I can still remember the first time I read Vice. It was a 2009 Babes of the BNP piece that summed up their ethos – sleazy, funny, and cruel. From the get-go I loved their skate-punk nihilism and cartoonish approach to journalism – a mix that that saw them become the go-to resource for disenfranchised twentysomethings. Long before Buzzfeed attempted to bludgeon our attention spans to death with listicles, Vice was the face of a new kind of journalism, one that sparked a debate about what journalism actually is. But whether old media liked it or not, Vice was here to stay.
Ten years on from when I first lolled through their skewering of the BNP, this brilliant long-form dissection of their history shows how they are no longer the crazy punks they once were – they are a massive global media brand, and as such they jettisoned questionable founders like Gavin McInnes, brought in questionable investors in the form of Rupert Murdoch, and sprouted many wings, including Virtue, their advertising agency. The landing page for Virtue shows just how they’ve changed, boasting lines like this one:
Rather than try and fix the agency model, we’ve planted a jungle on its grave. Our DIY punk roots, empathy, and irreverent sense of style breeds work that’s as important as it is attractive.
I read that and all I can hear is the Canyonero jingle, as this is exactly the kind of guff that Vice used to eviscerate. But we all have to grow up sometime.
The greatest trick Vice managed to pull off is maintaining that edgy chic despite their world-conquering position, so it is little wonder that when one of the world’s biggest drinks firms, Proximo, wanted something with bite, they hired Virtue (Jameson went the more direct route with sponsored content on Vice itself). Of course, the only problem with massive firms hiring edgy creatives in order to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of millenials is that massive firms don’t really want edgy – they want safe, and cool, but mainly safe. And this brings me to the new Bushmills promo.
We don’t usually see a lot of TV spots for Irish whiskey here. Our market is in the States, so that is where we aim our advertising spend, and also guides our creative choices. This is why a lot of Irish whiskey ads tend to be a version of Irishness that really does not exist, rooted in a past that never was. Just as The Quiet Man was Maurice Walsh’s daydreaming about a place that didn’t exist, most of the imaginings of Ireland we see in US-based ads are selling a never never land of shirtless youths and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. Obviously, Proximo wanted something different.
They tasked Virtue with creating a more modern whiskey promo for the tragically-named Red Bush, the new Bushmills expression aimed at the American market – the ‘Irish whiskey for bourbon drinkers’. Virtue got one of their shining stars, Jessica Toye, to create something cool and edgy and safe. She explains her motivation thus:
While other whiskey brands show Ireland as a caricature of itself with rolling green hills and tweed suits, we immersed people in the Ireland unseen – the gritty streets of Belfast.
I can only assume this ‘green hills and tweed’ comment is a dig at one of the best Irish whiskey ads of recent years, Tullamore DEW’s The Parting Glass. The multi-award winning advert is a masterclass in emotional manipulation with a comedic twist. Yes it is twee, yes it has tweed, and yes it features many rolling hills and even has Ireland’s greatest natural resource – rain – in copious quantities; but it has wit and it has heart, and despite the fact it was made by a London ad agency and was almost never screened on Irish TV, I still see it as one of the best Irish whiskey ads. It is so good that its premise was flipped a couple of years later by two German film students who made the stellar Dear Brother as a spec ad for Johnny Walker.
But obviously making an ad for Tullamore DEW is a little simpler than making one for Bushmills. As a pitch, the Tullamore DEW brand comes with limited baggage – it is a mix of whiskeys from Bushmills and Midleton, and it is owned by a Scottish firm, but nobody would claim it wasn’t Irish – Tullamore is right there in the dead centre of Ireland.
Bushmills is something else – either Northern Irish, or British, depending on who you are trying to argue with. Irish whiskey may be the category it belongs to, but good luck claiming Bushmills is Irish. But how do you get that message across, if you even want to? How do you retain that magic brand of Irishness, without obscuring the fact that the distillery is in the UK?
The Red Bush promo had a limited range of options as it has to be set in Northern Ireland – a relatively small place, with only a few globally recognised landmarks. This means you can go film crashing waves and rustic charm around the Giant’s Causeway, or you can go urban and feisty in Belfast. Bushmills is seven minutes from the Causeway, and an hour from Belfast, but if they wanted something modern and fresh, they would have to go urban. And so they did, with something Toye’s website describes thusly:
With a pack of 16 Irish red heads running fearlessly through the streets, RED. SET. GO. reflects the feeling of drinking Bushmills straight. The calm before the first sip, the rush of blood coursing through your veins, and the feeling of freedom with nothing in the way.
