In 1875, a Cork antiquarian named Philip T. Gardiner donated a cross to the British Museum. The item, found in a bog near Ballycotton in east Cork, was an oddity – a jewelled Celtic cross with a black glass jewel which bore an Arabic inscription which may be interpreted as ‘As God Wills’, ‘In the name of Allah’ or ‘We have repented to God’. The question was – how did a Christian cross come to have an Islamic inscription at its centre? But Ballycotton is precisely the kind of place you would find evidence of the collision of worlds – Arab and Christian, sea and land, old and new.
The village itself is a resettlement of an earlier medieval settlement that was lost to coastal erosion, one which features on maritime maps from the 14th and 16th centuries. The bay has long been deemed a safe harbour, and the village has had a long history of battles with the sea – the RNLI vessel the Mary Stanford sits proudly atop the cliff walk, having saved the lives of 122 sailors over her time at sea, most famously during the Daunt Rock lightship rescue in 1936. The village got its name in the papers for another disaster in 1995, when Hollywood legends Marlon Brando, John Hurt, Johnny Depp and Debra Winger were there to shoot Divine Rapture, a film production which collapsed two weeks into filming when it transpired the production firm behind the film had no money. The villagers a sense of humour about the experience, calling the film Divine Rupture, while Pier 26, a gastropub that sits just above the harbour, has a framed letter and cheque from the film’s producers, apologising for the whole mess. The operators of Pier 26 may well have a sense of humour about life – when work started on a dramatic building overlooking their premises, they were convinced that it was an ultra-modern hotel that would put them out of business. In fact, it was to be the home of a local-boy-done-good who would go on to lead a one-man crusade to reinvent the village he grew up in.
Pearse Flynn fished for lobsters as a boy, rising at 5am and baiting traps before heading out on the trawlers. Later he went to Midleton CBS, then on to UCC where he studied applied physics. He went on to work for tech firms like Wang and Compaq, moved to Scotland and specialised in transforming the way companies did their business, like a more benevolent, approachable Steve Jobs, and currently heads up Creditfix.
Unsurprisingly for someone who grew up at the point where a road tapers off into a pier and then into the sea, Flynn was drawn to rural outposts – his call-centre firm Connect4U set up operations in Dingle and Donegal. Flynn was also an early proponent of Last Mile Distribution System, a late Nineties concept that would see wireless broadband for television – because when you grow up in a rural community, you understand that connectivity is key to survival.
The disintegration of the partnership bidding for the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan came as a blow to those of us in rural areas. When you move to the country, you expect changes to your infrastructure – you spend more time in your car, your car spends more time in potholes, and you are suddenly looking after your own water and sewerage. But the one thing you don’t expect is how poor the broadband is going to be (if you are able to get it at all). We tried one satellite provider who promised great speeds and actually delivered lower than 1mbps. We then moved to fixed line broadband, which gave us top speeds of less than 3mbps. We had only moved three kilometres from the town, but our internet speeds had moved back in time to 1999. We could deal with the potholes, the pumps and the poop if only we could watch Netflix without it going into soft focus every few minutes, or if my son’s video games didn’t take a week to download, or if the broadband didn’t just randomly cut out every few hours, meaning that we are constantly hopping from hotspot to hotspot and network to network. We try to make it work, but it is incredibly frustrating, especially for my children who remember what having decent, reliable broadband was like before I dragged them kicking and screaming into the hills.
High-speed internet may not be seen as vital infrastructure, like clean water or electricity, but it is now central to work and home life for the majority of Irish people. Consider Pearse Flynn and how having a local success story like him has impacted the village of Ballycotton – he bought and renovated the Inn By The Harbour and Pier 26, and is linked with a proposed redevelopment of the old Protestant church on the way into the village. He believes in this quaint little village and wants it to thrive. Outliers like him may only come along once in a generation, but we certainly aren’t going to improve that frequency by denying a generation of Irish people access to decent broadband and all the professional and personal opportunities that it offers, and bridging the last great gulf in the urban-rural divide (apart from the crater-like potholes).
