Key whiskey trends for 2019 or possibly never

It’s that time of year when we look at trends for 2019. Actually, that time of year was about two months ago, in a different year, but I was busy then, so it has taken until now to get this done.

Predicting drinks trends is a risky business – do you play it safe by saying ‘markets will continue to struggle’ or ‘millenials are ruining everything’, or do you go all out and tell the world that agave/rum/armagnac/fermented CBD oil are going to be huge this year? I have no idea, as I am a 43 year old man sitting alone in his kitchen in a cardigan with a gas heater on. Trends, or fashion, or fads, or anything remotely resembling relevance are a foreign land to me. But I can tell you what I am excited about, or interested in, and what I hope to see in the Irish whiskey category this year.

Expansion: More distilleries, more indie bottlers, more everything. After some struggles, even the Moyvore Whiskey Vault got the go-ahead. There is a fantastic write-up by the ever-reliable Whiskey Nut about a meeting in the initial planning stages which shows just how much silliness had to be overcome, with ‘what if terrorists attacked it?’ being one of the more memorable NIMBYisms. It showed how hard it would be for any smaller distillery to get planning for warehousing on any scale. Fun fact: One of the chaps behind the Vault is the director of Writech, which did all the fire safety wiring for the colossal Midleton revamp, and you can see Writech’s timelapse video of the Garden Stillhouse being built here:

The Moyvore project means you can distill under contract, age the whiskey elsewhere, and not be worried ageing the barrels in your garage and watching them turn your azaleas black. It opens up great possibilities – now you just need a distillery, and not ten acres of warehouses that need 24-hour surveillance. Obviously, ‘just’ a distillery slightly understates the seven to ten million euro you need to actually build one and get it running before you even start production and then wait three to ten years before you can start making money. But hey, every little helps.

The Great Irish Whiskey Drought: Lads tis going to be worse than Black 47, there won’t be a cask older than three years left in the country. Or not, depending on who you ask. The question is – can the current supply of mature stock carry us to the point where we no longer need sourced as a lifeblood of new distilleries? I’m going to assume that with the boom at Bushmills, the answer is yes. Or at least, yes with an asterisk. And that asterisk is Brexit.

In 1996, Supervisor Leland Yee, left and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, center, pour several bottles of Bushmills whiskey down the drain in front of the Dovre Club, an Irish pub in San Francisco on March 17, 1996. Brown and Yee were joined by a small crowd from the pub celebrating St. Patrick’s Day to pledge their support of a world-wide boycott of Bushmills in protest of what they claim are discriminatory hiring practices in the whiskey’s plant in Northern Ireland

Brexit: Back in 1996, Willie Brown, the then mayor of San Francisco, poured a bottle of Bushmills white label down a sewer in the city. Brown was protesting what he said were Bushmills’s sectarian hiring policies, and called for a boycott. Irish Distillers Ltd, who owned Bushmills at the time, pointed out that while the town of Bushmills’s population was almost entirely Protestant, 27% of the staff in the visitors centre were Catholic, which given the demographics of the town, was a lot. It didn’t really take, and the line about Antrim’s finest being ‘Protestant whiskey’ stuck all the way to The Wire – as though Jameson was somehow a Catholic name.

Naturally, one year after after the San Fran demonstration, a DUP Alderman named Ruby Cooling started a one-woman boycott of Bushmills because the distillery sponsored Antrim GAA, which at that time did now allow members of the security forces to play for them. IDL had to explain that they sponsored many sports, not just GAA, but it didn’t matter, because this was the bad old days of the North – you simply could not win. We have moved on so much that it is hard to remember just how shitty it was. But now, thanks to Brexit, it would appear the UK wants to drag the North back to those bad old days.

Even in the early stages of Brexit you could sense that the goons leading the charge were looking to co-opt Bushmills into their mad rampage, with Andrea Leadsom back in 2016 droning on about ‘Northern Irish whiskey’ making Britain great again. I am very excited about NI whiskey, and I really hope that we can see it becoming a distinct Irish whiskey region, with a unique style and attitude – for it is a unique place with a unique identity – but right now the category to be with is Irish whiskey, not NI whiskey. But if that border goes back up and trade gets complicated, the fallout for all-island Irish whiskey could be sizeable. Consider how much sourced stock used here to fund the building of distilleries comes from Bushmills, or how much grain spirit goes from Midleton to the North; how much Irish whiskey is sold in the UK, how big whiskey tourism here could be for whisky lovers in the UK, or the border issues facing anyone who comes to Ireland and hopes to visit all the distilleries, North and south – the potential repercussions are endless. In short, fuck Brexit.

Wood: In Scotland, you legally need to mature whisky in oak. This means you can use any kind of wood, as long as it’s oak. Here, it has to be wood, usually oak. This allows us to bend and break boundaries, explore new flavours and cross-pollinate with other fields. Waterford were straight out of the traps with experimentation, using casks of Andean oak, wild cherry, chestnut, and acacia – a wood that Bushmills used as a finish on their distillery exclusive, while Midleton used native oak in Dair Ghaelach. Cask finishing is always going to be big, but here we have a chance to get really wild. So wood is big news, but not as big as grain.