It’s all very well to trash ‘tweed and green hills’, but don’t follow it up by using the least accurate stereotype of all – that Ireland is overflowing with red-haired people. Scotland has 13% of the world’s population of red haired people, with Ireland in second place with 10%. Perhaps this places Belfast – with its heady brew of Ulster Scots and Irishness – in the eye of a perfect ginger storm, but given the divisions between those two communities, I’m assuming not.
But the real bravery of Toye’s advert comes not from eschewing rolling hills for cobbled streets, but taking a brief associating anything red with anything in the North. Belfast’s streets have literally run red on enough occasions in the past that even contemplating the concept of Red.Set.Go was a bold move. Or perhaps I am overthinking it – after all, the first thing that came to mind when watching the promo was Alan Clarke’s punishingly bleak Elephant, one of the best films about the Troubles. Perhaps America doesn’t know, nor care, about all this history, or what Ireland – North, south and everything in between – is or is not.
I will let the press release fill in the rest of the dead-eyed, joyless details:
Created and produced by Virtue, VICE Media’s celebrated creative agency, “RED. SET. GO.” depicts a fresh, young, real version of Ireland by following a pack of Belfast locals from dusk to dawn on a lively night out, with RED BUSH in hand. The red-hued anthem immerses viewers in the Ireland unseen. Set in Belfast’s alleyways, underground raves, tunnels and cobblestone streets, the :60 spot is backdropped against the gritty and intoxicating single “Louder” by Kid Karate. The ad showcases this group en route from one destination to another, because truly great nights are about the moments in-between and the anticipation of what’s next.
“The next generation of whiskey drinkers craves real experiences and honest brands – we made ‘RED. SET. GO.’ for them,” said Jeffrey Schiller, Brand Director of BUSHMILLS Irish Whiskey. “For so long, Irish whiskey has been about tall tales and green plastic hats on St. Patrick’s Day, so ‘Irish-ness’ has almost become corrupted. We want to show America the real Ireland, and what better Irish whiskey than BUSHMILLS –Ireland’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery – to show the way.”
“With ‘RED. SET. GO.’ we want to show the raw and electrifying Ireland that sets us apart from the romanticized vision of the country that is far too often portrayed,” said Jess Toye, Creative Director at Virtue. “The sounds, the set, the people represent the real Belfast and convey the excitement and energy of the city.”
Ah yes, the real Ireland and the real Belfast. Two places not on any map, as no true places ever are. Except obviously, this ad captures nothing of the city and could have been filmed in almost any city that had a few cobbled streets, or even on a soundstage.
My disappointment with this ad is ultimately part of my despair around one of the great distilleries on this island. Bushmills is a victim of centuries of geopolitics, bounced around from caretaker owner to caretaker owner, with no-one quite understanding what they are meant to do with the place, or how to handle the complexities of identity, culture, and economics in the North. This ad is symptomatic of the policies of remote control have held both Bushmills and the North back – administrative powers that were removed from any sense of place or culture making decisions that assume too much. And as for the liquid it is pitching, I’ll leave the reviewing to someone who knows more about whiskey and the North than I ever could.
Bernard Walsh always strikes me as a hail-fellow-well-met-kind-of-chap. He has built an incredible brand in Walsh Whiskey, and then went on to build an incredible distillery in Royal Oak in Carlow. This makes this news all the sadder, as watching any relationship fail – be it personal or professional or both – is never easy.
WALSH WHISKEY & ILLVA SARONNO AGREE TO DEMERGE JOINT-VENTURE
Whiskey brands and distillery businesses split with immediate effect and without redundancies.
The Directors of Walsh Whiskey Distillery have decided to split the business by separating out the existing drinks brands business, built on the Writers’ Tears and The Irishman premium and super-premium Irish whiskeys, from the distillery business at Royal Oak, in Ireland’s County Carlow.
Current sales, marketing and distilling objectives are being fully met, however the Irish and Italian Directors differ on how to develop the combined business into the future.
This change will result in the Irish directors taking full control of the existing drinks brands business built on the Writers’ Tears and The Irishman brands that are among the most popular premium and super-premium Irish whiskeys in the world being sold in 50 countries worldwide. Consumers of Writers’ Tears and The Irishman portfolio of brands are assured of their uninterrupted availability. This business will continue to trade under the name Walsh Whiskey.
Illva Saronno will take full ownership of the distillery, which is renamed “Royal Oak Distillery”. Illva’s objective is to further enhance Royal Oak as a centre of excellence in Irish whiskey making by continuously improving its technology and processes, producing all three styles, Malt, Pot and Grain under one roof, enhancing the visitor experience and achieving recognition as one of the best quality Irish whiskey producers in the market.
There is an in-depth piece on WhiskyCast that shows how hard this must be for the Walshes – they built this brand from the ground up, and, in 2013, finally achieved the dream of building a distillery. That said, what they walked away from is nothing in comparison to what they walked away with.