Given his status as one of the great Hollywood directors, John Huston wasn’t great at giving direction. When he got a perfectly cast actor like Bogart, Huston was a master. With other actors he was less so, as Gregory Peck discovered during the filming of Moby Dick.
A method actor, Peck made his own notes on the script about Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of the white whale, but even an actor of his standing would sometimes require a little inspiration. The most Huston could muster was lines like ‘Make it bigger, kid’ or the mercurial ‘More brimstone’.
The film was not a great success – financially or otherwise. For a start, Peck looked too much like a peg-legged Abraham Lincoln, his performance was too rigid, and Ray Bradbury’s script just couldn’t contain the vast sprawl of Herman Melville’s masterpiece. The signs were there from early on – principal shooting in the east Cork port of Youghal ran into difficulties when the ship was only able to sit at dock for high tide, roughly one hour each day.
Youghal was chosen for its old world feel, as the town featured in the novel, New Bedford, has simply changed too much. However, Youghal’s shopfronts were made from stone, while those of New Bedford were clapboard, so the shops had to covered in wood, adding to the already high costs. After four weeks of shooting, the filming moved on to Fishguard, where their problems deepened; a prop whale that became untethered from the ship and floated into the fog with Gregory Peck hanging on for dear life, thinking he was about die strapped to a rubber whale in the middle of the Irish Sea. The struggles in making the film, and its relative economic failure upon release, echo the problems faced by the little port town they left behind.
In the 1950s and Sixties, Youghal was where Cork people went for their holidays. You got the train down, and went for a dip in one of the three beaches, ate fish and chips and went to a dance in Redbarn. Youghal was our Brighton, with beachfront amusements, donkey rides and ice cream. But times change. The rail line shut, the tourists started holidaying abroad, the town’s factories closed, and the malaise set in. Youghal became the little town that could, but somehow never did. While towns in west Cork such as Clonakilty have thrived, building a booming tourism trade, Youghal has long since lost its title as the premiere destination in Costa Del Cork. Walking along its meandering main street, it is hard to understand why. It may be seen as the seaside town they forgot to close down, but its faded seaside glamour is still there, waiting for someone to come and blow the dust off it. The place is full of tourism potential.
Youghal’s problem is that people need to believe in it. In recent years the town has become a byword for economic decline. While industry may have struggled there, it is the town’s tourism offering that is its strongest hand. Apart from his historic clock tower on the main street, it is also home to Myrtle Grove, the 16th century abode of former mayor Walter Raleigh, along with Cromwell’s Arch, Tynte’s Castle, and St Mary’s Collegiate Church, home to a 17th century memorial to Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, which is in itself worth a trip to the town, as it includes a statue of the earl, lounging on his side, smiling aimlessly at nothing, as though he is just staring up at the clouds, quite content to be long dead.
Youghal is also a walled town, and last week it was awarded 150,000 in Government grants to help maintain them; while those walls were built to once keep people out, now Youghal is praying they will bring them in.
Of course, my plea for Youghal to be saved comes from a deeply selfish place. Every small town in Ireland needs its local rival; just as Ahab had his whale, every hamlet needs another, almost identical hamlet just over the road to be their mortal enemy. Youghal is the nearest town to my home of Midleton, but the sport in bickering with them has just lost its lustre. It’s depressing trying to engage Youghal folk in gentle ribbing, as I just end up shouting ‘dormitory town’ at them until they start crying. You can’t kick a town when its down, not even one that has a beauty contest that features a crab catching competition. Potshots at co-workers from Youghal are less like the playful batting of a pinata and more like using a stick to poke at something you found washed up on a beach; there’s just no sport in the rivalry anymore.
But there is hope – the old railway line is being transformed into a greenway, one which will hopefully bring the tourists back to the town that the Celtic Tiger forgot. Finally, this could be their rebirth: As Huston said to Peck during one of his rare moments of direction, “Kid, if you ever deliver the goods, this has got to be the time”.
I wrote a few bits for the Examiner to go in a seasonal supplement on Midleton, naturally I started with the distillery, then a well-curated email interview with Ignacio, above, GM of the heritage centre, and a couple of other bits, including one on Iceland. You pay me and I will write about anything guys, anything.
