There are two things worth knowing about Aidan Forde. First, he is a geologist. He understands the uniqueness of place at a deeper level than most – how the ground beneath our feet has formed over aeons, and how, as a result, here is not there. Second, he is a Judo instructor. When I suggest that his training in the sport might be part of the reason he stands his ground where others would concede, he says that Judo means the peaceful or gentle way – the Japanese martial art is based upon the concept of using an opponent’s strength against them; you give way, you do not meet force head on. But you react, and protect, accordingly.
My first interaction with him was in 2017 when we got chatting via email about provenance in Irish whiskey – he believed so strongly that legislation needed to be brought in here that he downloaded and rewrote the Scottish whisky labelling laws in an Irish context, then sent on the PDF to me to illustrate how things should be. I thought nothing more of it and continued to grumble about the topic. However, he actually did something about it.
Since our email exchanges he set up an organisation designed specifically to bring about change in the legislation around use of placenames in whiskey branding. The Irish Distillers Association (not to be confused with either Irish Distillers Limited or the Irish Whiskey Association) lobbies politicians, and uses social media to highlight what he sees as a major credibility issue for the category. It hasn’t won him many friends in the industry. He is viewed as a crank, an outsider. But to ignore him is to overlook one of the most ambitious whisky projects on the island of Ireland.
Forde’s fight for absolute provenance in Irish whiskey is only one small part of his bigger plan – he is in the process of developing multiple distilleries across the Iveragh Peninsula in Kerry, all using different styles of stills and making different styles of spirit using different grains, with all components – grain, yeast, peat, equipment – coming from the region surrounding each unique distillery. Maturation in a disused slate quarry, stills made out of milk churns, 100% green energy distilling, in-house floor malting, restoration of historic buildings; the scale of his vision is striking – he seeks to build a unique whisky region, one based not simply on vague geographical boundaries but on locality, community, and place.
A native of Fossa, a village just outside the tourism hotspot of Killarney, Forde did his bachelor’s degree in geology in Trinity College Dublin before moving to Australia to achieve his phd in structural geology with the James Cook University, focussing on structural controls on gold mineralisation in the historic Victorian goldfields. The 59-year-old says that some of his work, alongside another researcher named Tim Bell, was seen as being somewhat out-there.
After a stint lecturing in geology in Trinity, he started working in green energy, specifically wind farms. His company Saorgus operates in a field known as de-risking – they assemble a project, securing lands and planning permission, and then larger firms take it on and Saorgus exits. Saorgus commissioned its first wind farm at Tursillagh, Tralee, 23 years ago. Since then they have commissioned two further wind farms – Tursillagh II in 2005 and Muingnaminnane in 2008. At present Saorgus and associated companies produce enough green electricity per annum to supply 30,000 energy-efficient homes, with the aim being to develop enough wind energy capacity to supply 800,000 homes with electricity on a completely sustainable basis. They are currently in the advanced stages of development of several more wind farms, with a total potential capacity of more than 900 MW; the biggest being the Dublin Array, a planned windfarm off the coast of Leinster on which they partnered with RWE, one of the world’s largest developers of renewable energy. Many of the projects he has worked on in the sector have been two decades in development. Patience is a virtue he has in abundance.
He also purchased the disused Valentia Slate Quarry and its associated sawmill and stone mill. Commercially quarried since the early 1800s, Valentia slate formed in such a way that it allowed for the removal of very large, very strong slabs of stone which made it good for both domestic and construction purposes, as well as for roof slates. It is both utilitarian and aesthetically pleasing, and was used in the UK’s Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and many of the UK’s underground railway stations, as well as Paris Opera House. It can also be found in buildings as far away as the West Indies and most recently it was installed on the roof of The Rubrics building in Trinity College Dublin.
The slate will play a large role in the new distillery that he has planned just outside Fossa. Located just off the Dingle road, he has a long-term lease on a dilapidated coachhouse to the rear of Aghadoe House, a historic building which has been used as a hostel by An Óige for several decades, and a place he knows well having hung around there in his youth. The coachhouse lacks a roof, but the walls are intact.
“It’s a utilitarian building, and that’s what I like about putting a distillery here,” he says. “The stages of this are that we have completed conservation work here; so this building was falling down in places, so we’ve conserved the stone work and left it at that level. So the next level now is the full project. Because we have Grafton Architects, they are very high end – so there is a high architectural concept to this one, as well as a high distilling concept.”
The coachhouse itself will house the admin and tourism aspect of the distillery, while to the rear land has been cleared for a distillery that will sit within the woods – heavy stone, wood, and glass will work together to give a woodland stillness, dappled light and dark. Fermenters will be outside the building under an alcove. Trees felled to make way for the distillery and the maturation warehouse will be repurposed into both furniture and interior elements of the development, but also to create a new type of cask made from local oak. All of this work will be carried out at Forde’s sawmill, while his quarry in Valentia will be providing low carbon waste slate and low carbon cement for the self supporting masonry for the building.
