Everything is relative. When Jameson Black Barrel first launched as Jameson Select Reserve in the South African market, it featured the words ‘small batch’ on the label. Eyebrows shifted skyward amongst the whiskey commentariat, especially when they learned that it was grain spirit the term referred to, something Midleton produces oceans of. But relative to that exact scale, it was small batch. Their normal quantities are colossal, so anything other than a constant deluge of column spirit would technically be a small batch. We can argue semantics all day about what a consumer would perceive to be meant by the term, but that’s really not the fault of the Lemuel Gulliver of Irish whiskey production.
Just as small is a relative term, so too is rare. Curious to know exactly what it means in the context of Midleton Very Rare, I asked how much MVR was being released in this year’s batch. The figure you will find floating about the internet is that less than 2,500 nine-bottle cases of MVR are released each year – so a figure somewhere south of 22,500 bottles hits the market. You go back a few years (or even decades) and I would suggest that this really stretched the bounds of what anyone would classify as rare. Irish whiskey was still in a state of uneasy hibernation and while the MVR releases were always popular, seen as they were as the poshest and ergo – in the eyes of the perennially insecure Irish bourgeoisie – the best Irish whiskey, I doubt there was much of a dash to get them. Now, Irish whiskey is hot, and getting hotter. Collectors are collecting, flippers are flipping, and everyone wants to get their hands on MVR as soon as it appears. So how many bottles or cases are released? Here is your mercurial answer: Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard say that they ‘cannot share specific numbers’, but they told their PR person to let me know that ‘the volume available is in-keeping with previous releases’.
Now you can interpret that two ways – one, they don’t want to give an exact number because it might seem less than rare. Or, two, they don’t want to give a figure for the above reason, but also because it has been steadily climbing year on year and is now far higher than the alleged 2,500 nine-bottle cases. Think about it – if you had an annual release of 40%ABV NAS blended whiskey that had people falling over each other to get their hands on, of course you would like to shift as many units as possible (whilst still making sure not everyone got one – gotta keep the hunger out there).
That figure also seems low when you consider how wide this release is, covering as it does USA, Canada, Global Travel Retail, Europe, Australia, and Asia. I think they could rattle out five times that number worldwide and it still wouldn’t satisfy the ravenous demand for this iconic Irish whiskey. Although, this year’s makeover might have dampened some of that enthusiasm.
MVR is a collector’s whiskey. Released with the year proudly stamped on it, it was created with gifting and collecting in mind. So rebranding it – especially drastically – is something of a gamble. Yes it was overdue a refresh, given that since its launch in 1984 it had more or less looked the same, but the 2017 overhaul was less a refresh and more a complete redesign (or maybe those are the same thing). Irish whiskey was in its cups and maybe it was felt that the tired old MVR bottle and box needed something with a bit more pizazz. If I was a collector, I would have been less than amused – my 30+ bottles of MVR on the shelf would look completely different from their 2017 sibling. And now, six years later, the iconic wooden box that MVR came in since 1990 has been dumped in favour of something a little more in-keeping with the mood of the times. Per the press release: While honouring the traditions of the past, Midleton Very Rare 2023 also pays homage to the future as the brand prioritises sustainability and a commitment to the land from which it is created. For the first time, the new vintage will be presented in luxury recyclable secondary packaging*, replacing the wooden cabinet used since 1990.
Here is the new box:
Why yes, it does look like the 1950s wardrobe your mum brought back from the charity shop as she wanted to upcycle it so she covered it in flock wallpaper and now it looks really shoddy and nobody wants in their bedroom so it’s out in the shed and your dad keeps the paint tins in it.
Maybe the hardcore collectors will embrace it:
I’ve spoken to one or two other collectors who felt the same – that this new, greener packaging just isn’t as nice as the wood. But it’s not about nice, it’s about saving the planet, or at least trying to. In a lengthy piece on IrishWhiskeyMagazine.com Midleton master distiller Kevin O’Gorman explains the reasoning: “GPA Global who have produced this box have done a lifecycle analysis and a comparison between this and the old box. There has been a 50% reduction in weight which drives a lot of the other savings in fossil fuels, carbon and greenhouse gases emissions, and also water reductions.”
You’d also have to wonder if there was a reduction in cost as well, because if there was, it wasn’t reflected in the RRP (€210) this year.
The dilemma here is in what is expected of a super premium brand. Does anyone buying a premium whiskey actually care all that much about the planet? Something so decadent makes an uneasy bedfellow with any kind of ethical push. Wealth, opulence, luxury are all, by their very definitions, wasteful. Premium whiskey, like high fashion, private jets and mansions, isn’t about servicing needs but about wants, or to use a more lux term, desires. If I was paying €200+ for a whiskey then I would expect premium packaging and I wouldn’t care a whole lot about the planet, and the more premium the whiskey, the less of a hoot I would give. Frankly the relatively small numbers of premium whiskeys sold in comparison to blends means there are bigger fish to fry – so it should be noted that there has been a massive drive in whiskey generally, and Midleton in particular, to reduce and eliminate any waste from the production process across all brands.
But the greenification of packaging will have to continue and I wonder how many more vintages of MVR it will take before they get rid of the glass bottle and sell it to us in tetrapak or recyclable pouches. By then we may all have come to the conclusion that if we all truly cared about the health of this planet, or even our own personal health, we would probably stop drinking altogether.
Jennifer Nickerson wanted to be a vet. The Aberdeenshire native was studying in Edinburgh when she came to the conclusion that she didn’t particularly want to spend the rest of her working life outside in the wet and cold, so she switched to accountancy – a drier career, in every sense.
While she was in college, she took a job in an Irish pub, where she met an engineering student named Liam Ahearn. They were friends, but after graduation, went their separate ways. Then they bumped into each other in Dublin, where Jennifer had risen to being an associate director in the tax department of KPMG just seven years after joining as a trainee. One thing led to another – love, marriage, plans. Liam wanted to move home to Tipperary (‘you can’t put wheels on the lands’ being his refrain), and Jennifer said she would only go if she could find a job that presented her with the right challenge.
Jennifer Nickerson’s father is Stuart Nickerson. Graduating as a chemical engineer from Heriot-Watt University in 1979, he worked with Arthur Bell & Sons in Dufftown, Pittyvaich, Blair Atholl, Inchgower, and Bladnoch. He previously managed Highland Park, Glenrothes, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Kininvie and Girvan Grain distilleries. In 2008, he purchased Glenglassaugh Distillery on behalf of overseas investors, refurbished it and brought it back into production after 22 years. He has spent more than 40 years working with Scotland’s most famous whiskies and now specialises in providing technical advice to start-up distilleries. Jennifer grew up living beside many of the Scottish distilleries which her father managed and has been surrounded by the whisky business all of her life.
Liam Ahearn’s family have been living and working on Ballindoney Farm in Tipperary for two centuries. A mixed farm for several generations, in more recent times the focus was purely on tillage, with 165 acres of barley, wheat, oats, and grass, and seven acres of GLAS wild bird cover. The Ahearns are also something of a political dynasty, with Liam’s mother Theresa having served as a Fine Gael TD for the Tipperary South constituency from 1989 to 2000. She died of cancer in late 2000, aged just 49. At the time of her death she was both a member of Fine Gael’s National Executive Committee, and the first-ever female trustee of the party. One of her four sons, Garrett, is now a Fine Gael senator. Liam also happens to be a senior engineer with Cork County Council, meaning that between them, he and Jennifer had expertise in growing barley, planning law, construction, distilling and – perhaps most importantly – taxation (Jennifer’s thesis in college was on the Economic Impact of the Scotch Whisky Industry). It seems almost inevitable that they would build a distillery.
The plans for a farm distillery were lodged in 2015, but there were plans in 2018 for a distillery as part of a local hotel development which did not come to fruition. In 2020 Tipperary Boutique Distillery came on stream on the family farm near Clonmel. It is not well sign-posted, and unless you have the postcode, chances are you will not find it. Coming from the south you climb through the mountain pass known as The Vee and are rewarded with the sight of a vast patchwork of greens that make up the Golden Vale. After drifting through the pretty village of Ardfinnan, the roads narrow, grass starts to sprout in the centre of the road and you find yourself one thin layer of asphalt away from being on a boreen. Down this winding path is where the farm and distillery are based. The distillery itself is housed in a large, modern steel shed, cut into the fields of barley that surround it on one side, with an old farm shed now repurposed as whiskey maturation warehouse on the other. The warehouse holds approximately 300 casks without any palletisation, but is well off capacity. The shed is also black, meaning high temperatures; maturation improves, but evaporation increases.
The water for the distillery comes from a well fifty yards into the adjacent field, the concrete cap marked out with a traffic cone to stop it from being toppled by combine harvesters (it still gets hit). It is very much a farm distillery, and has the feel of a proper agricultural endeavour. They don’t do tours – despite being close to beauty spots such as The Vee, the iconic Rock Of Cashel, and Cahir Castle – as with footfall comes any number of costs in terms of health and safety, and right now, the focus is on making whiskey. They have a 200kg mashtun and four stills, made by Hoga in Portugal, the largest of which is 1,000 litres. They can put out 16,000 litres of pure alcohol per annum, or two barrels a week – thus the ‘Boutique’ in their name. They also have a tiny bottling line in another part of the distillery.
Jennfier had a steep learning curve as, despite growing up around distilleries, she had no experience of running one. Her father, based in Perth in Scotland, oversees the processes – she has twice-weekly conference calls with him to discuss the finer points of making whiskey – ph, temperatures, fermentation – while her mother has a small licenced still in their house which she uses to research new gin recipes, which Jennifer then replicates in Tipperary using neutral spirits which they buy in from elsewhere. Their own Tipperary Farmhouse Gin – distilled in a still named Brigid – is selling well (Jennifer points out that gin is so incredibly easy to make in comparison to the lever-pulling nightmare of whiskey making) and they also made a bespoke gin for the five-star Cashel Palace Hotel.
Stuart Nickerson’s connections in the industry also helped with the setting up of the distillery – Irish Distillers were able to give advice and help with troubleshooting. Jennifer says she is considering studying distilling but time is not something she has a huge amount of. She covers the distillery logistics, the accounts, she is a brand ambassador, distillery spokesperson, and she carries out 20% of the production rota in the distillery. She and Liam also became parents 18 months ago. So bagging that certificate in brewing and distilling might be a way off yet.
The whiskeys they released have had two strands thus far – under the Tipperary Boutique Selection brand they brought out a range of sourced single malts from Cooley and Bushmills et al. They released two widespread sourced expressions – Watershed is a non-aged statement single malt, and Knockmealdowns is a 10-year-old single malt. They released a few more single malt expressions in Europe: The Rising (an 11-year-old single malt) and some single casks exclusive to the UK, Germany, and Austria.
They also used their own Ballindoney barley to contract distill in places like West Cork Distillers and Great Northern Distillery. There have been a number of those releases, which come with a QR code that leads to information on the field, the barley, the weather and the maturation of the liquid within.
Their own Tipperary Boutique Distillery whiskey is not at legal age and is some time off being released just yet. They mostly make double distilled single malt but they also do triple distilled pot still whiskey, the latter throwing out Jennifer’s efficiencies which bothers the accountant in her.
The dilemma they face in terms of pushing out to new markets (they already sell to 12, with half of those taking up most of their sales) is that they make small amounts and feeding new markets could see them caught short. Sourced whiskeys are becoming harder and harder to come by and more expensive. They are boutique by design, and by necessity.
It feels like Tipperary Boutique Distillery is older than it is – I remember meeting Jennifer and Liam at Whiskey Live in 2016 or so and talking about their plans. Over the last five to ten years, numerous distilleries on the island of Ireland have been planned and built. Most with great fanfare and headlines and profiles of the people behind them. But whiskey is a long game. It still feels like this journey is only just beginning. However, to build something with value, with meaning, to create a legacy and a business which celebrates and sustains the land, takes time. In whiskey, just like any part of life, there are no shortcuts.
Review: Single cask – SMOB0018. Rioja wine finish bottling.
Distilled from their own Ballindoney-grown spring olympus barley, grown on their railway line field. Sown 15th April 2016 and, 135 days later, on the 28th August 2016, it was harvested; yield was 8.45 tonne/hectare, harvest moisture was 18.5%, drying moisture was 13%. Arrived in Inverness for malting 24 May 2017 and was malted on 5 June that year.
This liquid was distilled …. elsewhere. It doesn’t say anywhere on the website or the label but I am going to assume Great Northern Distillery. It arrived at the distillery 16th June 2017; fermentation of 3,250kg malted barley started 19th June with Distilamax yeast and lasted 76 hours to a 11%ABV and 1.12 original gravity.