Grain: When I was a child, there were no potatoes as adored as the Ballycotton potatoes. Each year my parents would excitedly bring home a bag of the Ballycotton new season potatoes, and spend meal times discussing how great they were. There was no marketing or branding; this was pure flavour. The spuds from Ballycotton were simply better – growing high on the headland behind Ballytrasna strand, the soil was kissed by the sea air, battered by the odd raging storm rolling in off the Atlantic, and nurtured by a farmer who knew what he was about. Ballycotton potatoes are still highly prized; there is simply something about where they are from that makes them superior – the sea, the soil, the sky. The Irish may not have a word for what made them special, but the French do – terroir. Coming from the wine regions, it is a way of describing how the unique environment of each vineyard produced a different flavour. But this isn’t about grapes or potatoes, but rather barley.

Irish whiskey does not legally need to be made with 100% Irish barley, and grain spirit is made from imported maize, so there was no onus on Waterford Distillery’s Mark Reynier to use Irish grain. None of the big guns use 100% Irish barley, but I would imagine that that was at least part of the appeal of the project he has undertaken. I’ve written about it before, many, many times, but I genuinely believe that his distillery is going to change how the world sees Irish whiskey. If you haven’t visited the distillery and tasted the different distillates from different farms, then you should, and only then will you understand why this is so important. Reynier may come across like a monomaniacal Ahab, endlessly pursuing the perfect single malt across the oceans, but he is deadly serious, and is in the process of making the most authentically Irish single malt in living memory. Between Waterford’s terroir obsession and Blackwater Distillery’s blockchain traceability, it would appear that the Déise are leading the charge in genuine, forensic provenance.

Culture: We have a dedicated magazine, blogs, social media accounts and a thriving whiskey culture. In 2019 this is only going to get stronger, and we are going to see more and more of the accused breed known as influencers. Across the PR and marketing spectrum, nano-influencers – or those with fewer than 10,000 followers – are becoming a key leverage point. They operate in niche fields and rather than just leading a million fawning accounts, they actively engage with their following. The idea of the influencer makes all of us want to vomit blood, but they have always existed – Jesus, Charlie Manson, Bertie Ahern, your local GAA star who won an All-Ireland and was thus hired by the bank to stand around talking about former glories; all these have influence and are, or were, influencers, just not in the modern, social media sense. A niche market like whiskey is a relatively easy place to become a nano influencer – just find a channel and use your voice. Whiskey lovers are few and far between – but the internet has made us a community.

So the fans are linked up, but what about the distilleries – could any of us accurately say where even half of them are with regards their plans, or their progress, or anything? I think that starting a distillery is such a labour intensive affair that distilleries often forget to keep the channels open to the nerds. It’s fine to have an interview in the local or national press once in a while, but this is a long game and you will be lucky to get an interview once a year. But if you connect with whiskey lovers online, through social media or blogging, and take them along for the journey, then you will have your a voluntary public relations operation ready to fight your corner. I know the distilleries that I feel most invested in, and the ones that I have the most interest in, are the ones that used social media well – it isn’t rocket science, just the odd tweet about the day to day working of a distillery, or blog post about yeast. You can retain some digital bitumen bandits to run your Insta account if you want, and nod blithely while they cook numbers and conflate clicks with engagement, but if you can do it at all, keep those direct lines of communication open to the whiskey community. After all, the smaller, independent distilleries need all the support we can give them, because here comes trouble.

El Diableo: An easy prediction for any year is that Diageo will continue to be the pantomime villain of the drinks world. Oh no they aren’t, oh yes they are, etc etc. To be fair, Diageo are fine, but I often wonder if they had been the ones in charge of Jameson/Midleton for the last four decades, how supportive would they have been of all the newcomers in the industry. About as supportive as Thanos was of 50% of the universe when he snapped his fingers in Infinity War, mayhaps. So Diageo are back – Louise McGuane wrote an excellent piece that gives great insight into what seemed like an odd move (selling Bushmills and then building a distillery in St James’s Gate), but a recent interview with Grainne Wafer, the global brand director of Roe & Co, makes you wonder about their game plan. Diageo have their sights set on the premium category, which as they rightly point out, is wide open in this country.  

“The Irish whiskey category is really dynamic, but the super premium and luxury segment of Irish whiskey globally is underdeveloped. We think there is a strong opportunity to drive growth of premium Irish whiskey. That’s where Roe & Co sits,” she told Fora.

You know, Roe & Co, the whiskey that looks like Bulleit and is discounted in Tesco yet you still don’t want it. The interview goes on:

“You’ve only got a handful of brands that are operating in that super premium space. There are some starting to build on that, but we believe we can take the lead and shape that segment,” she said.

“For example, some of Jameson’s new innovations like Caskmates and Teeling’s small batches would sit up there. Likewise, that’s where Roe & Co would play; in the upper end of that segment.”

