roadside, being smoked out of caves along the Kerry coast and then executed; it seems I come from a long line of people who were as bad at hiding their contempt for authority as they were at hiding themselves. Reading through their stories makes you realize that the birth of our nation was a bloody chaotic thing, that by the time we had finally won our freedom, every family had lost a piece of itself, and every inch of the land must surely have had some blood spilled on it. Our great grandparents fought so hard and sacrificed so much to simply have a home to call their own it’s little wonder that we inherited a deep insecurity about our sense of place, and our need to own our land, which led to the frantic obsession with property over the last ten years.
Starker than the stories of my namesakes and their brutal struggles for freedom are the ones from the aftermath of the Famine. The Cork Examiner reacts to a report in the Clare Journal (Clare being the heartland for my family name) of a house that had to be broken into over concerns for its residents when neighbours started complaining of a stench: The sherriff broke the door down, to find the Widow Quinn, her daughter and two Linnane children dead from starvation, rotting on the floor. Rats had eaten much of them.
In an Examiner editorial of November 29, 1848, titled ‘The Palace and The Cabin’, they wrote: “Pleasure reigns in the queen’s palace – starvation and death, two grim monarchs, riots in the peasant’s cabin. Yet the British queen and the Irish peasant are – rather, were – the same flesh and blood. But the queen is surrounded by flattering courtiers, and soothing strains, and varied amusements, and pomp, and luxury, and magnificence; while the peasant-mother dies on her couch of broke straw, and lies rotting and mouldering away for twelve days in the charnel house, once her dwelling. She died of absolute starvation, though living under the protection of the proud queen of England; and three more dead bodies – of starved children – lay rotting on the same floor.
‘What a horrible tale they tell – a tale that, in a Christian land, in this age of luxury and refinement, will doubtless be received with astonishment and doubt. Four human creatures, dying in this fair and fruitful land of literal starvation! A dead mother lying for a fortnight beside her dying child – think of it ye, round whose hearts home loves have twined! Four unburied corpses for as many days tainting the air breathed by the victims famine had not claimed! Merciful Providence, could the world of human suffering produce a parallel for this fearful picture? Yet our rulers stir not – they hold not out even the promise of relief to the ears – offer no pledge, as of yore, though the boasts ‘credit of the country and means of the Treasury’ are still at their command, and in their keeping.”
The paper’s coverage is scathing – they point the finger of blame directly at our rulers. Four people lay dead in a house – the Quinn woman and her child for twelve days, and two Linnane children were trapped in the house with the bodies for eight days before they too died – in a country that was still producing large amounts of food and drink; just not food and drink that was intended for the average Irish peasant. The Famine is not ancient history – browsing through FindMyPast makes you realize that it’s only a few generations ago. What marks must it have left on our national psyche, what trauma must we all carry.
But there were also uplifting stories. Take my grandfather’s first cousin, Colonel James Fitzmaurice. Born in Dublin in 1898, raised in Portlaois and expelled from school in Waterford at 15, he tried to join the British army when he was underage but his parents discovered and he was sent home. Two years later he did sign up, and began an exemplary military career. When a clerical error meant he was sent to the Somme in July 1916 aged just 17, he saw the grim realities of war first-hand. But he still thirsted for adventure, and hated lying in the trenches.
He volunteered for any mission he could sign up for, which saw him rise to acting sergeant by age 18. He signed up for the RAF and was soon a co-pilot on the world’s first night airmail flight between Folkstone and Cologne. In 1922 he resigned from the RAF and came home to join the Irish Air Force at Baldonnel, where he hungered for a new adventure. He set his sights on crossing the Atlantic, and after one failed attempt in 1927, on 12th April he set off from Baldonnel on the Bremen with two Germans, Captain Hermann Koehl and Gunther Freiherr von Hunefeld.
Fitzmaurice later wrote “Dear old Ireland seemed nestled in peaceful sleep as we smashed through the air on our great adventure.”
They landed on Greenly Island in Labrador on Friday, April 13, 1928. They had endured oil leaks and brutal storms, but made history for the first East-West crossing of the Atlantic.
All the papers at the time report the jubilant scenes, and how the flyers met US President Calvin Coollidge a few days later, who presented them with the US Distinguished Flying Cross. When they came home to Baldonnel they were greeted by the Government led by WT Cosgrave, who gave the trio the Freedom Of Dublin.
He was a symbol of unity – an Irishman who fought with the British forces in the Great War against the Germans and went on to make history by flying with two German pilots.
After the crossing, Fitzmaurice tried to interest the government in commercial aviation, but with no luck. His efforts ignored, he resigned from the air force, and went to America to work in aircraft design. While in Germany in 1933 attempting to negotiate with German aircraft manufacturers, he witnessed the Reichstag building in Berlin burning down. On the same trip, he even had a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
He moved back to England in 1939 and opened a club for servicemen in London during the war. He moved to Dublin in 1951 and tried his hand at journalism, with little success. He lived in relative obscurity in Harcourt Street, not quite in poverty, but not like an aviation hero either.
