Hyde and seek

Augustine of Hippo knew a few things about lying. In about 395AD he wrote a couple of books on the subject, and in one, De Mendacio (On Lying), he detailed a compendium of the reasons people lie. As listicles go, it stands pretty strong to this day: Here they are, in order of descending severity:

  • Lies in religious teaching
  • Lies that harm others and help no one
  • Lies that harm others and help someone
  • Lies told for the pleasure of lying
  • Lies told to “please others in smooth discourse”
  • Lies that harm no one and that help someone materially
  • Lies that harm no one and that help someone spiritually
  • Lies that harm no one and that protect someone from “bodily defilement”

We are all guilty of at least one or two categories, but within the whiskey business, the third last is prevalent – lies that harm no-one and help someone make a buck. But there is always harm to a lie, no matter how benign it is.

I can still remember the moment I realised Hyde Whiskey did not own a distillery. It was at a whiskey society meeting in Midleton to taste the soon-to-be-launched Mano A Lamh, and I got chatting to Fionnan O’Connor about some of the new brands popping up. I was still learning about whiskey and, in retrospect, I really hadn’t a clue. I foolishly assumed that if a whiskey said it was from west Cork, then that was where it was from. Fionnan pointed out that it was Cooley stock and was thus from about 200kms north of west Cork. I was confused – why would they claim to be from west Cork when they weren’t? Why would anyone bother lying about such a trivial thing? Surely you let the product speak for itself, rather than dressing it up as something else, right? 

A quick google brought me the information that I needed – Hyde Whiskey’s parent firm was Hibernia Distillers, a convenient name for a firm that had no distillery. Back then Hibernia was registered to an office in Blackpool (they since changed address to Innishannon, albeit it under the Irish version of the name). The Blackpool office was the same space occupied by a food marketing firm named Bullseye Marketing. Bullseye is owned by Conor Hyde, director of Hibernia Distillers. 

The whole concept of food marketing is an odd one – surely we shouldn’t need to have food pitched at us with some sort of goofy narrative? Wrong. Apparently we need our smoothies to be Innocent, our low sugar soft drinks to be split by gender into diet and Max, and for our whiskey to come with an entirely fictitious story that has no bearing whatsoever on the liquid within. This is because we are easily influenced by brand messages, and so it was that I learned the hard lessons of what Hyde Whiskey – and a lot of whiskey marketing generally – was about.

The bulk of the initial publicity for the brand placed Hyde No. 1, their first release, squarely in west Cork. The local newspapers were delighted to announce that the whiskey was produced in the region. But as any food marketing guru knows, ‘producing’ means anything from actually making to simply packaging.

As for their much touted ageing in west Cork, further scrutiny showed that Hyde actually only finished the whiskey in Cork for six to nine months. So for ten years, this Cooley single malt was aged in their facility up the country, and then, according to Conor Hyde, it was decanted into their sherry cask to be finished in west Cork for less than a year.

Herein lies problem number one – where is Hyde whiskey from? The first Hyde release spent ten years at Cooley’s maturation facility, then an alleged nine months in Cork. I would suggest that it is not from west Cork, nor is it of west Cork. It is a Cooley malt, plain and simple. But no-one wanted to take Hyde to task over this initial claim. Many whiskey bloggers are happy to get free samples and will regurgitate whatever you tell them to keep the booze flowing. Similarly, most people who work in the media have vague liberal arts degrees and are rarely experts in a single thing, least of all whiskey, so there are few journalists who would ask ‘are you sure this is actually from Cork?’

In the initial stages the Hydes put out the message that they were planning to build a distillery, but a quick check of the Cork County Council website informed me that this was not the case. They also claimed Skibbereen as their base, presumably because they used the warehouses of West Cork Distillers to finish their whiskey. However, with a brand like this which operates with so little clarity, who really knows.

Then there are the tweets. Photos of bottles of Hyde randomly sitting in fields around west Cork, with constant reassurances that the temperate air of west Cork was perfect for ageing whiskey. Unless it has the same climate as Taiwan – the secret to Kavalan’s success – I very much doubt that the alleged six-to-nine months the whiskey spent in temperate Cork had any impact, other than the fact it was in a sherry cask. Thus far, all of this was fairly standard whiskey marketing – create an illusion, lather, rinse, repeat. And then there was this tweet:

This was the point where I moved from seeing Hyde as just another whiskey brand to something else. It is a tweet with a screengrab of text attached – thus created in a two step process – so it is highly unlikely this could be written off as a typo, clerical error, enthusiastic marketing or anything other than a barefaced lie. It was later deleted when I asked where in west Cork their whiskey was distilled.