So the 50 to 60 euro category. If that’s premium, then we are a far meaner nation than I previously believed. Of course, it was rightly pointed out by Serghios Florides, editor of Irish Whiskey Magazine, that as Diageo used to own Bushmills, a distillery that is packed with fantastic mature whiskey, for them to now act like they are going to teach us all about categories is a little rich. This sentiment was echoed Yves Cosentino, who was Global Marketing Manager with Bushmills Irish Whiskey from 2005 to 2008, in the earliest days of Diageo owning it.

Or how about this from Louise McGuane again, writing about Proper No. 12:

When I worked at Diageo in the Reserve Brands Group, Bushmills was added into our portfolio for a while. Nobody ever wanted to talk about it, focus on it, or even address it. The brand was an also ran in a company with a Huge portfolio of Rockstar Scotch Whiskey. It was an afterthought. It was under the eye of Diageo that the distillery sold off much of its stocks at the low point of the wholesale market. There was never a blockbuster ad campaign or indeed much love for Bushmills at the global office in London during my tenure.

So cheers once again to the mad titan Diageo, it’s great to have you back in the Irish whiskey category.

Diversification and innovation: The recent Bord Bia report into Irish food and drink showed some impressive stats for whiskey, but underneath those was a stark warning – we need to broaden our horizons. What we call ‘the Irish whiskey boom’ is, in reality, the ‘Jameson In America’ boom. If you subtract those stats, which relate to one drink in one market, it is a rather different picture you get. But Jameson has laid the groundwork, and hopefully it will continue to do so in emerging markets like Asia and Africa, while Diageo, Brown Forman, and whoever owns Bushmills this week will be able to do the same.

What we need to be able to do now is show the world that actually, Irish whiskey isn’t just the mellow, smooth, approachable Jameson, that we can do peat, we can do double distilled, we can do single malt, we even have our own indigenous style. We can challenge and confront misconceptions and have the confidence to try new things. Look at Irish Whitetail – contrary to what this misleading article says, they do not have a distillery, nor are they using African mahogany casks. They are using sourced, Cooley malt and finishing it with African mahogany – I’m going to assume the system they use is very similar to Tom Lix’s Cleveland Whiskey, ie, pressure + wood pellets = flavour. Lix’s approach to innovation is excellent – on the labels of his whiskey he challenges you by being completely up front about what he is doing. I admire his attitude and I enjoyed his whiskey. I’m not going to give up my respect for traditional ageing, but I definitely think there is room for pushing the boundaries in the category, both globally and domestically.

Health: I am prone to using terms like ‘neo-prohibitionism’, but even I need to face reality – booze isn’t especially good for me. I can ramble on with a load of whataboutery, drone on about how sedentary lifestyle, processed foods, or chemtrails, are just as harmful, but there is little point. Despite the fact that our alcohol consumption rates are falling all the time, booze is in the crosshairs of Big Health, and will continue to be for some time. Of course, it isn’t just about physical well-being, but social issues too.

In a bout of harrumphing, I happened to ask an ENT consultant how he felt about the health bill introduced last year. He said that we are only just starting to understand the impact that alcohol has on health, and that the cancers of the head and neck he saw were so often linked to alcohol consumption. Then I asked if MUP was just a class-based prohibition, and he said this: Don’t be afraid to look outside your own privilege. There are children whose lives are being ruined by parents who are lost in alcoholism, and cheap alcohol is central to that.

I can wring my hands all I want, but ultimately he was right. There are people who cannot help themselves. It’s like saying well, SVP buying food for families ravaged by alcoholism is simply facilitating their self destruction. Ask the SVP about this and they will tell you point blank – either they fill the cupboards with food, or the cupboards stay empty. This is not an either-or situation, where SVP bought the cereal for the kids so you can treat yourself to a slab of cans that costs half nothing. I’m not saying I want whiskey to get more expensive – it is already – but there is booze that goes for half nothing and it is ruining lives. That, whether we like it or not, is going to have to change, and it would appear that this is happening sooner rather than later. Yet however I feel about the impact on health of alcohol, cancer warnings on bottles of Irish whiskey, and not on bottles of Scotch on the shelf alongside them, is insane.

The decline of pubs: It has been a gradual decline, and it is going to continue. Drink driving laws are not to blame – if anything, our lack of regard for the dangers of drink driving allowed an unhealthy number of pubs to thrive here. We are drinking less, drinking at home more and – crucially – drinking better. I see little wrong with this picture. There will always be room for a great pub, but even in my hometown there are far too many.

One final prediction for 2019 is that I will continue to write too much. This post is 3,000 words, thank you for your patience. I wrote my first published piece about whiskey almost six years ago, and I would love to tell you that my passion for writing on the subject has abated, but it obviously hasn’t. Your passion for this blog post probably abated about two thousand words back, but thanks for hanging in there. Maybe I should make 2019 the year I learn to self edit. We shall see.

The Gatekeeper

The Irish have always been good at booze. Whether making it, selling it, or simply consuming it, we have a national identity that is forever linked to – and somewhat soaked in – alcohol. We may wring our hands over the complexities of our relationship with the demon drink, but we sometimes forget the power of being a nation where craic addiction is seen as a good thing. Brand Ireland is as much about a nice drink, a singsong and good company as it is about poetry, prose, saints and scholars – and our skills with alcohol travel with us. Take Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond.