He died in Baggott Street Hospital in September 1965 and received a state funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery.
He once wrote: “In Irish air transport much has been achieved and a great future develops, of which our people will be justly proud. I feel certain that in that pride of achievement, the adventure of the Bremen will be seen in all its full significance, and that my dead comrades and I, will therefore, not soon be forgotten”.
But he was forgotten, at least by descendants like me. Looking at his photo I wonder what would he think of me: Untouched by war, well-fed, surrounded by loved ones, and still finding plenty to complain about; he survived the Somme, I nearly cry when I stub my toe; he made aviation history, I complain loudly when waiting for my bags at Cork Airport.
What would any of my ancestors think of me, with a fridge full of food, perfect health and living free? I doubt they would be impressed. I think of those children in Clare, slowly starving to death for want of a bit of bread, as my kids ask me for iPads for Christmas.
Digging through FindMyPast is a sobering experience; you can hear the voices of your predecessors whispering across the centuries to you, asking what you have achieved, if you seized the day like they did. Their stories, my story, is no different than any other Irish person: We have survived brutal oppression, starvation, unintentional genocide, bloody struggles for freedom, a civil war that tore the country apart and several recessions – and yet we push on.
These archives are a testament to all Ireland has achieved, and to the strength of the human spirit, told through a million stories of heroism and tragedy that lead directly to all of us. It frames us all as the makers of history – let’s just hope our contribution won’t be recorded as a series of Facebook rants about the price of the new iPhone.
I spotted an Irish-looking name in an article in The Helsinki Times about how the Finnish capital was about to get its first distillery in 125 years, thanks to two Finns and a chap named Séamus Holohan. I contacted Séamus and chatted to him about chasing his dream to the frozen north.
Ireland and Finland have more in common than you’d think. Despite being on opposite sides of the European Union, we both punch well above our weight culturally – they gave the world the great composer Sibelius (and Eurovision metallers Lordi), we gave the world James Joyce (and Johnny Logan). And we both enjoy a warming drink during those long winter nights; we have whiskey, they have vodka. But one Corkman is about to change that, as he brings Irish distilling wisdom to what will be Helsinki’s first distillery in more than 125 years.
Séamus Holohan is one of three people behind The Helsinki Distilling Company, and he, along with two Finns, is bringing one of Ireland’s oldest traditions to the far edges of Europe, but how does a man from Mitchelstown end up across the continent?
“I¹ll cut a long story short here but it was basically so that I met my future wife in Paris many years ago while studying and working after graduating from UCC with a BComm degree. When I finished studying in France I wanted some more adventure and Sigrid, a Finn, had moved to Stockholm to study.
“So I headed up there with the intention of seeing what it would be like for 6 months or so. Eighteen years, having started and sold three IT Security companies, and three kids later I felt like it was time for something new. For the past 10 years I had a running discussion with two Finnish friends regarding starting a distillery and now it was good timing for all of us.
“The idea progressed from a fun idea to a concrete plan over the years. Eventually having found a building to house the distillery, I moved over to Helsinki with my family and we started the business over a year ago.”
Séamus’s own interest in distilling was part inspired by another Corkman who left Ireland and created a drinks empire. In 1765, Killavullen mercenary Richard Hennessy founded Hennessy Cognac in France.
“My own interest in distilling started on a trip to Cognac during a summer holiday break during secondary school. With some friends we visited the Hennessy factory and then went to see a small producer.
“The small producer, Balluet, was fascinating – everything from the raw materials to the distillation equipment, I found extremely interesting. And just as interesting was the manner in which the owner was really proud of what he was doing. To me it seemed like something that would be great to do – to produce something concrete, a real product that you could take pride in. That desire never left me.”
But this isn’t the reckless pursuit of a dream – Séamus and his two partners have put a lot of work and research into this venture: “Mikko Mykkänen is our Master Distiller and has been involved in the production of alcohol for many years. I have experience of starting companies and we have a third partner, Kai Kilpinen, who is helping on the
“Before launching The Helsinki Distilling Company, Mikko and myself embarked on a road-trip in Sweden to see many of the small distilleries that have appeared there making whisky over the last decade. It was inspiring to see the amount of energy that the owners had and it confirmed for us that there is a viable market for premium craft distillates.
And the whiskey renaissance back home also fueled the vision: “In addition I was also inspired by a radio interview on RTE that John Teeling gave a number of years ago where he said many interesting things about the global whiskey industry, and also the Cooley distillery was a fantastic story.”
Despite the renewed interest in whiskey back home, Séamus knew that his family now had their roots down in Scandinavia: “It was never really considered to start the distillery in Ireland for family reasons. My kids love going to Ireland and have even spent some time attending school in Ballygiblin but are more accustomed to Sweden and Finland. And since I have been working in the Nordics for so long I know more about doing business here than at home.
“In addition my partners are Finns and living here. Finland has very few distilleries so it is something new and exotic for the Finns to have one producing whiskey and gin in the capital.
