Flight of the Navigator

We all have a journey to whiskey, but for some, it is a more winding path that guides us here. For Daithí O’Connell, sailor, pilot, and founder of WD O’Connell independent bottlers, the journey was geographical as well as spiritual. 

The 40-year-old Carlow native started his career in hospitality aged just 15, working in a local hotel. Four years of that taught him that the 24/7 aspect of that was quite the burden – a 60 hour week commanded the princely sum of thirty púnts, with rent and other expenses on top of that – so he moved into the bar side of hospitality, focussing on the late bar and nightclub scene in McSorleys in Killarney. He then shifted to auctioneering, studying property management and valuation in the College Of Commerce in Cork city. He completed his studies, and found himself working in Mulligans in Cork city. Shortly after he went travelling in Australia, then moved to Denmark and worked in a concrete plant. Meanwhile, back in Ireland, the era known as the Celtic tiger was shifting into top gear – the owners of Mulligans, the Rebel Bar Group, were looking for someone to come on board as a partner in one location. O’Connell started back in Ireland with Oscar Madison’s in Kinsale, then Redz in Cork city, and then the Savoy nightclub, which he ran for four years during its heyday. In 2008, Ireland started to change – the Celtic Tiger was ailing and the economy was about to descend into a crushing recession. The Savoy hosted their last gig under his stewardship on New Year’s Eve 2008 and he moved to Australia with his partner 13 days later. Over the next four years his homeland would suffer the worst recession in the history of the state.

In Australia he trained to become a pilot, and was just shy of his commercial license when he moved to Hong Kong in 2010, where he was lured with the prospect of opening a bar with a group of Irish entrepreneurs. He spent five years there – running bars, setting up a boat hire business, and moving into prepay card systems (HK’s Octopus Card being a template). On the back of the latter business he relocated to Dubai, where his firm managed the payment systems for the Sevens, serving more than 150,000 punters across three days. 

After building up that business he started looking for a new project, and whiskey was in his sights – 2012 saw the sale of Cooley to Beam and Dingle Distillery firing up the stills. By late 2015 he had a site sorted and was ready to sign contracts with distillers, still makers, maltsters and all the key components of the project. But the globe-trotting and relentless work took its toll. His marriage disintegrated, and he was forced to reassess everything he knew. He moved back to Ireland and shelved the distillery plan. Then came a succession of events – he met a half-Irish German girl named Alina and fell in love, they became parents, his father died after a short illness, and he turned 40. He started working as a consultant with firms looking to upscale, but whiskey was still on his mind. His partner encouraged him to take the risk and follow his passion. In April 2019, he quit his job and threw himself completely into becoming an independent whiskey bottler. 

Bottlers are something of a rarity in Ireland – much of this had to do with the scarcity of distilleries. Bottlers need a diverse range – not just of whiskey styles and casks, but of sources. An indie bottler here over the last 20 years would be offering you the products of three distillers – Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley, and that was only if they were able to get access to stock from those three. 

But in Scotland, indie bottlers are revered as being able to offer unique offerings from well-known, lesser-known and long-dead distilleries. In fact, indie bottlers are so important to Scotch whisky that the late, great whisky writer Michael Jackson said of bottlers Gordon & MacPhail that if it were not for this firm, single malts as we know them would not exist today. 

It is in this mould that O’Connell sees his firm – to be the biggest indie bottler in Ireland by 2035. Working with support from Bord Bia he hired a creative agency to design his brand – with his love of flight and sailing, a compass rose forms a central part of the brand, while the rest is based around family. 

Now all he needed was some stock, and this is where Dr John Teeling comes in. Dr Teeling was the original disruptor in Irish whiskey – at a time when Bushmills and Midleton were the only whiskey makers on the island, he opened his warehouses to buyers. He forced the other two giants to up their game and watch their corners, and is still doing the same with Great Northern Distillery. 

O’Connell has something old and something new from Dr Teeling’s stable – a 17-year-old double-distilled Cooley single malt and a youthful, peated, triple-distilled GND single malt. The 17 was matured in first-fill bourbon for 17 years, then in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, bottled at 46%, non-chill filtered and limited to 370 bottles. It is the first ‘PX series’ release, the beginning of a limited series of PX-finished single malt Irish whiskeys. 

The GND single malt is a single cask of triple-distilled, peated single malt, matured in first-fill bourbon barrels and bottled at 47.5% ABV, non-chill filtered and limited to 306 bottles.  