Born in Philadelphia to Irish immigrant parents from Kilrush in County Clare, he served in the army before deciding military life was not for him. He moved to New York and built an empire by bootlegging liquor during Prohibition. Known as ‘the clay pigeon of the underworld’, he survived many assassination attempts and became a socialite and media darling, a loveable Irish American rogue.

Speaking to Louise McGuane, it’s hard not to hear the ghost of Legs Diamond in her voice. Her accent is a bizarre mix of her native Clare and the flat New York Irish of Brooklyn. Like Diamond, she briefly considered a career in the military, even serving a couple of years in the FCA: “My brother was in the Army, he was a cadet and then a captain in the artillery division, so he would have gone off to the Curragh. I loved the whole idea of the Army, the camaraderie and sense of adventure,” she says.

But instead of heading east to fire shots across the Curragh in the rigid world of the armed forces, she opted to head west to America and fire shots across bars in the slightly more fluid world of high-end alcohol sales.

“Well it was the Eighties and Nineties in rural ireland, this was pre-Celtic Tiger – everybody left, it was a cultural thing. I had two aunts that had gone – there was a lot of emigration to the US in my family, I had cousins over there, so when I emigrated there was a cousin waiting to pick me up when I got off the boat, so to speak, and there was a culture of emigration out west anyway. It was just what you did.

“I just sort of fell into the drinks industry. I did philosophy and literature in college – I’m a big believer that whatever your degree is, unless it is something really technical, it is fairly irrelevant to whatever you go on to. And in America they simply don’t care what your degree is in – they just want to know that you can do the job, you’re not really judged on getting a 2.2 or 2.1 or any of that, or at least back then they weren’t. Kids have it tougher now in relation to that in terms of the competition for jobs.”

America, the land of opportunities for thousands of Irish emigrants in the Eighties, was a very different bureaucratic beast to the old country. When she started to work in the drinks industry in the States, McGuane soon realised that the world in which Legs Diamond and others operated – the dry America of the Volstead Act –  still cast its long shadow.

“I was with Moet Hennessy first, doing on the ground sales and marketing work, which is really valuable because the US market is a really tough one to get your head around. Ever since Prohibition all of the individual states set their own liquor laws – so it’s almost like 50 different countries that you have to know individually, and then at county level those laws can change again, as you can have dry counties. You also have state boards that run the liquor so your point of contact for that state in terms of sales would be two guys who work for the state office.”

While the American market is the one she came to know best, she also spent time in Asia, working in the drinks business in Singapore. After spending two decades learning the complexities of the liquor business with luxury brands such as Hennessy and (Tony Soprano’s favourite) Stoli, McGuane had a tough choice to make: Love or career.

“When I was with multinationals I was on the global trek, and you have to move every two or three years, which was great until I got married and then it just wasn’t possible as I didn’t have a trailing spouse, he has a luxury PR business in London so he has to stay there.”

So she quit. But she didn’t stand still for long – and it was a relic from Legs Diamond’s ancestral home that started her on her next adventure.

“It was this one guy, this JJ Corry guy, a Cooraclare native who became a whiskey bonder in Kilrush. I found his label on eBay and I called up the guy with the label and said what do you know about this. I found out all I could about Corry, then I met his great-grand-nephew, and made all these enquiries around his neighbours and the local historical society, and just decided ‘ok, I am going to do this’.

“The initial idea was ‘we’re going to set up a craft distillery, we’re going to set it up on the family farm, it’s going to be great, let’s buy stills’. That was the first idea – but then I thought ‘no we are not doing that’.”

So a distillery was not going to happen – but then McGuane had the crazy notion of resurrecting a long-dead trade. A century ago, the Irish whiskey bonder was a common sight. Grocers and publicans would buy their spirit straight from distillers (who at the time were mere wholesalers themselves) and then age it in their own premises to sell on as they saw fit. Over the decades as the industry contracted and consolidated, distilleries started selling direct to the public, and one by one the bonders disappeared. There are still relics of that time, famously the Yellow Spot and Green Spot whiskeys, but they are as close to bonded whiskeys as birds are to dinosaurs.

So McGuane set to work. After using her extensive knowledge to put together a copper-fastened business plan, she turned to crowd-funding fountainhead Kickstarter to raise equity. She offered a variety of buy-ins, from small gifts aimed squarely at the Irish American market – a packet of shamrock from the Emerald Isle – to week-long stays in her County Clare home (a half-mile from the house Legs Diamond’s ancestors hailed from)  which has a backstory all of its own.

“So my grandmother was born in that property. My great aunt died in estate, so my dad had to borrow money from my aunt in Alabama to buy it back – and he did, back in the Eighties. So it’s all part of the family farm, which is dairy and peat. My uncle used to grow barley, so it is barley country – and growing it in the future is something I’m not ruling out, that whole grain-to-glass.”

Louise McGuane in her renovated farmhouse called The Safe House near the village of Cooraclare in County Clare.

But the property was completely transformed under McGuane’s guidance, from a traditional farm cottage to an architecturally designed beauty, all glass walls, brushed concrete and stylish Scandinavian aesthetics. It has become part of the brand for Chapel Gate, as her business is now known, being the HQ for investor meetings and venue for business events.