There used to be two distilleries in Midleton. Everyone knows about the Jameson one on the east side of town; but at the other end of the main street, alongside the Owenacurra River, close to the Mill Road site of Erin Foods, there was once another sizeable whiskey making operation. The Hackett brothers opened on this site in the early 1800s and at their height they produced 200,000 gallons of whiskey and employed 60 people. They had an eye on the future, with an interest in distilling from sugar beet. A series of unfortunate business moves and economic factors outside their control saw them lose it all, and no trace of the distillery remains. The story of the Hacketts serves as a fitting counterpoint to the fortunes of the Murphy brothers who started Midleton Distillery. They ran a tight ship, one that made it through two centuries of choppy waters, and made Midleton the stronghold of Irish whiskey, given that at one stage the only other distillery was Bushmills in Northern Ireland.
The success of Midleton distillery is down the Murphy brothers’ choices – at the same time the Hacketts were experimenting with sugar beet, the Murphy brothers were keeping a steady eye on the horizon. They chose wisely from day one – even in their choice of location: They had the infrastructure in the form of an old mill and river alongside, giving them enough power their enormous mill wheel, and provide them with enough water to create 400,000 gallons of whiskey annually. When the Hacketts employed 60 staff, the Murphys had three times that number.
There is no trace of Hackett distillery in Midleton anymore. However, the Murphy distillery has kept the spirit alive for two hundred years, surviving the lean times from the early 1900s through periods of contraction in the industry and even a spell when the distillery was only operational a couple of days a week, such was the low level of demand for Irish whiskey. Of course, the last ten years has seen a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit category in the world, thanks largely to Midleton and its owners, Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard.
Huge investment has seen the modern distillery become one of the most modern and efficient in the world, while the heritage side of it has gone from strength to strength, expanding their tourism offerings with the Irish Whiskey Academy, which offers bespoke two-day courses for the true whiskey nerd, and the micro-distillery, which not only brought distilling back to the site of the old distillery for the first time in four decades, but has also become a space for experimentation with different grains.
Jean-Christophe Coutures, Chairman and CEO said: “Here at home we’re proud to see our Irish whiskey sales growing. We also welcomed the launch of the Irish Whiskey Association’s Irish Whiskey Tourism Strategy in late 2016 which aims to increase Irish Whiskey Tourism from 653,277 visitors per annum up to 1.9 million visitors by 2025. We were delighted with the results of our €11 million redevelopment of the Jameson Distillery Bow St., which has welcomed more than 180,000 visitors despite being closed for six months. When combined with the Jameson Experience Midleton, we welcomed over 310,000 visitors to our brand homes to experience the best of Irish whiskey this year.”
IDL experienced another successful financial year in 2016/2017 with the acceleration of the global development of Jameson and its premium Single Pot Still Irish whiskey range, which includes the Spot whiskeys, as well as Redbreast. Innovation in its portfolio has been key to the sustained growth: Recent product launches include Jameson Caskmates, which experienced 110% volume growth in 2016/17.
A sign of the growing confidence in the category is the launch of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle Club, which invites whiskey enthusiasts and collectors to obtain their own cask of Midleton Very Rare Irish whiskey from a variety of exceptional casks hand selected by Master Distiller, Brian Nation for their quality and rarity. Once members have chosen a cask that suits their personal taste, they can bottle it immediately or instead request bottles of their unique whiskey as and when required. The programme boasts an array of different whiskey styles and ages – from 12 to 30 years old – that have been matured in a range of cask types including Bourbon, Sherry, Malaga, Port, Irish Oak and Rum. By becoming a member of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle, guests will have access to the Distillery Concierge, a unique service that will assist members in every detail of their personal experience. From choosing their whiskey to planning an extended itinerary, allowing guests to discover the best that Ireland has to offer, from world class golfing at illustrious courses to exploring some of the most picturesque scenery in the world. Clearly, this is one offer aimed at the high rollers – the first member of the cask circle was Hollywood heavyweight Dana Brunetti, with a large number of recent members coming from Asia.