Distillation started 22nd June; finished 23rd June. Cask was first-fill Rioja and it took 175 litres. The cask was sourced from Bodegas Faustino in Spain, which owns about 650 hectares of vineyards in some of the best areas in La Rioja. Over the last few years, the winery has incorporated new, environmentally-friendly grape growing practices to make the vineyards increasingly sustainable. Bodegas Faustino is one the leading exporters of Gran Reservas and has been making Rioja wines for centuries. This cask has given the whiskey a red tinge and (obviously enough) wine notes on the palate. The cask was filled on 28th June 2017 and disgorged 1,373 days later on 1st June 2022. Bottled at cask strength of 51.5% ABV, 262 bottles were produced, all bottled and labelled in Tipp.
The glass is made by Dekorglass in Poland, and the cardboard presentation box is made in the UK by Beamglow. Both of these items are recyclable. The labels and box were designed by Craig Mackinley of Breeze Creative in Scotland. And finally, the most important detail – I got this for free.
Official tasting notes are as follows:
Nose is full of dried fruits – raisins, sultanas and a hint of candied oranges.
Mouth: sweet and surprisingly fresh with citrus, cherries and almond notes
Finish: medium long, chocolate cherries linger.
The big question here is how much closer to a 100% Tipperary Boutique Distillery-made product this is. How much control would you get at GND, how much input would Stuart Nickerson have over the process? The label says approved by Stuart Nickerson, but no distiller is named. Maybe it’s an irrelevance, as GND is a massive powerhouse distillery and what Tipperary are making will be a completely different animal – all small stills, hand-pulled levers, tiny batches. Some of their sourced output is excellent, but that is really only a credit to wherever it was made. This whiskey is nice – no denying its youth, but rich and smooth.
There is still the actual Tipperary Boutique Distillery whiskey to look forward to in a few years, but it will still be a decade or so before it is at that ten years plus sweet spot. It’s hard to get a sense of what journey’s end looks like for Tipperary; its location and its ethos suggests that selling up isn’t part of the plan. In a category with many distilleries built exclusively to flip as soon as possible to satisfy investors, this one is very much a family affair.
It feels like there are a lot of whiskey distilleries after opening in the last few years, but there are several more waiting in the wings. Some are in various stages of planning, some are built, some have yet to be comissioned. I went through the planning sites and tried to pull together all those in the Republic Of Ireland that fall into this category.
The title is the name of the person or firm that lodged the plans, address should be the location of the planned distillery, and the details are what was on the planning sites. The titles are links to the planning documents if you want to go have a nose at what the distillery is meant to look like. Some counties are missing as their distilleries were either already built or there were no distilleries on the planning pages at all. Any edits, notes or corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Details: to construct a micro craft distillery consisting of ten no. modular dodecagon shaped cabins along with all associated site works to include new site entrance , car parking area, advanced wastewater treatment system and other ancillary services
Address: North Custom House Quay and, South Custom House Quay, Custom House Street, Cork City
Details: Planning permission is sought by Tower Development Properties Ltd for: Redevelopment of the Custom House site at North Custom House Quay and South Custom House Quay, Custom House Street, Cork City to provide a 240-bedroom hotel, 25 no. hotel serviced suites, and a range of commercial uses including retail, office, food and beverage, distillery, tourism and leisure. The redevelopment will have a gross floor area of approximately 31, 604m2.
Details: Permission for modifications to existing restaurant/ late night bar to include conservation works to restore the building’s original industrial character, internal alterations to include provision of a micro brewery/ distillery in part of the ground floor, first floor alterations to include an expanded open area and restaurant lightwell, and alterations to the front elevation to include a new escape doorway, at The Bodega, Cornmarket Street, Cork (Protected Structure).
Details: (i) Demolition of the existing annexes to the front elevation and side elevation of the `Former Shirt Factory’ (which is to become the production hall) , in addition to demolition of the steel ruin frame structure on site, (ii) Modernisation of existing building elevations (the proposed production hall), comprising alterations to the building façade, including revised material finishes to the roof and elevations incorporating fenestration changes allowing for a brewery and distillery at ground floor level, (iii) Construction of extension to the front elevation of the existing building on site (the proposed production hall) consisting of ancillary office space, retail space at first floor level with lower and upper terraces and associated signage, (iv) A storage hall, (v) The upgrading of the existing access into and through the site including a swale incorporating the length of the site with drainage to Commogue Marsh, (vi) Ancillary on-site car and bicycle parking provision, (vii) Beer storage tank farm, (viii) Malt grain storage silo farm, (ix) Plant including steam boiler unit and cooling ventilation unit, (x) Delivery yard permitting open storage, (xi) Landscaping including fencing, new boundary treatments, lighting, and pedestrian linkages to nearby footpath, and (xii) Pumping station, ground level changes with all other associated site works and ancillary services.
Details: Retention of an existing oyster processing shed, the change of use of the existing oyster processing shed to a craft distillery, and construction of alterations to the existing oyster processing shed, the construction of a solardome, and all ancillary site works.
Address: Cnocán na mBáirneach, Cape Clear, Skibbereen, Co. Cork.
Details: Development will consist of: the provision of an integrated whiskey distillery and associated development (with ancillary waste water treatment facilities) comprising: mash house/tun room (171 sqm); fermentation building (236 sq m): stills building and decanting area (298sq m); visitor’s centre shop and staff acilities (134sq m); glazed link area (16sq m) and ask stores (745 sq m), all ranging from one to three storeys in height. The development will also consist of the provision of ancillary plant areas including wastewater treatment plant enclosures and associated pipework; percolation areas; storage areas including water tank and grain silos; ancillary staff and visitor areas; landscaping and boundary treatmets; lighting; changes in level and all ancillary site development and excavation works above and below ground
Details: (a) Change of use of part of existing building from light industrial to visitors centre in association with the distillery, (b) alterations to elevations of existing light industrial building to facilitate visitors centre at distillery, (c) construction of raised atrium above part of existing roof in production area, (d) removal of part of building to form an unroofed courtyard and demolition of separate services building, (e) installation of 3 no. silos and 2 no. cooling towers externally and one underground gas storage tank, (f) drilling bored well, and (g) provision of advertising signage – Extension of Duration of Permission granted under Planning Reference: 15/6891
Details: The development will consist of the provision of an integrated whiskey distillery and associated development (with ancillary waste water treatment facilities) comprising: mash house (157sqm); fermentation house (228sqm); stills house (258sqm); visitor’s centre/cafe (94sqm); visitor’s ‘whiskey bar’ (19sqm); ancillary circulation and link areas (49sqm) and two cask stores (805sqm in total), all ranging from one to two storeys in height. (The visitor’s centre includes the part-demolition of the first floor of an existing ruined former dwelling and related outbuilding (51sqm)). The development will also consist of the provision of ancillary plant areas including: sea water pump and wastewater treatment plant enclosures and associated pipework; percolation areas; storage areas including water tank and grain silos; ancillary staff and visitor areas; landscaping and boundary treatments; lighting; changes in level and all ancillary site development and excavation works above and below ground
Details: (1) ALTERED ROOFLINE AND SIDE EXTENSION TO EXISTING SHED TO ACCOMMODATE CHANGE OF USE (2) PARTIALLY CONSTRUCTED SHED AND PERMISSION FOR (1) CONSTRUCTION OF A NEW DISTILLERY COMPLEX BUILDING TO ACCOMMODATE ANCILLARY OFFICE/RECEPTION/TOILET AREA,STORAGE AREA, BOTTLING LINE, PLANT ROOM, MILLING, MASH TUN, FERMENTATION, PALLET AND STILL AREAS, EXTERNAL SILOS (2) PROVISION OF A SEWAGE TREATMENT SYSTEM AND ALL ASSOCIATED SITE DEVELOPMENT WORKS (3) CHANGE OF USE OF EXISTING SHED TO A DISTILLERY RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT CENTRE (4) COMPLETION OF PARTIALLY CONSTRUCTED SHED. A NATURA IMPACT STATEMENT (NIS) ACCOMPANIES THIS APPLICATION
Address: Lands at Harvest Lodge, Folkstown Lane ( Folkstown Little Td) and lands at Folkstown Great Td, Naul Road, Balbriggan, Co Dublin
Details: 1. The development will consist of a distillery (total floor area of floor area 5659m2) which includes provision of an ancillary visitor centre, storage shed along with associated external plant cooling tower and ancillary equipment to include water storage tanks, gas tanks along with signage on the buildings.
2. The development will consist of 7 no. separate buildings (total floor areas of 7892m2) for light industrial and warehouse uses each with associated offices, showrooms, signage, access roads, turning/loading areas, footways, storage areas, parking, electric vehicle charge points, landscaping, lighting, fencing, bicycle and bin storage facilities and associated site works.
3. The demolition of existing agricultural sheds and outbuildings associated with Harvest Lodge along with the refurbishment and change of use of Harvest Lodge to a campus management building along with provision of an associated campus maintenance office and associated parking.
4.The provision of a new site entrance with associated works to facilitate vehicular and pedestrian access.
5. The provision of a business park entrance sign along with perimeter fencing and security gates.
6. A proposed on-site pumping station and rising main which will discharge all treated wastewater effluent from the site to the existing public foul sewerage system.
7. Provision of associated on-line surface water attenuation ponds and attenuation as part of the surface water system.
8. All ancillary site development, landscaping and construction works to facilitate foul, water and service networks to include provision of an ESB substation.
Address: Lambay Castle, Lambay Island, Rush, Co. Dublin.
Details: Change of use of Potting Shed adjacent to walled garden from storage to micro-distillery to include widening of 1no. door opening in covered lobby with new timber door; making good of concrete floors; erection of distillery equipment; provision of water and electrical services; connections to water drainage system to include provision of new percolation area; sundry minor works.
Details: CONSERVATION AND REFURBISHMENT OF THE DERELICT NINETEENTH CENTURY COACH HOUSE AND ADJOINING COURTYARD (381M2) LOCATED WITHIN THE CURTILAGE OF AGHADOE HOUSE (A PROTECTED STRUCTURE (RPS-KY-21306614) FOR SENSITIVE INCORPORATION AND REUSE AS PART OF A CRAFT DISTILLERY, INCLUDING REINSTATEMENT OF ROOF, ADDITION OF A GLAZED CANOPY TO FORM A COVERED ENTRANCE SPACE AND MINOR ALTERATIONS TO ACCOMMODATE A RECEPTION AREA, CAFE, RESTAURANT, BAR FACILITIES AND RETAIL SPACE AT GROUND FLOOR. REINSTATEMENT OF PERIMETER BUILDINGS WITHIN THE EXISTING COURTYARD IN PLACE OF LOST HISTORIC STRUCTURES TO ACCOMMODATE CAFE, RESTAURANT, BAR FACILITIES (74M2) AND MILL (36M2), AND ADDITIONS TO EXISTING OUTBUILDINGS (42M2) TO ACCOMMODATE KITCHEN, STORES, STAFF FACILITIES AND A NEW ELECTRICITY SUBSTATION. REMOVAL OF RUINED LEAN TO STRUCTURES (55M2) AND TWENTIETH CENTURY TIMBER FRAMED SHED (18M2) AND CONCRETE WATER TANK (15M2). REINSTATEMENT OF FIRST FLOOR MEZZANINE LEVEL (102M2) WITH ATTENDANT STAIRS AND LIFT TO ACCOMMODATE AN ANCILLARY OFFICE AND VISITOR SANITARY FACILITIES. WORKS TO CONSERVE, REPAIR AND EXEND THE PARTLY DEMOLISHED STONE WALL FORMING THE BOUNDARY WITH AGHADOE HOUSE, MAKING PROVISION FOR PRESERVATION OF AN EXISTING WALKING ROUTE BETWEEN THE NEARBY R563 ROAD JUNCTION AND FOSSA PRIMARY SCHOOL, AND REINSTATEMENT OF EXTERNAL GROUND SURFACES WITHIN THE COURTYARD AND FORECOURT. CONSTRUCTION OF A NEW 690M2 STILL HOUSE /MULTIPURPOSE EVENT SPACE ACCOMMODATING DISTILLATION PROCESS EQUIPMENT, TASTING AREA, BAR FACILITIES, LOWER GROUND FLOOR MECHANICAL AREA, ANCILLARY PLANT SPACE, DISTILLING STAFF ACCOMMODATION, TESTING LABORATORY AND ATTENDANT EXTERNAL STORAGE SILOS, PROCESS VESSELS, CO-PRODUCT STORAGE VESSELS, COOLING TOWER, PH BALANCE TANK, UNDERGROUND LPG STORAGE, UNDERGROUND FIREFIGHTING WATER STORAGE AND ALL ANCILLAR Y SITE DEVELOPMENT AND LANDSCAPE WORKS WHILE PROVIDING FOR PRESERVATION OF MATURE AND SPECIMEN TREES. CONSTRUCTION OF A NEW 460M2 MATURATION STORAGE BUILDING INCLUDING CASK FILLING AND DISGORGING FACILITIES, BOTTLING STATION AND ALL ANCILLARY SITE DEVELOPMENT AND LANDSCAPE WORKS WHILE PROVIDING FOR PRESERVATION OF MATURE AND SPECIMEN TREES. CONSTRUCTION OF A NEW ENTRANCE AND INTERNAL ROADWAY FROM THE R563 SENSITIVELY INCORPORATED WITHIN THE WOODLAND TO PROVIDE SOLE VEHICULAR ACCESS TO THE SITE WITH ATTENDANT LIGHTING, SIGNAGE, GATE AND LANDSCAPING WORKS AND PROVISION OF ASSOCIATED CAR, BICYCLE AND COACHING PARKING.