“With the Kickstarter I sold eighteen stays in my house – I raised 18,000 that way! It’s a beautiful house and it ended up being a really good asset for the business. It’s right next to the rackhouse, on the same plot, and I’ve have a few potential customers come over, a few potential importers too, and it then becomes a really good spot to show people the modern face of the brand and show them how we operate from a design perspective.”

The only possibly downside is that, should it all go south, all her investors now knows where she lives – although McGuane is quick to point out that hers is a pretty solid investment.

“A distillery was the first idea – but then I thought, no, we are not doing that. Maybe in the future-future-future, but who knows. The bonding piece, that is awesome, that’s far more low risk from a business perspective. The assets that I’m acquiring are appreciable assets – so if everything goes horrifically wrong I sell off all of my assets, and everybody gets their money back. The whole buying-a-still, commissioning-a-still – I don’t have that headache, whatever headaches I’ve had are nothing next to the headaches the guys setting up all over the country have.”

But one of the minor headaches she did have was trying to ensure that her investors were the best kind – connected ones.

“The kind of investors you get in this business – you don’t get institutional investors because your break even is about seven years if you’re lucky, and then your payback is if you suddenly sell out to somebody, because there will be a time where nobody is buying Irish whiskey distilleries anymore and what’s gone is gone. And then you have lifestyle investors – maybe ten guys who like the idea of saying ‘I have a distillery in Ireland’ and they come over and they taste whiskey and they have good connections like hotel chains, so you have to figure out who you want to invest, get the right investors for your business and your model.  Then when you become a going concern, then you’re into institutional investment, but in the early days you gotta pick your investors really carefully.

“All the investors care about is what’s the downside, if this goes under do I get my money back, and with the bonding model you get your money back, but with the distillery model you won’t because there is all this debt owed on the cap-ex basically. You have to prove to people that the downside is all but zero and then you’re alright.”

Chapel Gate is now officially more than ‘alright’, as McGuane, since mid-December, is Ireland’s first licensed whiskey bonder in half a century. But with resurrecting a lost trade comes the need to resurrect a lost section of State tax law, and with that comes hassle.

When I ask if she has any advice on setting up an Irish whiskey company, she has this tip: “Don’t set up an Irish whiskey company. Definitely don’t do it on your own. It is a terrible idea. Because we are in the resurgence of the industry, there is no living memory, no institutional memory in government bodies.

“So normally the guys at Pernod, they had their revenue officer, they had their HSE guy, they had whoever else they had been dealing with for the last 50 years down in Midleton, and nobody in any of those departments had to even consider these issues. And now suddenly I have my revenue guy in Limerick – who, by the way, is brilliant, shoutout, love him – his name is David Browne and honestly he is fantastic. As a public servant the man deserves a bonus – he is brilliant. The process was new for him, it was new for me, I approached revenue in complete fear, panicking as to what was going to happen, and we worked it all out together, and he was incredibly supportive.”

Supportive he may have been, but her struggle to get the business off the ground was not without it’s difficulties, as catalogued on her blog. McGuane’s knowledge of the industry means she has confidence in speaking out against bureaucracy and what she sees as unfair control of the market by big firms – including her former employers, Pernod, owners of Irish Distillers Limited, the custodians of Irish whiskey.

Her trials and tribulations with her own project were all laid out on her blog, moving from frustration, to anger, to joy – the full rollercoaster of emotions that come with bringing a project like this to life. But while it played out like a sweeping epic, her journey from genesis to licensed whiskey bonder has been rather a short one.

“One year from Kickstarter to bonding; it feels like it has been about a decade. But the blog and social media aren’t just about keeping people involved in the project – it’s also an outlet. I use it a lot to vent, because I am usually just sitting in an office on my own all day, it’s me and Ruby the dog, and that is very difficult, because it feels like forever, and there is no one there to bounce ideas off. So social media is a way to share the experience with people, so people have to hear the sort of nonsense you have to go through. I use it sometimes to make a point as I know the Revenue reads it and I know the local planners read it, so every once in a while I will use it to deliver a barbed question at them on whether or not they want to create jobs.”

In a business like hers, however, the number of jobs is fairly low – although she did advertise for a warehouse cat (one that, presumably, must love dogs).

Because she resurrected a dead trade, she also needed to hire someone versed in an almost dead craft; coopering. Currently there are only a handful of qualified coopers working in Ireland, so she set about finding one with a bit of time on his hands.

“Our cooper Eugene Quinlan is from Midleton, and he worked with IDL up until the 1990s when they got rid of them all. He does that trip now from Midleton to west Clare every couple of weeks, and it is a trek. He comes up every couple of weeks, so if we bring in any casks he can check them over, he comes up and repairs leakages, and also just to keep an eye on the wood, check the casks over, make sure everything is as it should be.

“There are four coopers in Ireland. There’s Ger (Buckley, in Midleton) who has an apprentice now, there’s somebody at Bushmills and an apprentice there too, there’s a guy at Nephin, John Neilly, who is actually Scottish originally.”