To top off a stellar year Midleton’s Redbreast 21-year-old and Midleton Dair Ghaelach were both in the top three of whisky legend Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2017. Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2018 is the 15th edition of the publication and contains taste notes for over 4,600 drams. With over 1,200 new whiskies tasted for the latest edition of the international guide, the supreme Col. Taylor faced stiff competition from European rivals to claim the top award. In third place behind Redbreast 21 and Col. Taylor was Glen Grant Aged 18 Years Rare Edition, which drops from its second-place finish in 2016. Commenting on the accolade, Billy Leighton, Master Blender at Irish Distillers said: “This nod from Jim Murray is truly heartwarming for me and everyone at Midleton Distillery who has helped to make Redbreast such an enjoyed whiskey. We are humbled by this and it’s really encouraging to see traditional Irish pot still whiskey take one of the top spots in the world of whiskeys and whiskies. When we were preparing for the launch of Redbreast 21 in 2013 and we were doing our tastings, we knew we had something special on our hands so it is great to see this appreciation shared by people across the world. This award is a testament to the team at Midleton and especially to my predecessors who had the foresight to squirrel away those casks that helped us to bring Redbreast 21 to the world.”
Midleton has outlived many other competitors – from the Hacketts at the other end of town, to distilleries all over Ireland that failed over the last two centuries. As we head into a second golden age of Irish whiskey, it will be Midleton that will guide the category to greater and greater success.
As general manager of The Jameson Experience Midleton, Ignacio Peregrina is in charge of one of southern Ireland’s biggest tourist attractions – perhaps a fitting career for someone who came from one of Europe’s top holiday destinations.
“I’m from Gran Canaria, an island famed for its welcome and tourism, and I wanted to move somewhere with a similar passion for hospitality. I arrived in Ireland just over 15 years ago; I came for the craic but ended up staying and building a life here. Once I met my future wife Claire I knew Ireland was the place for me. I met her within an hour of landing, my buddy picked me up from the airport and we went to a Salsa class where I met the wonderful Claire. We were married three years ago in Midleton and we are blessed to call Midleton our home.
“My path to Midleton started in Dublin. During my time there, I worked for four years in the Jameson Distillery Bow St. and I also undertook a degree in Hospitality and Tourism in DIT. I’ve always had a passion for food and drink so Dublin was a great place to explore this passion. During my time in Bow St., I built up experience across all areas of the business and that helped me to secure my dream job here in Midleton as General Manager of the Jameson Experience.”
Of course, he isn’t the only person to come from overseas to Midleton: “It is a great pleasure to welcome people from many different nations. A considerable percentage of our visitors arrive via tour operators and it’s always a good day for me to pull up at work and see buses filled with people excited to experience Midleton Distillery.
“The top five visiting nationalities, in no particular order, are French, German, British, American and Irish, with the Jameson Experience tour being our largest selling tour. However, in recent years we have opened the Micro Distillery and Irish Whiskey Academy and the craft tours we have created for these areas are proving very popular, especially with whiskey enthusiasts. Midleton Distillery offers a truly sensorial experience where you can see, hear, feel and smell a live distillery in action.”
The Jameson Experience in Dublin recently closed for a renovation, and while their new tour is all singing, all dancing, Midleton offers an insight into the processes of whiskey making: “The main difference between the two sites is that our Bow St. team focus primarily on Jameson Whiskey whilst my team here in Midleton explore all our whiskey brands – Jameson, Powers, Redbreast, the Spot Range, Midleton Very Rare and the newly launched, Method & Madness.
“My opposite number at the Jameson Distillery Bow St. operates several great tours of varying duration and intensity so, whether you’re new to the world of whiskey, a connoisseur or a budding cocktail maker, they have an experience for you.
“Here at Midleton Distillery we also provide a range of tour experiences such as the Jameson Experience, the Behind the Scenes tour, and the Academy Experience. All are great fun and offer visitors wonderful insights into some of Ireland’s historic whiskey brands.”
