Launching in the USA: The Pointy End of The Stick

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The End of Prohibition but the Beginning of a fiddly system

I’m writing this on a train ( I love a good train) en route from Providence to New York Penn Station. Today I had my first REAL distributor meeting about J.J. Corry. We met the division head buyer and presented my whiskey  talked, roll-out, sales targets, marketing and PR support pricing. It was definitely one of the best meetings I have ever had in my life and I have been in probably close to 30,000 meetings. Not because of the content but because THIS is what ultimately my business is all about. This is the pointy end of the stick. I’ve spent two years creating a whiskey so that I could secure a meeting like this. The head buyer has hundreds of requests for these kinds of sit downs with new producers. As a new brand, getting the meeting is a big deal then you need to nail it as hard as you can. I have several of these meetings all this week in our planned roll-out markets.

The USA has the most complicated alcohol distribution system in the world. It harks back to the days of prohibition. When that ended, the Federal Government handed control of alcohol licensing and laws to each individual state. So every state is quite different. In some states the state government is the only body allowed to sell alcohol, everyone has to buy from the State Liquor stores, in other states when you sign with a distributor you can never leave them even if they don’t sell any of your product, there are states where you are not allowed to sample the product with consumers and states where you can. There are states that have dry counties entirely and others with 24 hour licensing. If you don’t want to fall flat on your face as a new producer you need to understand the nuances of each state. THERE IS NO GUIDEBOOK.

For a foreign producer like me it is even more complicated. I cannot sell direct to a distributor. I am obliged to sell to an importer, he/she sells to the distributor, the distributor then sells to the retailer or bar and they sell to the end whiskey drinker. As a producer I am 4 times removed from the consumer and my margin ends at the Importer level. Everyone else takes a margin too, so doing business becomes costly. You get one shot to launch in the USA, if you get it wrong, it is over. The system is so tight its unforgiving.

I’ve spent a good year plotting my entry into this market and weighing up various options. I have had to change tack a few times. In the end I partnered with an old colleague of mine from way back and we are knocking out these meetings together and it feels fantastic. From a business perspective, this is what matters. Closing deals and shipping cases, finding the right distributor partners so that we can build the brand together the right way. Everything has been leading up to this and I’m feeling a bit teary eyed about it all. There have been a few moments since I set up this business that I have felt pervous (proud and nervous.) The day our first casks arrived on site, bringing Blaise on board, the day we put the Gael into bottle, the day we shipped our first pallet to Germany. But today feels like the biggest achievement yet, the U.S.A. is the toughest but the biggest Irish Whiskey market and we are opening it. A little start-up Irish Whiskey brand from West Clare.

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THE AMERICAN OFFICE

Even cooler is that today I got the keys to our satellite office right on Main Street and across from RISDI in Providence. I’ve not had any funding through yet from any state body in Ireland, a source of major, major effing and blinding on my part. However, kind of amazingly, my local Enterprise Office have hooked me up with the Irish West International Trade Center. A trade mission of sorts between Rhode Island and the West of Ireland. The function of the Center is to facilitate trade between their lovely state and our lovely counties on the Western Seaboard. Shannon Airport is now directly connected to Providence via Norwegian air so el-cheapo flight connections are possible. I can be door to door from my Cow-shed Office to my Providence Office in 7 hours, not bad. I see great potential for this in the future. Also, we have an office in the USA!! That is so cool.

When I was on the way to that office this morning my phone rang and on the end of the line was another old colleague of mine and one that I greatly admire as do many people in the industry. He is currently in New York and we were hoping to meet up, but could not make it work. He said that he was really proud of how far we have come which meant a lot to me. He went on to say that many people have lots of plans but never ship a single case and that what I’d managed to prove is “The Power of Doing.”  There have been rough times in this journey so far and I’m sure there are more ahead, but he is right. In the end starting a business is very simply about just doing it and more importantly continuing to do it every single day.

I finally feel like we are well and truly doing it now and that is a powerful thing indeed.

The Bonder’s Blend & Emerging from The Fog of War

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J.J. Corry The Gael. A Bonder’s Blend

It has been quite a long time since I last wrote a blog post. This is mostly because I’ve been fighting a series of logistical battles in order to fulfil our first orders of J.J. Corry The Gael for export. The first batch of our whiskey The Gael is a small run, only 7000 bottles. There is a specific reason for this. I blend and bottle in small batches as I have a finite supply of mature whiskey.

Recently there has been a lot of talk in Irish Whiskey circles  about what Irish Whiskey is ALL ABOUT.  Various individual elements of the process have been put forward, wood, barley, maturation, water  etc. etc. I don’t think whiskey is about any one element of the process. If your wood is sulphurous you’ll have an iffy bad batch, if your barley is mouldy you will have poor distillate,  if you dilute it too fast at bottling you can get saponification etc. etc. There are 100’s of faults that can happen throughout every element of the process. Each part  is important when it comes to quality. In my opinion Irish Whiskey is not all bout any one thing, its all about the cumulative whole of the origination and production process contributing to the quality of the end product. CAVEAT: This is just my opinion not a statement of fact . 