As for the distilling concept, he’s contemplating a heavy peat focus (aside from the sawmill, distillery, and quarry, he also owns a number of bogs). On the day after we meet, he is heading out to inspect a bank of peat for harvesting to use in his current distillery in Scart – he would like to see a heavy spirit, complemented by a heavy peated element to bring on a richness; that bacon fries note that can be found in some Islay whiskies. After all, he first fell in love with whisky when a friend of his brought him a duty-free bottle of Islay whisky; since then he has visited the island and became fully radicalised to peat; one of his aims is to outpeat Octomore. Part of his focus is also about exploring terroir in peat – he is currently harvesting in-land bogs but is looking at a coastal bog in Sneem as a source, with the plan being that two whiskies would be produced, one from each bog; a briney-peat whisky (his whisky will be without the E, naturally) and an in-land peat whisky contrasted alongside each other.
On the danger that he is afflicted with too many ideas, that there is the potential for too many releases over the next decade, he says: “We will never be high volume. We will always be small. In Scart we are only doing a few [casks] a week, that’s all. This is not a huge commercial enterprise; this is just something that we are into.
“I’ve no interest in doing the same thing that somebody else did. I think the peated aspect and the local barley aspect, getting away from distillers grain, getting away from distillers yeast, and driving on flavour…the whole industry has been driven on yield, and nothing else, that’s the origins of distillers yeast and distillers grain as far as I can tell. We’re trying to go the other direction and just look at flavour.”
He also claims that a lot of the new entrants into the Irish whiskey landscape are ‘wannabes’: “They don’t really have a clear vision of what difference they’re bringing to the industry. How is your whiskey different, how are you adding to the diversity? Are you just doing the same thing exactly with a different name on it? Is it a branding exercise, in reality? That’s the problem I have with it. Add on to that my bugbear of using a placename as a vehicle for me-tooism. There isn’t a whole lot of diversity in the distilling techniques or brewing techniques in the Irish whiskey industry.”
When I make the point that there is a lot of work on historic mashbills, and experiments with new yeast strains not traditional to distilling, as well as the reopening of the Irish whiskey technical file – the rulebook by which all Irish whiskey must be made – he says: “That proves my point. There’s a big rí-rá about having a little bit more oats. You’d swear this was going to be groundbreaking stuff, and it isn’t. Who cares about the technical file, just call it Irish whiskey. Who really thinks that pot still, as a descriptive term, is some kind of magic formula for sales? It isn’t. You can put whatever grain you like into the whiskey and just call it Irish whiskey.”
I point out that it’s prestige – that unique and wild mashbills from a century or two ago would be largely meaningless if sold under the general hold-all of ‘Irish whiskey’. Being able to categorise it as single pot still would add cachet and, ergo, value. In other words, you could charge more for it.
“My view is that the people who are going to pay a premium for high-end whiskey don’t need to see pot still on the label, they want to see what the mashbill is, they want to look on the back label and see what it is. They understand what mashbill means – just adding that moniker ‘pot still’ doesn’t add much. I think that issue about the technical file and the restrictions of it is just totally overblown. They are missing the point, to my mind.
“For example, we are looking at a mill in Killorglin, and are contracted to buy it – three storeys on the side of the river. Great spot. What we are looking at doing in there is putting in a three-chamber still like that of Todd Leopold of Denver, which is the only one in the US and there are none here. So it’s a very tall still, effectively three pot stills stacked on top of each other; the pressure in the bottom one is quite high. They are like three thumpers; a thumper-pot still hybrid really. A three-chamber still is a well-known thing – how come no-one here has done that?”
There is, most likely, a simple answer – the reason more distilleries don’t craft wild and wacky stills is not that they lack imagination, but that they don’t want to create something unusual only for the Irish Revenue Service to not sign off on it for use making whiskey and thus lose all the money that was invested. Clearly, Forde has no such fears – after all, his distillery in Scart has some of the most unusual stills on the island of Ireland: Two milk churns, topped with copper, and straight copper necks, fabricated at a relatively low cost of around €5,000 each.
Forde never saw his stills as being risky, stating that a pot still is just a chamber, as is a milk churn, and that once they had copper above fill level, they were legit. If anything, he wanted his distillery to buck the norm, to use stills that were unlike anything else.
“We are seen as either totally irrelevant or cranks. We are cranks, but we are almost revelling in that. What drives us is that there is so much potential for innovation in Irish whiskey and nobody is doing it. That’s what gets me.”