Address: SPA ROAD AND , CONNOR PASS ROAD, DINGLE, CO KERRY
Details: DEMOLITIONS, CHANGE OF USE, ALTERATIONS AND EXTENSIONS OF A FORMER CREAMERY BUILDING AND ANCILLARY STRUCTURES TO PROVIDE A NEW DISTILLERY AND VISITORS CENTRE TO INCLUDE THE FOLLOWING:(1) DEMOLITION OF EXISTING SINGLE STOREY COLD STORE ALONG WITH NORTHERN BOUNDARY, DEMOLITION OF THE EXISTING SINGLE STOREY ANNEX BUILDING AT THE SOUTHWEST OF THE SITE, PART DEMOLITION OF EXISTING SINGEL STOREY ANNEX AT NORTHEAST CORNER OF FORMER CREAMERY BUILDING AND PART DEMOLITION OF EXISTING SINGLE STOREY STRUCTURE ON THE EASTERN BOUNDARY,(2) PART SINGLE STOREY AND PART FOUR STOREY EXTENSIONS LOCATED AT THE SOUTHWEST OF THE FORMER MAIN CREAMERY BUILDING TO PROVIDE A VISITORS CENTRE AND TASTING ROOM AT GROUND FLOOR LEVEL AND CASK STORAGE AT FIRST, SECOND AND THIRD FLOOR LEVELS. (3)A SINGLE STOREY EXTENSION TO THE NORTHWEST ELEVATION TO PROVIDE A RETAIL SHOP AREA, DISPLAY AREA AND RECEPTION. SEE NEWSPAPER NOTICE RECD 26/02/09 FOR COMPLETE DEVELOPMENT DESCRIPTION
Details: CONSTRUCT TWO INDUSTRIAL SHEDS TO HOUSE A WHISKEY DISTILLERY AND ASSOCIATED STORAGE. PERMISSION IS FURTHER SOUGHT TO INSTALL A SEPTIC TANK, INTERMITTENT FILTER, POLISHING FILTER AND FOR ALL ASSOCIATED ANCILLARY SITE DEVELOPMENTS INCLUDING LANDSCAPING AND BOUNDARY TREATMENT
Address: The Old Mill,, Ballymore Eustace,, Co. Kildare
Details: Major renovations of the Mill building complex to house a Craft Micro-Distillery (gfa 453.8sqm) including refurbishment, conversion and consolidation/stabilisation of existing structures (four, three, two and single storey buildings) around existing upper and lower courtyard (Blocks 2, 3 and 4). The craft micro-distillery will include a brew-house, still house, 2 No. warehouses for storing 1,000 No. whiskey casks, empty cask storage space, plant room and cooperage. A minor increase in floor area is proposed in Blocks 3 and 4 in order to provide for new mezzanines and stairs (74.2sqm). It is also proposed to undertake refurbishment and consolidation/stabilisation of structures in upper courtyard (Block 5, gfa 213sqm) with no associated new use. The development includes landscaping, boundary treatment, drainage, parking and all ancillary associated site works (including alterations to existing mill pond to facilitate a detention basin, bunding and spill containment; fire water retention basin). The existing road and pedestrian access to and through the site will remain unchanged
Details: EXTENSION OF DURATION OF 15/142- Permission for development to consist of a single storey sheet cladded steel portal frame building to be a micro distillery (GFA = 415 sq.m.), together with the following associated ancillary works, a single storey new boiler house (GFA = 35 sq.m); an over ground alcohol storage tank (5,000 litres); an over ground LPG storage tank (2,000 litres); an under ground fire water storage tank (180 cu.m); a waste water treatment system/percolation area; a landscaped earth embankment; an oil interceptor; a soakage trench and all other associated site development works. *Significant Further Information received 20/05/2015 -Noting the height of the proposed structure at 12.4 metres high, removal of brick to the proposed elevations, insertion of two new storage tanks, one over ground and one underground, comprehensive landscaping plan, alterations of site boundaries and other ancillary documents*
Details: CONSTRUCT NEW SINGLE STOREY PLANT BUILDING TO HOUSE PLANT ROOMS ADJOINING PROPOSED DISTILLERY BUILDING AT PROPOSED WHISKEY DISTILLERY COMPLEX WHICH IS SUBJECT OF ONGOING PLANNING APPLICATION P14/573. THE PLANT BUILDING WILL BE 83SQM IN AREA AND 5.1M HIGH. THE PLANT BUILDING WILL HOUSE PLANT INCLUDING BOILER, COMPRESSOR AND MOTORISED CONTROLS
Details: the development will consist of: 1) construction of a farm distillery and farm shop with associated retail area, café, exhibition space, associated parking, ware housing, 2) proposed storm drainage and treatment infrastructure including retention pond, 3) proposed sewerage treatment system compromising of an advanced treatment unit and associated percolation area, 4) all ancillary site development works. Significant Further information/Revised plans submitted with this application
Address: Kells Business Park, Commons of Lloyd, Virginia Road, Kells, Co Meath
Details: part change of use of existing building from use as an industrial building to use as distillery & for a single storey office extension to side of existing building. To install treatment system and discharge to existing council foul water sewer with associated site works. A Natura Impact Statement (NIS) is being submitted with this application
Details: permission for development including connection to group sewage treatment system, car park and all associated site works. The development consists of the renovation and combined two-storey extension of two derelict structures and change of use to a gin distillery with bar, function room, storage, co-working office space, community facilities and signage. Significant further information received 3/8/21.
Details: DEVELOPMENT THAT WILL CONSIST OF THE ALTERATION AND MATERIAL CHANGE OF USE OF EXISTING COACH HOUSE AND STABLE OUTBUILDINGS TO THE REAR OF KINNITTY CASTLE HOTEL, TO A PROPOSED CRAFT DISTILLERY AND VISITOR CENTRE. THE ALTERED BUILDINGS WILL CONTAIN SPACE FOR THE FOLLOWING: DISTILLERY PROCESS, BOTTLING, STORAGE, RETAIL AREA, TASTING AREA AND BAR, CRAFT WORKSHOPS, ANCILLARY STAFF AREAS AND TOILETS. THE WORKS WILL INCLUDE REPAIRS AND ALTERATIONS TO THE EXISTING BUILDINGS AND SITE DEVELOPMENT WORKS INCLUDING NEW COURTYARD SCREEN WALL, LANDSCAPING TO COURTYARD, FOUL AND SURFACE WATER DRAINAGE. THE PROPOSED DEVELOPMENT CONSISTS OF WORK TO A PROTECTED STRUCTURE
Details: Extension of Duration of PD/17/166 – Permission for the change of use of part of existing mill building from production of grain and maize products to a whiskey distillery (floor area 739.58 sq.mtrs.) incorporating the installation of plant, together with minor alterations/works to existing building (which is on the record of protected structures – Reg. No. 3180439) together with all ancillary site works and services at
Address: Dundrum House Hotel, Dundrum, Co. Tipperary
Details: an Integrated Tourism Development comprising the following works at Dundrum House Hotel, Dundrum: a) Construction of a two-storey boutique whiskey distillery and service yard with borehole for water supply and associated car-parking, in lieu of previously approved (10/317) three-storey dormer, forty-four bedroom Hotel and Conference Centre. b) Construction of a Golf Course Maintenance Building and associated storage areas. c) Construction of a Bottling Plant and whiskey storage area, including ancillary stores. d) Demolition of existing Hotel Entrance Lobby and associated circulation areas, and demolition of existing Basement stores and services spaces. e) Construction of a two-storey over partial existing basement building to the North West of existing hotel, comprising replacement Function Room with additional floor area. Pre-event space, circulation areas, Meeting Rooms, increased basement area for service areas, sanitary facilities, plant rooms, kitchens and storage areas. f) Construction of new two-storey building over existing basement, adjacent to Protected Structure S023 to comprise Hotel Entrance Foyer, lobbies, reception, circulation and mezzanine areas. g) Alterations to Protected Structure S023 comprising removal of existing lift shaft, installation of new lift, alterations to external opes to connect to new extension, internal alterations to room layouts, repairs to building fabric including floors, walls, roof, windows and doors, construction of pediments and hipped roofs to existing wings and installation of mechanical and electrical services. h) Landscaped gardens to South West and North East of Protected Structure S023, including hard and soft landscaping. i) Retention of revised layout of previously approved (10/317) Golf Driving Range and associated facilities, including new Practice Green. j) Associated car parking, roadways, site services, landscaping, screening, site boundaries, upgrade works to existing waste water treatment plant and all associated site development works. All works to be carried out within the curtilage of Dundrum House Hotel which is a Protected Structure Ref. S023 in the South Tipperary County Development Plan 2009 – 2015 and to connect to the existing Waste Water Treatment facility constructed under Permission 04/1239
Address: Old Woollen Mills, Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford
Details: development consisting of : a change of use of the former Old Woollen Mills (Grain Store) to industrial use and a spirit’s distillery including ancillary retail use. The works consist of the following: A; Internal, external alterations and demolitions within the mill and silo buildings. B; three storey extension to the front entrance façade of the mill building including alterations to the mill façade and flat roof structures. C; addition of ventilation stacks to the roofline of the silo building, replacement of its roof covering, alterations to the façade, extension and alterations at basement level and alterations to the building gable for vehicular and services access. D; new vehicular entrance, car parking, delivery and vehicle turning area, walled compound for storage of gas, water and generator to the southern end of the site. E; new pedestrian route from the parking area to the building access routes and Main Street, Kilmacthomas and all other associated site works (A PROTECTED STRUCTURE)
Name: JOHN STAFFORD
Address: 1798 VISITOR CENTRE, PARNELL ROAD, ENNISCORTHY, CO. WEXFORD.
Details: PERMISSION FOR CHANGE OF USE AND ALTERATIONS TO PORTION OF EXISTING VISITOR CENTRE (SHED STRUCTURE) TO A MICRO DISTILLERY BUT RETAINING THE MAJORITY OF THE VISITOR CENTRE AS EXISTING (INCLUDING CAFE, DISPLAY AREAS, KITCHEN TOILETS AND PARKING FACILITIES) WITHIN THE CURTILAGE OF A PROTECTED STRUCTURE RPS. NO. WCC E081, NIAH REF. NO. 15604032 AT 1798 VISITOR CENTRE, PARNELL ROAD, ENNISCORTHY, CO. WEXFORD.
Details: conversion of existing agricultural building for use as a micro distillery facility with visitor tasting and viewing areas together with new toilet facilities, connection to existing services and ancillary site works
In Cork Airport’s duty free there is a large screen showing adverts for Midleton distillery’s single pot still collection. The smooth-talking gent hosting the videos lavishes the Cork whiskeys with praise, and assures us that Midleton’s single pot still collection is the ultimate expression of the art.
In the decade since those videos were created, their host Peter Mulryan has had something of a change of heart. The author, producer, and presenter may have been the face of Midleton’s single pot still whiskey in 2012, but in the years since he has become one of the most vocal critics of what he sees as Irish Distillers Limited’s reformation of the definition of single pot still. He could have spent his time criticising from the sidelines, using the skills he honed in his decades working in the media to gradually force change. But instead of words, he chose action (and also words, but mainly action).
Mulryan put his money – and the money of his investors – where his mouth was and chased his dream of being a distiller. He chucked in his job with Ireland’s national broadcaster and opened a distillery – first in a lock-up in a rural industrial estate in west Waterford, then expanding to a converted hardware store in the sleepy village of Ballyduff a few miles away. It turned out that Mulryan and his team – several of whom worked on those single pot still videos with him – were quite good at distilling, as the Blackwater Distillery spirits have won multiple awards. The team are also quite good at business, as they landed massive supply contracts with supermarket giant Aldi. But Mulryan never softened his tone about the technical file, the State document which lays down the laws on Irish whiskey, and specifically, how to make single pot still (SPS) Irish whiskey.
Having written five books on Irish whiskey, Mulryan was well placed to point out what he saw as inaccuracies in the technical file, saying that he could find no historic mashbills which complied with the document’s requirement that the mash for SPS must contain a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley, with up to 5% of other cereals such as oats and rye added if required.