As I am a bonder, I don’t and won’t ever really (except for a few experiments) have total control over the entire production process. I will however totally control those elements that I can. My third party new fill, which is excellent quality, is filled into casks that I source myself, un-sulphured, juicy casks chosen to enhance our spirit over a period of many years.  Our wood program for the next few years is shaping up well,  I will always personally source my own casks in their country of origin, rather than buy from brokers. All my new fill is maturing in a specially designed clay floor rackhouse near the coast, the conditions of which humidity and temperature I monitor closely and naturally adjust where necessary.

For our first release a blended Irish Whiskey The Gael, my level of control is different. I had no control over choosing the new fill, casks or maturation conditions of the mature whiskey stocks that I sourced over the past two years. They are between five  and twenty six years old.  My control started when we tasted every single cask we before we bought it. Each cask was then classified into a particular flavour component.

We pull from those components and blend to create an end whiskey profile which we aim for. The thinking around The Gael was to create a complex  juicy fruit style of Irish Whiskey with low cask influence.  Its a 60% Malt-40% grain blend for the sake of complexity and it contains whiskey ranging from 26 year old sherry casks,  11 year old 15 year old and 7 year old grain.

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From October 1st Sunday Times

With this first release, I wanted to show that just like the original Irish Bonders we are emulating, we can create something unique from the stocks we (and everyone else) have access to. For the next few years in terms of releases we’ll be focused on blending until our new fill comes to maturity. For us, it will be mostly about the blend but not ALL ABOUT anything per-se. I have the wonderful luxury of knowing each of our casks personally..some of the older stuff is tougher to pin down in terms of its life cycle but I know if its smoky, vanilla, grassy etc. etc. Each cask has s flavour personality. Once you quantify whiskey stock in this way, it makes creating unique whiskey a feasible reality. Our first review for The Gael came out this weekend in The Irish Times, we scored very well 92/100 ahead of many other newcomers and on a parr with Jameson Cask Mates, so I really can’t ask for much more than that in terms of proof of concept. I created a whiskey that at least for one reviewer is up there quality wise with one of the market leaders offerings.

However, the logistical production side of the Irish Whiskey Industry is (naturally enough)  set up for huge runs and 60,000 litre blends and 250,000 bottle runs. Getting a 7000 bottle run of The Gael blended into bottle has been prohibitively expensive and logistically difficult. I knew it would be, but I had no idea just how rough it would get.  Funnily enough just now, in the middle of writing this I had a phone call from a fellow whiskey maker to discuss this very thing I had no concrete answers for him to make it easier, as there are none.  I can say hands down coordinating bottling has been the most difficult part of the entire process, the logistical bottling infrastructure in Ireland simply does not exist for small players to bottle on a whim as it does in Scotland. I know a brave man working on a solution for this, but it was too late for my first run.   This is the first week in a few months I’ve been able to breathe, look up and assess what we need to do for the next run to ensure a smooth production pipeline.

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Smashing

The last few weeks have really taken a toll on me. I perhaps naively never expected the physicality of this job. People when they visit always expect me to have a staff, I don’t, Blaise is headed to the U.S.A. and not on site.  So when a pallet of empty bottles for storage arrives at the gate strewn all over the back of the truck, its just me and the driver who need to unload each individual bottle by hand over a period of 2 hours, until my neighbours  and 76 year old father came to the rescue. If a delivery of bottles arrives without the Government label on it and it needs to be shipped to the USA, you know who needs to unbox and stick that missing label onto individual bottles? Yeah, me. Sure I got some help in, but believe me, I spent a good 5 hour stretch last week performing a repetitive taping action on boxes in the Rackhouse, my back is shot.

It’s clear to me that this now needs to change. I’ve battled to get this whiskey on to the market I raised finance, sourced stock, uncovered the J.J. CORRY story and created the pack and brand, secured international distribution, blended the first batch and put it into bottle at gunpoint. I’ve proved the concept, and more importantly I understand every single element of getting JJ CORRY out of the cask, blended and into bottle. I know because I did it all myself.

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A long road to get the first bottle off the line

This week we’ll be submitting planning permission for an on-site blending facility.  We have a lot of requests for small custom blends for customers and right now I can’t fulfil them no matter how much I would like to, it is logistically prohibitive without my own facility. It’s become clear to me that if we are to be true whiskey bonders in the spirit of JJ CORRY we need to be a lot more nimble when it comes to blending and bottling.  Furthermore, I need physical  help. My focus now needs to shift to selling and brand building not physically packing  or unpacking samples, accepting deliveries, and doing customs documentation.  All of that needs to still happen, but I need to bring in help. My aim has always been to create jobs here in rural West Clare and now is the time to start putting that into action.

Its time to begin the move from being a Solopreneur and to begin to scale up. Bring It On.

 

A NOTE ON WEST COAST IRISH WHISKEY

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 Doughmore Beach 1 Mile Away

On Saturday night somewhat by accident we hosted a tasting of our 1.3 year old whiskey spirit and our upcoming release The Gael at the Irish Whiskey Museum. The guys there invited us along to host something as part of the Dublin Whiskey Festival and I figured, why not. Even though we were not quite ready, a toe in the water felt right about now. After 20 years abroad the drinks landscape in New York or Singapore is far more familiar to me than here in Ireland. Until I set up this business in 2015 I had never actually worked in Ireland before, except for waitressing and pony trekking jobs in my teens. I have been to Dublin probably about 15 times in my life most of those are in the past few years. I know where IBEC and Bord Bia are I can point out Trinity College to you but that is about it. I’m a stranger in a strange land here in Ireland at times, this is the plight of many the returned émigré. Plonk me down in the middle of New York, London, Paris or any number of other cities and I would be totally fine.

