Black is the colour

Sam Black says his firm’s logo has no real meaning. “It’s what the designer gave us,” he says bluntly when asked about the origins of the silhouette of a crow in flight. When pressed he admits that the image does conveniently tie his story together; he is the Black, while his wife’s maiden name was Crowley. It’s a far more fitting explanation – after all, without his wife Maud, there might not be a brewery. 

Originally from the UK, Sam Black was travelling in Australia in 2001 when he met West Cork native Maud, an ortho theatre nurse. Sam, an engineer, always had an interest in brewing but it was the gift of a homebrewing set from his future wife one Valentine’s Day that made him rethink his career choices. Returning to live in Ireland in 2003, the brewing bug took hold and in 2013 they opened Blacks Brewery in the picturesque Cork seaside town of Kinsale.  It was close to Maud’s home in Ahiohill near Clonakilty, while Sam – the son of a Scottish Baptist minister – had moved around a lot during his childhood and found it easy to settle almost anywhere. 

The location was a smart one – as the southern start point of the Wild Atlantic Way, Kinsale has a steady tourist trade. Kinsale also harbours a thriving foodie culture, and their brewery was able to tap into both of these in its early days, when there were relatively few craft brewers in Ireland. The first few years were hard – there were no investors or backers, just their own money and determination. But it got off the ground at an ideal time as there were few competitors. In the last few years this has been reversed, with a wide array of craft brewers, as well as macro breweries pushing brands that ape small-scale operations but are not. But Blacks Brewery products are on all shelves – Tesco, Musgraves etc all carry their wares.

Then they started making poitín on a stainless steel iStill, but the rules changed, meaning you had to distill in a pot, column still or hybrid still. So they moved on to gin, and even made a spiced rum, which they make entirely in-house. But the time had come for whiskey.

Initially, Blacks released a sourced Cooley 12 year old whiskey, which they announced with zero guff: 

We could have pretended that it was distilled here or even just matured here giving it some magical Kinsale provenance. We could have even created from a tale of some ancient Kinsale recipe or that it used ingredients foraged in Kinsale. But we would rather just be honest … It’s simple, it was distilled elsewhere.

They then used the whiskey casks they had after they bottled the sourced 12-year-old single malt to finish their rum in, and have since released Black Ops, a blend of malt and grain. They are currently waiting on stills – a 2,400 litre wash and 1,500 litre spirit still – from Frilli in Italy. The stills will be like Teelings’ ‘but smaller’ according to Sam. But even small stills are not cheap, so they are looking for funding through a cask programme.

There are two schools of thought on cask programmes – one, the average founders club price tag of anywhere between 5k and 7k is crazy, and not worth the money.

The second aspect to founders clubs is that they aren’t about investing in a cask, they are about investing in a dream – to feel like you are part of a distillery. This is what Dingle did so well with their Founding Fathers programme; members feel a sense of ownership. So for every person who buys one of those not-entirely-cheap casks, you have a brand ambassador who has your back. If you are looking for a financial return, whiskey probably isn’t the greatest way to get it, especially given the rate at which distilleries have been popping up here and a market that will be, if not flooded, then certainly well lubricated with whiskey casks in ten to 15 years’ time.  So if you are going to pitch a founders club, make it a modest proposal, like Blacks

We realise that many investors may not have ready funds to invest in this scheme and have developed a win- win scenario for people who still wish to be involved. We have partnered with Flexi-Fi Finance company with an exclusive offer.  For example investors can take the package option for €6500 Bourbon cask. If you choose to invest this way you will of course have to pay interest on your loan from the finance company but you will still gain some cash if you exit via the Buy Back Scheme.

Package cost €6500. Total amount repayable with FlexiFi over 36 months is €7,493.12

​Representative example Total Amount of Credit: €6,500 over 36 month term with 7.99% interest rate. €35 application fee, €3.50 monthly account fee. APR of 9.95%. Total Amount Payable: €7,493.12. The Buy back scheme offers a Guarantee min value via buy back scheme €7910 equal to a cash gain of €426.88. 

The €426.88 is the minimum return via the buy back scheme you may also avail of any of the exit options available and maximise the potential of your investment in 5 years time.

Their stills are in the final phase of construction at the moment and are due on-site soon – once commissioned, maturation will take place at West Cork Distillers sprawling facility down the road in Skibbereen. Sam plans unusual mashbills and casks, and hopes to offer an array of releases, just as he did with his beers.

He is philosophical about the next stage: “We’re not trying to change the world, we just want to make products that people will enjoy and engage with, and stuff that we can enjoy and have fun with. We’re never going to hit Jameson levels of sales.”

Never say never. 