Forde says that there is an orthodoxy in Irish whiskey about ‘how things are done’ – new distilleries are set up using the same few consultants to guide them – consultants who, he says, have been doing things the same way all their lives. So when it came to Killarney Distillery they deliberately didn’t use any of what he calls ‘industry incumbents’.
“Our take on whiskey is that it’s an international drink – there is no difference between Irish whiskey and scotch, no difference in principle in the definitions of the different categories. None. Not distillation, not peating, nothing – there is no difference. And there’s very little difference between bourbon and Irish whiskey – if you take bourbon as being more than 50% maize, and matured in American oak – well, that’s Jameson.”
It’s one of the many apparent contradictions in Forde’s take on the category – that whiskey has no national distinctions and is an international spirit – yet he is focussed on hyper local production methods, terroir, and ultra-provenance.
“That means something,” he counters, “whereas ‘Irish’ means nothing. If Jameson is 80% or 70% French maize and it’s Irish whiskey, whereas Irish cream has to use Irish dairy products in the manufacture of it, well what’s the difference? If you really wanted to make pot still meaningful, you’d insist that pot still whiskey has to use Irish ingredients only. That would be different.
“The whiskey industry reminds me of the wind industry 30 years ago – there’s a big incumbent, there’s a lot of people running around trying to do something in the category. Some of the biggest operators in the spirit world don’t have an Irish presence yet, so there’s an opening now to build a distillery and de-risk it and say ‘there you go lads’. There’s nothing wrong with that so long as you aren’t being dishonest.”
Forde’s obsession with honesty in whiskey – ie, absolute clarity on the label about the source of the liquid in the bottle – is a large part of what has alienated him from much of the industry and community. He believes that whiskey should never carry the name of a place where it was not made, and that distilleries should not be allowed to use their name on the label when the liquid within was not made by them.
It is, however, a common practice in Ireland – many distilleries have been selling sourced whiskey under their own brand and label, as though they had distilled it themselves, long before their own distillery was even built. This passing-off is seen as a means to an end – capital intensive enterprises like distilleries need money in those early years so they buy in whiskey from elsewhere and sell it as their own to make money and raise brand awareness. However, lack of funds is not always the driver; Diageo, one of the biggest spirits producers in the world, has a Roe & Co. whiskey on the market that was not distilled at their Roe & Co. distillery in Dublin city. Slane Distillery, owned by drinks giant Brown Forman, also has a sourced Slane whiskey on the market.
Few see any potential for harm in this practise, despite the fallout from Japan’s reckoning with its issues around provenance (some Japanese whiskies were actually distilled in Scotland or Canada). Forde fears that what happened with Japanese whiskey could potentially happen to Ireland – more interest in and buzz about a category brings extra scrutiny, and if consumers feel they are being misled, the loss of credibility could be permanent. However, unlike Japan, all Irish whiskey is distilled and matured on the island of Ireland, so the question is whether anyone would care if they discovered whiskey claiming to be from one Irish distillery actually came from another. A recent study in the US suggests they might.
Stanford Business School researchers found that sourced whiskey being passed off is the key concern of whiskey drinkers who seek authenticity: In a study, Glenn Carroll, a professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, looked at whiskey distilleries to gain a broader sense of how consumers perceive authenticity and found that brands which outsource their distillation appear inauthentic. Another key takeaway was that companies who wish to cultivate an authentic reputation should not outsource production, even if that means forgoing economic efficiencies. As the report’s co-author J. Cameron Verhaal put it: “The communities around these products develop, they gain enthusiasts, review sites appear, and consumers come to know more about your identity as a company. Eventually, you can no longer hide. Consumers will discover that you don’t have a distillery and, more likely than not, that will become a huge problem.”
Forde founded the Irish Distillers Association (IDA) to lobby for change in the legislation here – for Ireland to be more like Scotland, and to push for full transparency in Irish whiskey. The organisation’s website makes no bones of their purpose, stating that its sole remit is as a representative and activist organisation. It also features ten tenets that it expects members to adhere to, among them – no column stills, no sourcing, Irish grain only, and thou shalt not ‘market or sell any product that uses a place of provenance in labelling and marketing information unless that product is entirely manufactured within 20km (straight line) of the place of provenance used’. It finishes on this: Members commit to engaging in relevant debate internally and with non-members in a way that is factual, objective and respectful.
Part of the organisation’s activity is publishing a list on social media where it highlights what it sees as misleading claims on labels – these range from distilleries selling sourced liquid under their own label, to supermarket brands. Nobody is spared – from indie darlings Killowen to giants like Bushmills (the grain in their blend is from Midleton), anyone who has sourced whiskey or is using a location as part of their branding is included. The Grace O’Malley whiskeys, which feature the west coast of Ireland as part of their brand narrative, also make it to the list, as do Aldi’s Ardfallen whiskey (Ardfallen is ‘a fictitious place’), and Conor McGregor’s Proper No. 12 which makes the list as its name is an oblique reference to the area of Dublin where the MMA star hails from.