The Dublin whiskey scene is a vibrant one now, just as it was in the past. With all the exciting distillery openings up there and the Liberties coming alive again, it is easy to forget what is going on down the country. Once in Co. Clare there were FOUR distilleries, most of them shuttered after the 1761 act but there was distilling by the Paterson in Kilrush until about 1843. Then there was nothing and our namesake JJ CORRY the whiskey bonder would have sourced his whiskey from Limerick as it was directly connected to Kilrush by twice daily steam packets into the busy deep-water port of the town.

Close to me in Clare there are two small distilleries now under development, both will be gin focused to begin with. I’m rocking and rolling on the bonding side and am gearing up for our second batch of new fill to come in. Last week I kicked off the process of planning for our on-site blending facility and we’ll be exporting to Germany and the U.S.A. come September. On the beer side in Clare we have a quite brilliant craft brewery Western Herd close by in Kilmaley. This was set up by a brother and sister team. Their Uncle ran the shop beside J.J. Corry’s until quite recently in fact……We have a project on the go for old times sake…..Their Blue Jumper IPA is my go-to beer.

Meanwhile I’m involved now in a project to push forward the development of Clare as a foodie and drinkie destination. In Dublin on Saturday we served smoked salmon from the Burren Smokehouse an amazing export business run by an equally amazing lady based in North Clare. When I have guests to visit I make a point of serving them food sourced exclusively in Clare. Breakfast is usually Eggs from Rathlir Farm, Coffee from Anam Coffee,  Black and White Pudding, Bacon and Sausages from Meeres, Bread from Considines Bakery in Kilrush and Milk from my Dad’s cows!

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2 Neighbours, One Uncle, One Father….& Me. The Crew

People forget that over here on the West Coast farms are small, farming has never been intense and never will be. The food produced here is done so by individuals who are close to it and who are hands on in every way, just like my Dad still is.  The Whiskey, beer and spirits scene is shaping up to be quite similar. The distilleries planned in Clare are small scale, owner operated. I hope to scale up in the coming years of course but right now I’m constrained by supply. I’ll never be an intense operation anyway. I’ll be accepting tours next year, but only up to 10 people or so at a time, we’ll never be a coach tour business. Our blending and bottling will be done in batches maybe 2 or three times a year.  I’ll be personally involved in all of this to the point of occasionally doing the odd bit of painting, pegging out facility layouts and running future blends.

At our accidental event on Saturday, a lovely couple from Philadelphia came up to me. They said they’d been traveling around Ireland for 3 weeks and simply happened to stumble onto our event. They very kindly said that it was the best experience they’d had in Ireland so far as it seemed so “personal.” That really meant a lot to me, because it is personal. I have big ambitions and plans for this business, I didn’t spent 20 years working in multinationals and not learn about the importance of scale and for that matter not to have the ambition to realise it. But right now this business is personal. I didn’t buy a property for the business, I set it up on my family farm. I don’t have hordes of staff moving casks, my family and neighbours do it. If I need samples for an event, I go and pull them out of casks myself. If I open an export market its because I personally made it happen not an export manager. I am hyper focused on getting us to market and growing our global footprint in the same way that many of the bigger operations are. But the manner in which I make all of this happen is, well, personal.

The difference between the bright lights of Dublin our modern European capital and the West Coast remains as wide as it was the first time around in Irish Whiskey. The scene in Dublin is fantastic and great for Irish Whiskey. However, over here in the West we have something different to offer. We have our coastal climate, our slower and less whizz, bang approach, our still very unique and authentic culture. We are not the land of The Quiet Man and don’t need to pretend we are, you take the West as you find it. Pastiche is not necessary here.

We will do an ‘official’ launch in the future, but to experience it I’ll be enticing people over to the West Coast and County Clare to experience what we do and how we do it first hand. With several distilleries and whiskey companies either operating or planned up and down the Wild Atlantic Way, you can be sure you’ll be seeing  a West Coast approach to whiskey emerging in the coming years.

The Wests’ Awake people, The Wests’ Awake.

Keep Calm-Irish Whiskey Labels ARE Being Regulated..By the People in Charge of Hospitals

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Scenes at This Weeks Dublin Whiskey Fest..

There has been a mad furore this week in whiskey circles about Irish Whiskey labelling and marketing messaging, everyone has an opinion on this and social media is abuzz. I predicted this whole thing would kick off this year in my blog post in January and it has. You know what? I am absolutely delighted. There is too much confusion over labelling in Irish Whiskey and if you don’t agree with me I am afraid you are very misinformed.

As a new whiskey maker you need to get across marketing and branding information so you can’t just write exactly what is in the bottle, well you can but it would unintelligible for the consumer. So you have to have some branding stuff going on, it needs to look nice and it needs to get some messaging across. This means you have to tell compelling stories,  ideally based in some for of truth and not in fantasy, which is what marketing is. But some in Irish Whiskey go too far and its starting to annoy people who care about the future of Irish Whiskey.
Everyone seems to think the IWA should be doing something about this. Technically,  they should not, that is not their actual job right now, they have no legal authority to do it. The IWA is a PRIVATE body, you pay to be a member depending on your market share you pay more, its function is an extension of IBEC its just category specific, they also have bodies for things like Medtech, Tech, Retail and all sorts.

