Evolve or die

Carol Quinn is incredibly pragmatic – a couple of years ago during a chat about the lost distilleries of Cork, I lamented that they were knocked to make way for roads and duplexes and various other developments. Carol – IDL’s archivist – pointed out that unless buildings are being used, they no longer serve a purpose. I feel the same way about brands – which awkwardly brings me to the latest Powers rebrand. It seems like only a short while ago that Powers was reborn with a new, more modern label (it’s a little over four years) and here we are again with another, considerably less subtle makeover. I’m going to let the press release do some of the explaining here: 

Powers Irish Whiskey, which is made by Irish Distillers in Midleton Distillery, has unveiled a bold new bottle design for its range of premium Irish whiskeys. Debuting on core expression Powers Gold Label in the USA from March 2020, the dynamic new look is set to attract a new generation of drinkers to one of Ireland’s most loved whiskey brands.

The design features a new bottle shape which has been inspired by the distinctive pot still silhouette from the brand’s historical home at John’s Lane Distillery.  Another striking aspect of the new design is the label which is styled on the iconic Powers ‘diamond P’ – one of the first ever trademarks registered in Ireland and a link to the legacy of Powers and Irish whiskey history all over Ireland. Each whiskey in the Powers range is presented with a label in a different colour to bring to life its unique story; Powers Gold Label in red, an homage to the original red Powers diamond marque; Powers Three Swallow in blue, a nod to the feathers of the graceful bird; and Powers John’s Lane Release in metallic ink, to reflect the industrial innovation that the Powers family demonstrated at the original distillery established in 1791 on John’s Lane, Dublin.

Carol Quinn, Archivist at Irish Distillers explains, “Powers sense of identity has always focused on the diamond P; that became very clear to me as I worked my way through the historical archive. The diamond P was everywhere; on the casks, stationary, on bills and receipts, emblazoned on everything that left the distillery, and notably on the wonderful Powers mirrors that still hang in Ireland’s pubs today.  Workers at the old John’s Lane distillery even took to wearing a diamond P pin on their lapel, such was their pride to be part of the Powers family. For me it’s wonderful to see the diamond P front and centre on this new label, symbolising all the history of this great whiskey since 1791.”

Following the launch of the new-look Powers Gold Label in March 2020, the new design will be introduced across Powers Three Swallow and Powers John’s Lane from mid-2020 in the USA and the rest of the world  from late-2020. In Ireland, Powers Three Swallow and Powers John’s Lane will be released in March 2020, with Powers Gold Label to be reviewed in due course.

Conor McQuaid, Chairman and CEO of Irish Distillers commented: “Powers has been famous for its bold taste profile and character since the family distillery was established in 1791. We are excited to introduce this new look to the world and inspire a new generation with the unique history and personality of Powers. At Irish Distillers, we have pride in Powers as one of the world’s leading Irish whiskeys and we welcome this dynamic new chapter for the brand as we seek to continue the Irish whiskey renaissance around the world.”

New packaging for Powers Irish Whiskey underpins recent innovation for the brand as it seeks to reach and inspire whiskey drinkers including; the release of Powers Old Fashioned, the brand’s first ever pre-mixed classic cocktail; and the Powers Quarter; a collaboration between six Dublin bars to tell the story of Powers and its illustrious Dublin history.

IDL are looking for the next Jameson. They sold Paddy to Sazerac so that’s out, Redbreast and the Spots are too premium, and thus it falls to Powers. Powers has a more robust profile, far moreso than Jameson, which many of us here in the rebel county would describe as mockya. A bold liquid deserves a bold look. That said, I hope they keep the single casks in their current format – there are many collectors out there who will be hoping the same thing.

The new bottle is akin to the beautiful Chinnery Gin, while the labels are modern and fresh. The Gold Label may no longer have a gold label, and the John’s Lane release may look a little downgraded by its update, but overall, if this keeps Powers alive for another few decades, then it shall be worth it. All the heritage in the world is meaningless if clinging to it condemns a brand to death. 

Arise

The Giant’s Grave near Clonmult. 