Writing on his distillery’s blog, Mulryan seethed about Midleton’s SPS whiskeys: “The official Redbreast website is even more confident: ‘this is the traditional way of making Irish whiskey since the 1800s.’ Except of course it’s all a load of horse manure. These whiskeys are not a reflection of anything, except perhaps corporate sleight of hand and a lack of oversight. If truth be told, the ‘tradition’ being celebrated here goes all the way back not to the nineteenth century but to October 2014.”
In numerous posts he used the phrase stolen heritage, gushed about traditional single pot still whiskey and its wild and varied mashbills, and worked with whiskey historians Fionnán O’Connor, Charlie Roche, and Will Murphy in digging up as many as he could. Mulryan then set about proving that SPS – the old, bold SPS as opposed to what he framed as the more modern, corporate IDL version (which he gives fair credit to as an excellent whiskey, it should be noted) – was a viable commercial product rather than a dusty relic reflective of palates now long dead. In a post on New Year’s Day 2020 he explained how between February and September 2019 they distilled more than 100 different SPS mashbills, the majority traced back to a specific distillery, date, or both, from 1824 to 1955. The recipes came from ‘just after the 1823 Excise Act (the foundation of the modern industry)’, right through the Victorian Irish whiskey boom.
“We’ve distilled outliers featuring 40% wheat, and 38% oat, but mostly that range of ‘other grains’ settled comfortably in the 20% – 25% band, with oat being predominant. All mash bills contained barley and malt, and all featured either oats, wheat and rye. Some have all five elements. However, not one of these real single pot still mashbills is compliant with the current Technical File. That’s not how we planned it, it’s just one of those awkward facts,” he wrote.
If this seems like a lot of work, you might well be right, as Mulryan added: “We could have spent 2019 churning out single malt, or compliant SPS, but we chose not to. As a result we only ran at close to 50% capacity. It was an expensive exercise, but we can now safely say there isn’t another distillery in the country/world that has dug into the SPS category as deeply as we have.”
But Blackwater’s main business was always making, not sourcing. During the pandemic they started a taster’s club where they experimented with spirits and flavour, sending out packs to fans with new spirits in each. They continued to win awards, and the technical file – once seen as the stone tablets of Irish whiskey – is about to be reopened for edits and adjustments, a move welcomed by Mulryan.
Much like their county neighbours Waterford Distillery, Blackwater have used a lot of highfalutin words like terroir, provenance, and grand cru (even their slogans are similar – Waterford’s motto is ‘where barley is king’ while Blackwater have ‘let the grain reign’). They both like a bit of sabre-rattling at ‘the big guys’ (neither are exactly little guys), and both have a lot of raw attitude. Mulryan’s jousting in the media even went so far as to claim that, unlike many others, he wasn’t in the whiskey business to make loads of money, something which may come as a shock to his investors.
All of this brings us to Blackwater’s first whisky (sic, natch), which comes to us burdened with great promise and even greater expectations. With typical bombast, the new releases come with a huge amount of detail on the liquid, but also have a hardback pamphlet titled A Manifesto For Irish Pot Still Whisky. Per the press release:
The Manifesto release is limited to just 1,000 numbered boxes, each containing 4 x 200ml single cask Irish whiskies. (Priced €250 & Delivery). Inspired by mash bills (recipes) from 1838, 1893, 1908 and 1915, this is a unique opportunity to taste the whiskies enjoyed by previous generations. Each one is different, representing a distinct time and a place. The whiskies in this Manifesto release cannot be labelled as pot still Irish whisky, nor can there be any allusion to it on the label; even though historically that’s exactly what these four whiskies were.
The four samples – and my notes on them – are:
Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #38 – 40% Laureate Barley, 40% Costello Wheat, 20% Gangway + Laureate. Aged in Apple Brandy Cask. 47.1% ABV – this one packs a punch. I drank these out of sequence – ie, I went by number rather than the layout here – and this one hit hard, big wallop of flavour, presumably from the cask. Raises the issues about using different casks in these samples – what is creating the different profiles here, the grain or the wood? Maybe the mashbills would shine most at new make stage?
Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #93 – 46% Laureate Barley, 35% Gangway + Laureate, 15% Husky Oat, 4% Peated Laurate Malt. Aged in Sherry Cask. 43.1% ABV – deepest colour of the four, sherry cask, mashbill from 1893, and a bit o’ peat, always an extra string to the bow of a young whisky. Mulryan makes the case that age does not always equate with quality, but I think a lot of people selling young whisky would make similar claims. I do think there is a cut off point beyond which whisky, like the rest of us, becomes a little less vibrant, but I think the youngest age for decent whiskies that I have had is about six years old.
Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #08 – 50% Gangway + Laureate Malt, 35% Laureate Barley, 15% Husky Oat. Aged in Bourbon Cask. 45.3% ABV – a light gold colour, the palest of the lot, it slithers out of the test tube like syrup. A startling viscosity. Citrus, candied orange peel, Juicy Fruits. Reminds me of a young Aultmore I have, despite the mashbill. Good youth, no rawness – but not a long finish.
Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #15 – 40% Laureate Barley, 30% Gangway + Laureate, 15% Husky Oat, 12% Costello Wheat, 3% Performer Rye. Aged in Rye Cask. 44.2% ABV – nose hard to dig out, palate also taking a while to present. Official notes say orange blossom and dark chocolate; for me there is more that malty flavour from dog biscuits – don’t pretend you’ve never eaten one. Rye cask here so a pop of spice. Pleasant if a little nondescript.
So what to make of this – I like the moxy. I like the manifesto and I’ve put it to the testo, and while the whisky is young, all hold promise. But that isn’t the same as saying that you should run out and buy this. But I’m not a whiskey nerd – I like the stuff, and I love tasting these whiskies, but this is not aimed at fairweather friends of Irish whiskey like me. The full Dirtgrain package is €250, featuring four 20cl bottles of the samples above, along with Mulryan’s mashbill Necromicon, and can be purchased now. There will be another batch next year, and the year after, and after that Blackwater will transition to more traditional releases. A taste of the past, that looks to the future.
The dancefloor of Auntie Annie’s indie club in Belfast seems like an unlikely setting for the start of a Northern Irish distilling success story, but it was there in 2006 where David Armstrong and Fiona Boyd first locked eyes. David, an aerospace engineer, and Fiona, a property surveyor, connected immediately over their shared love for all things food and drink, but it was Fiona who dreamed of starting a distillery, as David explains: “The idea for the distillery belongs wholly to Fiona. Fiona had been reading about the lost distilleries of Ireland, I think it was the Townsend book, around the time her family took on Rademon Estate and at that time she had mentioned to her father about building a distillery. He immediately dismissed the idea, told her she was crazy and to keep doing what she knew.
“But Fiona, just like her father [Northern Ireland property developer Frank Boyd], knows her mind and some years later when we got married in 2011 we both knew we wanted to own and manage our own business. We are both so passionate about food and drink, the food scene on the island of Ireland and, locally for us in County Down, is world class. Ideally, we would have loved a vineyard in France but as we live in County Down and not Bordeaux, Fiona again suggested a distillery and I naively said yes.
“From 2011 to 2013 during every holiday and weekend we travelled the world doing distilling classes and visiting distilleries; we ordered our first still in January 2013, it arrived summer 2013, then we undertook recipe development whilst continuing in our day jobs, eventually we both left our jobs in 2014 and we launched Shortcross Gin in April 2014, so we celebrated eight years as a distillery this April.”
If that makes it all sound easy, it isn’t; while many distilleries built on the island of Ireland in the past decade use sourced stock as a revenue generator, Rademon opted not to.
“To be honest, if you asked me in 2014 to go out and source an Irish whiskey I don’t feel I would have been the right person to do it. We always believed that you need to learn your trade, this is important for me personally having served an apprenticeship, so we focused on learning how to make and understand our own whiskey in the first instance. We are at heart a craft distillery – we only sell what we produce, and that is an important ethos for us.”
Fortunate then that their gin was such a success, winning multiple awards and spreading out to sizable markets such as the US and Canada. The distillery even produced a special limited edition gin with a royal touch – Hillsborough Castle and Gardens Shortcross edition features rose petals handpicked from Queen Elizabeth II’s Granville Rose Garden at Hillsborough Castle – the queen’s official residence in Northern Ireland. Shortcross is also the official gin of Royal Down Racecourse (Fiona’s mother Rose is well known in equestrian circles as the co-owner of the legendary Hurricane Fly).
But their gins aren’t simply a money-spinnner for Rademon while they wait for the whiskey to mature.
“Gin has become a byword by the media as a means to an end for new distilleries, we would love to invite those people to come and work at the distillery for the day to see the effort that goes into creating Shortcross Gin. We love gin and to make a great gin you need to be passionate about it.
“The skills we have learnt from gin have been key to creating our whiskey, namely the ability to nose and taste flavours and put them all together.”
As the gin became a success in its own right, they started to look into making whiskey.
“In 2014 we were in the US and visiting distilleries when we had the realisation that to grow the distillery we would need to look at other categories. Now, one thing about both of us is that we believe you should only make what you love, and over the previous two years I had started to get into whiskey, particularly malt whiskey, following a tasting of Connemara Turf Mór at Belfast International Airport. That tasting blew my mind and I was determined that we should make malt whiskey and with that, some with plenty of smoke too. We began distilling whiskey in our 450-litre copper pot still in 2015 and filled our first casks in August 2015 and continue to do so today.”
The inaugural Rademon Estate Distillery whiskey was released late last year – Shortcross Irish Whiskey, a double-distilled, five-year-old single malt, matured fully in Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux Red Wine casks before being finished in chinquapin oak – the first time this cask combination was used in Irish whiskey. It takes a patient person to wait to the five-year mark when it could legally be sold at three, but David felt it was worth it (and there was the small matter of a global pandemic).
“If Covid hadn’t arrived, we would have done something in 2020 but having the space to let things mature a little longer has allowed us to craft a release we can really be proud of. Personally, we thought the five-year mark, well actually it’s almost six years, was a good point to release this. The balance was just there in the whiskey and we knew it was good, so Fiona and I knew it was the right time to go for it. You have to believe in yourself and the liquid, bringing together the joy of seven years’ hard work of getting to this huge moment in time of releasing your very own whiskey.”
Obviously there was a lot of excitement for whiskey lovers – this was a release that was a long time coming – and then it won Best New Irish Whiskey at the Irish Whiskey Awards last year.
“To win the award was mind blowing. I was also known to have shed a tear that evening, it was the culmination of seven years hard work to put our very own Shortcross whiskey out there, that I single handedly worked on from mashing in, fermenting, distilling and filling the casks. We entered the awards without anyone having tasted it or giving us a nod that we were on the right path. We were overwhelmed by the positive response and support we received following the award.”
But along with the giddy highs, there was the reaction to the price – stg£300 – in the whiskey community.
“There was a small collective of negativity on social media, that just did not give up and became so vitriolic. I don’t think you could ever please these people and that says more about them than it does about us. Our first ever release was a small, limited release of less than 700 bottles, 656 in total. Two casks. It was a momentous and historic moment, Shortcross was the first Irish whiskey to be wholly distilled and released by a new Irish whiskey distillery in Northern Ireland since the 1920s and the first new Irish whiskey to be released outside of the Old Bushmills Distillery since the closure of Old Comber and Coleraine distilleries. It breaks the chain of Bushmills-only releases and that is something really important in the rebirth of the industry in Northern Ireland.”
But while the first release was limited and had a pricetag to reflect that, their next release is both affordable, available, and intriguing, as David explains.
“We like to do things a little differently so our second release is something completely different – Shortcross Rye & Malt Irish Whiskey. This coincided with a couple of things that happened in 2017 and then ultimately ended up with us visiting rye whiskey distilleries in Maryland, which is the birthplace of American Rye whiskey.
“When we got back to the distillery we began to explore how we could create a rye-influenced Irish whiskey, after many iterations and failings along the way we found that the best way for what we wanted to achieve this was to use malted rye rather than raw rye to amplify the fruit notes and tame the spice.
“The whiskey starts life with a mash bill of 30% to 50% malted rye and the remainder malted barley. The wash is fermented for 140 to 160 hours, allowing time for a secondary fermentation to kick in. This helps create flavour from the very start of the process, through distillation and on to maturation. We then double distil the spirit on our 450L and 1,750L copper pot stills, with the 450L being one of the smallest stills used for whiskey on the island of Ireland.
“For maturation we used a combination of first fill ex-bourbon casks and also virgin chinkapin oak casks, which create rich flavours of fudge, stem ginger and spice.
“It’s a great whiskey and one we are seriously proud of. We can’t wait now to see it in the wild and in the hands of whiskey drinkers.”