Everyone needs to stop comparing the IWA to the SWA.  The SWA are not the greatest people in the world, they severely hamper innovation in Scotland.  Talk to any new craft distillery in Scotland trying to do something new and you will hear horror stories of products being pulled off the shelf, bullying and general weight throwing. This is why there are so many new distilleries popping up on the English/Scotland border. It’s tough to do anything innovative and call it “Scotch” if you are based in Scotland.

The IWA are still figuring out how to best benefit the industry, I don’t want them to become the SWA that is like inviting Godzilla to dinner and expecting the evening to be filled with lovely conversation.

So to be clear the IWA currently have no totally government sanctioned official Role in Irish Whiskey Labeling per-se, like they can’t take anyone to court over it, what they can do is report dodgy labels to the department of Agriculture or the HSE who do ACTUALLY have an official role in administering Irish Whiskey Labels. The HSE (Health Service Executive) will be familiar to you if you have ever been in a hospital or a restaurant their main function is to (and I’ve lifted this from their website)  “The HSE provides all of Ireland’s public health services in hospitals and communities across the country.”

So, they are mostly in charge of hospitals, midwifery, immunisation, workplace safety, and stuff like that. They also are now in charge of monitoring Irish Whiskey Labeling and Provenence and consumer protection. They do this on behalf of the Department of Agriculture and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, not on behalf of the IWA.

I’m super keen to be totally transparent about what I am doing and have spent a lot of time trying to figure out who to talk to about my label. I called the IWA, then the Department of Agriculture, then I called the FSAI and I finally called the HSE to get my label approved.

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Spot the offensive bit.

With all the furore recently about misleading labelling and my utter devotion and belief in transparency, I was apoplectic then last week when my local HSE officer pulled me on my label for potentially being misleading. I’ve been 100% honest and open with everyone including my HSE officer. She knows I am currently MATURING whiskey on site she knows I am building a blending and bottling plant but that I am currently blending and bottling offsite. My first release has not spent any time on the farm. She knows this because I told her.

On the back of my label it stated “ We have brought back JJ’s way of Making whiskey on our family farm. We source Irish whiskey etc. etc. “  That statement “We have brought back,” was deemed misleading, as I don’t currently bottle or blend on-site. When I pointed out I had made 100% clear on the label that WE SOURCE OUR WHISKEY and that we HAVE actually brought back JJ’s way of making whiskey. We have 24,000 liters maturing right now, it fell on deaf ears.

At this juncture I offered to simply remove the offending statement. But then I became APOPLECTIC. There was shouting down the phone, there was Bile and there was vitriol. I am sorry for that HSE lady, you didn’t deserve it… I queried forcefully as to why that statement could be considered misleading when there are a lot of whiskies out there with the term or name distillery on them and everyone is using the same stock as me. I rattled off at least 7 of them.  I was super angry and yelled a bit, as I felt it was very, very unfair. When I calmed down I told her again I would remove the offending term and I’ve gone and done that now. I still feel like it is unfair.

However, I also feel good that someone somewhere is now paying attention, maybe this is a beginning.

The administration of Irish Whiskey Labels is ridiculous. There are too many departments involved, with the buck passing up and down the line in a form that is inefficient. My HSE contact is a nice lady, and to be fair to her is performing her job brilliantly. But when you have a government body whose job is to administer hospitals administering whiskey labels and provenance, and it is necessary to effectively SELF REPORT it feels like an alternate Universe. When I submitted my label to the TTB in the U.S.A. it was ONE department who looked at it for approval, not three.
I’m still not totally sure what the next step is, so I’m hoping I’m good to go. I guess my message here this week after all the madness that has been raging in whiskey circles about misleading consumers is that there could very well be a beacon of hope in here. The industry is going through natural growing pains, and label administration is one of them. Whiskey folks and whiskey consumers are not going to continue to tolerate what has been going on anymore. There are voices out there now who are standing up against misleading labels. So report to the HSE any labels you find misleading, it’s a start and THEY are the ones who can actually do something about it, like take the offending whiskey to court or pull the product.

If you’d like to discuss this or any other topic directly with me this week, please come along to our soft launch and tasting. Our Damn whiskey is not in the bottle yet as the label has to be changed now, but you can taste it directly from cask at the Irish Whiskey Museum on Saturday night. We are hosting an event with the guys there. Click HERE to get your ticket. No pitchforks will be allowed in to the Museum.

Women in Irish Whiskey #GirlGang

We hit a pretty big milestone last week. We welcomed our first team member ‘Blaise Kelly’ on board. Blaise is headed to the U.S.A. shortly to represent us over there. With the addition of Blaise to the team, we are now to the best of my knowledge, the only All-Female Irish Whiskey Company. I do not for a single second hold sway with the idea that women approach whiskey any differently than men. Neither do I think we should be pandered to with pink bottles or pared back tasting notes so that our poor feeble ‘female’ noses can grasp complexity of flavours. Being an All-Female team does NOT mean you’ll be seeing that kind of stuff from us. As an All-Female team, we’ll behave and do business no differently than any other Irish Whiskey Business. Yet inherently,  I have a feeling our organisation will be perceived as being different.