The Equaliser

John O’Connell in one of the Marsh Road warehouses.

It’s Good Friday, and West Cork Distillers is going through an audit for its organic certification. John O’Connell is practically running he is walking so fast. All is going well with the audit; O’Connell seems pleased. Despite breaking the land speed record as he moves from room to room, he still finds the time to show me around. Having visited the distillery 12 months before my Easter visit, my expectation was that little would have changed. I was wrong. The notion that life moves slower down west is disproved by WCD, which seems to be accelerating its already rapid expansion. 

In one lab they have a pilot plant alongside analytical equipment, meaning they can work on experimental washes and play around with locally-sourced fruit yeasts taken from Gougane Barra woods – O’Connell is all about fermentation, and is vocal about the role it plays in determining a spirit’s flavour profile.   

Wild Gougane Barra yeasts.

One of the newer pieces of equipment dreamed up and built from scratch in WCD is an electrodialysis machine. They can analyse new make, isolate components that they might not be happy with, and run the liquid through the dialysis machine to cleanse the spirit of them.  

But while they are relentlessly pushing toward a scientific utopia, they are also pushing for greater transparency in their barrels, now only sourcing from named bodegas, eschewing non-disclosure agreements in favour of greater clarity and information for the consumer. There are few people who WCD refuse to work with, and the firms they do create drinks for run from the aristocratic Baring family behind Lambay Whiskey, to UK TV star (and west Cork man) Graham Norton. But WCD have another project underway, one which may cause ripples in the industry.

Some distilleries here are offering cask programmes as a way of generating some revenue in order to offset the massive cost of getting up and running. It is a great idea – you buy a cask and feel part of a distillery’s story. Some distilleries are charging seven to ten grand a cask. But talk to anyone who has bought casks in Scotland and they will tell you that over there prices are far more reasonable (and thus more realistic as an investment). But with people using Dingle’s founding fathers five grand buy-in as a baseline, the only way is up, and up, and up. This meant that for most of us, cask ownership was just a pipe dream.

One of the Marsh Road warehouses.

Enter then the West Cork Whiskey Co-operative, a small group gathered through word of mouth, who were given the opportunity to buy some of the 5,000 casks released for sale by West Cork Distillers. Some have bought one or two, some have bought many more. And I, dear reader, bought nine, because although I am of meager means, my dual loves of both whiskey and bargains mean that this was an offer I could not refuse: The co-op offered a 200 litre first fill bourbon barrel filled with grain spirit for 888 euro, single pot still for 990 euro, or single malt for 1,086 euro. I bought one grain, four pot and four malt. One is for my godchild, four for each of my kids, and the remaining ones may end up getting bottled at some point (thus the grain). It is a bit of madness, and a bit of fun, and I don’t expect to make any money. Whiskey is a playground for me, not a place to graft.

So here comes the economics; the annual storage and insurance in year one, as well as the administrative cost of running the co-op, is included in the entry price. With a modest price appreciation of 2-5% per annum on current market valuations for aged whiskey, investors could generate 12-15% investment returns per annum over a three-to-10-year period. The co-op will act as the legal trustee and the registered tenant in WCD’s bonded warehouse, and the investor is the beneficial owner and is allocated a share in the co-op: One member, one vote. There is also the online trading platform which offers the ability to bid on other people’s whiskey or auction your existing whiskey to interested buyers. Loss of liquid in the casks beyond evaporation (2.5% per annum) or damage due to fire etc., is fully insured at the purchase price. As for tariffs and Brexit, WCD are a global business with diversified revenue streams so they are insulated better than most. 

O’Connell’s approach to this is much like his approach to business in general – be fair. Of course, there is also a bonus for WCD – they get an injection of cash, and will always have the option to buy casks back from the co-op should they need to. After their massive expansion in the past 12 months, they may need to – four warehouses sit at the end of the Marsh Road site (foundations needed to be set 15 metres underground, as the road lives up to its name), while they are finally throwing open the doors to the public, with a sizeable visitors centre, which houses their new distillery, which comprises of three pot stills, one hybrid and one column.

If WCD make all this look easy, these stills are a reminder that it isn’t – all came from planned distilleries that were abandoned, including the stills from the Niche/Quiet Man. Setting up a distillery is an expensive business – WCD exists largely through sheer force of will, and they still embody that Mad Max spirit of innovation and invention, making any equipment they can, and sourcing everything else in as cost-effective a way as possible (they even have ouzo stills, imported to Skibbereen after they were spotted by a staff member on holiday in Greece).  

How many people bring back stills from a holiday in Greece? Usually it’s just a straw donkey.