“In Ireland we would be one more distillery in addition to those already in existence and starting up. I¹m sure it would have been easier to complete the administration in Ireland, as there is more distilling knowledge there and we did have to deal with a good deal of scepticism and red-tape before starting the distillery.
“But now we have it running and have been producing premium gin and our whiskey is starting its maturation. We are also lucky to have the distillery very close to the city centre and in the middle of the food culture capital of Finland Teurastamo, which means ‘abattoir’ and is the old slaughterhouse area for Helsinki.”
Setting up a distillery here is more straightforward, but so is our language – Finnish is notoriously difficult to learn. So did Séamus struggle with it?
“Coming from Sweden, I suppose it wasn¹t as much of a culture shock as coming directly from Ireland. I had visited Finland many times with my wife during the years and have many friends here. Having said that, it is one thing to visit somewhere and another to live there. It is true that you can get by quite well with English and Swedish here, but it would be great to speak some Finnish. However, Finnish is a fenno-ugric language, quite difficult to learn, and there are very few similarities with any of the Indo-European languages. My aim is to start a night course next year and hopefully pick up enough to get by doing everyday things – that will be the fourth time I have started a Finnish course and I hope I make more progress this time. Our kids attend Swedish school as Finland is officially a bi-lingual country. This makes it possible for me to help with homework, attend parent-teacher meetings and the like.”
And the language wasn’t the only stumbling block: “On the cultural side of things, Finland is very different to Ireland. But I really like the sauna culture. I¹m no longer amazed at people being naked, hitting themselves with birch twigs, while sweating profusely in really hot saunas, before running outside to temperatures of less than minus twenty five degrees, to roll in the icy snow, or take a dip in a hole in the ice. And it¹s a good idea to take up winter sports here to help get you through the long, cold and dark winters.”
And those long, dark winters are contributory factors in the regulation of the drinks industry in Finland – to the point that the state actually controls the sale of liquor.
“Yes, the government does really control the alcohol industry. Until 1995 it was illegal to have a distillery with the distilling only done by the state monopoly of Altia. Today, Alko, is the state monopoly for the sale of stronger alcohol (above 5% vol.) to private persons. It is now possible to sell directly to restaurants and bars however. And the prices are kept high with duty and taxes.”
So that much we have in common – in Ireland about 17 euro of the cost of a bottle of whiskey goes to the taxman, and while the government here hopes to crack down on below-cost selling by the large retailers, the Finns found another way to bypass the excise and get cheap booze – the ferry to Estonia. Although Séamus is quick to point out that this practise is dying out.
“People still get on the ferry to Estonia but perhaps not as often as they used to due to some price harmonisation taking place some years ago.”
And as for the whisky they are making: “As elsewhere, there is a growing number of people who are willing to pay more for better quality products and also there is a growing interest in locally produced goods. We are making gin, whiskey and applejack. Where possible we are using local ingredients so our gin for example has a Finnish lingonberry twist. Our applejack is made from apples from Salo which is about an hours drive from Helsinki.”
And as for the market, it seems like there is an appetite there, despite a crowded market: “The Finns consume approximately 2 million liters of whiskey per year – 1.7 million litres is sold through Alko. Most of the whisky consumed is Scotch blends, with Canadian whiskies in second place. Irish whiskey is sold to the tune of 145.000 litres through Alko.
“Other whiskies, including Finnish, amount to less than 6000 litres so there is some room for growth. There is a growing interest in whiskey in Finland. And, as in Ireland, the Finns are looking to try new products and the product range is excellent in many bars and restaurants.”
In whiskey tasting terms, the finish is the name for the epicurean effects of the drink once it has been swallowed; the mouthfeel and lingering flavours that expand on the palate. As Séamus and his business partners begin casking their new rye whisky, they will be hoping that when the time comes for it to hit the market, whisky drinkers will enjoy a perfect Finnish.
Séamus reveals what Finalnd – and the world – can expect from the Helsinki Distilling Company: “For our whiskey we are using Finnish malt from Lähti. The malt is not
peated but we may experiment in the future with peated malts. Some of the
best rye in the world is grown in Finland.
“So from the start we were determined to make a Finnish whiskey and use Finnish raw materials without simply trying to copy an Irish whiskey or to make Scotch. There is no reason why excellent whiskies cannot be made here. For the rye whiskey we include some barley in the mash to help with the process. Our ingredients are chosen from the best local ingredients available with the rye being custom malted for our requirements. We are using both American and French new oak barrels that are medium toasted. The French oak come from the areas of Alliers and Limousin. Both American and French are offered to cask owners and so far the French have proven more popular. Later on we
will be using different barrels including old sherry and port casks for finishing. We are working with a local cooper from outside Turku to source the barrels.
“We are using a pot still that has an attached column. This allows us to use either the pot still and produce that kind of whiskey or to use the column. Our final products will resemble more American Rye whiskies than Irish or Scottish.”
Footnote: The Irish Timesalso spoke to Séamus, but obviously my interview is wayyyyy better.