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Photo Credit John Kelly

I will say in the past few years of working in Irish Whiskey, I’ve encountered some pretty spectacular gender bias. On reflection though it was ever thus though in my career. Once on assignment to France when I was 28 I was introduced as a ‘Belle Fille’ literally ‘pretty girl’ in front of the entire management organisation (mostly guys) there was whistling and clapping. I was standing up to give a presentation on a strategy I had spent 6 months developing for the brand…Look l know how to accept and appreciate a compliment, but the context was wrong,  the Pretty Girl thing got the biggest round of applause. .….I remember being on a business trip in my early 30’s  and meeting the 50+ year old Country Director of Marketing for a well-known multinational. We went out to a working dinner to a key account with a group. He proceeded to drink far too much, and then later after I had gone to bed back in the hotel he showed up at my door trying to come in. I politely and laughingly pushed him away he called the phone in my room so many times spouting nonsense that I eventually unplugged the phone, when he came knocking again, I just ignored him until he went away. It was never spoken of again.

Then there was the time I was on an overnight business trip at a food and wine festival with a sales rep. After another working dinner, where he proceeded to drink too much, he climbed from his hotel room window ledge to my hotel room window ledge two stories up. He rapped on my window pane and I was faced with the choice of letting him in, in his bathrobe, or pushing him to his death. Thinking fast, I jammed my hotel room door open with a chair let him in off the window ledge and kicked him out of the hotel room door with one swift movement.

Now that Blaise has joined the business at almost the same age as I was when I started working in the drinks industry, it puts those memories in a very different light. I’m a pretty tough character, but looking back at those times and me in my 20’s and early 30’s I have recently reflected as to why I didn’t report any of those idiots for that nonsense. The answer is really simple, back then if I had it would have hurt my career. The most important thing to me back then was my career, and I would not have jeopardised it for ANYTHING. Who would I have reported it to? Who would have listened to me over a senior executive? I choose to not say anything and to rise above it, and to attempt to show that I could take the flack that was simply a part of the job. I should not have been presented with that choice in the first place.

If you think I’m coming over all militant feminist, just imagine your 20 something daughter or sister in any of those situations……

Times have changed and I believe that the drinks industry has in the most part radically changed its institutional behaviour towards the young women who work in it. Much of that older guard who tolerated and engaged in that behaviour are gone now and good riddance, I have a bag of other stories that would curl your toes…… By the time I left the cocoon of drinks multinationals there were strict policies and reporting structures in place to safeguard from this kind of thing. Let me be clear though that there are still plenty of industry shows and in-house events with girls in skimpy outfits giving out shots, that will never go away……

Gender diversity in Irish Whiskey is, how should I put this, not the greatest. Granted industry bodies like IBEC make an effort as do the multinationals as part of policy. However, every single person I deal with in the old and newish guard Irish Whiskey industry currently is a dude.  Blenders, coopers, Warehouse keepers, wholesalers, brand owners, Bottlers, potential Investors, the list goes on. The Irish Whiskey Association meetings are a bone fide SAUSAGE-FEST folks. There are of course some Husband & Wife teams that are coming on strong and my hat goes off to them, women’s presence in the industry is increasing slightly, but next time you open a weekend paper to read about the surge of the Irish Whiskey industry Count the quotes from the dudes vs the ladies, you’ll see what I mean.

I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, why there is an imbalance there. The drinks industry is a fantastic rewarding and fun industry to work in. Contrary to popular belief in Ireland a job in the industry is NOT about ‘drinking.’ It’s about whiskey or product/category knowledge, understanding production & flavours, marketing & sales skills, negotiation skills, logistics, finance, branding, Communications and relationship development to name but a few skills. Your gender is irrelevant as far as I am concerned, you just need the focus and the drive to work on those skills to be a success.

I don’t think Blaise will face the kind of intolerable behaviour and overtly sexist attitudes to women that I once did in the industry. For one thing, I would not tolerate a single sniff of that around her by any customer or distributor or anyone for that matter. When I started in the industry you just had to go along with misogynistic behaviour, I sure as heck don’t feel the need to do so these days.  I know though that it is still out there in pockets. I can spot it a mile away, even over the phone, and it reveals a lot about the person holding that attitude, which can ultimately be used to my advantage.

Mansplaining is a VERY real thing in my world folks……

There is a reason for the rise of the terms  #GirlGang and #Girlpower. These days women know exactly what we are capable of, we have no doubts even though others may continue to harbour them. Bring back the lost art of Irish Whiskey Bonding? Can Do. Travel the U.S.A. alone telling the J.J. Corry brand story? No bother. The only significant thing about us being an all-female whiskey company is that we have zero ambiguity as to what we are capable of achieving together. Women helping Women is a powerful thing and in spite of all the progress made in the past two decades in the industry, we still need that to ensure our mutual success.

How It Feels to Blend Your First Batch of Irish Whiskey

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I love a Good Spreadsheet

Whiskey blending as we are so often told is an art. Whiskey is composed of hundreds of chemical compounds,  Lactones, Phenolics, Esters, Aldyhydes and all of their various iterations are what lend flavour to the spirit.  Raw ingredients their origins, distillation methods, maturation conditions and cask variation all add layers of complexity and variation to a cask.  But when it all really comes down to it, whiskey blending is mostly about buckets, oh and equations.