In the hills outside of Midleton lies the village of Clonmult. It is one of those blink-and-you-miss it places that is hard to find when you look for it, and passes by almost unnoticed when you drive through it. There isn’t a huge amount of things to see up there – the site of one of the worst massacres of the War Of Independence, the three spindly streams that unite to form the Roxboro (better known as the Dungourney river), the holy wells of Knockaneo and Garrylaurence, the parental purgatory of Leahy’s Open Farm, and, if you know where to look, a megalithic tomb known as the Giant’s Grave.

It’s not an especially well-flagged place; of the few scraps of information about it online, there is this, which gives a sense of the wreckage – the tomb and its surrounds look like it has been looted. But if you were planning on looting a site buried deep in the woods of Dungourney and Clonmult, a half mile from the Giant’s Grave lies a bone fide golden hoard, albeit a liquid one.

The Giant’s Grave on top right, and Irish Distillers Limited’s massive Dungourney warehouse complex on bottom right.

The Dungourney maturation site, which is to be expanded.  

Irish Distillers have a sizeable warehouse complex embedded in the woods, and are going to be building more over the coming years, because, in case you hadn’t heard, Irish whiskey is booming. Specifically, Irish Distillers Ltd whiskey is booming, a point made clear in this piece. Jameson is the re-animator of the entire category, but as that article asks, what happens now – how do you take Jameson’s success and expand it across the entire sector?

My take on the boom is the same as when I wrote this – let Jameson lay down the heavy artillery as the easy-drinking, beer-and-a-chaser go-to whiskey of average josephine sixpack. Then you push through with the ground troops, winning hearts and minds using our single malts, single pot stills and the premium whiskeys of Ireland. This is happening already – as noted in the Irish Times, sales of premium whiskey brands like MVR and Redbreast jumped 40% last year. But this isn’t all about the US – sales of Irish whiskey are also rising in the domestic market, outpacing scotch, something that could be seen as a sign of a growing consumer awareness of the category.

The boom, as they say, is getting boomier, which might explain why Irish Distillers Limited are planning another distillery – or are they? The Indo said they were, citing Youghal as a possible site. Then IDL CEO Conor McQuaid went on radio the next morning to discuss their booming profits and when asked about the Indo piece, poured cold water on the notion that they were going to build another distillery. Then an updated press release came out that afternoon which basically confirmed that they were looking at exactly that, stating: At Irish Distillers, our objective is to drive the growth of our portfolio of premium Irish whiskey brands supported by the strength of the Pernod Ricard global distribution network. We take a long term view and naturally, as we grow, there are implications for our business. We are currently examining all options to increase our production capacity to meet projected demand and building a new distillery is one of them. These are exciting times for Irish whiskey and we are proud to be leading the way.

Midleton is not at capacity – yet. Give it five to ten years, however, and that will change. IDL, like any distiller big or small, need to plan decades ahead. If sales keep rocketing, they need to be able to guarantee supply. Supply is the same reason they bought 8 Degrees craft brewery, to ensure casks for the runaway success that is Caskmates.

What this planned distillery could signal is the start of a Chivas Brothers-style model for Irish Distillers Limited – distilleries operating across multiple sites creating key elements for blends like Powers, Jameson, and Sazerac’s Paddy. For any firm the size of IDL, you simply cannot put all your eggs in one basket.

It’s also worth noting that any distillery of decent size is about more than just stills, grain silos and warehousing, so the space they appear to have in Midleton may be needed for something other than the front end of production; have a gander at this device, which closed the main street of Midleton when it was being delivered:

It is an evaporator, which takes liquid waste such as pot ale and turns it into dark grains (animal feed) – because a beast like Midleton Distillery needs to manage waste as well as crafting wonderful booze. So it’s not all hewn stone and copper pots.

IDL have acres of storage space in Dungourney, but they will need more liquid. Midleton has the Barry Crockett Stillhouse, the Garden Stillhouse with its six stills, the micro-distillery and the biggest, baddest column still you are every likely to see, but with sales going the way they are, this new distillery, expected to be up and running by 2025, will be vital. Where it will be built is the next piece of the puzzle.