Thanks to the generosity of Rademon, a bottle of it is now in the hands of this whiskey drinker. So what to think: All of the above, nutmeg, spice, hints of mace and whispers of aniseed; heather and manuka honey. Sweet, smooth, spicy. For a first release it holds excellent promise, although that is probably damning it with faint praise. But it is an important whiskey, for all the historic and cultural reasons listed above.
There are distilleries all over the island of Ireland that get a lot of attention – some spend a fortune on PR, some are controversial, some are just loud. There are others who are quiet. This, for me, has been part of the intrigue with Rademon – a distillery that is just quietly working away, with no fuss. The fact they never released a sourced whiskey just adds to their mystique; no resurrected brand from the days of yore, no press releases spoofing on about heritage, just a distillery quietly making gin and whiskey – new, fresh, interesting. The fact they opted to release a rye and malt whiskey as their first widely available release shows a confidence – they also have a peated 50PPM whiskey so they don’t seem overly concerned with creating a potentially polarising product.
The rye and malt more than lives up to my expectations – it’s an interesting, easy drinker, but more importantly it is something new; this isn’t some murkily rebranded West Cork Distillers/Great Northern/Bushmills/Cooley whiskey that somehow, no matter the finish, always tastes more or less the same. This is a new sensation – a new Irish whiskey, a new Northern Irish whiskey, and one that was worth the wait.
Rademon Estate Distillery’s Shortcross Rye & Malt Whiskey is available from their webshop – 46%, non-chill filtered and all natural colour, it is priced at stg£65.
This time three years ago the news was breaking that Walsh Whiskey and Ilva Saronno were parting ways. It was hard to comprehend – Bernard and Rosemary Walsh had built their Writers’ Tears and The Irishman brands from the ground up, and had the foresight to start doing so well before the multitude of non-distilling producer Irish whiskey brands that are weighing down the shelves in your local drinks emporium. It’s hard to imagine anyone conceiving a whiskey brand all the way back in 1999, but the Walshes did – kind of.
The company started life as The Hot Irishman, a concentrate to be used for making Irish coffees. But as Irish whiskey began its acceleration in the early 2000s, Walsh saw the potential for a whiskey brand and in 2006 The Irishman Founder’s Reserve whiskey was launched. In 2009 Writers’ Tears – a blend of pot still and malt whiskey – was launched. Then, in 2013, as Irish whiskey took off worldwide, Walsh merged with Ilva Saronno – the Italian parent firm of iconic brands Disaronno and Tia Maria. With the backing of a drinks titan, they built a beautiful distillery in Royal Oak, which opened in June 2016. Less than three years later, in January 2019, Ilva Saronno and Walsh Whiskey consciously uncoupled.
In a frank interview with Mark Gillespie on WhiskyCast, Bernard Walsh said that while he wanted to focus on premiumisation, his Italian partners had a different view of the market. If that seemed opaque at the time, the release of Ilva Saronno’s The Busker made clear what he was referring to. It’s hard to imagine brands more disparate than the brutalist, smashable dram of The Busker (which is a quality, affordable, no frills whiskey) and the considered elegance of Writers’ Tears (as imbibed by Margaret Atwood, no less). But while WT is a quality whiskey in a stunning package, The Irishman’s livery was a little dated. A rebrand in 2013 updated it somewhat, but it still looked like the poor relation next to Writers’ Tears. They also made the decision to include Bernard Walsh’s face on the label. I am of the mind that unless the face on the label is a Victorian cameo-style sketch of Rabbie Burns or Paddy Flaherty or some other dear departed icon, your label will not be improved by its inclusion, especially if it’s not an immediately recognisable face (addendum to this – it’s not ok to mock the god-awful line drawing of Paul Newman on Newman’s Own as they are for charity). The Irishman needed a reboot, more than a rebrand. But reboots cost money.
In November 2021 it was announced that Walsh Whiskey had been bought by Amber Beverage Group for an undisclosed sum. An informed source told the Irish Times it could be on a par with the alleged 90 million Sazerac bought the Paddy brand from Irish Distillers for – but the cynic in me suggested that seemed a little high. So I checked with another source in the industry who said they were surprised the figure wasn’t higher.
Luxembourg-HQed Amber Beverage Group (ABG) are a division of SPI Group, which is owned by Russian billionaire Yuri Shefler, a former member of the Russian military who has been locked in a trademark battle with the Russian state-owned company FKP Soyuzplodoimport over the ownership of Stoli brand vodka for decades. Per Forbes, Shefler bought the Stoli brand from state-owned VVO Soyuzplodoimport for $285,000 in 1997. Russia’s Supreme Court ruled the sale illegal in 2001, banning Shefler from selling the vodka inside its borders. In 2014, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium joined Russia in banning sales of Stolichnaya. However, in July of 2021, SPI Group hailed a victory in the ongoing dispute, winning the rights to sell Stoli in eight of 13 European countries. Also, in light of current events it is worth pointing out that SPI’s Stoli is made in Lativa, just in case you feel like boycotting it because it is ‘Russian’.
Update 7.3.2022 – Stoli has rebranded. In a press release, Shefler said: “While I have been exiled from Russia since 2000 due to my opposition to Putin, I have remained proud of the Stolichnaya brand. Today, we have made the decision to rebrand entirely as the name no longer represents our organization. More than anything, I wish for ‘Stoli’ to represent peace in Europe and solidarity with Ukraine.” What this means for the trademarks, I couldn’t say – but it might pave the way for Shefler’s Latvian-made Stoli to be a distinct brand from the Russian made and owned Stolichnaya
While Stoli may be the biggest name in their portfolio, ABG are big and plan on getting bigger. According to a piece published in The Spirits Business in June 2021 –
Throughout the pandemic, the company continued to witness positive sales. Amber Beverage Group saw organic sales increase 11% to €268.7 million (US$347.1m) last year, boosted by its “strengthened” presence in core Baltic markets. Organic operating profit for the full year rose by 21% to €21.9m (US$26.8m). The company had surpassed €30m (US$36.4m) in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) for the second time, reflecting its ability to adapt quickly.
Part of this expansion saw them buy Angelina Jolie’s share of a French vineyard she had invested in with her former partner Brad Pitt. That sale is now the subject of litigation by Pitt as part of their long-running divorce battle. Pitt’s suit claims ‘She sold her interest with the knowledge and intention that Shefler and his affiliates would seek to control the business to which Pitt had devoted himself and to undermine Pitt’s investment in Miraval’.
ABG’s financial prudence meant they were able to spend half a million euro on the renovation of The Irishman. I’ll let the press release take it from here:
The Irishman® range of super-premium whiskeys produced by Walsh Whiskey (part of the Amber Beverage Group) has undergone an extensive rebranding to reflect its dedication to the pursuit of excellence in Single Malt whiskeys. The €500,000 rebranding, which sees wholesale changes to The Irishman’s bottle, labelling and packaging, follows a strategic review which commenced in April 2020. Walsh Whiskey was assisted in the review by Bord Bia’s (The Irish Food Board) specialist Insight Centre – The Thinking House. The extensive design project was undertaken by HERE design agency in London.
Announcing the renewed focus on single malt and the brand redesign, Walsh Whiskey founder Bernard Walsh said: “As the Irish whiskey category continues to develop with increasing variety, it is important that we are clear in our proposition to whiskey consumers. Our message is simple: The Irishman will always be single malt focused – whether championed in pure expressions or blends – and that it will always be triple distilled to leave a lasting impression.”
There are also changes to the composition of the range, with a change of name for one core expression and the addition of a limited edition to the core of the portfolio.
The Founder’s Reserve blend (70% Single Malt & 30% Pot Still) has been renamed The Harvest. This expression, a truly unique blend of two premium styles of whiskey, started life as the first ever whiskey created by Walsh Whiskey’s Founder. The renaming of this core expression as The Harvest honours the great contribution of the farming community in the whiskey-making process. The whiskey is crafted entirely from a mash bill of 100% Irish barley.
First released as a limited edition bottling in 2018, The Irishman Caribbean Cask is being added to the portfolio’s core expressions which also include The Harvest; Single Malt; 12-Year-Old Single Malt; 17-Year-Old Single Malt & the Vintage Cask. The Irishman Caribbean Cask Finish is a rare vatting of Single Malt and Single Pot Still whiskeys finished for 6 months in Chairman’s Reserve Rum casks from the tiny tropical Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, before being bottled at 46% ABV.
A new colour palette of understated cream, green, grey, blue and burgundy is applied to the labels of the six core expressions of The Irishman range.
The trajectory of Walsh Whiskey probably holds some lessons for other producers – you don’t need a distillery to build a valuable brand, whiskey is a long game, and the road to success isn’t always sunshines and roses. Just ask Brad and Angelina.
Many years ago, someone in the whiskey business told me that Green Spot sold well with women. I brought it up with one of the production team in Midleton, and they explained that this was a result of the flavour profile. Then I brought it up with one of their marketing team, and their explanation was more straightforward: It sells well with women because it looks like a bottle of wine. You may well bristle at both opinions, or you may believe that it is a grim truism – many products, including food and drink, are marketed to people based on gender. (You may also correctly note that I used this story many times to illustrate the same point). Whiskey was solely aimed at men for decades, so the conundrum the industry has been battling for the last 20 years is how to shift that focus.
Back in 2019, the then CEO of Chivas Brothers Jean Christophe Coutures gave an interview to MarketWatch about how more women were drinking whiskey. Coutures, in reference to the Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve and its success with women, had this to say:
“It has a more approachable taste, a smooth, creamy sweetness with delicate flavors that doesn’t have the same edge often found in whiskey. We’ve also made the packaging easier to understand and priced it at entry level. More women keep returning.”
At the time I found it hard to believe, so I contacted one of the journalists who wrote the piece to make sure the quote was correct. He confirmed that it was. Giving Coutures the benefit of the doubt, English is not his first language. Perhaps he was trying to say that the success of Founder’s Reserve was not that it was dumbed down for women, but that it was dumbed down for everyone. Whiskies like Founder’s Reserve (affordable NAS single malts) are probably everyone’s first port of call when moving beyond blends, and that applies to both men and women. But Coutures’s comments were still a god-awful clanger.
So the question now is – how do you encourage diversity among whiskey consumers? I have no idea. I’ll leave that to the marketeers. But events the one held this week at Powerscourt Distillery are a good start. I’ll let the press release take it from here:
The ancient Irish feast of Imbolc (Spring) was celebrated in style at The Powerscourt Distillery on Friday 18th February. The first day of Imbolc coincides with Brigid’s Day, and the celebration at the Powerscourt Distillery used the occasion to celebrate the connections between Brigid and her associations with Brewing/Farming/Dairying/Nature and Hospitality.
Guests were welcomed with a cocktail called Brigid’s Cloak. Named after the legendary cloak laid down by Brigid as she claimed lands from the King of Leinster, it was based on the classic Manhattan. Reflecting Brigid’s reputation as an Irish woman ahead of her time, it was made using Fercullen Irish Whiskey and Irish ingredients made by female producers, with vermouth from Valentia Island Vermouth and bitters from Beara Bitters.
Following a drinks reception, Caroline Gardiner, Head of Marketing at Powerscourt Distillery, introduced the two panel discussions chaired by broadcaster Suzanne Campbell and curated by the Food and Beverage Specialist at the Distillery, Santina Kennedy.
The first panel incorporated guests with associations with Imbolc and Brigid to highlight and celebrate the occasion. Imbolc literally means ‘in belly’ meaning in the ewe’s belly – signifying springtime/lactating ewes/ spring lambs – so it was appropriate that the first panellist was Hanna Finlay from Ballyhubbock farm in West Wicklow, producer of sheep’s dairy ice cream and cheese. Storm Eunice prevented Hanna from driving over the Wicklow Gap to join the panel in person, but she was able to participate in the lively conversation via video link.
Hanna was joined by Judith Boyle, Brewer and Beer Lecturer at TU Dublin who shared funny anecdotes about growing up in Kildare – the home of St Brigid as well as her experience as a female brewer; Rosanna Goswell from Tuath Glass who gave a fascinating insight into her Irish Whiskey Glass , which was named after Tuath De Dannan – the family of the Goddess Brigid.
Also on the panel was Brigid O’Hora – the sommelier who brought insights into modern Irish Wine appreciation gleaned from her online wine training platform – Brideys Wine Chats . Being a ‘Brigid’ from Co Kildare who is the mother of triplets there was no shortage of associations with the Patron Saint of fertility!
The panel was completed with Alex Slazenger, Head Gardener at Powerscourt Estate who captivated the audience with the history and legacy of the gardens at Powerscourt and his plans to continue his grandparents pioneering work to create a sustainable garden of outstanding beauty.