We scaled up our first blend yesterday and now have several thousand litres of whiskey which will be ready to be bottled after its had a while to rest. We’ll have about 7000 bottles of this first batch when all is said and done. To be honest, I’m a whiskey Bonder not a professional nose. I am a believer in surrounding yourself with people who are excellent at what they do and more importantly better than you at it. So I work closely with an expert in terms of selecting our casks and creating our blends and our house style. The artistry part of blending is where my expert excels. I’m all about the buckets and the equations.

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The state of the art white plastic bucket with gauging designed specially for us

After spending the past few years sourcing mature Irish Whiskey stock, then meticulously tasting and nosing every cask and classifying each one into an individual flavour block, we landed on a blend. I think its pretty special. Its 60% Malt and 40% grain. It is mostly comprised of older malt whiskies. 25% is 11 year old malt, 25% is 15 year old malt  5% is is 26 year old malt (yes TWENTY SIX YEARS OLD) and the remaining 40% is 7 year old single grain. I’m actually becoming really attached to my casks which is not a good idea. I have one cask of 26 year old in a sherry hogs head that I have decided I never want to sell…..I visit it in the rackhouse a lot and take in its aromas, just the aromas though.

So, watching the first cask arrive for disgorging on the end of the forklift was honestly pretty emotional. It was cask number 1198, a 15 year old malt classified as ‘Grassy’ with low cask influence, it was in  2nd fill ex-bourbon cask. Cooley distilled stock but a Bushmills cask oddly enough. The cask was disgorged and then the equations began. Our blend is so tiny that the guys had to make new equipment for us….The art of blending takes a second seat when you have to account to the revenue for every drop you disgorge. You allow in theory for 2% per annum, but with modern Irish industrialised maturation conditions this is often more. Dry palatalised warehouses lead to more evaporation.  Another reason I’m racking with a Clay floor in our rackhouse. So, when you disorge the cask you have to take a gauge  as to how much exactly is in it, you then take the ABV and with these two numbers you convert to LPA (liters of pure alcohol)  which is how you report to the Revenue.

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The three 26 Year Old Hogsheads we partially disgorged

With big 60,000 liter blends you just do this in the tank. I had to do this with every cask. When I say, I, I mean me. Most of my day was spent converting LPA and OLA over and back.  So precise is our blend that we partially disgorged some of the casks. 3 different 26 year old malts went into this blend, but only parts of those casks went in. To be revenue compliant we had to FULLY disgorge the cask into a small tank, then do all the ABV fussing, remove the required amount of litres from the small tank with a bucket do more ABV and LPA calculations  and then fill the cask back up. This is an utterly ridiculous state of affairs, but we had to do it, as the Revenue is not clear on how to regulate for partial disgorgement. We are the first to do it in Ireland in a long time, I am happy to stand corrected on this folks, if any of you out there are doing it please let me know how you got it past revenue.

The nail biting bit was that once we had all the malt in the tank we had to then add the exactly correct proportion of grain to hit the 40%. This in the end was achieved with buckets. It got tense at one point when it looked like the tank had been guaged incorrectly and for a moment I thought the day had gone up in smoke. But we worked through that. I landed the blend within 3 liters of the amount I was aiming for. Not bad.  We ended up having a small amount of leftover 10 year old grain. I have a very, very special plan for this.

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That Tiny Tank beside me, specially made for our blend!

The title of this post is how it feels to do this. It feels empowering. Yesterday I expected to rock up and sit back and watch laboratory staff do a lot of precision work. Instead I was carting buckets, calculating ratios, and ABV and LPA and OLA and heading into the warehouse to physically seek out individual casks and most importantly learning in a way I have not learned since I was a kid. I did not even see the inside of a lab!

A big thank you to the guys at GND who created new equipment for us, and the lads who worked their butts off all day fussing with buckets and micro amounts of whiskey compared to what they are accustomed to.  John Teeling made a guest appearance, but I had my head so far in a spreadsheet I barely said hello. I have applied for planning to have my own blending facility I don’t think it will be ready for the next scale up, but yesterday has made it a lot clearer in my mind exactly what we need for it.

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Fresh from the Tank! Newborn J.J. Corry, THE GAEL Irish Whiskey

We are so, so close now, I have a tank of J.J. Corry ‘The Gael’ ready for bottling. We are going to let the liquid rest for a while to let everything marry together. I have a few more hoops to jump through and then we’ll be there. I kind of can’t believe it.

I’m a whiskey maker now, that feels pretty amazing.

 

When is a Bucket Not a Bucket? When Its Used to Measure Whiskey for Tax….

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Appealing to the Whiskey Gods for Mercy 

I’m sitting at a desk writing this, when in reality I am supposed to be in a warehouse pulling casks for scaling up our first blend. There is a slight delay on that. When you revive a way of whiskey making that died out last century, you run into a lot of problems. I’m a whiskey bonder, right now I buy in mature stocks of whiskey and I blend them together to create something unique. I also mature new fill on my farm in the hope that our microclimate will result in a unique spirit. I’m obsessed with the unique bit. That means taking the limited stocks of mature whiskey we currently have which are from at the moment two distilleries and figuring out a way to differentiate our end product from everything else out there, who are also using the same stock. I want to do some crazy fun stuff but our first product THE GAEL is a blended Irish Whiskey, but one for real Irish Whiskey Lovers and it needs to deliver, or this entire endeavour is a failure.