The Irish Whiskey Association is pushing whiskey tourism here, and recently held the launch of their southern whiskey tourism plan in Midleton: “Ireland has great potential to become a world class destination for whiskey tourism. As the Irish whiskey industry grows, we’ve welcomed many visitors from new and established distillery attractions who are keen to learn what we do and how we do it. Irish Distillers have been operating whiskey visitor centres for over 30 years so we have plenty of experience to share. We don’t see other distilleries as competition, which of course they are, but, as one of the guardians of the Irish Whiskey industry we’re delighted to help in any way we can.
“At Midleton Distillery we’re ready to welcome anyone who would like to improve the whiskey tourism product. We have tough competition from our friends in Scotland but if the whiskey players in Ireland work together we can offer an amazing experience.”
Peregrina also works closely with the local Chamber in Midleton: “An effective Chamber of Commerce can make a significant difference to a town and we’re blessed to have such a great team here in Midleton.
“Midleton town has been home to whiskey distilling since 1825 and is our priority to work with and support the local community as much as possible. We do everything we can to make sure more people come to Midleton and leave with lovely memories that will last a lifetime.”
The bluebell flower blooms in spring of each year. Usually located on the forest floor, they burst into life as the first rays of a brighter sun touch on them, after its long absence during the winter months. Their bulbous, indigo flowers are a sign that brighter days are coming.
Opening a business in the teeth of the worst recession in Irish history would have been a brave move for any business person. But to open a gift shop in a small town in east Cork seems like absolute madness. However, seven years on and Hazell Abbott’s compact and bijou Bluebells on Midleton’s Main Street is still going strong. Of course, the success of the store isn’t just it’s selection of interesting gift ideas, but in Abbott’s background as an accountant. However, even she admits that it was a crazy idea: “I opened up at the worst time,” she laughs, “everyone thought I was totally mad.”
From Offaly originally, her husband hails from Barryroe in west Cork, so when it came to them leaving Dublin, the chose to head south. She had planned to open a gift shop for several years, but location would be key. She and her husband – who is also an accountant – went on a reconnaissance mission to towns around Cork to find the perfect blend of a good space at a good price – and a good buzz about the place. They settled on Midleton, citing the atmosphere, the large hinterland and the fact that while other towns struggled over the last 20 years, Midleton has thrived. It is a wealthy town. After a successful few years, she expanded the shop to the rear, and took on two staff so she could spend more time with her husband and their two year old son.
While her business shifts into top gear from here to January, it is more than just a seasonal outlet – as she notes, there are always gifts needed for wedding, anniversaries, new babies and birthdays. But at this time of year her shop is busier than ever, with its selection of bric a brac and miscellania – a selection that Hazel spends some time choosing, ensuring that her offerings are not widely available in the town, dropping lines that are carried elsewhere. But at this time of year her shop is a godsend for anyone looking for that just-so item, the little thing that you haven’t seen anywhere else, that most elusive thing – the ideal Christmas gift.
Hermann Jónasson was a famously hot-blooded Icelandic politician who famously once slapped a member of an opposition party. Despite this, he is remembered as one of his country’s great politicians, which is perhaps why Malcolm Walker, a British businessman, decided to pay tribute to Jónasson – a family friend of the Walkers – when he opened his new supermarket chain. That was back in 1970, and now almost half a century later, the chain is going from strength to strength. Almost from day one the focus was on freezer food – and it upon this rock that they built their church.
Iceland initially came to Ireland in 1996, but withdrew in 2005, only to return in 2008. Since then they have gone from strength to strength, with their 18th store in the Republic opening in Shannon next month. This flurry of store openings was the result of a €12 million investment in nine new stores in Ireland this year alone. Some 270 new jobs were created across the country as part of the investment in the new stores in Tallaght, Galway, Cork (Douglas, Fermoy, Ballincollig) Letterkenny, Limerick, Shannon, and Gorey.
Ron Metcalfe, Managing Director of Iceland Ireland said “We have been back in Ireland for four years now and have been committed to expansion from day one. This new investment sees 2017 as our biggest year yet with our nine new stores opening. We’re looking forward to bringing great value and a brand customers can trust to Tallaght, Galway, and across the country this year, as well as welcoming new team members to the Iceland family. And as always, we’re looking forward to expanding and delivering the Power of Frozen to more Irish customers than ever before”.