But I realised that it wasn’t just the whiskey that was coming with a backstory. In interviews in which Conor Hyde talked about how his family were vintners who owned a tavern. Unless he grew up in an adaptation of Dick Whittington, I would suggest his family were not vintners who owned a tavern – they were publicans who owned a pub. But this is the semantic quagmire of food marketing. Everything is handcrafted, artisan, bespoke, boutique, and craft; terms that have been rendered completely meaningless by marketeers. It is within these blurred lines that many brands operate, because they simply don’t want you to know much about what you are eating or drinking (other than what they tell you about it).

Hyde also tweeted this, presumably to illustrate their craft credentials:

 

They also deleted this tweet after someone pointed out that their product was previously owned by Beam Suntory. 

Then there were the interviews with Conor Hyde, such as this one from the Irish Examiner. Some samples:

So this is a limited, premium product?

We’re not going for high volume low margin.

We are going for a very premium, very top-end whiskey. We’ve spent a lot of time developing this in limited edition small batches, with very special wood.

So we’re trying to command a higher price point in the marketplace given the amount of tender loving care that goes into developing the whiskey before we sell it on the market place.

 

  • It’s a ten year old single malt, not exactly the holy grail of whiskeys. While there are many ten year old single malts that I love, Hyde’s is not exceptional, and is sold at a price point that is almost double what it should be. Also, ‘small batch’ is total nonsense as Cooley rattled out malt at a wicked speed in the biggest batches they could manage. This isn’t to say that their product is inferior – they made some cracking whiskeys over the years, but pretending they were some bespoke, boutique operation is misleading.

 

You just won the Best Irish Whiskey in The World award in San Francisco too?

I have to say that we are absolutely delighted to have won the award. It’s a very prestigious award.

The San Francisco Spirit Awards are the Oscars of world spirits. You have over 1,800 entrants from around the world and everybody strives to win an award at this competition.

You have some of the most respected judges from around the world too. These people are aficionados of whiskey, they know what they’re tasting. There were over 200 Irish whiskeys entered into the competition, so we were over the moon when we won.

 

  • Let’s put this one down to confusion on the part of the journalist (more of that later) – they didn’t win best Irish whiskey, they won best Irish single malt. Redbreast 21 took the top spot for Irish whiskey that year. As for the San Francisco World Spirits Competition – this is how they discern which is the best:

Producers must submit their product for the competition and pay a fee ($475 for 2013) for its evaluation. Not all entries are given awards (those not judged of sufficient quality are not given an award) but most receive a bronze, silver, or gold award from the tasting panel. The fact that most entrants receive an award likely involves some degree of self-selection, as the spirits producers choose whether to enter each of their brands in the competition and pay to receive a rating.

Like Feis Maitiu, almost everyone gets a medal. I’m sure the Apostle of Temperance would be delighted.

 

How do you break through into a crowded Irish whiskey market globally?

Well, we’ve positioned the brand as Hyde’s President’s Cask, so we are positioning it as a presidential quality whiskey.

It’s one of the best whiskeys to come out of Ireland as far as we are concerned.

We take so much time choosing wooden casks from all over the world to justify that positioning. We bring in empty Oloroso sherry casks from southern Spain, which are handpicked and very carefully graded. So then we take our whiskey, which has been maturing in bourbon casks for 10 years, and put them into the sherry casks for a further six to eight months. That’s what makes it so special and that’s what makes it such a premium product and so presidential.

  • Again, none of this makes Hyde whiskey special. In fact, it is all fairly standard. As for presidential, who knows what that is meant to mean, although given how Trump has risen to power using fake news and gaslighting, he might just be right. But this is my favourite bit:

So what makes Irish whiskey so different to any other?

People generally describe Irish whiskey as smoother whiskey. When you drink Irish whiskey you get a lovely warm glow inside your tummy.

With something like a scotch whiskey it’s a peated whiskey, which is made using a different technique.

They actually smoke the whiskey and you get that warm or hot sensation in your throat or your mouth just before it goes down.