I’m not going to eulogise Writers Tearsagain, but I love that whiskey in every way – the bottle, the design, the name, the liquid, the concept. But it isn’t the only ace the Walshes now hold – the whole parcel includes a range of 12 Irish whiskeys under the Writerṣ’ Tears and TheIrishman brands, the Hot Irishman Irish coffee and TheIrishman – Irish Cream liqueur. Walsh Whiskey has well established supply deals with powerhouse distilleries, a strong distribution network, and a bright future.
The Italians now have a beautiful distillery and a great team – but no brand, and no real identity. Bernard Walsh was the face of the distillery, and they will struggle to replace either him or the brands he created. Perhaps they will be happier building their own brand to their own spec, but the vacuum left by the severing of the relationship will not be easy to fill. It’s going to be an interesting few years in Royal Oak.
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.
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 Irishsingle 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.
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.
Conor McGregor has great taste in Irish whiskey – he was often seen sipping some excellent whiskeys after big bouts – so when he announced he was bringing a whiskey out, I had great expectations. Would he go for super premium, would he opt for a more approachable ten year old single malt, or even a pot still release? No, he would not. He opted for a blend, with grain from Midleton (update: Not Midleton but GND, apparently) and malt from Bushmills, the latter being a distillery which seemed to mistakenly believe he owned.
I haven’t tried Proper No. 12 – a name he was forced to settle for after his attempt at trademarking Notorious was shot down – and while there are obviously those who would knock McGregor’s drink for the sake of it, it does appear that his pricing on this release – 35 euro – is a little over the top. Still, I wouldn’t hold that against him – Irish whiskey has long had delusions about pricing, and as a result has a long way to go before it offers the value for money that Scotch does.
There is one thing that McGregor’s Proper No. 12 will do for Irish whiskey: Increase category awareness. With his tens of millions of fans, he can bring more people into the fold. We all start out on blends, and Proper No. 12 will be a gateway for a small percentage of those who try it and are curious to know more. Obviously a lot of people will drink it because they love him, and never go beyond it, as the liquid doesn’t really matter to them, because this is about his brand. And herein lies my problem with this product.
Even the slightest scrutiny of McGregor’s rhetoric in recent years should set alarm bells ringing. You can call it banter, or patter, or whatever you want, but the racism, bigotry and Islamophobic dog whistling he has engaged in is an obscenity. I admire his swagger, and his skill, but watching Khabib Nurmagomedov choke him out was incredibly satisfying after all the insults McGregor threw at him about both his faith and his family. This aspect of MMA – the war of words leading up to big bouts – makes it look less like a sport and more like a back alley bar fight. Compare the dignity and grace of Katie Taylor with McGregor’s ‘dance for me boy’ comments to Mayweather and then tell me Ireland should be proud of him. Still, as ambassadors for Irish whiskey go, McGregor is probably less tainted than John McAfee.
McGregor’s release was the whiskey headline of the year, and the release of Red Spot was a staid affair in comparison, even if it excited the nerds. Red Spot, along with Green and Yellow, are throwbacks to the old tradition of bonding. I’m not going to digress into a history lesson, because in this case it is largely irrelevant, but here is some musty press release for you to blow the dust off:
The Mitchell family commenced trading in 1805 at 10 Grafton Street in the heart of Dublin as purveyors of fine wine and confectionery. In 1887, the business expanded into whiskey bonding whereby it sent empty wine and fortified wine casks to the local Jameson Distillery on Bow Street to be filled with new single pot still spirit for maturation in the Mitchell’s cellars.
The Red Spot name was derived from the Mitchell’s practice of marking their maturing casks of whiskey with a daub of coloured paint to determine the age potential of the whiskey; with a Blue Spot, Green Spot, Yellow Spot or Red Spot indicating 7, 10, 12 or 15 years respectively. Four generations later, the company is still in the wine and spirits business under the stewardship of Jonathan Mitchell and his son Robert.
Red is a triple-distilled, single pot still Irish whiskey that has been matured for a minimum of 15 years in a combination of casks pre-seasoned with Bourbon, Oloroso Sherry and Marsala fortified wine. I bought a bottle for Christmas and liked it – very sweet, rich and smooth, like meself.
The problem now for the Spot family is where Blue will sit. It is meant to be a seven-year-old, while Green was meant to be a ten year old. In some super-duper premium releases, Green is a ten, but in its most common iteration it is NAS, and priced at the 50-60 mark. Yellow is a 12 and is 70-80. So where do you place a seven year old? It has to be cheaper than Yellow, so let’s say 60. What then for Green, which as a NAS is presumably aged four to seven years? To me, the easiest way round this is to do Blue as a cask-strength and place it at the 70-80 mark. Obviously I’m no consumer expert, but it will be interesting to see how Blue finds its place. The Spot family needs it though, as it currently looks like three freshers off to a traffic light ball, adorned with yellow, red and green badges, bootcut jeans, Rockports and Ben Sherman shirts. Or maybe Blue Spot will just look like a paramedic showing up at 3am to stop them from choking on their own tongues.