The Midleton store opened in 2014, and brought a much-needed boost to Distillery Lanes, a Celtic Tiger era development at the east end of the town. Since then the store has thrived, offering a unique food offering to shoppers who flock there from across Munster. Iceland is home to over 2,000 branded fresh and frozen grocery products, and supports Irish with more than 32 local suppliers – in addition to being the exclusive stockist of the Slimming World range in Ireland. Iceland Midleton even offers a home delivery service, while Iceland was also the first UK supermarket to remove artificial flavourings, colouring, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and non-essential preservatives from its own branded products in 1986. In 1990 Iceland took the lead in banning mechanically recovering meat (MRM) from own brand products; and in 1998 Iceland became the world’s first national food retailer to ban genetically modified (GM) ingredients from own brand products.
Iceland has thrown off the old stigma of convenience foods, and is now a one-stop shop for the party season and beyond. With a recovering economy and the festive season ahead, it looks like Iceland are heading into their biggest Christmas yet, while the brand has come full circle in recent years by opening an outlet in Iceland itself. Hermann Jónasson would be proud.
In 2013, Barry Crockett retired from his role as master distiller in Midleton. His father Max was master distiller before him, and the family lived in the distiller’s cottage on the grounds. It was in this house that Barry was born. It was an old way of life in distilling, one that just doesn’t exist any more.
To mark Barry’s retirement, a local freesheet named The Cork News spoke to him about the change that was coming in his life and how he felt about it. The interview was conducted by the fantastically talented Maria Tracey, who sadly later left journalism for PR. The paper she wrote it for is no more. Their website was still active until recently, but now that too is gone. So here, for posterity, is the interview. Obviously, I have absolutely no claim to this, as it is not my work, nor do I have any copyright over it, but it’s an excellent piece worth preserving on some platform.
“I wake up at about 6.30am, and my first thought is usually influenced by whatever the news headlines were the previous evening. I wonder what has changed overnight, in terms of world news, and turn on the radio to listen to Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio 1.
A rushed breakfast normally involved cranberry or orange juice and two slices of toast with ham, tomatoes or bananas. It’s never anything too dramatic. I then head to the Midleton Distillery, where I’m head distiller, and get on with all the normal things that one does when they go to work in the morning.
It might seem unusual for those outside looking in that I was literally born into the job. When my father, Max left school, he was offered a position in the Watercourse Distillery in Blackpool and was eventually promoted to Midleton around 1945. He became master distiller and I was born at the Distiller’s Cottage where the old distillery is now.
Looking back, as a child I can remember being around the garden and seeing people coming and going. I remember the horses, one of my earliest memories. At the time, as was the case in Cork city, horses were widely used for transporting materials. There were several in Midleton hauling very heavy carts, just like the horses in the Budweiser ads.
I’ve spent all my life here, but for me, that’s not strange. As a child you accept these things and it’s only with hindsight that you can really evaluate it. Back then, in professions like banking or medicine, it was quite normal for a father to be a bank manager or doctor, and their son afterwards. And so becoming a distiller was a path for me. It wasn’t exactly cast in stone but more of an ‘open door’. I could have done other things but distilling was the way it ended up. If that hadn’t been the case, I was always particularly interested in history so maybe the teaching profession was a route I could have taken.
Every morning I receive a report on what has happened over the previous 12 or 14 hours, as the distillery is a seven-day week, round-the-clock operation. We have a quality meeting, which involves a wider group of people, and of course, part of the head distiller’s job is to assess quality.
The journey of the whiskey starts with the harvesting of the barley in the autumn. It’s all sourced within a 35-mile radius of the distillery but we don’t buy barley directly from farmers anymore, as the volumes are too large. Instead merchants assemble it to our specifications and if we are happy with it, then we will arrange to purchase the stock for the brewing process. The barley is malted and we effectively produce a type of beer that we describe as a ‘wash’, with an alcohol content of 10%.
Then there is the triple distillation sequence. You fill a very large, onion-shaped copper vessel- and when I say large, I mean very large, with a capacity of 750 hectolitres, or about 17,500 gallons- and apply heat. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water so by boiling the wash at around 80°C the alcohol vapours rise out of the neck of the still and through a condenser to return back into a liquid. It is then distilled a second time and ultimately a third time until you have a spirit with the strength of 84% left.