The lack of whiskey experience in the job market here – and the abundance of it in Scotland – is another stumbling block to setting up a whiskey business in Ireland.

“Finding staff is a real issue here as almost anyone working within the industry in Ireland right now is working for a massive multinational, so they probably have a pretty sweet package going on and a nice pension – you are not going to poach those older guys away, the really experienced guys, as there is no culture of moving around from distillery to distillery like there is in Scotland. So everybody is looking to America, they are looking to Scotland, they’re looking all over basically. But that is just one of the growing pains of an emerging industry and we are just going to have to go through that for a while.

“You have to go outside the country to look for someone – but I struggle with parts of this. If you’re going to bring in a Scotch whisky expert, their palate is going to be very much in that sphere, technically.

“But there are guns for hire, liquid consultants in Ireland, Scotland and America, and Sweden – mostly women actually – and I work with some of those. Their palates are very wide, so you give them a brief on Irish whiskey and they will get into that headspace. So you have to carefully pick who you work with. I am actually now using a Scottish liquid consultant and he is doing a great job.

“But there is change here; the Carlow Institute of Technology has their recently launched brewing and distilling programme, and IDL have a particularly good internal programme where they are going to start to share their knowledge with newcomers to the industry within the Irish Whiskey Association.”

The Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) is the body which oversees the category in Ireland – but like everything else here, it is a newborn entity that is going to a mix of very large, powerful firms (Pernod, Brown-Forman, Diageo) and almost micro operations like McGuane’s. So in order to balance this out, the smaller firms are banding together.

“I work very hard to make it happen – on Friday we are having a meeting in Limerick of about eight of us. It’s very informal, just a lunch… but the industry is so new, that all of us have just had our heads down just trying to get through licensing and all that…But I have high hopes that the smaller firms will start to come together. We all have common issues, for example the craft drinks bill affects all of us; the wholesale market affects all of us, the excise and duty – we need relief for that for smaller producers, we have to have that.”

The craft drinks bill is an issue for Irish alcohol producers as a whole so the IWA will be pushing have the law changed so that distillers and brewers and bonder  (singular; currently McGuane is the only one) are able to sell direct to the public from their premises without having to fork out 80 grand to buy a pub licence.

“The craft drinks bill is really imperative – I’m just joining the IWA formally, and I went along when they were launching their tourism initiative, which is great. But my concern is this: With programmes like the mentorship, none of those firms are going to be paying 80 grand to get a license to sell direct to customers from their distillery, because the pay-off on an investment like that happens over years and years, depending on where you are and on how you are doing it. Maybe you would get the payback in a year, in areas where there is a lot of tourism, but in rural areas where tourism is seasonal? The crafts drinks bill is, in my opinion, tantamount to the success of those firms and the IWA tourism strategy itself. It wasn’t integrated into the IWA strategy because it came out of nowhere the week leading up to the launch, but Alan Kelly TD (proposer of the bill) was there and he spoke about the bill, and it is really important to the success of us smaller guys.

“And the smaller guys is often where the really interesting stuff happens. It’s nice to visit big massive distilleries, but you’ve been to a million of them, I’ve been to a million of them, it’s the same-old same-old. It’s going to the smaller craft guys that has real value – both for the tourism and for the industry, those rural regions that need it.

“Scotland has the market cornered in whisky destination tourism – but here in Ireland we have the Wild Atlantic Way and a whiskey trail that could piggyback on the success of that, but it will take a lot of close work with Bord Fáilte and with the IWA, to make it happen. It needs definitive timelines and it needs that craft drinks bill to make it happen for the smaller guys.”

Another issue she would like to see the IWA tackle is some of the shenanigans in the independent bottling scene, which is awash with non-existent distilleries, false provenance, and the products of three distilleries being sold by third parties under multiple identities.

“The lack of transparency in the Irish whiskey industry is bullshit, and it needs to be addressed. Even Compass Box had real issues with this in Scotland,” she adds, referring to the brand who fought for the right to tell consumers what was in every bottle on the label. The SWA won that battle, but the new sheriff in town here, the IWA, has a far larger mess to untangle.

“The SWA and the IWA are very different bodies, the SWA is very mature and well-established, while the IWA’s core focus for 2017 is clamping down on labelling, but at the moment they are just on category level – so you can’t call yourself Irish whiskey if you finished your whiskey in Scotland, like (the recently withdrawn) Craoi Na Mona.

“I think there needs to be more transparency – and this is one of the reasons I am so open on social media about what I am doing; there is no bullshit in what I’m doing, I’m really open about where I get my stuff from, what I’m doing with it, although I actually can’t put on my label that it’s from Cooley or GND. I can’t boast about where it’s from as I’m not allowed to, but I will be 100% transparent to anyone at any time if I can.

“I don’t think it’s right that everyone is getting stuff from Cooley and everyone is just banging a label on it and making stuff up and creating false provenance. I appreciate that we are in a weird time, that we are all trying to build brands, but I don’t think anyone is buying it anymore – or at least, anybody in the know isn’t buying it.”