It is the first ‘Bill Phil’ release, the start of a series of triple distilled, peated single malt Irish whiskeys. The O’Connells hail from Mountcollins in west Limerick, a small village which has a surprisingly large number of people named O’Connell, so nicknames were required to distinguish between the different families; Dáithí’s ancestors were the Bill Phils, and they specialised in a type of turf-cutting implement named a sleán. Thus, a peated expression was the perfect way to celebrate this heritage. 

So O’Connell has some stock, but an indie bottler needs more than Cooley or Great Northern to offer the punters. O’Connell’s model is a surprisingly new enterprise – there are many, many Irish whiskey brands out there which are effectively just indie bottlings – sourced whiskey released under another label. However, many are either released under the name of an as-yet unbuilt, partially built, or operational but sub-three years old distillery, or are bottlers without telling you that this is what they are. There is a paucity of brands who plainly state they are indie bottlers, who offer full info on the liquid within the bottle, where it came from, who distilled it, and how old it is. But bottlers are meant to be curators – they provide a vital piece of infrastructure in Scotland, and will be required to do the same here. 

WD O’Connell Whiskey Merchants comes with a clarity and simplicity in its message – that they are going to source stock from distilleries and bottle it in small batches. The Bill Phil is a light gold liquid, with a bright, medicinal tang on the nose – light but succulent sweetness. On the palate – the youthful heat is balanced by sweet smoke, and for a barely legal dram it is incredibly smooth. O’Connell is quick to point out that the Bill Phil isn’t some smash and grab, where he releases a well-aged 17 and then throws out some firewater as a money spinner. Bill Phil was released because it is quality liquid – and because it shows the power of peat, something O’Connell is keen to explore. The PX is a counterpoint to Bill Phil – mature, deep, heavy with red fruits and dark chocolate. Both were released in tiny batches and are stocked in specialist outlets – Fox, Mulligan’s, Bradley’s – as these are specialist offerings. 

Right now, O’Connell is a one-man show, chasing the highways and byways to get his product and his brand out there. Next year he is considering a March release for another Bill Phil, followed by an 18-year-old version of the PX in June, complimented by a small batch cask-strength edition. He is assembling casks from Irish distilleries, especially the smaller start-ups. Beyond that, he is envisioning a central hub, akin to Gordon & MacPhail’s Elgin headquarters, which would operate as a home for the brand. Settled for the moment on Waterford’s Copper Coast, he is still looking for the right place for a brand home. It may well be a long road ahead for Daithí or any indie bottlers – Gordon & MacPhail were founded 123 years ago, Cademhead’s 148 years, but O’Connell is looking to build something that will outlive and outlast him.

Ever the navigator, one of the reasons O’Connell loves the indie bottling model is because of the sense of adventure – finding new distilleries to source stock from, new worlds to explore, and a new chapter in his whiskey journey.

The Moebius

Shift work is inhuman. There is something utterly unnatural about being awake all night. There are some who thrive on shift work, but they are a minority – most of us do it for the money, or because it suits our homelife, but very few do it because they like it. I only did nine months shift work in my life and I nearly lost my mind. Part of it was my age – I was in my forties and had four small kids, so the combination of little sleep by day and a shift pattern that was all over the place, meant I had to get out. I can still remember the odd feeling of being at my desk in the wee hours. You’d look at the clock – it’s 3.15am. You’d look at it an hour later – it’s 3.25am. Time becomes a pliable entity as your exhausted mind starts to play games with you – it becomes a loop – it becomes a loop – it becomes a loop. Half the time I wasn’t even sure if I was still awake, and would forget entire conversations, or imagine they were dreams. But at least I wasn’t alone in there – in an emergency department, you are never alone.

I like the idea of distilleries that can practically run themselves. Many of the modern ones do – as one distiller pointed out to me, machines make the best whiskey, and humans are really surplus to requirements for modern operations like Dalmunach. But there are older distilleries that spearheaded this drive to remove the human element from distilling.  Sat on the slopes of the Ben Rinnes range, the wonderfully named Allt-A-Bhainne was built by Seagrams in 1975 to create malt for blends, primarily for Chivas Regal, but it does appear in indie bottlings from time to time.

I was in a mini-bus with a group of German whisky retailers as we tooled past the strangely modernist building. They, being massive whisky nerds, asked the driver to turn around so we could go back and have a look around. And so we did.