Two years ago IDL bought a farm next door which is part zoned for industrial, but I would imagine that after the floods in Midleton three years ago, and summer 2018 which saw almost no rainfall, they are thinking about how our climate is changing. In the decades to come, IDL will need a reliable, sizeable water source – one that doesn’t either flood the site or run dry. Little wonder that Youghal became part of the speculation, with excellent roads, oodles of space, a region that is crying out for a investment, and the monster that is the Blackwater. While it may flood lowland towns upriver, if that river ever runs dry, we will all be dead too long to give a shit about it.

In the meantime, Irish whiskey is becoming more diverse – Slane started production, Teelings auctioned their first in-house three-year-old pot still whiskey for more ten grand, and the tide is rising and lifting all boats. The challenge for many brands-turned-distillers will be moving from sourced stock to their own, and this is particularly true for the Jameson-in-waiting, Tullamore DEW. They are second biggest in the market, and will have to nail the transition. Consider that they currently have three disparate elements in their ubiquitous blend – malt (presumably Bushmills), grain (presumably Midleton) and pot still whiskey (obviously Midleton). So they need to replicate those three liquids perfectly in their new 35 million distillery in Tullamore, along with making standalone expressions.

I’m no scientist, but I would suggest that if the chaps at Wm Grant & Sons wanted to perfectly replicate Bushmills malt and Midleton pot whiskey, they could do it with relative ease. Science means that a modern master distiller or blender may talk about the romance and poetry of whiskey, but behind closed doors they are brilliant chemists who can perfectly recreate a whiskey if they need to.

Date Captured: 03/07/2014 Pictured here is the newly installed Tullamore Distillery Spirit Safe. Also in the background are two of Tullamore Distillery’s copper stills.

So I’m going to assume that Wm Grant & Sons have a healthy supply contract with Midleton and Bushmills, but if sales keep going at the rate they are, everyone is going to be watching those corners – whiskey is not going to be something you will want to share. Their own plans for Tullamore were thus:

Located on a 58-acre site in Clonminch on the outskirts of the Co Offaly town, the distillery draws on spring water from the nearby Slieve Bloom mountains, and will be capable of producing the equivalent of 1.5 million cases of Tullamore Dew annually, when fully operational.

The move brings whiskey production back to Tullamore for the first time since the original distillery closed in 1954.

The new plant contains four hand-crafted copper stills, designed to resemble the original stills from the old Tullamore distillery, six brew house fermenters each with a 34,000 litre capacity and warehouse storage for 100,000 casks.

So Tullamore is back on the distilling map, but their own stocks are only just hitting maturity so I would imagine that like Walsh Distillery et al, the supply contract will keep going for another few years.

On that note, here comes this 18 year old single malt, which is triple distilled. In the olden times I used to believe double-distilled meant Cooley, triple meant Bushmills. Then I read this post by Whiskey Nut in which former Bushmills master distiller Darryl McNally reveals that Bushmills did, in fact, double distil, and that this double distilled stock was offloaded and makes up the bulk of what the Teeling boys are selling. This is part of the Bushmills conundrum; why was this excellent stock sold in the first place? Bushmills is obviously the source of massive amounts of sourced whiskey, but it seems odd that one of Ireland’s great distilleries has become our MGP, rather than our Macallan.

This 18 year old Bushmills single malt is triple distilled and finished for ten months in a quartet of casks – bourbon, sherry, madeira and port. Bottled at 41.3%ABV, this is limited to 2,500 bottles, and is a reasonable 80 euro on the Whisky Exchange. I’m growing used to seeing Irish whiskeys over 15 year being around the 100 mark, so this makes a pleasant change. That said, I paid fuck all for it, as it was a gift from John Quinn, Tully ambassador extraordinaire, whose signature the bottle bears. To the tasting notes:

The colour is that amazing rose gold you get from port finishes – like bloody brass. On the nose there is rich cherry, vanilla butterscotch, while there are also fresher elements, pine needles, lime, and, oddly enough, a mouthwatering scent of meaty jus. On the palate – that extra percent in the strength is felt, then there are dried apricots and goji berries, a little cola bottle fizzle. Butterscotch nose makes way for fudge, tiramisu, and a gentle peppery finish. I like this – it’s a reasonably priced, interesting whiskey, and one that is finite. Cask finishes are too often seen as a variation on the expression that ‘you can’t polish a turd but you can roll it in glitter’, but this is a decent single malt with a stylish little kick, not an upcycled hot mess.