It was a big year for Irish Distillers Limited – they bought a brewery to secure casks for Caskmates, and also supposedly sorta kinda announced they were building a distillery that would be seperate from their current base in Midleton. Beyond that they continued to release single casks in connection with various whiskey pubs, with a barrage of Powers and Redbreast releases keeping the collectors running around the country like the cast of It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and keeping a lot of whiskey pubs loyal to the throne.
Then there is the alleged upcoming IDL release of a gin, and here comes some wild conjecture: I think it could be released under the Method and Madness label. The M&M brand, with its links to the experimentation in the microdistillery, is ideal for a gin (the gin still is also housed within the micro). M&M makes sense for this – they are coming into a crowded market and they need to go small and experimental, ie, the exact opposite of their jaded Cork Dry Gin, AKA ‘the gin your racist aunt drinks’. Gin is a wild scene and if this release from Midleton doesn’t take hold, the M&M brand allows them to quietly shelve it as an experiment that erred on the side of madness. Again, all conjecture on my part.
Outside of the industry, Ireland has a raft of new whiskey voices. It’s fantastic to see bloggers, YouTubers, Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles popping up and enjoying that general buzz of a scene that is exploding. It’s an exciting time to be a whiskey lover, and I would urge anyone out there with a passion for our native spirit to start blogging, tweeting or just larking about on the internet, as we always need more voices. And besides, there’s always the off chance you might get the odd freebie or ten.
In May I was invited over to the Spirit of Speyside festival. It is an incredible event and I recommend it to anyone interested in whiskey tourism and how to do it right – the new tasting room in Strathisla was a great education in how you make whiskey tasting fun and interested for those who don’t care all that much about whiskey. It can’t just be a science lesson and a look at some stills – you need to give people an experience they will remember. Let the nerds into the warehouse with the master distiller, but the buses of tourists need more than a wander around a stillhouse and a talk on yeast.
Obviously, this was my second time being brought over for the Spirit Of Speyside. I was there in 2015 too, and was invited largely because of all the nice things I had written for the Irish Examiner about Midleton Distillery. The festival sponsors in 2015 were Chivas, or, to give them their full title, Chivas Brothers Pernod Ricard. My invite this year also came from Chivas, and I stayed in a Chivas house next to Strathisla. Look, I am basically a giant whiskey whore and we all just need to make our peace with that fact, I have no scruples and I am in the pocket of Big Whiskey, I’m changing my name to Bill Linnane Pernod Ricard, or Jean Luc Ricard, yada yada yada.
I had assumed that as my French friends were so generous during the year, that I wouldn’t be getting a Christmas bottle. I saw other bloggers and whiskey commentators getting Redbreast 15s and Green Spots, and thought, good for them, as I hummed All The Young Dudes to myself. Then a package arrived, and I gave my wife quite the jolt when I shouted FUCK ME as I opened it and realised what it was. It was, in fact, this:
Irish Distillers has unveiled the next chapter in its Virgin Irish Oak Collection of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskeys; Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest edition.
In collaboration with expert forestry consultant, Paddy Purser, the Irish Distillers team of Kevin O’Gorman, Head of Maturation, and Billy Leighton, Head Blender, chose Bluebell Forest on Castle Blunden Estate to provide the oak for the second edition in the Midleton Dair Ghaelach series. Each bottle can be traced back to one of six individual 130-year-old oak trees that were carefully felled in the Bluebell Forest in May of 2013.
Bluebell Forest is found among the historic stone walls of Castle Blunden Estate in County Kilkenny. Since the 1600s, generations of the Blunden Family have watched over a stand of Irish oak trees with a carpet of luminescent bluebells covering the forest floor.
To craft the oak into barrels, fellow artisans at the Maderbar sawmills in Baralla, north-west Spain, used the quarter-sawing process to cut the trees into staves, which were then transferred to the Antonio Páez Lobato cooperage in Jerez. After drying for 15 months, the staves were worked into 29 Irish oak Hogshead casks and given a light toast.
The whiskey, made up of a selection of Midleton’s classic rich and spicy pot still distillates matured for between 12 and 23 years in American oak barrels, was then filled into the Irish oak Hogshead casks and diligently nosed and tasted each month by Leighton and O’Gorman. After a year and a half, the pair judged that the whiskey had reached the perfect balance between the spicy single pot still Irish whiskey and Irish oak characteristics.