 

The distillery is quite modern in comparison to some of the chocolate-box scenes at places like Strathisla. Allt-A-Bhainne has no warehouses, and it rattles out 4.5 million litres of spirit per year. Water comes from the Ben Rinnes, and the distillery’s name translates from Gaelic as Burn Of Milk. While bhainne has the same meaning in both Irish and Scots, the way we would pronounce the name of this distillery is different – ollt-err-vane seems to be the common way over there, while we would go with alt-a-vonya.

The similarities between the languages were the sole reason I bought this bottling of Allt-A-Bhainne a year or two ago, but I felt more inclined to open it after being to the distillery. It was a curious place – nobody was around, and those vents are like something from an old sci-fi B-movie, when set and prop designers thought that angular aluminium would be all we would ever need in the future.

So Allt-A-Bhainne has an ancient name, retro-futuristic design and one poor operator stuck on shift in that one big room where everything happens. My bottle came from Douglas Laing’s excellent Provenance range. Distilled in 2008 and aged in refill hogshead, this was bottled in 2015 at 46% and is non-chill filtered. No pressure in reviewing this one, as it was cheap as chips – 40 euro from Master Of Malt. 

Nose: Sulphur. Sulphur to the point that I actually thought it might be the glass (it wasn’t). It has all those ester notes – nail polish remover, must, bananas, white pepper, an astringent blue cheese note that isn’t entirely unpleasant. Like Sex Panther, it stings the nostrils – although not in a good way.

Palate: After the general brimstone of the nose I was ready for something unpleasant, but this is pretty uneventful. I can see how this would provide balance in a blend, but something tells me I would prefer to be drinking its counterpoint rather than this. There’s a little caramel, a little bit of the aspartame sweetness of a Creme Egg, and a lot of fuck-all.

Finish: Mercifully brief.

I seem to live my dramming life in a state of almost constant disappointment. So many whiskeys I have tried recently have just let me down – but at least this one was a cheap punt and worth a shot. It’s hard to know why this bottling isn’t as impressive as I had hoped – maybe I should just spend another ten or twenty euro and get something with more weight.

I loved A’Bunadh – now completely out of my price range – and the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, so perhaps I do just need something bolder than this also-ran. I was keen to try it due to its odd name, interesting design and the fact that the distillery has no bottlings of its own, only under indie labels. Now I can see why. I’m not angry, just disappointed, which is why I am washing away the taste with a drop of the sourced seven-year-old single malt bottled by the recently completed Boann distillery. Bourbon aged, sherry finished, this is nothing new, or shocking, or weird, but is just a nice whiskey. I also love the sourced seven from Glendalough. I assume both seven year olds come from the same source (Bushmills?), as they both have a similar citrus note, although it’s worth remembering that this is coming from someone who had operations on his sinuses as a kid and thus has the olfactory capacity of Selma Bouvier. 

The Whistler Blue Note – for that is what Boann are calling this – is rich and creamy, lots of coffee, toffee, hints of aniseed, that citrus, a little Oxo cube on the nose, and a lot of smooth warmth, as opposed to the ugly heat from the Allt-A-Bhainne. It’s a reminder that while we don’t have the variety of distilleries here, and all our older stock comes from three places, at least those three places generally made – and make – great whiskey. That said, I do look forward to a dystopian day down the road when we have our own version of Allt-A-Bhainne – an odd, lonely distillery that produces odd spirit that exists purely to make other elements in a blend look better. 

Burning in water, drowning in flame

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I almost drowned when I was eight. It was at Inchydoney beach, near where my dad is from; I was in the water, close to the shore. I took a step back and fell into a channel and disappeared under the water. I can still remember it – the blue haze of the water down there, the burning as seawater filled my throat and lungs, the silence. After a minute my mum dragged me out. The next year the exact same thing happened in the exact same spot. After that we swam on the main beach, away from the channels.