WCD have become a force to be reckoned with – their output of four million litres per annum may be dwarfed by the likes Midleton (100 million LPA); or even their main competitors in the wholesale market, Great Northern, who boast a remarkable 11 million LPA, but WCD have something that others do not – diversity. No parent firm, column and pot distillation, on-site maturation facilities, a bottling hall, and contract activity. As Darwin noted, it is not the strongest that survives, but the most adaptive to change. WCD were created out of necessity, invention and desperation – they will try almost anything (hard kombucha, anyone?), create just about any spirit they can if they find a market for it.

WCD also has a four-pronged revenue stream – their own branded products; bulk spirits and fermentates; contract manufacturing and wholesales. Domestically, they deal with the big supermarkets – Aldi, Lidl, Dunnes, Tesco and the Musgrave Group, who own SuperValu and Centra. They also have multiple contracts overseas, and are looking to expand further. They also bought out the Halewood stake in the firm, so the two McCarthy cousins and O’Connell are now the majority shareholders. They achieved all this with no marketing team – which, in the whiskey world, is possibly the most startling fact of all.

It is early days for the co-op – but if WCD can do it, why not others? Do we want Irish whiskey to be some elitist members-only affair where only those of significant means can afford to buy a cask (or a bottle)? Is it right that some brands are charging seven grand a cask, or 300 euro for a 16 year old whiskey? More importantly, is it good for the category? We need places like WCD to create equilibrium. With the co-op, people can get a sense of how much whiskey actually costs, rather than what someone decides it is worth. Obviously I’m going to roll back on this in spectacular fashion in 16 years when I release my own bottling for a grand a pop, but until then we need to calm the fuck down. An overpriced, overheated market draws the wrong kinds of entities into the marketplace.

If you are interested in buying a cask for a reasonable price, shop around – there are plenty of places that ought to cut you a deal, and at least now punters can say well, WCD charge a grand, why are you charging five times that (or more)? As for the co-op, membership is closed, but it may re-open again in the future. Chances are that if it does, it will be done in typical WCD fashion – quietly, fairly, and with as little fanfare as possible.

A toast to 2018

A festive bribe/gift from IDL. please note the attention to detail on addressing the letter to my personal lifestyle brand.

It was another boom year for Irish whiskey – Blackwater and Powerscourt both came to life, Nephin are gearing up to build, and Bono and Paddy McKillen bought into a proposed distillery for Monasterevin. It is an exciting time, and a sure sign that Irish whiskey was accelerating was the appearance of our first celebrity whiskey.

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.

If using Bushmills stock allows you to claim you own it then half the country owns the place.

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.

Yes, that 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.

If I have to explain who these people are then why are you reading this? Also I thought the caption was embedded but it’s not and I’m really lazy.

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.

NO REPRO FEE 12/01/2018 Kilkenny Whiskey Guild. Pictured at a Kilkenny Whiskey Guild (KWG) tasting event are (l to r) Cyril Briscoe, KWG; Eddie Langton, KWG and Langton’s Hotel; Patrick Blunden, Castle Blunden; Kevin O’Gorman, Midleton Master of Maturation; Ger Buckley, Midleton Master Cooper; Dave McCabe, Midleton Blender; Paddy Purser, Forestry Consultant; Jim Rafferty, KWG and The Dylan Whisky Bar, in celebration of Irish Distillers next chapter in its Virgin Irish Oak Collection of Single Pot Still Irish Whiskeys; Midleton Dair Ghaelach Bluebell Forest edition. This exceptional offering has been finished in barrels made from Irish oak grown in the Bluebell Forest of Castle Blunden Estate in County Kilkenny. Photograph: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland

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.

I made this image which is why it is shit.

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.

The Science Of Faith

“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.

This interview ran on FFT.ie during the week. 

Under the #influence

Despite being a terrible writer and Ireland’s worst blogger, I recently managed to get invited to a couple of events. This means I now belong to that vanguard of heroes, The #Influencers. These digital Veruca Salts have redefined what it means to be a spoiled nobody, and I am delighted to finally be able to take my place among them with my paid-for Twitter followers, click-heavy, zero-engagement blog and ego the size of one of Saturn’s more portly moons. So come with me now as I take you on a guided tour of my fabulous fucking social life via the serpentine route of #coverage.

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Is there any Irish person who doesn’t love cans? There is virtually nothing in this life that a big bag of cans cannot fix, with the exception of cirrhosis of the liver. I hadn’t been to the Franciscan Well in years, the last time being when an ex-girlfriend worked there and I used to go and mope at the bar and recite Smiths lyrics at her, whilst trying to give myself cirrhosis of the liver. Since then it became one of the first brew pubs in Ireland, before ultimately fulfilling the dream of all craft brewers by selling out to a massive multinational, in this case Molson Coors.