It has a bit more fire in the mouth kind of feel to it. Whereas Irish whiskey is actually growing really rapidly around the world because it’s so smooth.

It goes down so easily and has a lovely mellow gentle finish to it as opposed to a more fiery finish that you might get with a scotch.

  • Now I am no expert, but this sounds to me like he either thinks he is talking to someone who doesn’t know a thing about whiskey (he possibly is) or he doesn’t really know what he is talking about. Disparaging Scotch with inaccurate claims about how they ‘actually smoke the whisky’ and that somehow it burns your mouth is bizarre and unhelpful. As for the ‘Irishness’ of the liquid – Hyde whiskey is actually closer to a Speyside whisky than anything – sherry finished, double distilled single malt. But at 70 euro a bottle, it is an overpriced, relatively dull Speysider.But however confusing and misleading that interview was, the best was yet to come. I heard the Sunday Business Post was doing an extensive feature on whiskey, so I picked up a copy. This was what greeted me:

That is Conor Hyde, who, once again, does not own a distillery, or a warehouse, or a maltings, or anything other than a brand. Why was he even included in the interview, along with people like John Teeling, Mark Reynier, Bernard Walsh and Peter Mulryan? These are people who chased this crazy dream of becoming distillers, putting their livelihoods on the line. How is he even on the same page as them?  There are many, many people in Ireland right now who are doing really interesting things in the distilling world, so why did the ‘they-actually-smoke-the-whiskey’ guy get a cover shot? But I’m delighted to report that the feature went downhill from there.

Here’s a shot of the interview so you know I’m not making this up.

Here is the transcript in italics, with a few clarifications by me:

One distillery taking that advice is Hyde Distillery in Roscommon, which was opened by Conor Hyde and his brother Alan in 2014.

  • At least it has one hell of an opening line. Hyde do not own a distillery in Roscommon or anywhere else. The only connection to Roscommon is the fact that former President Douglas Hyde – after whom the whiskey brand is purportedly named – was from Roscommon. It seems likely that this is what we in print media would call ‘a production error’. You might call it a fuck up. More on this later.

For Hyde, the key to good Irish whiskey is not so much in the distilled whiskey but the flavour imparted during the ageing process.

Like Walsh and Teeling, the Hydes spent a big chunk of their budget on selecting the right barrels for their whiskey to age in.

“Other potential entrants [into the whiskey industry] focus on manufacturing,” Conor Hyde says. “But it’s well proven that 80 per cent of the taste of whiskey comes from the wood.”

  • At least this has a bit more clarity, as Hyde are obviously less concerned with manufacturing.  This is because – once again – they do not own a distillery, warehouse, maltings or anything that has anything to do with actually making or maturing whiskey. Hyde also put a lot of effort into talking up the influence of wood on their website  – more on that later in a section titled ‘Plagiarism’.  If 80% of a whiskey’s flavour came from the cask, every whiskey would taste the same, as everyone buys casks from the same sources. To suggest that elements like barley, yeast, distilling itself and warehouse location have a mere 20% impact on the finished product is nonsense. Again, I’m no expert, but even I know that you are clutching at straws when you make a wild claim like that.

That makes it vital to select the right barrels and the right location for ageing, according to Hyde, who ages their whiskey in west Cork.

“It’s very temperate there,” he says, “which makes it perfect for ageing. It’s not too hot and not too cold. [In the barrels] the whiskey breathes in and out. When the wood gets cold, the whiskey retracts: when it gets hot, it migrates back into the wood. It’s that ebb and flow in and out of the oak that gives whiskey its flavour.”

  • Almost all of Ireland is very temperate. West Cork is no different. Exactly where in west Cork Hyde claim to finish their whiskey is a mystery – as I said before, I can only assume it was in the warehouses of WCD, but again, who knows. All we know for certain is that – once again – Hyde do not own a distillery or warehouses.

The Hydes’ whiskey sits in a variety of different barrels as it ages.

“We’re very much focussed on the finishing of the whiskey more than the distillation,” he says. “We put an awful lot of effort into sourcing unusual casks. We have dark rum casks from Barbados. We bring in sweet Oloroso sherry casks in southern Spain. We bring in Burgundy casks from the Cote d’Or near Dijon in France, [which is] very well known for the pinot noir wine grape. We also have your industry standard bourbon casks from Kentucky.”