Bottled at cask strength, between 55.30% to 56.30% ABV, and without the use of chill filtration, Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest is available from November 2017 in markets, including the US, Canada, Ireland, France and the UK at the recommended selling price of $280 per 70cl.
When this first hit the market I cheerfully remarked that whilst celebrating the great houses (and cashing in on their equally great history) is nice, it’s also worth remembering that they were built on the bones of a million Irish dead. It was a thought that came back to me at Powerscourt as I stood in the estate’s pet cemetery – there are headstones there from 1916, meaning that while the aristocrats were holding funerals for their dogs, Irish people were being lined up and shot because they wanted their freedom. A terrible beauty indeed.
But enough of my inept historical punditry – to some equally inept tasting notes!
On the nose, sweet red pepper, roasted tomato, the leather/tobacco/spice trifecta in full effect. I’m not sure where this is going – it’s part savoury, part spun sugar, with that curious wood element in the background. Chinese five spice, roasted banana, Black Forest Gateau, shortbread biscuit, melted Twix, and a fair amount of WTFery. It’s not as immediate as the Redbreast 21, but then, what is?
On the palate, Euthymol toothpaste, fruit pastilles, Skittles, a lot of really bright flavours, and a lot less of those deep, dark ones of RB21. It is smooth, and elegant, but it just lacks that Krakatoa boom you want from something that costs 300. It’s a very well made whiskey, with great balance, but it’s no Dreamcask. However, it’s the element of experimentation with native wood that makes this remarkable – the ability to make a uniquely Irish whiskey that little bit more Irish.
Of course, I’m not just a corporate mouthpiece for Big Whiskey, I’m also a corporate mouthpiece for medium-sized, grassroots, bootstrap whiskey, in this case embodied by West Cork Distillers. I had eyed them with an air of Cold War paranoia over the last couple of years, seeing them as secretive and touchy. What the hell are they building in there, I growled to myself. Then a chance meeting with John O’Connell changed that, and he threw open the doors in Skibb to me, a trip that became this sprawling piece on FFT.ie. John is one of the most honest, straight shooting people in Irish whiskey, and is quietly doing great things down there. One example of this is his spirit of experimentation, such as their reverse engineering of peated whiskey.
Peated malt is hard to come by in Ireland – legend has it that one maltster did a peated batch but didn’t clean the pipes properly afterwards, with the end result that a batch of very lightly peat-tainted malted barley went to a very large and notoriously black-hearted brewer. Cue said brewer issuing a notice to all malting houses in Ireland that there was to be no more peating or they would no longer do business with them, thus ending peated Irish malt. Allegedly.
Peat is an undiscovered country here – we have a few peated whiskeys, but as far as I know they were all peated in Scotland, using Scottish peat, and – most likely – Scottish grain. As always, I’m open to correction here, so feel free to jump in and school me.
John O’Connell comes from a background in food science, and experimentation is in his genes, so to create a peated Irish whiskey, he simply infused casks with Irish peat by charring them with a peat fire. Taking single malt aged in sherry butts, he then finished the whiskey in the peat charred cask for another six months, resulting in this release. It’s a single cask, released at cask strength. But what I love about WCD is their sense of fairness – all of their releases are incredibly reasonably priced, which may be part of the reason they don’t often get the respect they deserve.
Whiskey is a snobbish scene – and I’m as guilty of this as anyone – and a value dram from WCD might get overlooked in favour of a pricier bottle. This peat cask release has a surprisingly clean nose despite the strength – not a huge amount from the peat, but a lot from the sherry – red fruits, black cherry, oatcake, maybe a little red onion jam. Nail polish, but in a good way. On the palate the strength makes itself known immediately. The peat here is minimal – I could see this being used as an intro to peated whiskeys for those who might not be ready to have their face fucked by Laphroaig. This liquid has a lot of sizzle, making way for oily, slightly smokey flavours – hickory smoked bacon, BBQ sauce and caramelised sugar. A short finish, and a fine dram for a good price. I even like the wine-bottle aesthetic they opted for.
This whiskey is a brave experiment for a small distillery and I think it’s worth a punt. Obviously, there are those who would disagree, but I love that WCD took a risk. The Irish are nothing if not inventive, and I welcome a bit of experimentation – it doesn’t matter if that is with strange casks, biodynamic barley, strange grains, local peat, or even pellets of African mahogany. The Dair Ghaelach and the WCD come from opposite ends of the spectrum – one is a super-premium release from a massive distillery with money to burn; the other is a bargain dram from a distillery that has a still which was made from a hotel boiler. But what unites them is a willingness to experiment and try new things, and for that they are both to be commended.
