Flight of the Navigator

We all have a journey to whiskey, but for some, it is a more winding path that guides us here. For Daithí O’Connell, sailor, pilot, and founder of WD O’Connell independent bottlers, the journey was geographical as well as spiritual. 

The 40-year-old Carlow native started his career in hospitality aged just 15, working in a local hotel. Four years of that taught him that the 24/7 aspect of that was quite the burden – a 60 hour week commanded the princely sum of thirty púnts, with rent and other expenses on top of that – so he moved into the bar side of hospitality, focussing on the late bar and nightclub scene in McSorleys in Killarney. He then shifted to auctioneering, studying property management and valuation in the College Of Commerce in Cork city. He completed his studies, and found himself working in Mulligans in Cork city. Shortly after he went travelling in Australia, then moved to Denmark and worked in a concrete plant. Meanwhile, back in Ireland, the era known as the Celtic tiger was shifting into top gear – the owners of Mulligans, the Rebel Bar Group, were looking for someone to come on board as a partner in one location. O’Connell started back in Ireland with Oscar Madison’s in Kinsale, then Redz in Cork city, and then the Savoy nightclub, which he ran for four years during its heyday. In 2008, Ireland started to change – the Celtic Tiger was ailing and the economy was about to descend into a crushing recession. The Savoy hosted their last gig under his stewardship on New Year’s Eve 2008 and he moved to Australia with his partner 13 days later. Over the next four years his homeland would suffer the worst recession in the history of the state.

In Australia he trained to become a pilot, and was just shy of his commercial license when he moved to Hong Kong in 2010, where he was lured with the prospect of opening a bar with a group of Irish entrepreneurs. He spent five years there – running bars, setting up a boat hire business, and moving into prepay card systems (HK’s Octopus Card being a template). On the back of the latter business he relocated to Dubai, where his firm managed the payment systems for the Sevens, serving more than 150,000 punters across three days. 

After building up that business he started looking for a new project, and whiskey was in his sights – 2012 saw the sale of Cooley to Beam and Dingle Distillery firing up the stills. By late 2015 he had a site sorted and was ready to sign contracts with distillers, still makers, maltsters and all the key components of the project. But the globe-trotting and relentless work took its toll. His marriage disintegrated, and he was forced to reassess everything he knew. He moved back to Ireland and shelved the distillery plan. Then came a succession of events – he met a half-Irish German girl named Alina and fell in love, they became parents, his father died after a short illness, and he turned 40. He started working as a consultant with firms looking to upscale, but whiskey was still on his mind. His partner encouraged him to take the risk and follow his passion. In April 2019, he quit his job and threw himself completely into becoming an independent whiskey bottler. 

Bottlers are something of a rarity in Ireland – much of this had to do with the scarcity of distilleries. Bottlers need a diverse range – not just of whiskey styles and casks, but of sources. An indie bottler here over the last 20 years would be offering you the products of three distillers – Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley, and that was only if they were able to get access to stock from those three. 

But in Scotland, indie bottlers are revered as being able to offer unique offerings from well-known, lesser-known and long-dead distilleries. In fact, indie bottlers are so important to Scotch whisky that the late, great whisky writer Michael Jackson said of bottlers Gordon & MacPhail that if it were not for this firm, single malts as we know them would not exist today. 

It is in this mould that O’Connell sees his firm – to be the biggest indie bottler in Ireland by 2035. Working with support from Bord Bia he hired a creative agency to design his brand – with his love of flight and sailing, a compass rose forms a central part of the brand, while the rest is based around family. 

Now all he needed was some stock, and this is where Dr John Teeling comes in. Dr Teeling was the original disruptor in Irish whiskey – at a time when Bushmills and Midleton were the only whiskey makers on the island, he opened his warehouses to buyers. He forced the other two giants to up their game and watch their corners, and is still doing the same with Great Northern Distillery. 