The second panel discussed the ‘Taste of Place’ . Powerscourt Distillery celebrates its location throughout its offering – from the water from Powerscourt Waterfall that is used to make its whiskey, to the barley in the surrounding fields to the use of local produce in its cocktails and food pairing tours and tastings.
To celebrate this idea of Irish terroir, panellists included Orla Snook O’Carrroll of Valentia Island Vermouth, Ireland’s first vermouth which is made using botanicals from Kerry; Orla was joined by Celina Stephenson of Wicklow Way Wines. Their Móinéir wine is made using only Irish berry fruit, capturing the taste of Irish summer. The idea of capturing a taste of place was explained by Geraldine Kavanagh , professional forager for Glendalough Gin, who kept the audience really entertained as she described trying to explain her occupation to a bank manager. She brought a handmade willow basket of foraged treasures from the Wicklow mountains, describing how she used the botanicals to be distilled into seasonal gins. Olly Nolan, the beekeeper behind Olly’s Honey described how the honey from the hives at the distillery captures the taste of Powerscourt, from the wild hedgerows around the estate and the variety of flowers in the world renowned gardens. This panel was completed by Mary O’Sullivan who described setting up her Bitters during the pandemic. A botanist who grew up on an organic farm in Co Kerry, Mary really evoked a sense of capturing the magic of flowers and plants to achieve a taste of a place.
Guests were then treated to a Powerscourt Distillery Whiskey and Food Pairing experience. Head of Whiskey John Cashman enthralled the audience with his introduction to Irish whiskey and detailed guided tastings. Santina Kennedy, who organised the event, led the guided food pairings . Using her research into Irish Food History taken as part of her MA in Gastronomy and Food Studies, she has developed a unique whiskey and food pairing experience. She uses only high quality Irish food produce whose taste, texture and story mirrors the various expressions of Fercullen Irish Whiskey. Under Santina’s guidance The Powerscourt Distillery champions locally produced high quality Irish food as part of the overall offering.
A cake by Kate O’Hora of @thecake_table captured the essence of Imbolc and Brigid, with delicate spring flowers and a flowing edible cloak.
Powerscourt Distillery’s Imbolc celebration will become an annual event, with a bigger and even more exciting day being planned for 2023.
Press release endeth – unsurprisingly there was no mention of the recent, startling departure of their master distiller Noel Sweeney, or the departure not long before that of backer and MD Alex Peirce. These are strange times for Powerscourt Distillery – former C&C CEO Maurice Pratt joined the board before Christmas, presumably to steady the ship, but without Perice – whose family are involved in Isle of Arran Distillery and Lagg Distillery – and Cooley legend Sweeney, their identity – to my mind at least – has taken a setback. Events like their Imbolc gathering are good because it is uncommon – a female focussed hosted by a whiskey distillery. Hopefully others will follow their lead.
Daithí O’Connell is in the rare position of being an Irish person who aspires to ending up in a workhouse. As one of the few bona fide independent bottlers here, his business is not only thriving, but is expanding – and now he wants to give his brand a physical home, in a historic building once used to accommodate the destitute during Ireland’s hardest years.
Two years on since we last spoke, much has happened – his Bill Phil peated whiskey sourced from Great Northern is in its fifth iteration, and he has pivoted from being an aspiring Irish whiskey bottler to announcing his intention to bottle five Scotch whiskies – one from each of the so-called whisky regions, starting with a 10-year-old Bruichladdich Lochindaal.
“The Caledonian series has four more regions to see a bottle and complete the initial set, before we can start being able to bottle Scotch ad hoc,” he told me via email.
“I have my eyes on all major whisky regions plus some other spirits and wines I would like to add which compliment our business model and tie the story together.”
And just as Gordon and Macphail and Cadenhead have a physical presence you can visit, O’Connell wants a home for his brand.
“Our new headquarters will be at The Workhouse in Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford, and I’m delighted to say we have a 25-year lease agreed. We will be the single largest tenant on the site with over 25,000 square feet of space plus ancillary parking and access. We will develop the site over three phases and will start phase one in September with equipment landing in October and November.”
Specifying that tourism is not his priority – despite its ideal location along the Waterford Greenway – maturation, blending and bottling will all be brought in house. But tourism will surely be a component, as aside from the benefit of having all that history and heritage on-site, O’Connell will also be neighbours with Aidan Mehigan’s Gortinore Distillery when it gets up and running, making this one of the few places outside of Dublin where two significant whiskey attractions will be within walking distance of each other.
But whiskey is a challenging business, and despite his extensive background in the corporate world, I asked him what three things he has learned since getting into the category.
“While whiskey maturation might be a slow process the business itself is a lot more fast paced and demanding than I imagined in these early days.
“My position controlling as much of the process as you can is essential, I guessed it would be but I now know it is for fact.
“Route to market is paramount.”
But on that last note, he appears to be doing well: “We just launched in Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg and will be launching in South Africa and the US in October. It’s going to be a busy time for us with those and the new brand home so I decided we should do some contract distilling also after we just harvested our first crop of barley.”
He is also one of a group of smaller producers who came together as a kind of indie Irish Whiskey Association, under the name The Irish Whiskey Guild. I asked him what they hoped to achieve: “We will represent our members on items our members request to be represented on. We are currently preparing a submission for the DAFM on the Irish whiskey technical file. We will also be working with Bord Bia on items. There is opportunity for commercial cooperation also so all this will happen over time. We are all volunteers who run our own businesses so things move a little slower.
“I can’t speak for other members of the guild as to why they do or don’t join the IWA. We do have some members who are in both and we see no issue as to why the two can’t work side by side. I do know that IBEC membership fees are off putting for some.
“Our common goal is the betterment of the Irish whiskey industry. The benefits are that we are essentially a self help group for small producers. We have very different issues than the bigger players and can help each other out by transfer of knowledge and cooperation. We can also lobby for change and have our voice heard as a unified group.
“We pay a flat €100 per annum membership sub that is to be used for administrative costs. There are two membership levels. Full and associate. Associates-are allowed sit in on meetings, part take in events etc and express opinions however they have no voting rights. Each full member has a single vote.
“Full membership is based on your status as a whiskey producer. Have a distillery that definitely distills whiskey or have whiskey in market plus your own bond or a bonded tenancy in place. Each membership application is taken on a case by case basis.”
O’Connell is refreshingly honest about the business he is in and how capital thirsty it is: When I asked what the biggest obstacle to getting into the industry was, he was blunt:
“Money is essential. Double what you think you need and then double it again.”
So just like when pouring a dram, it’s always best to make it a double.
Do you remember Dingle Gold? It was a sourced blend, and it wasn’t very good, even by the humdrum standards of the most unchallenging blends. Of course, you wouldn’t expect too much given how it crashed into existence.
The year was 2010 and the Porterhouse Group were going to be the only Irish firm at the Shanghai World Expo. Known as the ‘economic olympics’ the expo would be their springboard into the Asian market – so they invested €1.35 million and 18 months of hard into securing a space for their pop-up pub, which would showcase their craft beers to some 70 million visitors during the expo’s six-month duration. But it wasn’t just going to be about craft beer. Oliver Hughes – the visionary founder of the Porterhouse who died suddenly in 2016 – was already planning a distillery here in Ireland. To show just how confusing whiskey is to the average person, here’s this from an Irish Times piece on the Expo in 2010:
Porterhouse recently started distilling its own whisky at a still in Dingle [they actually hadn’t started distilling until 2012], the first new one in 220 years. That whiskey won’t be ready in time for Expo, but the group has commissioned a range of 8-year-old and 12-year-old whiskeys from Cooley especially for the Expo.
I sincerely doubt the blend components in Dingle Gold were that old, as it was a fiery number.
Oliver Hughes’s son Elliott, now MD of the Porterhouse Group, told me how it came into being when I interviewed him and then Dingle Master Distiller Peter Mosley in 2017: “We were doing a bar out in Shanghai at the time for the World Expo. So we built a proper full scale bar over there and this was supposed to be the best thing ever and the turnover was meant to be 400 million and all this kind of nonsense, and we had this whiskey built for over there and it did not go very well. It’s one of those non-mentioned things. It [the expo] wasn’t nearly as busy as they said it would be and the Chinese don’t drink as much beer as we anticipated. It was managed poorly.”
Mosley continued: “I don’t think the Chinese had as much disposable income as we thought. So the Dingle Gold was never intended to sell in Ireland. I just got a phonecall from Oliver saying ‘there’s a load of whiskey on the quays, can you organise it to go somewhere?’ and it sat in storage for months before we did anything about shipping it. We weren’t ready for it, we didn’t have any sale structure or staff, I think Mary [Ferriter, Dingle Distillery manager] here sold most of it.”
Elliot: “And we sold lots of it through our own bars in Irish coffees. But in hindsight if we were to do it again i think we certainly wouldn’t. I think we were new to the market, we made a decision and it probably wasn’t the right decision, but at that time nobody was doing anything in Irish whiskey. Oliver was all about the ideas, Liam Lahart [Oliver’s cousin and co-founder] would then have to find out how we would pay for it.”
Mosley: “And I would have to figure out how we were going to do it.”
Elliot: “So a different way of operating completely.”
Mosley: “So Elliott is the ideas guy now.”
He certainly is: Since that interview three years ago, Dingle’s head distiller Michael Walsh moved to Boann Distillery as master distiller, and Dingle managed something of a coup by luring Graham Coull away from Glen Moray in beautiful Speyside to the beautiful arse end of Ireland. Obviously whiskey is a long game, so it will be some time until we get to sample Coull’s creations, but there are positive noises:
Now comes their fifth batch of single malt, and an expanded reach – one of the primary complaints about Dingle is how hard it can be to come by their bottles; little wonder given that they only fill four casks a day. I’ll let the press release take it from here:
The Batch 5 will make history as the biggest release to date, a total of 36,500 bottles. Five hundred of those will be bottled at cask strength (59.3% abv) as a tribute to the 500 Founding Fathers (and mothers), the
people who backed the distillery at its foundation by each investing in a cask of the first spirit to come from Dingle’s stills.
The Batch 5 launch represents a considerable increase in volume, meaning that on this occasion 9,000 bottles can go to the United States, the remaining 27,500 being destined for Ireland, the rest of Europe, Asia and Australasia.
For Master Distiller Graham Coull, who joined Dingle in October 2019, this is his second batch release. He believes that the use of Madeira casks in this whiskey adds a subtle complexity.
“The Madeira influence adds a great depth of flavour and a kind of backbone to this remarkable whiskey while not masking the subtle spice from the Bourbon casks or sweet tone from the Pedro Ximenez ones”, he says.
In Ireland, the Batch 5 Single Malt will retail at €70; the Batch 5 Cask Strength at €150, will be available exclusively online from irishmalts.ie, and rationed to one bottle per customer.
Full disclosure – while I love what Dingle represents as the first green shoot in a national resurgence of whiskey distilling, I haven’t been wild about the few samples I had. I always thought there was just too much fire and heat in them. I can’t blame it all on youth either – the three to four year old Great Northern whiskeys that I have tried are excellent and show that youth can be smooth and rich. But this Dingle is a decent dram at what is not an outlandish price. A lot of toffee sweetness on the nose, custard on the palate and a decent length of finish, with pleasant astringency. A solid, smashable dram – would be interesting to try the CS and see where it takes you.
Looking back over the Dingle story, you can see how things change – in their prospectus they outlined a range of drinks, many of which never materialised. I think that was part of the charm – the sense of chaos that comes with something smashing barriers and making history. They did what they could to survive.
I still have my bottle of Dingle Gold, signed by Oliver, and I treasure it. It’s not worth anything, but its power is symbolic. Dingle Gold wasn’t amazing, but it was the start of something that was and is.
Think of Scotch whisky as music, and the regions are genres – Speyside is pop, Islay is heavy metal, Islands are Soundcloud rap, Campbelltown is folk, Lowlands are classical. What then of the Highlands? Their particular ouvre lies somewhere between Wagner and polka – lots of deep bass, robust melodies – this is a region that marches to the beat of an ancient drum. But of course, this is seeing the area as a group, rather than as individuals within a genre. And what if one of those individuals suddenly started making a solo album – one with steel drums and island rhythms? Now imagine one of them was Einsturzende Neubauten crossed with Jackie Mittooo – strange instruments and tropical notes.
It has taken Fettercairn quite some time to get its moment in the spotlight – 195 years to be precise. Its founder, Sir Alexander Ramsay, was one of the first Scottish landowners to campaign for the making of whisky to be licensed, and in 1824 was one of the first to be granted permission to make whisky. Obviously, distilling had been taking place across the highlands for some time – all around the flat farmlands of the Mearns, upon which Fettercairn Distillery sits, there are valleys and nooks ideal for setting up an illicit still. It was to these highland foothills with their secret bothies that Ramsay turned for his staff, hiring the stillmen to run his new distillery. Ramsay also built a vast mansion, Fasque, which ultimately dragged him into debt, and Fettercairn was sold to a Liverpudlian merchant family named Gladstone in 1829. If that name sounds familiar, it should – one of the sons, William Ewart Gladstone, went on to be prime minister of the United Kingdom four times. Gladstone abolished the taxes on malt and the angel’s share, and allowed scotch to be sold in glass bottles for the first time.