It’s not cheap. A wooden cask can cost up to 800 to buy and ship, Hyde says, and the requirement to do due diligence is high.

“There are some dodgy cask sellers out there. You have to be careful with your wood.” This is to ensure it hasn’t been denatured by over-use.

  • Well, at least he is almost being honest by saying they focus more on finishing than on distillation, which is true as – and I’m going to keep drilling this point home – they don’t own a distillery or warehouses.  

Hyde Whiskey has won several awards for its whiskey and is exporting to over 18 countries, Hyde says, and it is well established in the US in particular.

“We’re in more than 25 states, and we have a full-time person on the ground in Chicago,” he says.

For Hyde, the start-up whiskey companies need to make sure that they nail those export markets properly.

“What you’re looking for is an exclusive exportation partner we could work with, who would understand and care for the brand, and position and market it as carefully as we would ourselves,” he says.

“Important advice to any brand: very carefully pick your distributor and importation partners in each country. They’re your representative on the ground, you have to trust they’ll do the right thing by your product.”

  • Uh huh. Distribution is important, yet, speaking as a consumer with zero links to the industry, I would say ‘not lying to the consumer’ is also important.

Hyde is in the process of distilling its own spirit, while it sells blended and aged versions of whiskey it has bought from other distillers.

“Our own probably won’t be ready for another year. Even then, we probably won’t release it for six years, because we have a high quality threshold,” he says.

  • There are two possibilities here – either Hyde are distilling by contract, whereby you pay a distillery to work from a mashbill you give them, then use your casks and age the spirit in someone else’s warehouse; or they are not doing that at all and this is more of the empty posturing that now seems to be part of the brand. If they are distilling by contract, then it is a shame that they can’t be upfront about it. But at this stage, Conor Hyde had passed a point of no return, and really couldn’t just say ‘we are independent bottlers and we are going to do interesting things over the coming years’. But the next part is the best:

His advice for other aspiring distilleries is simple.

“Making it is only half the battle. They have to all be cognisant that it’s not that hard to make whiskey – the hard part is selling and marketing.

  • “It’s not that hard to make whiskey”. It’s hard to underestimate how offensive this comment is – to barley growers, to maltsters, to distillers, to blenders, to just about everyone who works in whiskey. The obvious response to this outrageous comment is simply: If it’s so easy, why the fuck aren’t you making any? Why aren’t you doing this simple thing, rather than pretending you are? As for ‘the hard part’ being ‘selling and marketing’ – he isn’t entirely wrong. Marketing is a huge component of a whiskey’s success (or lack thereof), and it is precisely because marketing is such an all-consuming monster that we have ended up with Walter Mittys like Hyde Whiskey.

“Irish whiskey is only 5 per cent of the world market. We’re not going to go from 5 to 15, as projected in the next ten years, unless we’re strong branded quality products. The last thing we want to be doing is fighting ourselves on the world stage, with people undercutting each other’s commodity whiskey.”

  • Strong brands are important. So is honesty and transparency. As for ‘undercutting’ – if he means offering value for money, I would contend that consumers want value for money: If they don’t get it in the Irish whiskey category, then they will do what I do and just buy a lot of Scotch. I bought a 22 year old single malt from Linkwood for 55 euro on Master of Malt. Hyde No. 1 – a middle-of-the-road, ten-year-old single malt – is 60-70. It’s all very well to say we should all don the green jersey and arrange some sort of cartel, but consumers will get wise, just as they will get wise to the fact that almost all of the whiskey coming out of Ireland right now is from only three distilleries.  

On the day the SBP interview was published, there was an ensuing tweetstorm. First off was the claim that Hyde had a distillery in Roscommon. This was their explanation:

Saying they had ‘a distilery in Roscmom’ is a typo. Making a false claim like the one in the article either means that the journalist got it badly wrong, or he was lied to. This was the journalist’s bristling, unhelpful response to a query:

I’m going to assume that he simply got it wrong. Happens to the best of us, but usually you just put your hands up and admit it, rather than being snide.

In the flurry of tweets that followed, there were two opposing views, which largely sum up the entire debate around whiskey marketing. On one side, people involved in the industry – through marketing, sales, etc – defended Hyde, rightly pointing out that Jameson bottles still say Bow Street, Tullamore DEW says Tullamore, despite neither brand being made in those places.