And so to 2019. How many more distilleries are going to make it over the line? Maybe it is just my pessimistic nature, but to me it seems like we might be hitting peak distilling. Clon are on stream, Boann are there too, Glendalough are working away at getting their whiskey distilling operation up and running, Tipp are opening in 2019 in Dundrum House. I find myself looking at the IWA distillery map from a couple of years ago and marvelling that so many have actually made it. Granted, some on the map won’t make it, but overall it is a pretty impressive feat that we went from fuck-all distilleries to this many in a short period of time. There will be teething problems, but any concerns I ever had about the integrity of our messaging has nothing on the absolute mess that is Japanese whisky.
That said, if I was an American with roots in north Cork and I bought a bottle of Kilbrin Irish whiskey, produced by the Kilbrin Distilling Company, I would expect the liquid within to have some link to Kilbrin, especially as they say it is from the parish of Kilbrin.
Spoiler alert: Kilbrin whiskey has nothing to do with Kilbrin, apart from being ‘inspired’ by a mythical treasure buried in Kilbrin. It’s okay though, as this was a rookie error by a small firm with no background in whiskey, actually hang on I’m just checking my notes here and it would appear that the firm behind Kilbrin Whiskey is actually a subsidiary of Scots whisky giant (and owner of Tullamore DEW) Wm Grant & Sons. Well now I don’t know what to think.
The problem here isn’t really transparency per se – I genuinely don’t care where this whiskey comes from (chances are it is from Bushmills). I do start to care if I feel that the wool is being pulled over the eyes of American consumers, as there is also the contagion effect of mistrust. I don’t buy Japanese whisky anymore as I don’t want to have to turn into Hercule Poirot just to find out if the liquid was actually created in Japan, and if a couple of poorly-thought out brands burn the American consumer then we are doomed.
Yes, all Irish whiskey is Irish, so we are nowhere near the Japanese situation. But surely if place is being used as a selling point then we should consider that down the road people might want to visit that place to see where the whiskey came from? Why not just speak straight, like the fantastically blunt explanation of Blacks Whiskey and where it originated. Besides, if you are going after the average American consumer, surely people rather than places are both safer and more engaging – how many myths and legends do we have that could be exploited for a brand story? Feckin’ loads of them, all we have is batshit crazy stories about giants and mad yokes fighting huge dogs, stick them on the bottle rather than poor auld Kilbrin, a place I wouldn’t want any American wandering around in the hopes of finding a distillery. I’m not even sure they have a post office.
The good news is that even if we burn our bridges with America, at least we will have China to plunder, as Bord Bia have commissioned a report on attitudes to Irish whiskey there, and are looking for the findings in ‘a visually appealing, high-definition conference PowerPoint presentation which highlights the core insights and offers recommendations for the industry’. Wow – Powerpoint, I’d better hit pause on my Hootie and the Blowfish mp3 on my Zune, log off my dial up internet and use my landline to call 1996 because if you need to specifically ask people to use Powerpoint, you are setting a low bar. It just reminds me of the laughable LOI rebrand.
Irish whiskey bonder Louise McGuane, who has vast experience in both the US and Asia with various drinks brands, summed up what the report should say in a single tweet:
Now if only I could find a way to screenshot that tweet into a Powerpoint slide and maybe get it to spin into frame, then I could be raking in some sweet, sweet tax dollars from Bord Bia.
It wasn’t all good news for Irish whiskey this year – Brexit still poses massive uncertainty for Northern Ireland’s burgeoning whiskey scene, while I’m personally holding Brexit to account for Master Of Malt no longer shipping to Ireland. Apparently, it was always illegal for whiskey to be shipped unaccompanied into Ireland, but nobody seemed to give a damn when I brought in a few grands’ worth over the last four years. Now, with Brexit looming, there would appear to have been a clampdown. Thus, I have nowhere to go for my cheap deals – even the whiskey from my hometown was often cheaper on MoM than it is right here where it is made. If any whiskey fan out there has a solution to this mess, please HMU in the comments.
This sprawling disaster of a blog post is only an incredibly brief sliver of rumour and innuendo, and in no way representative of just how alive Irish whiskey is right now. If I could chuck in my job and spend six months doing a Barnard and visiting every distillery in Ireland, I would do it in a heartbeat. But I can’t, so sadly you get this armchair punditry instead, in which I have managed to not mention about 90% of the big events from the year – Teeling pot still, Kilbeggan Rye, Dingle maturing like a fine wine, and the pagan science going on down in Waterford, which is part Wicker Man, part Gattaca. So here’s to 2019, 2020, 2021, and all the great whiskeys to come. As the old song goes, things can only get better.
“Nobody knows anything about us,” John O’Connell says of West Cork Distillers, the firm he co-founded and has poured 17 years of his life into.