She also practices what she preaches, being incredibly transparent on every aspect of her operation:

Barrels: “I’m not going to tell you exactly where I get my casks from; but I spent about a year looking to get casks as there is a global cask shortage because there is such demand at the moment particularly in the US. But there are key cooperages you go to for ex-bourbon casks, mostly in Louisville Kentucky, there’s a bunch of coopers in Minnesota as well, so the barrels are located in those kind of hubs. I was going to all the big guys and they were all telling me it was an 18-month wait, a two-year wait, just for ex bourbon, so I found  a guy in Louisville in the end who only supplies to small craft guys, who gets casks directly off the lines basically, and he has cousins who work at the various distilleries, he is very small scale, has his own little cooperage and if I say ‘go to Jack Daniels and get me so many ex-single casks’ he can do that on a tiny scale. So he is my go to guy for ex bourbon and the scale is perfect for me.

“Then there’s a number of middle-men who sell on ex-port, and ex-Bordeaux, and ex-sherry casks as well. There’s a big company called Shen, based out of France, who bring in new American oak and things like that. So I get bits and pieces from those guys, but mostly I am starting to go direct to distilleries and direct to other wineries in particular. I do this as I am so small scale that I can, and it’s more economical as barrels are very expensive, particularly if you have a middle man, and the places I am going I can hand pick them, if I like the whiskey I can get one of their used casks.”

Spirit: “At the moment I am working with grain and malt, I’m working with John Teeling’s Great Northern Distillery, and they are moving to pot still now as well. The stills they have are fairly steampunk, they are converted kettles basically, so they were ironing out a few kinks, but they are really there now. Alan Anderson is the master distiller there and he is super flexible. Because it is early days for them they are very willing to work with you – if you want to mess about with mash bills and mess about with distillation times, they will do it. Or you can just push the button for you and spit out the usual stuff. But we are now starting to get into the phase where we are getting batches, so my first batch we fiddled about with the mashbill, and batch two was in January, and we started to make that more bespoke, tweaking it here and there.

“I went for grain and malt 50/50 because I think grain is starting to move up the ranks, the Teelings are doing really interesting things with grain, and finishing grain is something that is being played around with massively. But all of that is something that you just have to wait and see with, as you don’t really know what is going to happen in the cask, I can’t really plan until it is ready. But all those variables are one of the nice things about it – you don’t just turn on a pipe and get whiskey. There are many variables.”

Ageing: “We are racking, not palletising, so our capacity is about 550. A good start, and we have 110 in at the moment, with batch two going in May, and another batch by the end of the year so I reckon we will be at full capacity within two years. At the moment I am 100% focused on what I have just done, get a quality source of whiskey, get the right people around me, I have a great cooper and I have some liquid consultants and a really good source of casks from the US, rackhouse sorted, licensing done, boom boom boom, and the next piece is forward planning. So I’ve put together a wood programme where I am chopping down trees to send wood to Spain or Portugal for drying out so that in two years I can put whiskey in my own casks. So in 2017 I’ve had to start planning for three to five years ahead. The same thing goes with supply so I have X amount and while I have a contract for this year and next years I have to think about a decade from now – how much more whiskey do I need to cask for in ten years time? The same goes for rackhouses – I’ve built one now, so do I build another one, do I build a bigger one, where is the next one going, when is it going, I have to apply for planning and so on. So I need to make a firm plan for the next decade. We are playing the long game here.”

On bringing out a sourced blend: “What we are working on at the moment is this: I have my new-fill in cask, and I just have to wait obviously, and see what happens, and then in the interim I have a source of mature malt and a little bit of mature grain as well, so we are working on a very small launch portfolio. So we are going to come out with two …. I’m not even 100% sure yet, a single malt, but that might change, but we want to done very transparently, I mean we all know where the stock comes from….There is actually a smattering of different stocks that I have purchased, with a bit of Bushmills kinda thrown in randomly, and every cask has a really interesting backstory, some casks I’m really trying to dig into a try to figure out how they’re going to end up there. But we are coming out with a very small portfolio so we want to build a brand, get into the US, be very transparent about it. I don’t have enough stock to keep me going very long. I will barely make it to three years and I don’t know if we will be releasing anything in three years, probably not. Really you want to go to eight years, but will I get to eight years? Not now. Definitely not where I am right now.

“The wholesale market for a producer, for someone like me, supply is a massive issue. There is no supply. There’s not mature whiskey out there. Whatever you can get your hands on, you get your hands on it right away, before the price might do up. For me it just made sense to get my hands on what I could and then be transparent about that, and start to use that to start breaking my way into my core markets. I want to have a product that starts to express the style of whiskey that we want to make moving forward as best we can and then when we are ready with our own 100% bonded whiskey that we have aged ourselves and finished ourselves that we can lay more claim to I will have a market ready for that.”

On releasing a gin or vodka: “No, and here’s why. I was at Fortnum & Mason, so I went to the liquor department simply because I wanted to see what was going on. It’s one of those stores that you want to be in, you want your brand in there, no matter how much you might sell you just want to be on the shelf because it is just a great store to be in. And there was shelves and shelves of stock, Mortlach was there obviously behind bulletproof glass, and then there was a craft whiskey section, and there was a small shelf with irish whiskey on it with about eight brands, and then there was a gin section and it was the length of this hotel foyer, a 25 metre long, five foot high gin extravaganza. I love gin, I know gin, I know the category well, I worked with Tanqueray for a number of years, but I just don’t have the capacity to launch a super premium gin product into a very crowded super premium gin category and work it. It needs more PR and marketing, and more people to do those things. So my shtick is – make one thing and make it really well, so I am focussed on whiskey.”