O’Connell has something old and something new from Dr Teeling’s stable – a 17-year-old double-distilled Cooley single malt and a youthful, peated, triple-distilled GND single malt. The 17 was matured in first-fill bourbon for 17 years, then in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, bottled at 46%, non-chill filtered and limited to 370 bottles. It is the first ‘PX series’ release, the beginning of a limited series of PX-finished single malt Irish whiskeys. 

The GND single malt is a single cask of triple-distilled, peated single malt, matured in first-fill bourbon barrels and bottled at 47.5% ABV, non-chill filtered and limited to 306 bottles.  

It is the first ‘Bill Phil’ release, the start of a series of triple distilled, peated single malt Irish whiskeys. The O’Connells hail from Mountcollins in west Limerick, a small village which has a surprisingly large number of people named O’Connell, so nicknames were required to distinguish between the different families; Dáithí’s ancestors were the Bill Phils, and they specialised in a type of turf-cutting implement named a sleán. Thus, a peated expression was the perfect way to celebrate this heritage. 

So O’Connell has some stock, but an indie bottler needs more than Cooley or Great Northern to offer the punters. O’Connell’s model is a surprisingly new enterprise – there are many, many Irish whiskey brands out there which are effectively just indie bottlings – sourced whiskey released under another label. However, many are either released under the name of an as-yet unbuilt, partially built, or operational but sub-three years old distillery, or are bottlers without telling you that this is what they are. There is a paucity of brands who plainly state they are indie bottlers, who offer full info on the liquid within the bottle, where it came from, who distilled it, and how old it is. But bottlers are meant to be curators – they provide a vital piece of infrastructure in Scotland, and will be required to do the same here. 

WD O’Connell Whiskey Merchants comes with a clarity and simplicity in its message – that they are going to source stock from distilleries and bottle it in small batches. The Bill Phil is a light gold liquid, with a bright, medicinal tang on the nose – light but succulent sweetness. On the palate – the youthful heat is balanced by sweet smoke, and for a barely legal dram it is incredibly smooth. O’Connell is quick to point out that the Bill Phil isn’t some smash and grab, where he releases a well-aged 17 and then throws out some firewater as a money spinner. Bill Phil was released because it is quality liquid – and because it shows the power of peat, something O’Connell is keen to explore. The PX is a counterpoint to Bill Phil – mature, deep, heavy with red fruits and dark chocolate. Both were released in tiny batches and are stocked in specialist outlets – Fox, Mulligan’s, Bradley’s – as these are specialist offerings. 

Right now, O’Connell is a one-man show, chasing the highways and byways to get his product and his brand out there. Next year he is considering a March release for another Bill Phil, followed by an 18-year-old version of the PX in June, complimented by a small batch cask-strength edition. He is assembling casks from Irish distilleries, especially the smaller start-ups. Beyond that, he is envisioning a central hub, akin to Gordon & MacPhail’s Elgin headquarters, which would operate as a home for the brand. Settled for the moment on Waterford’s Copper Coast, he is still looking for the right place for a brand home. It may well be a long road ahead for Daithí or any indie bottlers – Gordon & MacPhail were founded 123 years ago, Cademhead’s 148 years, but O’Connell is looking to build something that will outlive and outlast him.

Ever the navigator, one of the reasons O’Connell loves the indie bottling model is because of the sense of adventure – finding new distilleries to source stock from, new worlds to explore, and a new chapter in his whiskey journey.

Only forward

Group of people outide William ‘Lairdie’ Finlayson’s house in Cromarty. Image via An Bhaile.