It seems incongruous – at a time when Irish whiskey is booming, one of the most grassroots, ground-up operations in the country is also one of its least well-known. This is partly because they have no marketing department, no PR wing, and any money they have is put into making more whiskey, rather than advertising. As a result, they developed something of an air of mystery in the Irish whiskey scene – rumours circulate that they are the source of much of the third-party stock on the market (they are not), that they were behind Conor McGregor’s whiskey (that honour is held by Bushmills) or that they are some sort of secret state, a North Korea of Irish whiskey (this, they most definitely are not). West Cork Distillers, much like their founder, are simply quiet.
John O’Connell has no official title, a jarring fact given that he has his pick of several – master distiller, co-founder, CEO, CFO, visionary. But he doesn’t want a title, as he likes to run WCD with no hierarchical structure. Even the title of the company he created reflects this ethos – it is West Cork Distillers, not West Cork Distillery; this is about people, not things. When I asked if I could meet him in the Skibbereen distillery, he had one condition – that I meet as many of the staff as possible, as they were as central to the story of WCD as anything. And what a story it is.
From the little fishing village of Union Hall, O’Connell was one of nine children. After school he did a Phd in colloidal chemistry and food science only to discover upon graduation that there were few jobs for colloidal chemists in Ireland. Despite his claims that he ended up in this line and in the sciences generally ‘through confusion’ and that there is no masterplan to his career, his family have a tradition of science – his mother was a science teacher, while his sister is a doctor. His mother’s father was from Reenascreena between Glandore and Leap, and he was also a science teacher and keen botanist – he was also key to the excavation of Drombeg stone circle.
Despite the lack of jobs, O’Connell didn’t want to leave Ireland to find work, but he ended up working with Unilever doing food science research in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, and Japan. Unilever was based on a campus that had so many staff it had its own bank, while staff members could often be seen playing croquet at lunch – this was a vast organisation.
O’Connell realised that he could affect little change at Unilever, so he moved on to Kerry Group, a job which he loved. As head of research, he was in control of a significant budget and travelled all over Europe to food science plants conducting research. He says joining Kerry Group was the second best decision he ever made, and leaving it was the very best – because that was the genesis of West Cork Distillers.
Not far from O’Connell’s family home in Union Hall lived his two first cousins, Denis McCarthy and Gerard McCarthy. All three came from large families, and O’Connell says he can’t remember a time in his life when Ger (one of eight children) and Den (one of seven) weren’t in it. The McCarthy cousins became deep sea fishermen, a brutal job which in its modern form is akin to a kind of indentured servitude, as you are tied to an ever-deepening debt for your boat and gear.
So the three cousins decided to come up with something else to do. First they were going to process seaweed, but the capital expenditure on that was too high. So they set up West Cork Distillers in a room at the back of Den’s house, with two small stills they bought from a schnapps producer in Switzerland. It may seem like an odd choice of venture – this was back in 2003, when Irish whiskey was only starting to wake from its century-long slumber, and it made almost no economic sense to start what a media savvy marketing team would brand as a craft micro-distillery.
It made no sense to open a distillery – but there was a tradition of distilling in the family. O’Connell came from a long line of distillers – albeit the illegal variety. O’Connell’s father came from Coppeen in the Coolea Mountains, the poitin heartland of west Cork, where many families ran their own stills. His father’s brother even took the family’s distilling heritage overseas – working in the 1960s as a porter in a UK hospital he set up what he claimed was a dark room for developing photos, but was in fact an illicit still – run right under the noses of the nuns. So while there was a tradition of science in the family, there was a less well-known tradition of distilling there also. Embracing this ancient art, and using his vast expertise in food science, O’Connell and his cousins set to making alcoholic spirits in a back room, hoping for the best.
The first product from West Cork Distillers was Drombeg, which was not distilled, but was fermented, meaning it benefited from the advantage of a lower revenue rate. However, the State didn’t see it that way, and so it was that the three friends took on the Irish Revenue Service in Dublin Castle, represented themselves, and won. They got the better tax rate. This was going to be one of several skirmishes with the various arms of the state for the west Cork men.
In the meantime, they got to work on their distilling operation, building equipment as they needed to expand. O’Connell says that if you find yourself a fisherman, or a farmer, then you have a person of many skills – chemist, welder, builder, meteorologist, fabricator. As they expanded, they built everything they needed from scratch, and still do – the majority of equipment in West Cork Distillers sizeable operation outside Skibbereen has been built on site. To see how much they have built is inspirational – elements such as The Rocket, ‘the fastest still in the world’ according to drinks consultants Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley. But it’s name isn’t just from the speed it distills at, but the fact that it looks like a ballistic missile, although keen observers will note that the top of it looks very much like a large domestic boiler, because that is, in fact, what it is.