Aside from the name-and-shame strategy used online, the IDA also makes official complaints to the Food Safety Authority about whiskey labels, as well as lobbying Irish politicians about the issue, including Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue, under whose remit the category falls.
The minister was also questioned about whiskey labels in the Dáil by Deputy Catherine Martin, who noted that “an association (details supplied) has taken a complaint to the EU against his Department alleging non-enforcement of regulation (EU) 2019/787 with regard to a lack of enforcement of spirits provenance regulations resulting in multiple incidences of false provenance information being provided on products”. The minister gave a lengthy response about whiskey labels, closing with the line “The department does not permit references to distilleries that do not exist.”
Dissatisfied with the reaction to their concerns in the Irish parliament, the IDA took their case to Europe.
Aidan Forde is also involved in a legal dispute with another Kerry distiller. His Killarney Distillery, which started operations in 2020, is based in an industrial estate in a place called Scart.
A group of Irish and American businessmen developed the Killarney Brewing & Distilling Co’s €24 million distillery, which is located just outside Fossa on the Ring Of Kerry road. Killarney Brewing & Distilling Co are the registered owners of a number of trademarks related to the use of the name Killarney. The company filed the case in the high court claiming that there is a likelihood of confusion on the part of the public with Forde’s Killarney Distillery and his planned inaugural Killarney Whisky, due for release later this year. In 2021 Killarney Brewing & Distilling Co released a sourced whiskey under the name Killarney Irish Whiskey.
Forde doesn’t believe that anyone should be able to trademark a placename. Given how many distilleries he is planning, it is a bold position to take. Aside from his operational Killarney Distillery in Scart, and the planned Aghadoe Distillery, he is hoping to develop a distillery in the quarry in Valentia, another in Flesk Mills on the other side of Killarney town, another distillery which will operate over three floors of the old Annandale Mill on the banks of the Laune River in Killorglin, and a town-centre micro-distillery project in Kenmare’s 19th Century butter market, which he is currently operating as a community space and art gallery. Aside from the different style stills and signature grains to be used in each one, it is envisioned that they would have different head distillers also. But for now, John Keane is the distiller at Killarney Distillery and head brewer of Torc Brewery, both of which are in the same unit in Scart. Forde says they emphasise the brewing over distilling: “The brewing – this is where the flavours are made – distilling is just separation. Whisky is as much about the fermentation as about the distillation, maybe moreso. Some distillers treat the brewing stage with something near contempt. That is not right in our view.”
What Forde is doing is not necessarily reinventing the wheel – there are many distilleries around Ireland using unusual mashbills, interesting local grains, hitherto uncommon yeasts, and strange stills (though none as strange as his). At the opposite side of Munster, Waterford Distillery have made terroir part of the whisky lexicon, and are sourcing from and celebrating Irish farmers, just as Forde is. So what is different about Killarney Distillery and his Iveragh whisky region project?
It’s the scale of the ambition, and Forde’s unwavering drive. Aside from all the above – the quarry, the distilleries, the brewery, and the windfarms – he is also a volunteer with Kerry Mountain Rescue, and, in case you thought all his endeavours were land based, he is also in the process of building a boat named Cú Lír, a technologically advanced, low carbon, research vessel. He is also a father of three. Forde appears to have no off switch, and despite his philosophy being built around the gentle way of Judo, he is boron-like in his fortitude. He isn’t phased by the fact he is an outsider, but no man is an island, or a peninsula, or a whisky region all by himself. Forde’s activism has not been well received (including by myself, on occasion), in a way reminiscent of the longstanding Irish tradition of casting out those who criticise the way things are, or put forward a vision of the way things should be. Other whiskey businesses, just as strident and outspoken as he, and guided by the same pursuit of a singular vision for Irish whiskey, have been clutched to the bosom of the community. Not Forde. But he seems not to care, as he is not playing to the crowds. There is no PR firm running things, sending out press releases, no outreach to bloggers and podcasters. None of what he is doing with his quest for provenance is performative; it’s not brand building, posturing, or attention seeking. He is doing what he believes is right.
When I asked him if geology was what gave him his obsession with place, he says that what geology gave him was an appreciation of the vastness of time. Studying continents and their slow movement across the planet made him realise that a human life is the briefest glimmer imaginable. Perhaps that is what drives him ever forward, or perhaps his philosophy is less about the gentle way and more about the Kerry way – a willingness to stand apart from the rest, even on a very small island.