Fettercairn changed hands many times over the years, was razed by fire, shut in 1926 as the postwar lean times bit, reopened 13 years later, doubled capacity in the 1960s, and is now owned by Whyte and Mackay, where thus far it was mostly used for blends. As an Irish whiskey lover, most of this seems completely bizarre – to have all that history and heritage just waiting to be put into action as part of a brand. They have so many stories just waiting to be told – even their distillery manager, Stewart Walker, seems like he was born for the distillery’s solo run. Walker is a native of the village and a born communicator; he says he is delighted to see the distillery he has worked in for three decades be celebrated for its many merits. After all, it is as unique as the unicorn crest suggests.
In the 1960s, workers were hosing down the stills when they realised that their work was affecting the spirit, adding an extra layer of reflux. So they had the bright idea of adding a water feature to the neck of the spirit stills. It is quite the sight to behold – water being brought in from a small reservoir of water collected from a local burn, piped into the still house, then coursing down the outside of a still neck from a brass ring, being collected and then sent back to the reservoir. According to your hosts, the only other still to feature such a bizarre contraption is fellow Emperador/W&M stablemate Dalmore, which at least had the decency to hide its strange feature under a layer of copper. Temperature controls on the neck of a still are not unknown – Blackwater Distillery in Ireland has still what are effectively grappa stills, with internal temperature controls on the neck. But Fettercairn brandishes its steampunk water feature like a body modification, out there for all to see.
Fettercairn had a stab at a solo career in the last few years – Old Fettercairn was a NAS bottling in the 1980s, and a 12-year-old single malt was released as ‘1824’. Fior and Fasque appeared ten years ago, opting for a more sleek and elegant look. But they also failed to set the world alight. Aside from these there were the usual peppering of indie bottlings, but it is only in the last 18 months that the distillery has been given a more complete offering. That said, there are gaps in the portfolio. The range jumps from a 12 year old to a 28 in the blink of an eye, then scales the giddy peaks of premiumisation with a 40 year old finished in an apostoles Sherry cask and a 50, finished in a tawny port pipe. These ring up at a challenging stg£3,000 and an eye-watering stg£10,000 respectively. But it is the space between the stg£50 12-year-old and the stg£500 28-year-old that needs to be filled – and Fettercairn has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, with warehouses on site filled with dusty casks just waiting to be discovered (even though the plundering of those same warehouses for blends is why the gap exists).
So they have the past, they have the future, they have the plans, and crucially, they have the financial backing. But how do you get folks to sit up and take notice? How do you catch the attention of whisky lovers? How do you gain purchase in the crowded hearts of the malt masses? Well, you can invite a few of them round, which is where this moves from talking about whisky to talking about talking about whisky. Please join me now as I draw back the velvet drapes and invite you into the gold-gilt world of the influencer as I enjoy 36 hours of corporate seduction in a suprasternal notch of the Scottish highlands.
Ah Nethermill House, a place trapped in time. While considerable amounts of money have been spent on the distillery visitors centre for their brand reawakening, the sizeable house adjacent to the facility itself is as yet untouched. It’s hard to put a year on exactly when it was last done up, but I would hazard a guess that it is somewhere in the late Seventies or early Eighties. As a result it is a glorious time capsule – bedrooms are done out in colour schemes, one is a pastel moss green, another is mauve, the kitchen has a serving hatch, and the loft has been converted into a games room, complete with snooker table. It is like the set of a BBC Play For Today, and as I waited for the rest of the guests to arrive I half expected Beverly Moss to sashay in and stick on some Demis Roussos.
One by one the rest of the guests arrived, and this part of junkets is always the best – meeting people whose work you admire, who you have chatted with online, but there, in real life, and now you have to talk to them despite being socially awkward anywhere but the internet. Add to that the anxiety of having to eat in front of them, as we were all whisked off to the former maltings for a posh picnic. I hadn’t eaten since a sleepy airport muffin at 5am, so I tried to control myself and descend into full wolverine mode, but after realising that I couldn’t chat amiably and eat at the same time I just focussed on the latter, with my head down, like a rodent.
After that we had a tour of the distillery itself with Stewart Walker. We strolled up the fields to visit the water source, had a ramble around the warehouse and tried some magnificent drams, and got to pick up some quality lore. One cask was bought decades ago by a Japanese couple with a view to opening it on their 40th wedding anniversary. They divorced on their 38th. The cask still sits there, now destined for their kids. Life comes at you fast, but in whiskey, it comes at you slow.
In the afternoon we had a talk from David Farquhar of IGS Vertical Farm. It might seem like a random thing to happen on a drinks junket, but in many ways it isn’t – whisky is an agricultural product, after all. Farquhar talked us through what Intelligent Growth Solutions do – they build vertical farms, effectively tray upon tray of crops all tended to by robots, all with a unique digitally monitored ecosystem guided by the gloriously dystopian sounding ‘weather recipe’. Obviously the first question asked was – does this work for barley? My inner luddite was delighted to learn that no, it does not – it works primarily for physically smaller crops. It’s an interesting concept when you consider the debates around terroir – will crops from these floating farms have less soul than those from the soil? Maybe, but if you’re starving to death, you won’t really give a fuck about what soil types it grew in.
Then we were off to Glen Dye, a series of beautiful old stone cottages which are run as holiday homes by descendants of the Gladstones. There we dined some more, drank some more, and at some point I collapsed into bed, for the following day we were to earn our keep.
What made this trip interesting was that the brand, whilst fully formed, is still in a relative infancy, so it was a rare treat to take part in a focus group. We were talked through plans for the brand, for bottlings within that 12-20 gap, and just terms and phrases within the industry – is small batch meaningless, how rare is rare, that sort of thing. I just sat there quietly, as I genuinely don’t know much about whisky, especially compared to the folks in that room – I am Jedward to their Schoenberg.
After that it was more amazing food, and off to the airport. It was a whirlwind 36 hours, but one that I have thought of often in the last few weeks as isolation and quarantine took hold. As an Irish whiskey lover, one my takehomes from the trip (apart from an insanely generous swagbag) was this: There are distilleries like Fettercairn all over Scotland, with mountains of excellent mature stock, so many that they sometimes struggle to find their voice in the market, a spot on the supermarket shelf or a place in our hearts. Irish whiskey has a long way to go to catch up; the power of the industry, the ability to hire PR firms, marketing experts, specialists in whisky comms and branding to help create these remarkable events, these remarkable identities for products. There is a massive industry in Scotland based around all this, and that is what we need to look towards – a fully functioning whisky ecosystem that creates and sustains jobs across the sector. In the meantime, feel free to live vicariously through these ten million photos I took:
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.”
I hadn’t been in Powerscourt House & Gardens since I was a child. My memories of it are vague – rolling down the grassy hills with my sister, getting lost in the Japanese gardens, and being scared by the statues of gods and monsters. Walking through the house and back out onto that incredible garden, three decades later, was a supremely odd feeling – my family are gone, and I was there alone, wandering around thinking about all those memories I now carry alone, moments to which I am the only living witness, and how no matter the power of the love we feel for each other, in the end it is all for naught as every living thing will one day die. So you have to just grab this motherfucker of a life with both hands and sink your teeth into it. In other words, when you get an invite to the opening of a distillery, even one 300 kilometres away, you go.
At some point down the road I will write a proper piece on Powerscourt Distillery, but some initial thoughts: What this project has is pedigree. Director Alex Pierce has a background in start-ups, but it is his link to Arran that is most impressive – his family have a track record of setting up and operating a very successful distillery. Master distiller Noel Sweeney is that most rare of creatures – an actual master distiller. There are many who use that title, but to me it has to be earned, rather that just assigned. Mastery should be proved.
So you have a director who knows what he is about, a distiller who is a master, and a setting that is glorious. The location, on the grounds of Powerscourt estate, and next door to one of the great old houses of Ireland, offers elements that many distilleries here lack – history, heritage, grandeur.
Powerscourt is also home to an exceptional five-star hotel, one that a commoner like me could nary afford. I had heard it was quite the celeb hangout, but nothing prepared me for who I spotted when I walked in the door, the biggest celebrity in Ireland if not the world – Craig fucking Doyle! Incredible, can’t believe I saw him in real life and not in an in-flight magazine trying to sell me insurance or electricity.
Anyway – here is some rich, delicious press release to fill this post out a bit:
The Powerscourt Distillery Launches Three New Whiskey Expressions
Introducing Fercullen Premium Irish Whiskeys
The Powerscourt Distillery proudly unveils three new Irish whiskeys under the brand name Fercullen; Fercullen 14-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey, Fercullen 10-Year-Old Single Grain Whiskey and Fercullen Premium Blend Irish Whiskey. Released by award winning Master Distiller Noel Sweeney, these opening expressions form part of a planned portfolio of premium Irish whiskeys being launched by the distillery and soon to open Distillery Visitor Centre.
‘FeraCulann’ or ‘Fercullen’ is the Gaelic name given to the ancient and strategically important lands that surround and encompass Powerscourt Estate. Literally translated it stands for “Men of Cuala” or “Men of the Wicklow Hills”, the historical context of which has involved several centuries of local discourse, dispute and battle prior to the arrival of peace and calm in the hands of visionary custodians.
Set against the stunning backdrop of the great Sugarloaf Mountain and enjoying a long heritage of dedication and craftmanship, Powerscourt has become one of Ireland’s most treasured estates – an inspiring location where the extraordinary is possible. With an underground lake of the purest Wicklow water, close proximity to rich farming lands and a temperate coastline climate It sets the perfect stage for distilling and maturing Irish whiskey.
According to Alex Peirce, Chief Executive of The Powerscourt Distillery. “Our location is important in that it provides inspiration. The local history, heritage and natural beauty of Powerscourt are all cohesive elements in providing the perfect platform for Noel’s work. We use pure mineral water that has filtered down into the Estate from the surrounding Wicklow hills and we are located close to some of the best barley growing lands in Ireland. Perseverance and patience have long represented the cornerstones to whiskey production and so it seemed fitting to adopt “Fercullen”, the ancient name for these lands, to introduce to our whiskey story at The Powerscourt Distillery.
Once the hub of all farming on the Estate, an Old Mill House that dates back to 1730’s has been faithfully restored and extended to form part of the Distillery buildings. It boasts a water mill deep in its foundations, while outside on the north-west wall of the building, a bell that was used to herald the daily lunch break to workers in distant fields presents a nod to former times and local practice. Both are being preserved to form part of the wider visitor experience.
The carefully appointed distillery, visitor centre and adjoining maturation facilities form the initial phase of the building project. Three traditional, custom-designed copper pot stills from world-renowned Forsyths form the centrepiece at The Powerscourt Distillery.
The Powerscourt Distillery Master Distiller Noel Sweeney has played a huge part in the design and commissioning of the modern plant. Noel’s experience, spanning over 30 years, has earned him global recognition and sits comfortably in a place renowned for attention to detail, craft and vision. Having formerly distilled the spirit that will be used by Fercullen, Noel is now also responsible for the new spirit being produced and laid down by the distillery – a unique attribute on today’s Irish whiskey landscape.
“The decisions that I make impart huge influence over the spirit produced,” says Noel Sweeney, Master Distiller at Powerscourt Distillery. “So many choices and decisions affect the way that spirit forms and matures into whiskey”
To mark and celebrate its opening year the Powerscourt Distillery has also designed a limited availability Cask Programme – the first and only such programme that it will undertake. At 397 casks (each one representing a foot of water from the nearby Powerscourt Waterfall), the cask programme offers a premium level of involvement and association with the distillery to private individuals who wish to become part of The Powerscourt Distillery family. Together with ownership of a 200L new fill cask to be housed in the Distillery’s warehouse on the Estate, members will enjoy exclusive access to special events and private whiskey tastings, first access to limited edition whiskeys and an exclusive presentation of the otherwise unavailable Fercullen 16-Year-Old Single Malt.