Now, take my hand and let us travel back in time to 2005:

Pernod Ricard took many people by surprise when it announced on Monday that it had agreed to sell its Bushmills Irish whiskey brand to arch rival Diageo.

The French group’s decision to sell its Number Two Irish whiskey to a company with the marketing might to make Bushmills a serious challenger to Pernod’s top brand, Jameson, might seem at first sight a strange one.

But viewed as part of a wider picture, it makes more sense.

The prize for Pernod was to take Diageo out of the running in the race for control of Allied Domecq. The price to be paid was Bushmills, which has long played second fiddle in the Pernod portfolio to Jameson.

The €295 million (£200 million) price tag attaching to the Co Antrim-based distillery confirmed for some that there were other factors at play in this deal, which is conditional upon Pernod securing control of Allied Domecq.

While the price represents 14 times Bushmills’ €21 million contribution to Pernod’s coffers last year, one industry source noted that LVMH paid a broadly similar multiple for Glenmorangie, a less prestigious brand, last autumn.

That is just a sample, but that article is worth a read in its entirety to get a sense of just how far we have come in 13 years – a period of time which, in whiskey terms, is not all that long.

The initial reason for the sale of Bushmills was to break IDL’s monopoly on the market – something that we have no fear of now, with distilleries of all shapes and sizes popping up everywhere. So here’s my pitch – instead of building another distillery, why don’t IDL buy back Bushmills? Granted, a new distillery would only cost a few million, and Bushmills could be 400m plus, but it’s clear already that the new owners are struggling to figure out what makes the place tick. Those massive warehouses in Antrim are absolutely packed with stellar single malts – something the IDL portfolio is sadly lacking. Now is the time for an operator with deep understanding of how to run a distillery, and a passion for Irish whiskey, to take the reins and make Bushmills great again. It is long-past time for the giant of Antrim to rise and make the ground shake.

Powers and glory

Extended family of John Power & Son visit Jameson Distillery Midleton: Irish Distillers archivist, Carol Quinn welcomed members of the O’Reilly family, the children of the late Frank O’Reilly, and their families to the Irish Whiskey Archive in the Master Distiller’s Cottage at Midleton Distillery last week. Frank O’Reilly was a direct descendant of James Power, the man who founded John Power & Son. Although many people brought about the formation of Irish Distillers in 1966, Frank is long recognised as the man who spearheaded the merger of John Power & Son, John Jameson & Son and the Cork Distilleries Company. Read more about the visit on IrishDistillers.ie

The resurgence of Irish whiskey was hard fought. It’s easy to forget just how close we came to losing the entire category back in the 1960s. There are a few people who deserve thanks – the coopers, the operators, the staff who lost their jobs or worked a two-day week to keep the industry alive, and also the people who had to make the tough choices to cut Irish whiskey production back to the bone. Frank O’Reilly is one such person. He oversaw the merger that created IDL – effectively the gatekeepers for Irish whiskey. To mark Mr O’Reilly’s contribution to the history of Irish whiskey (as a member of the Powers family, he was one of the last descendant of the great whiskey dynasties to hold office in IDL), IDL archivist Carol Quinn welcomed members of the O’Reilly family to Midleton to see what their ancestor had helped create. You can read Carol’s blog post on it here, but my lame contribution to this is different. Back in the 1980s, a journalist named Ivor Kenny wrote a series of books on business leaders in Ireland. They are fantastic – he spoke to Richard Burrows, Frank O’Reilly and John Teeling, and captured a moment in history for Irish whiskey. Here is a series of rather poor photographs of the interview with Frank O’Reilly, which although physically hard to read, is well worth a read for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of how a small few people created a vehicle to keep Irish whiskey alive.

A long goodbye

 

-NO REPRODUCTION FEE –
Barry Crockett, Jameson Master Distiller pictured at the Midleton Distillery, Cork laying down casks for 2030, Jameson’s 250th Anniversary
Pic. John Allen /John Sheehan Photography

 

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.”