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The Well is located a stone’s throw from the gates of the old IDL site on the North Mall (and across the river from the home of George Boole, father of GamerGate). The IDL site was once home to the Wyse family distillery, and the area to the back of it is still known as Distillery Field. If you go in and walk around you can see traces of its distilling past all round you. Fitting then that one of the biggest success stories for the Well has been their alignment with IDL to create both their whiskey-barrel aged stout and the runaway success that is Caskmates, a whiskey finished in stout barrels – although one wag once suggested to me that not even stout is improved by ageing in stout barrels, not to mind whiskey.  

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And so it was that I found myself at the launch of the Well’s latest experiment in liquid containment – cans. Specifically 330ml cans, the classy ones. The Well still brews some beers on-site, but the bulk of the work goes on down the docks, not far from the iconic dockers pub The Idle Hour. Cork trivia alert: The hot mess that is the nearby Elysian high-rise apartment block is known locally as The Idle Tower because of its sparse occupancy.

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I will freely admit that I know even less about craft beer than I do about whiskey, which places me at a solid knowledge level of zero, alongside much of the rest of society. But it’s a movement I can get behind – small firms producing a local drink that eases your emotional pain whilst also tasting nice. The sheer proliferation of craft brewers here has given us a huge variety, so much so that for a novice like me, it’s hard to know where to begin. So I will begin my voyage into craft beer as I begin every journey; with three cans of beer, graciously provided by the good people at the Fran Well and Notorious PSG.

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The Well is a great pub with some great products, and is well worth a visit – especially for their Easter beer fest and legendary Oktoberfest – but also to try their Shandon Stout, which , ironically, is not available in cans.

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Across the city from the Well, on the south channel of the Lee,  sits The River Lee Hotel. Formerly Jury’s – where Jacko stayed, as every Cork person will tell you….repeatedly – the old low-rise hotel was levelled some years ago to make way for this gleaming cube. The Lee is a beautiful hotel, a five-minute walk from the city centre, Fitzgerald Park, UCC and St Finn Barre’s Cathedral.

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Here I was treated to an event to celebrate their winter dining experience, with a focus on their bar menu and seasonal treats. We were introduced to the evening by Pierce Lowney, Bar Manager at The River Lee. He has worked with the hotel’s owners, the Doyle Collection, for over six years, travelling the world through his work, but is originally Allihies in west Cork, a place as beautiful and remote as one of Saturn’s more inaccessible moons. Not too far away is the waterfall known as the Mare’s Tail, where Gemma ‘Artery’ Arterton took a blood shower in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium.

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Beautiful west Cork there, at its seasonal best.

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As we nibbled (or, in my case, inhaled) canapés, we were introduced to Longueville Cider by Rubert Atkinson. Rubert and I went to the same school, and my best memory is of him catching every single throw in Munster Senior Cup lineouts as he was about 6’ 5” – and has possibly even grown a bit more. Longueville House has a great story and their cider and apple brandy are both fantastic winter warmers.

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Next up was Ciaran from West Cork Distillers. WCD have been in operation since 2008 and have recently expanded with the purchase of the old fish processing plant in Skibbereen – a fitting move as the firm was started by two former fishermen (and a food scientist). WCD have their own stock maturing which will be ready for market next year, but in the meantime they have sourced stock from Cooley. You can read more about their own output on the Irish Whiskey Society’s discussion board, suffice to say that WCD’s earlier experiments in ‘infusions’ didn’t go over well.

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Ciaran was quick to point out that their early output was a revenue generator and simply acted to keep the business alive. In a crowded market, they saw an opening for a lower ABV brown spirit, so they improvised. I would imagine that now their own proper whiskey stock is nearing maturity they are releasing some Cooley to try and establish the brand as one for serious whiskey drinkers. Time will tell. I had the Black Barrel and really liked it.

As we moved from the mezz down to the heated outdoor seating on de banks of de Lee, we were treated to even more treats. At this stage I was starting to feel like Hedonism Bot, adrift in a fog of decadent epicurean delights. In reality, I was a guy with mustard on his tie losing consciousness in a wicker chair. So with a heavy heart (it is clogged with cholesterol) I drifted home, head full of potential ways I could leverage my brand into being more #influency so I could get more and more free stuff that I don’t deserve. I’m sure some quality #content might help, so here are a billion photos from the night taken by an actual photographer, as opposed to the Etch-A-Sketch ones above by moi: 

My thanks to Donna from Edelman and Orna from Notorious PSG for allowing me to crash their respective PR parties, and also for helping me to #pivot my #brand from lowly HSE worker to Large Media Presence. Here’s to #influence.