On the other side of the argument were ordinary consumers who don’t like lies. This particular aspect of whiskey marketing and the ensuing row over it was brilliantly captured by drinks writer Sku in his analogous piece on cottage cheese. It simply asks – does all this detail about provenance actually matter? To many, it does not, but to me it does – I like to know where things come from, and I also think credit should be given where credit is due. Which brings me on to: 

Plagiarism

As I said, Hyde are pushing the wood angle, and their website has a large section devoted to their ‘intimate’ knowledge of casks and wood. Having worked as a copy editor and a copywriter, I learned to spot plagiarism. You can tell when someone copies and pastes work into their own – it lacks flow, and is disjointed.

When I browsed through Hyde’s extensive section on wood, it became immediately clear that it was lifted from somewhere else. I found the source, The Drinking Cup, and contacted Ben, the person who created it. He was terribly pleasant about their theft, even going so far as complementing what Hyde had done with his visuals, admiring how they had redesigning basic diagrams he sourced online and giving them new graphical life. But even though his work was open-source, he still sought a credit for his site, and contacted Hyde to ask for it. A few days later, an unsurprisingly small-batch credit was plonked in at the end of the text:

Hyde had lifted about 80% of Ben’s work with zero credit given. This isn’t just lazy, it is also stupid. To avoid this all they had to do was either put in a credit, or rewrite the copy, as they did for one of their other sections:

I never want to say any firm are ‘just’ bottlers – there is a fine tradition of indie bottlers like Cadenhead etc in the UK and in ten or 20 years we are going to need them here to create a vibrant whiskey scene for consumers. But Hyde have devalued the role of the bottler simply by pretending to be more. They don’t own a distillery, or a warehouse, yet they still send out messages like this:

There comes a point in this where I have to ask: Is it just me? Am I the only one who is bothered by this? Am I the only one who isn’t clicking his heels with joy at each new poorly disguised bottling of Midleton/Cooley/Bushmills? There is a lot of talk about a rising tide lifting all boats, but there is a difference between that and a tsunami of brands that lie with each breath they can muster. How many Irish whiskey drinkers in the promised land of the US realise there is no Hyde distillery? Or that every Irish brand save Dingle comes from one of the same three places? I can still remember when I realised Hyde were lying, and now, two years down the line, I clearly have not forgotten.

We talk about whiskey tourism – what if people want to visit the Hyde distillery? Or their warehouse? Or if an American tourist wants to visit any of the other brands who refuse to admit that beyond an office somewhere, they actually don’t exist? We need to get real. Putting out a sourced whiskey when you are trying to build a distillery is one thing – you have a goal, you are a bottler with a view to being a distiller. But if you are simply putting out a sourced whiskey, then you are an independent bottler and you need to accept that, work within it and be clear and straight with the consumer. Look at Lambay whiskey; at least they are trying something new – Cognac finish on sourced stock, with plans for island maturation. They got creative, rather than just talking shit at people and sending out misleading messages. 

You may be reading this and thinking that I am an angry jerk – which, by the way, I am – but I also care about the Irish whiskey category. People who understand whiskey are going to take notice of high-profile brands like Hyde, and what will they say? Well, here’s a few whisky writers, bloggers and journalists discussing the brand:

People are getting wise. Leslie Williams on FFT.ie made this point: “Looking at a bottle of say Hyde Whiskey or similar you would swear they had their own boutique distillery that has been operating for decades. I genuinely feel this is misleading and will come back to bite us if consumers feel they have been conned.  In Scotland and the US it is perfectly normal to sell whisky that has been purchased and aged somewhere other than the original distillery – honesty should be the key.”

But ultimately, what Conor Hyde has done is not that different from many others. He read the market and acted accordingly. He knew that if you had a distillery, your brand had more credibility. He knew place was important, so he chose west Cork for his narrative. He knew the brand needed a backstory so he co-opted Douglas Hyde into it. He did what many other brands do, but almost from the start, he went too far. And what has happened to him since? He has gone on to create an incredibly successful brand that is selling like hot cakes.

Augustine of Hippo’s list suggested that lying for material gain with no harm caused wasn’t that important. Whether or not there will be harm by this brand – and the many others following the same well-worn path of subterfuge and obfuscation – to the Irish whiskey category remains to be seen. But for me, and plenty of other consumers like me, we want whiskey and honesty in equal measure.