Fercullen 10-Year-Old Single Grain Whiskey €58 RRP, Fercullen 14-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey €92 RRP and Fercullen Premium Blend Irish Whiskey €45 RRP is available to purchase at The Powerscourt Distillery & Visitor Centre, The Powerscourt Estate, Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow; The Celtic Whiskey Shop and Mitchell & Sons, or online fromwww.powerscourtdistillery.com
The Powerscourt Distillery and Visitor Centre is currently available for a private, group bookings by appointment only. Contact email@example.com for information. For information on cask purchases please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Master Distiller Noel Sweeney has received several awards for distilling and whiskey excellence. He was inducted into The Whisky Magazine ‘Hall of Fame’ in 2017 and currently remains as one of just two Irish distillers to have been recognised in this way. A globally renowned whiskey expert, Noel is passionate about his craft and has released many international award-winning Irish whiskies over the years. He is a member of the Irish Spirits Association, a founding member of the Irish Whiskey Association and a key contributor to the GI technical file for Irish whiskey. Noel has devoted over 30 years patiently honing his craft and learning from former masters. He held a former position as assistant distiller to Gordon Mitchell, the first distiller at the Isle of Arran Distillery, Scotland.
The provenance of The Powerscourt Estate can be traced back to the 6th century, to a territory that stretches across fertile plains and through rugged mountainous terrain. Known in its native Gaelic tongue as “Fera-Culann” or Fercullen, its location in the foothold of the Wicklow mountains, so close to Dublin, made it a highly valued, strategic place. Ownership was claimed by numerous factions over the centuries, from the native Clans of O’Toole and O’Byrne, to the Norman house of LePoer, who built a castle there and from whom the estate takes its name. In the early 17th century, Powerscourt was gifted by Queen Elizabeth I to a favoured army general, Sir Richard Wingfield, an ancestral relative of the Slazenger family who currently hold the Estate.
One of the best parts of the evening, apart from the incredible meal, great wines, cracking whiskeys, and being seated next to Noel Sweeney and hearing all his insane stories from the business, was seeing so many people who care passionately for Irish whiskey – John ‘Whiskey Cat’ Egan, Serghios from Irish Whiskey Magazine, the Burkes from Cask Magazine, John Wilson from the Irish Times, Suzi and Liam from TheTaste, Susan ‘Not The X-Factor One’ Boyle – a writer, performer, PhDer, and general Renaissance person – and Leslie Williams from the Irish Examiner, the first journalist to start raising the transparency issue in Irish whiskey. It was like seeing The Avengers in real life.
My many thanks also to Rebecca and Sarah from Burrell PR for inviting me, and to everyone for putting up with me giving out about my kids, who I missed terribly and raced home to see the next day. Well, raced home once I went to the waterfall and took these photos, like a sadcase.
“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.
Eight new maturation warehouses, holding 16,800 casks each, to be built at Dungourney maturation site
Additional equipment installed in Midleton Distillery to expand capacity
Sunday, 14th of October 2018: Irish Distillers, the makers of the world’s most enjoyed whiskeys and one of Ireland’s leading suppliers of spirits and wines, has announced the investment of over €150 million in its sites in Cork and Dublin to meet demand for its products as the Irish whiskey renaissance continues apace. This is accelerated by the continued growth of Jameson which is now in double or triple-digit growth in more than 80 markets across the world. Nearly €130 million is to be spent expanding and upgrading the distillery in Midleton, and maturation site in Dungourney, Co. Cork, with over €20 million being invested in development of its bottling plant in Fox and Geese, Co. Dublin.
The investment will see the construction of eight new maturation warehouses, each holding 16,800 casks, with further land to be purchased to support the next phase of development, in Dungourney, Co. Cork.
The company has also added an additional mechanical vapour recompression evaporator, made by GEA Wiegand in Germany, to its Midleton Distillery in East Cork. The addition allows the distillery to further expand its capacity. A third mash filter and new fermenters are also to be installed in the distillery to meet the increasing demand for its portfolio of whiskeys. The distillery will also complete construction of a new office building in July 2019.
Investment in Irish Distillers’ bottling site in Fox and Geese will see extensions to the main operating bottling hall, storage warehouses, laboratory, and office spaces and additional upgrades to bottling and packing equipment.
Commenting on the investment, Conor McQuaid, Chairman and CEO said: “This €150 million investment in Midleton, Dungourney and Fox and Geese reflects the growing international success of Irish Distillers’ whiskey portfolio. With a tradition dating back to 1780, we have been distilling in the Midleton Distillery since 1975 and we are delighted to confirm our commitment to this tradition, and at the same time continue to embrace progress, delivering new and innovative expressions of Irish whiskey. We look forward to building upon our success story by continuing to bring innovative Irish whiskeys to the market.
“Irish whiskey is the fastest growing premium spirit in the world, with sales now accounting for more than one third of all Irish beverage exports. This investment will help to allow this growth to continue for years to come. The company is proud to play its role in the Irish drinks industry, which is a hugely important part of the Irish economy.”
Press release ends. No mention of another distillery…..yet. While you’re here, please enjoy this piece of wild speculation á la Bill – Arise.
Our little nation may not have the respect for its food culture, but when it comes to drink, few nations do it better. The last two decades have seen us spread our wings, with an explosion of craft breweries, distilleries, even wineries. With all that we have to offer, this season of feasting is as good an excuse as any to celebrate our remarkable skill at making excellent booze.
Craft beer – The biggest obstacle to getting into craft beer is the sheer variety – it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the array of brands, styles and increasingly unusual labels. Once you figure out the difference between an IPA, sour, saison or just what a lager is, you then have to try figure out which brand is an actual craft beer and which is brewed by a massive multinational and dressed up to look like a craft beer. The easiest thing to do is to find out where your nearest craft brewery is, and buy their produce. This way you get to call yourself a localvore, which makes you cool. Why not dip your toe into the delicious world of craft beer with one of the grandaddies of them all – the Franciscan Well Brewery on Cork’s North Mall. Their Rebel Red, Chieftain IPA and Friar Weisse are available almost everywhere (thanks to the market penetration of parent company Molson Coors, who bought the Well four years ago). Beyond that, Whiplash make some incredibly striking brews, both aesthetically and in their flavour profile – try their Drone Logic or Body Riddle. Dungarvan Brewing Company have the Helvick Gold Irish Blonde Ale, or Blacks of Kinsale’s IPA.
Porter/stout – Technically a subsection of craft beers, but since our national drink is the black stuff, it deserves a mention of its own. This is the time of year for porter (made with malted barley) and stouts (unmalted roasted barley), so there are many craft brewers releasing their own variations. One perennial that is always worth a punt is the West Kerry Brewey’s Carraig Dubh Porter, the closest you will get to dark matter on earth. A dense, heavy porter, there is eating and drinking in this absolute monster of a brew. Since this is the season of darkness, there are plenty of one-off seasonal porter and stouts from the craft breweries – 12 Acres have Winter Is Coming oatmeal porter, Boyne Brewhouse have a barrel aged imperial stout, Eight Degrees have Holly King imperial stout, and Western Herd offer Night Pod vanilla porter.
Vodka – Once seen as the drink of those who didn’t know what to drink, vodka is becoming more of a stand-alone drink in recent times, as we consumer more spirits on their own to savour their flavour, rather than drowned in an unpleasant energy drink. The old line about selling ice to the eskimos springs to mind when you discover that Blackwater Distillery in west Waterford make vodka for the Finnish government – but their output isn’t all shipped over to the Nordic lands. Blackwater also have their Woulfe’s Vodka in Aldi (24.99) while they also have their own Copper Pot Distilled Vodka (34.99). Then there is the Hughes Distillery’s Ruby Blue range, a potato distilled vodka, for around 38.99, or they have a whiskey-cask finished vodka for c 55. If you’re looking for an Irish Grey Goose, Kalak is a quadruple distilled vodka from West Cork – incredibly smooth, this retails for 40 – 45.
Whiskey – What can we say about Irish whiskey – the fastest growing spirits category in the world, it is selling like hotcakes. Distilleries are springing up everywhere, and there are brands popping up like mushrooms. But beyond the holy trinity of Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley there aren’t that many distilleries with mature stock. So we will start with them – Midleton has Redbreast (65), an oldschool single pot still that is Christmas in a glass, with lots of notes of stewed fruits, spices and a creamy mouthfeel. Bushmills has the old reliable, Black Bush, an oft overlooked but core expression in their range, which retails for about 34, but can usually be found for less at this time of year. Cooley have the Tyrconnell 10-year-old Madeira Finish (70), a classic example of just how on-point John Teeling’s former operation could be. But hark – a challenger approaches – Dingle is the first distillery to release an independent single pot still whiskey in decades. It is a rich succulent whiskey, with notes of leather, tobacco and that heavy sherry influence, but it is more than that – it is a piece of liquid history (70). A limited release, it will sell fast. West Cork Distillers have their own stock, and a wild spirit of experimentation – try their Glengarriff series peat smoked and bog oak smoked casked whiskey.
Gin – A category that has exploded, partly due to the rise of whiskey distilleries looking to generate revenue while their whiskey stocks mature – Dingle Distillery’s award-winning gin is a great example. Blackwater Distillery have released a barrage of gins, often seasonal, like their Boyle’s Gin for Aldi (24.99) and accompanying damson variation. However, they also created a perfect storm for the Irish mammy by distilling a gin using Barry’s Tea – mother’s ruin and mother’s greatest comfort in one, who would have thought of such a thing? Another excellent Irish gin with elements of tea is Patrick Rigney’s Gunpowder gin, one of the most beautiful gins on the shelf and with a liquid that equals the packaging.
Poitin – Finding it in the wild is a rarity – the tradition of illegal distilling is disappearing fast, so it’s up to the modern distillers to keep the category alive. Aldi have an Irish-distilled Dolmen poitin, while there is also Bán poitín (55) from Echlinville distillery up North, which also comes in the quirky variation of Bán Barrelled and Buried (59) which has been casked and buried for a short period. Perhaps save this one for the goth in your life. Glendalough do a variety of poitins, showing the sheer potential of the category – entry level (38.99), Mountain Strength (48.99), and sherry finish (39.99). The Teeling boys also do a poitin (34.99), while the Straw Boys poitin (49.95) from Connaught Distillery is also worth a shot.
Wine – Nobody thinks of Ireland when they hear the word wine, yet there are, in fact, Irish-made wines. Wicklow Way Wines is Ireland’s first fruit winery, home to Móinéir Fine Irish Fruit Wine, specifically a strawberry wine (20) – granted, not the best suited to a dank Christmas, but a welcome taste of summer in a bleak midwinter; or why not try their blackberry wine (20)? David Llewellyn creates Lusca wines in Lusk – his Cabernet Merlot (43.99) is more than just a curiosity.
Cider – the quintessential all-season drink – with ice in summer, or mulled in winter, as advised by the good people at Longueville House, whose dry cider (4) is a beauty. Multi-award winning Stonewell from Nohoval offer some beautiful ciders, but their tawny is perfect for that festive cheese plate – a a rich, opulent and viscous cider, dark in colour and possessing complex bittersweet flavours. Also offering a solid core range is Johnny Fall Down – they’ve created an award winning Bittersweet Cider, a uniquely Irish Rare Apple Port (Pommeau), and the first Ice Cider created mainly from bittersweet varietals.
Mead – With all the fuss about Game Of Thrones, who doesn’t want to live like a feudal lord and quaff mead? Naturally, being an aristocratic drink, the barony of Kinsale is home to Ireland’s latest entrant into the category. One of the oldest drinks in the world, their variations on this honey-based drink come in dry, with a refreshing citrus orange honey flavour, or their Wild Red, a melomel or fruit mead type, made from a Spanish dark forest honey, tart blackcurrants and sweet cherries to produce a zesty fruity aroma and long finish.
Brandy – Not the most crowded category, it would appear that there is only one Irish brandy – Longueville House’s beautiful apple brandy. Made in the stately home, it is distilled from their cider and aged for at least four years in French oak barrels. A perfect end to your Christmas feast.
Irish cream – The Irish cream category got a bad name, thanks to aunties everywhere drinking too much of it and embarrassing you. However, it is a hedonistic festive treat. The festive classic – Baileys over ice, ice-cream or in a coffee – is an oft-overlooked delight. There are of course, other Irish cream drinks – the wonderful Coole Swan, Cremor, Carolans, and Kerrygold. If there;s any left over, there’s always a Toblerone and Baileys cheesecake just crying out to be made.
Hard coffee – Technically not really a category at all – until this year. Conor Coughlan’s Black Twist is single origin coffee brewed with whiskey. Don’t think Kahlua or Tia Maria – this has none of their cloying sweetness. Black Twist leans far more into coffee territory than whiskey, and is excellent over ice as a digestif, or as the secret weapon in a cocktail. Of course, this is the season to be jolly responsibly – so Black Castle Drinks offer something a little bit special so the designated driver won’t feel like a plum sipping their Red TK and raspberry cordial in the corner. Their craft sodas include Fiery Ginger Beer and Berry Bramble Sting, and are a treat for all ages.
Most of the above are available in SuperValu, your local artisan offie, or online. Almost all of the drinks are made by small, independent firms who are simply trying something new – supporting them, and our food and drink industry, really is the perfect Christmas gift.