Maturation follows and the alcohol is reduced in strength by the addition of water, which is filled into a number of different types of oak barrels. Of course, by law, whiskey has to be matured for a minimum of three years. In most cases it would be way more. It’s a long-term investment where whiskey’s involved.
During the day, each batch of new spirit is assessed. We produce around 100,000 litres of pure alcohol every 24 hours, so it’s a big operation that’s going to become an awful lot bigger- doubling to 200,000- with the expansion.
Another important aspect of the job is that following maturation, we send tankers of finished whiskey to our bottling facilities in Dublin and we have a tasting exercise set up so nothing leaves the plant until it passes quality control. After that is taken care of, there is administration work to follow up on, and meetings about ongoing engineering work.
It’s all extremely exciting. In my career I’ve seen three separate distilleries being started, which is unusual. There was an expansion at the old distillery back in the late 60s, when I just started working here. And then there was the major expansion in the mid to late 70s and now, of course, there is a whole new development with innovative techniques like energy efficient column stills.
I am stepping back from it. You don’t walk into a job like this and take it over overnight. So, when I retire my colleague, Brian Nation, who has been working with us for years, will be taking over from me. It’s an appropriate time for me to go, as I’m passing on the baton to a younger generation. The fact that the industry is so long-lived is fantastic, you can see generations and generations carrying on and developing the business.
The techniques we use have been tried and tested. What each era brings is a small improvement overall with better technology. What we are distilling today won’t appear in the form of whiskey until 20 years time and while I certainly hope that I’ll be around in 20 years time, the industry will obviously have evolved. We sometimes say we are just tenants or custodians for a brief period of time, before handing it on.
I know my father could never have imagined the success of Jameson. It’s a remarkable story as the Irish distillery industry was in quite a weakened state in the early 60s. The pooling of interests by a rather enlightened group of directors to form the Irish Distilleries Group and the decision to export outside of Ireland followed by the taking on of the Group by Pernod Ricard in the 80s has seen annual case sales of Jameson going from 450,000 to four million cases per annum. That is quite remarkable.
For lunch, I usually eat in the canteen. They have a very good selection there, like roast beef or curry with rice and chips. I also have a few cups of tea throughout the day.
After lunch, I may have to meet with a barley supplier on the prospects for the forthcoming harvest. Commodities are highly volatile in terms of price levels and we have to predict the cost so we can budget for it. Nothing happens without the money there!
The end of the day is about assessing what happened over the previous hours and looking ahead to what will happen over the coming night. I finish up around 5.30pm and may have a dinner to go to or a conference. If I head home, my wife Bridget and I have tea at around 7pm. I can’t eat too much at night, just a salad. I don’t want to have two dinners in one day.
To be honest, I prefer to be out a lot of time if I can manage it. I’m a member of different clubs like the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. I’ve always liked hill walking as well but I haven’t been doing a lot of that recently, so maybe I’ll have more time in the future. I also have a strong interest in sailing but last summer was disastrous!
With it being winter, we’ve been to a plethora of films over the last month, like Argo and Lincoln. In the evenings, I usually read the newspapers after tea, because I don’t have time during the day. I would be a whiskey drinker- not at work obviously- but more for relaxation. Not on a regular basis, but if there are events that I have to attend, then I will have a glass there.
Looking back, being appointed head distiller in 1981 was a defining time for me. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in terms of how things have developed. What is totally unexpected is the Lifetime Achievement award by the Whisky Advocate magazine that I picked up and will be presented with in October. I must say it is something quite amazing as it’s the first time an Irish man has been chosen.
Retiring on Monday, March 18th, might seem like it’s linked to St Patrick’s Day but it’s actually my birthday, my 65th to be precise. So as it’s a public holiday, I’ll probably finish the Friday beforehand. Honestly, I think that will be my real defining moment. It will not be the end or a descent into aimless nothingness. It’s, as I like to describe it, the beginning of my new career.”