The way to ensure our whiskey delivers is to forensically & sensorily analyse all of our  casks, get to know each and every one, through tasting and nosing. Then to create a blend, differentiated to the others  out there but one that can stand up in terms of quality and more-ishness to any of the best. We’ve done that and are ready to scale up the blend and make our first batch. I’ve got my empty bottles, I’ve got my labels, I’ve got my corks, my boxes and some customers and most importantly I’ve got  my blend. Now is the time to begin disgorgement of casks.

This is where I’ve run into a problem. My first run is 7500 bottles, only because that’s all I can make of this particular batch, I’m going to run out of some particular flavour profile casks so I’ll need to call the next one Batch 2. My blend calls for ‘Partial’ disgorgement of casks. So like I’ll be pulling 40 litres from a 26 year Cask A. and 50 Litres from 26 year old Cask B.  225 Liter cask for example (that’s not accurate but you get me). Here is the issue. Back in the day when JJ CORRY would have done this, he simply reported to the Revenue commission by ‘Proof Gallon’ measurements. Like he had an actual Bucket which was officially a Proof Gallon and he recorded every Proof Gallon or Quarter Proof Gallon he extracted from the cask to the Revenue so he could pay the tax on it and that was that.

Because Bonding died out in Ireland that practice died with it. Today, most people just disgorge 10 of X cask and 200 of Y cask and 400 of Z cask, the whole cask goes into the blend and there are weights and measures in place for that.  In Ireland there are currently no approved ‘BUCKETS’  for measuring partial disgorgement anymore, per-se. So, we have to invent them and we have to have them approved by the Revenue and THEN we can do our blend. Again its just a formality and one which I kind of relish, it makes me feel as if we are REALLY bringing something back from the dead. We are having to re-invent lost equipment.

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No I Don’t Look Thrilled I know, neither Would you if you had to Invent a Bucket

So I’m not in a warehouse pulling casks right now….What I am doing (amongst way too other many things)  is trying to drum up votes for the #NissanGenNext competition, I’ve been shortlisted for. Nissan picked me and 20 others out of about 1000 to compete for the chance to be a Nissan Ambassador, if we win, they will lend me a vehicle for the business for a year. I could really do with this, I’ve written in the past about my piece of crap car…We are about to on-board our brand ambassador and she’ll need to start visiting accounts with something other than a 15 year rust bucket. I need the public vote to get over the line on this, so if you have a few seconds to spare, give me your vote please! You can vote daily…a lot to ask…but even if you vote once much appreciated. Vote HERE 

Once I do get that blend sorted, all that whiskey is not going to deliver itself…..#NeedThatNissan

A Note on the Rural Regeneration Scheme

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We are VERY Rural…Those are our cows

One of my American investors always chuckles when I tell him about various Irish funding ‘Scheme’s we are applying for like the EIIS Scheme. He laughs because in the USA the term scheme means something that is not legit, something underhanded like Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme….I’m beginning to come around to his way of thinking. The 60 Million Euro Rural Regeneration Scheme was launched in Ireland to great fanfare and great welcome at the beginning of the year. Among its aims are to create 135,000 rural jobs, increase tourism by 12% and establish an Atlantic Economic Corridor. I was really thrilled by this announcement. I am very dedicated to rural regeneration and I view a key part of my business as ensuring that my local community benefits by the fact that we are based in West Clare. Right now, there is a big wave around Whiskey Tourism in Ireland. The Irish Whiskey Association and Failte Ireland are working on an all Ireland Whiskey trail and I want my local village of Cooraclare to be on that trail.

It is a beautiful village tucked neatly in a river valley just a stone’s throw from the coast and perfectly situated to welcome tourists along the Wild Atlantic Way. I love it, it has a church, three fantastic traditional Irish pubs, a local shop and about 300 inhabitants in the parish. It’s a picture-perfect place. Ideal for a little Irish Whiskey tasting room. A small scale (no coaches) niche high end tourism offering. So, when the rural regeneration scheme opened its call for applications to its Town and Village renewal fund I went ahead and applied for some match funding. I wanted to open a little tasting room with a retail outlet attached showcasing local food, drink and craft products. The thinking was it would be open from about 10AM-6PM and tourists could book ahead for whiskey tasting classes and the like. It would be a recreation of JJ CORRYS original shopfront and interiors (which still exists at Bunratty castle) and would create 2 full time and about 8 part time seasonal jobs, that would be 10 jobs out of that 135,000 they are aiming for. In addition, it would lure tourists into our little village, and put it squarely on the Irish Whiskey Trail map which will be heavily promoted globally in the coming years.

Those tourists would need to eat, drink and they’d need places to stay, perhaps they’d want to go riding at the local riding school afterwards. We’d run events in there and catering would be necessary etc. etc.  There would be definitive knock on economic benefits for the local economy and we would help to add to that additional 12% of tourists they are after.  The proposal would allow me to really root our business in West Clare, beyond just maturing and blending whiskey this is important as my core markets are export markets. So, this would place my business squarely along the Atlantic Economic Corridor.

I submitted my proposal and was asked to elaborate on it. Sounds like a go-er right? WRONG. The day the final proposal was due, I was told that it was VOID. Why? Because it had been submitted by a PRIVATE BUSINESS. The fund will only consider applications by community groups. No businesses need apply. The department of Arts, Heritage, Regional Rural and Gaelteacht feels, I was told, that I could just “GO TO THE BANK AND GET A LOAN.”  That is a direct quote by the way. I wrote a blog post about why that is especially difficult for a whiskey business here.