Trips to my mum’s family home were less eventful. I can remember my grandmother sending me out to the shed at the back to load up a steel bucket with turf for the range as she made massive pots of marmalade. Those two memories always come back to me when I taste Laphroaig Quarter Cask – burning seawater, citrus, sugar and peat smoke. Known colloquially as the medicinal malt, one of the best comparisons proffered on the Islay icon is that it ‘tastes like a burning hospital’. As someone who works in a hospital that has yet to go on fire, I couldn’t possibly confirm or deny – but I do know of one part of the building that always reminds me of Laphroaig. There is a day-unit where cancer patients attend to get their infusion of chemotherapy. It is, like much of the hospital, a place of joy and hope, sickness and sadness. Within the unit, there is a storeroom for medicines, records, medical equipment: Whatever the combination of items in there, it smells like Laphroaig QC. I always feel guilty for thinking this when I’m in there – this is a place where people come to desperately try to continue their lives, and picking up a whisky note is glib, if not ghoulish. But it is what it is – I can’t consciously control my memory, if I could I would probably erase much of the Nineties. So being reminded of drowning, peat fires or the smell of chemotherapy is not something I can summon or dismiss.  

Working in a hospital, even shuffling paperwork, isn’t an easy job. You see a lot of amazing things, but you also see a lot of loss. I can feel it since I lost my dad. I’m working in the outpatients department, around the corner from the radiotherapy department where he was treated. Sometimes I walk through there and it just pops back into my head – he is gone. During the week I was walking through one of the wards on the fifth floor, chasing down a chart for a clinic. I got a sudden hit of deja vu and stopped in my tracks, realising I was in the ward dad was in when he was first diagnosed. In the four beds in the ward were another four elderly men, possibly facing the same fate as him. And this is it – an endless rolling mill of short lives on an old planet. During the week I met the cancer nurse who cared for my dad (and my mum). She told me it was early days, that every first will bring it all back. Last week was the first Halloween. I remember when I was a kid at Halloween, my dad cutting a slice of barmbrack and I spotted the ring in it, so he gave the slice to me. For such devout Catholics, my parents always embraced the pagan feasts with enthusiasm. It’s not hard to see why our forefathers celebrated Samhain. The end of the harvest, and the start of a winter that may or may not kill you – why not have a bit of craic before you go into hibernation? Just like Christmas – the midpoint in the bleakest time of the year – it is a functional celebration, rooted in nature.

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The photo above (by DMoon1) is of the Mound Of The Hostages in Meath. Similar in layout to Newgrange, it is a neolithic tomb that contains between 200 and 500 bodies. Two days of the year the light of the sun illuminates the central corridor – Samhain, what we now know as Halloween, and Imbolc, the day in February marking the end of winter (which the Christians rebranded as St Brigid’s Day). Samhain is the day when the walls between worlds are at their weakest, allowing the dead to walk the earth. Tombs like the Mound Of The Hostages were seen as portals to the other side. Throughout history we have always wanted to believe there is somewhere else. We call the dead ‘the departed’, and talk of them being gone, as though they have left on a journey, or crossed over to another plane. I’d love to think that was the case, but to me there is nothing else, only this. We live and die, and some stuff, good and bad, happens in between. Even my dad, who came from a generation where faith was bred into them, couldn’t talk about another world at the end. He occasionally mentioned how his faith was helping him, but I could see he didn’t fully believe that he was heading on some journey. He knew there was nothing else, no great reunion in the sky for him, my mum and my sister. There was only goodbye to all this.

I can feel the grief gnawing away at me, but I know that with time it will ease off. One of the hardest aspects of it is the message that comes with losing someone – someday I will be over too. And not just that, so too will everyone I know and love. My wife will die, my kids will die, their kids will die. We stop, and they put us in the ground, and that is it. I try to look on the bright side – I am probably only 50% of my way through my time. My lifespan is either half empty or half full, depending on how glum I feel. 

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What I love about Laphroaig is how it polarises people, lays bare our personal tastes and bias. You will see a review that will say ‘this is disgusting, it tastes like band-aids and peroxide’. Another review will say ‘this is amazing, it tastes like band-aids and peroxide’. We are all different, but deep down we are essentially the same. Yesterday I met a man who had just lost his wife. I didn’t know this until I asked if his next of kin was the person listed, and he started to cry. I apologised, on the verge of tears myself. We choked it down, and moved on. I came home and hammered down several generous measures of Laphroaig and contemplated the dumb luck of working in the hospital that treated my mum, dad and sister before they died, and smells like a whisky I particularly like. I’m glad I didn’t drown in Inchydoney. It would have been a pretty shit turn of events for me. I would have missed a lot of stuff – good and bad – and I never would have learned to enjoy something that tastes like band aids and peroxide.