After their Drombeg release came the Kennedy range, which brought more controversy as whiskey fans felt it was an insult to their category; it was a brown spirit at a lower ABV that was aimed at the Asian market, a field that O’Connell knew from his travels. He says himself that with their earliest products they were ‘clutching at straws’ to get the firm off the ground. Undaunted by drinks snobbery, they ploughed on with their firm, despite the fact that at times it must have felt like the whole world was against them.
O’Connell’s family were shocked that he had left a dream job as head of R&D with Kerry Group to make booze in a back yard, so he had to make it work. WCD didn’t have time to pander to whiskey snobs, so they released Kennedy as a savoury brown spirit. However, they were making straight up whiskey as well. They started laying down new make in 2008 and increased the volumes they were laying down in 2012, with higher volumes again in 2014. O’Connell went on a fact-finding mission to MGP, Indiana’s super-producing distillery, saw how they worked, both as a producer and as a commercial entity, and replicated it with WCD.
After five years in Den’s yard, they moved to Skibbereen’s Market Street in 2014, and with the expansion they now had rates to pay, staff to pay, and all the pressures of a growing business. Fortunate then that they landed what was a massive new-make contract, which helped them turn a corner. This was also a turning point for the Irish whiskey category – sales were accelerating, but rather than cash in, WCD have kept a level head – as O’Connell says, if they are selling their whiskeys for more than Redbreast, they are losing. They need to keep that competitive edge against the big guns.
O’Connell has a fantastically down to earth attitude about WCD. He is polite, and good company, but he isn’t one for schmoozing. He recently pulled WCD from the Irish Whiskey Association, as he felt it was an unnecessary expense for his firm. WCD just keep their head down and work, quietly growing all the time. They don’t do tours of their distillery, but they never turn anyone away.
The site they bought in 2016 – a former fish processing plant – is a 12.5 acre area where they do everything – fermentation, distilling, warehousing, bottling – and almost all the equipment was built by hand right there in west Cork.
“Desperation is great motivation,” O’Connell humbly says, but they have clients all over the world – more than 65 countries, from Japan to Belize, the latter being a country that O’Connell had to try and find on a map after the deal was closed.
Underneath all of this work, all this blood sweat and tears, is O’Connell’s vision to just make Irish whiskey accessible – it’s an ethos reflected in both their pricing and their range. Their sourced range – the ten and 12 year old malts finished in sherry and rum casks – retail for about 42 euro a bottle. Most of the sourced ten year old malt on the shelf in Ireland is around 60 and upwards, even though they quite possibly come from the exact same distillery (either Bushmills or Cooley, most likely the former).
O’Connell is one of the most disarmingly open and honest people you will meet in Irish whiskey – he will tell you anything if you simply ask. At talks or tastings he shares spreadsheets of their production output, and talks openly about buying equipment to analyse their own and their competitors products to get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. He is an extraordinary man, a man of great faith, in science, in religion and in people, who has never backed down and never given up on WCD. He says that, if he could go back, he wouldn’t do it all again, that the price has been too high, all the heartbreak and battles too their toll. But it is hard to imagine him anywhere else.
Asked if he would sell if the money was right, his response is a straight no: “I wouldn’t know what to do. I work six days a week, on Sunday I go to Mass and have dinner with my mother and father, but then I’m back in here in the afternoon. I love working here with my friends and I love that our business has a positive effect on the economy locally.”
With 54 staff – many having come from the fishing industry – and an ever expanding operation, WCD is a significant employer in a region where jobs can be harder to find than they are closer to the urban centre of Cork city. WCD have sourced whiskey, produce for third-party sales, release their own stock under their own labels as well as celebrity brands such as Pogues Irish Whiskey, and are not afraid to experiment, releasing a whiskey finished in a cask that has been infused with peat smoke, an inversion of the famous scotches made with peated barley. They even make small amounts of rye and rum, and also buy in rum from eight different islands in the Caribbean. They also have about 20,000LPAs of mature pot still whiskey. Half of their new make is sold to other people – bourbon, scotch and Japanese whisky producers – but they still have plenty for themselves, and have built an excellent relationship with the McLoughlins of Kelvin Cooperage, a relationship that saw WCD getting their hands on ex-Michter’s rye casks that were toasted, rather than charred, a relative rarity. Everything with WCD is kosher – literally, as they were the first Irish distiller to receive kosher certification. WCD is growing, quietly, and with little fuss. There are no headline-grabbing PR stunts, just heads-down whiskey business. At the heart of it all is O’Connell’s wish to make Irish whiskey accessible, no frills, no bells and whistles, no spin – a whiskey for the people, produced in a distillery for the people.