So she is in for the long haul – but is the boom in the category? Can Irish whiskey sustain this incredible momentum?

“Eventually it will plateau but it will keep flying now for quite a while. Look at Asia. I spent a lot of time there, and if you go anywhere in Asia and ask for an Irish whiskey, you will be pointed to Ballantines or something as there is zero category knowledge or impact. Nobody has won there; Pernod has a tough time in Asia generally, but they haven’t launched the category there successfully, so that market is still completely closed, but it is going to open, they are going to start making inroads there. There is interest there now  – there are Irish Whiskey Societies setting up in Hong Kong and Macau.”

A key trend she has identified is premiumisation – where a whisky is given a massive price tag due to a combination of age and a marketing department focussed on the super-premium category. It’s also humorously known as ‘Mortlachisation’ after Diageo ramped up the price of the previously accessibly Mortlach.

“I think there is a massive opportunity in ultra premium, which not everybody is going to want to hear, but it is there. The reason you’re going to see it coming out of Ireland is that we have genuine rarity. In terms of older, more mature whiskey in Ireland, you can’t get it. There is no open market, there won’t be an open market for 20-year-old whiskey until 20 years from now, so rarity in Ireland is even more exclusive than rarity in Scotland, where there are warehouses and warehouses of bulk whisky – there are three or four warehouses of that sort of aged stock in Ireland and most of it is accounted for. Ultra premium will definitely happen, based on rarity and based on design.”

Her predictions have already come true, with Irish Distillers recently taking the bold step of releasing a 31-year-old single grain for 1,500 a bottle. However, this doesn’t mean that the average consumer will have to pay more for their standard issue drams.

“It won’t hit consumers as it’s a category in itself. At that level it isn’t even seen as Irish whiskey – it is simply a luxury item. When it’s a 20,000 bottle of whiskey it supersedes the category of whiskey and becomes a luxury item – and that’s all it is at that juncture. But there is a market for that. Scotland, and all the big guys – Diageo in particular – have been playing that game very very well for a long time. You’re starting to see it trickle through here too in duty free, the Teelings have some really interesting releases recently, they started to be a bit more design led, we have something in the pipeline as well coming down the line. It’s an inevitability and I know people don’t like it, but it is more like a luxury product.

“There’s a halo effect – and Scotland does that very well, like Johnny Walker portfolio has whiskies that you can buy for 55,000 pounds, it’s not about how many you sell at that level, and I’m not predicting a 55k Irish whiskey any time soon, but it does become a PR event. But everyone does still want their blended Irish whiskey or their ten-year-old or their 15-year-old – so it doesn’t have to have a knock-on for the average consumer.”

So the boom is getting boomier. And thus it was for Legs Diamond back in the 1920s, and after making his fortune in liquor during Prohibition, he forged out on his own. However, once out of the protection of the syndicates, he was vulnerable, and ultimately someone caught up with the clay pigeon of the underworld, and he paid a supreme penalty. While it seems unlikely that a beret-clad French assassin is coming for McGuane (good luck to them finding Cooraclare), I ask her if it is worth it – forging out on your own, leaving the safety of a giant multinational, to pursue your own dreams, to put it all on the line just to be your own boss.

“By a factor of about 15,000, yeah. Those big multinationals are fantastic in that you learn, you work hard, you are exposed to a multitude of cultures, you get to know markets very intimately, and you get very specific market knowledge. So I could tell you the names of the top five bars in New York or Miami, or Seattle; I know my market down to that level because multinationals expect you to know that from the sales guys on the ground selling a case a week all the way up to category trends and market strategy – all that breadth of knowledge. Some of that information becomes useless when you come out on your own, but it is the confidence it gives you – I can walk into a room full of investors and know my category and my market better than anyone.

“I miss the perks though – the wildly extravagant expense accounts, the business class flying, and all the gold cards I used to have on all the airlines. Now it’s Ryanair, all the time, basically.”

With a growing stockpile of spirit, as well as plans ahead to release a sourced blend, and even a brand celebrating the legend of Legs Diamond, she may be due a seat upgrade to business class sooner than she thinks.

Footnote: There was a great profile of Louise in the Indo which you can read here, and it contains a lot of material I didn’t touch on. Louise’s blog is located here and is really worth a read for anyone interested in whiskey, start-ups or Kafkaesque labyrinths of bureaucracy.  

There are two categories in Irish whiskey start-ups – the schemers and the dreamers. The schemers are the ones bottling anything they can get their hands on and pretending the are so much more than they are. The dreamers are the ones who actually went and created something more than just a label – people like Mark Reynier, Peter Mulryan and Louise McGuane. I was lucky enough to interview all three, and while they all have different routes to Irish whiskey, all are striving for the betterment of the category as a whole, and they deserve every support.