In the autumn of 2012, a 92-year-old retired engineer named Bobby Hogg passed away, and with him went a little piece of Scottish culture. Hogg was the last native speaker of a Scots dialect spoken by the fisherfolk of the isolated Cromarty community, the only other native speaker having been his brother, Gordon, who had passed away a year previous. Fortunately,  researcher Janine Donald of online cultural archive Am Baile recorded the two brothers chatting in the language and used the sessions to compile a dictionary of their phrases and fables. You can read the booklet here, while the site also has transcripts of recordings of the brothers speaking in the dialect. You can hear two of the Hogg family singing a traditional song here. The dialect is believed to have been handed down from Norse and Dutch fishermen who settled in the area in the 16th century, and while elements of the language remain in the everyday speech used in Cromarty, the passing of the Hogg brothers saw the end of the language being used in its natural, organic state. Here are a few samples:

Ah ken the cutyach ye belang taeI – I know where you’re from (derogatory)

At a grandeur! – What a show off!

At now kucka? – A friendly greeting

Blussing o tattas – A large amount of potatoes

Boors n boors – Lots and lots

E rose from his mate lik a potye – He got up from his meal like a pig

Ee’s a boshach-skeyter – Contemptuous expression for a miserable, mishapen creature

E’s as prood as Bubba – He’s as proud as the devil

Gaen clean tae the tootrach – Away with the fairies, or having become disreputable through drink

Holl toll – Very drunk

Whelp o’ darkness – An individual who was prone to anti-social behaviour

Part of the reason the dialect survived as long as it did is because of where the tiny village of Cromarty is located – perched on the northern tip of the Black Isle in the Highlands, with little of note about it apart from the dialect and the fact they owned Britain’s smallest vehicle ferry, the Cromarty Rose, which ran across the forth to Nigg.

However, the community isn’t quite as isolated as you would think, as the Black Isle isn’t actually an island. One of the peculiarities of Scots gaelic is that there is no differentiation between peninsula and island; perhaps they just got tired of keeping track of which is which – after all, they do have 790 actual islands and a coastline that looks like shattered glass. Perhaps they just felt that The Black Peninsula sounded less dramatic.

The Black Isle also happens to be home to Glen Ord, a Diageo distillery that makes malt for the Johnnie Walker and Singleton brands. Frankly, looking at a map you would struggle to say the distillery is actually on the Black Isle, given that it is at the absolute opposite end from Cromarty, but as it sits in the Muir Of Ord, it can thus can make the claim.

The older I get, the more I like the whiskey’s temporal dimension – beyond the core ingredients of barley, teast, and water, or even transformative elements like copper and wood, it is time that ultimately defines whiskey. Ingredients and vessels give it nature, but is time that nurtures it. It rolls of the stills as new make spirit, with a unique personality of its own, but it is nothing until you add three years in a cask. Add more years and its value increases. Time stops when you rip it from the cask and put it in a bottle, placed into cryosleep, only to finally fulfil its destiny once you pour it into a glass and consume it. I am at the upper limit for aged whiskey – 43 – I am finally starting to understand just how finite my time is. The end of the Cromarty fisherfolk dialect is a reminder that time devours everything, no matter how we fight it.  

Cadenhead are the oldest independent bottler in Scotland. They have a lovely website where you can read their storied history, find out what they do, and ultimately not purchase anything, as they don’t do online shopping. Even when you go into their Edinburgh store, your purchases are worked out with a pen, paper and a calculator. If they could fit an abacus on the desk, they probably would. For a store that deals in capsules filled with time, they are adamant that they won’t march to its merciless beat.

I bought a ten-year-old Glen Ord, a Kilkerran 12, an unnamed Islay eight-year-old and a Teaninch. The Ord came on the recommendation of staff, who pushed it over another, older bottling from the same distillery. So what of this entry-level whiskey from the last distillery standing on the Black Isle: On the nose it is waxy, with green apple, a pleasing whiff of gasoline, pepper, but with sweetness, spun sugar, wine gums, brown sugar cubes. On the palate there is that waxy feel, with a little aniseed, and a fresh zesty element that sizzles on the tongue. It’s smooth, with the right depth for a whisky this age, but just lacks that little something odd that I was hoping for. The finish doesn’t overstay its welcome, and leaves traces of pear drops and marmalade. Overall a solid purchase, and a handy reminder that one day we will all be dead, but then I would say that as I am a whelp o’ darkness.