To be clear here, I am not asking for a hand-out or complaining that I personally can’t have access to this fund its not the end of the world for me. I am questioning the department’s strategy of apparently randomly deciding to only allow community groups access to this fund. I think its wrong headed. I also think it shows a lack of strategic thinking around the scheme.

I am going to make this tasting room happen, anyway but  with out any support it will take a lot longer. I’m running a business at the end of the day. No matter how dedicated I am to rural regeneration, I have to ensure our business functions properly first and foremost. I applied for the scheme mostly to help with the set-up costs. I need a liquor license to sell my own whiskey to people. There is no relief for small producers, so this project gets kicked into the back burner until such a time as I can blow 110k of dead money on a license that will allow me to sell small samples of my own product that I make myself to tourists. Even if the craft drinks bill gets passed it won’t apply to me as I don’t distil myself. That kind of capital is not realistic for a pre-revenue export business like mine the payback on that is several years in our part of the world with seasonal tourism.  So, I was hoping for some help to make it happen. Tourism right now is a ‘nice to have’ for my business model, we won’t create a going concern from it until we have good market penetration and to do that takes the all  of capital I have right now. But it would. like I said root the business really well in west Clare and create local jobs along that Corridor they are trying to build.

I am very well placed to open and run an Irish Whiskey Tasting room as a valid commercial concern. I have been heavily involved in the drinks industry for 20 years. In Champagne I worked closely with the Visitor Center Team, I’ve developed and worked on retail offerings for many global brands and I know a thing or two about design, marketing and communications and managing people. My experience as a business person lends me the skills to be able to pull this off, to create jobs and increase tourism. Rural Community groups are heroic, but they are volunteer forces with time restrictions and families and their own jobs to concentrate on. As a business, I would not only fund the ongoing running of this, I would be totally focused on ensuring its success. Community groups ALONE are not going to create 135,000 rural jobs, increase tourism by 12% and create an Atlantic Economic Corridor. Only the combined efforts of Community Groups and Businesses will do that.

Like I said at the beginning, I’m coming around to my investors way of thinking on Schemes. There is 60 Million euros tied up in this Scheme. If none of that is being allocated to rural businesses in competitive bids, you have to ask yourself, how will the scheme deliver on its core aims of increased jobs, tourism and a new economic region?  I’ll give the department the benefit of the doubt and wait until they announce the next call for applications, only next time, I’ll be sure they clarify PRIOR to the deadline day whether or not businesses can apply.  I have no intention of wasting another 2 days writing a proposal that is deemed void due o the fact I’m a “Private Business.” and therefore cannot be considered. Rural businesses are part of the community too, we face challenges  Dublin businesses don’t even have to consider.  If the Department does not wake up to that, this scheme will struggle.

Irish Whiskey Society State of The Spirit Panel Round-Up & A Bit of Guns N’ Roses

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Panel Peeps Photo: Nicked from Serghios from the Irish Whiskey Mag. Facebook Page….

I just got back from the USA again… I was on a trip with the Local Enterprise office, a subject for another post. I flew into Dublin on the Redeye as I need to be here to interview our first Brand Ambassador candidates in association with IBEC and Bord Bia. We are recruiting people to deploy to the USA in September to support our marketing and sales over there. This nicely coincided with two other Dublin things

  1. The Irish Whiskey Society State of the Spirit Panel at Wynn’s hotel Dublin.
  2. The Guns N Roses concert at Slane, which I originally went to 25 years ago and simply had to go to again to prove to myself that I am not dead.

Wynn’s hotel is a really historic spot. It played host to most Irish Nationalist Icons at one time or another and its where Cumann na mBan (the female branch of the Irish Nationalist Movement) was founded. It burned to the ground during the 1916 rising as a result of incendiary bullets catching fire but was reconstructed in concrete and it essentially rose from the ashes. A fitting location then for the Irish Whiskey Society’s meetings as they celebrate all things Irish Whiskey revival. I was kind of psyched to be asked to be part of a panel to discuss the sea changes taking place in our industry. The panel was called ‘The State of The Spirit.’

It was an unusual balmy Dublin night and the sweltering room was packed with about 100 attendees all IWS members. On the panel were me, Peter Mulryan of Blackwater, Serghios Floridas of Irish Whiskey Magazine, Sean Muldoon & Jack McGarry from the famous The Dead Rabbit in New York,  Kevin Hurley BA from Teeling and Tim Herlihy BA from Tullamore Dew So, a really comprehensive cross section of the industry, multinationals, small distillers, whiskey makers, brand ambassadors, bar icons and little old me.

Fionnan O Connor pretty much expertly chaired the panel it has to be said. Fionann is emerging as a leading voice in the industry. He pretty much wrote the book on Pot-Still  and is an all round great advocate for the new guard of Irish Whiskey. He lead us on a merry dance around such topics as Provenance, Market Share, Transparency, Innovation and how the future is shaping up. The thinking around this panel was to have frank and open debate and discussion on what the hell is going on at this phase of the rebirth of the industry.

Everyone on the panel had strong opinions about one thing or another. The Dead Rabbit guys are essentially reinventing the Irish Pub for modern consumers. Peter is vocal about the Technical File and about who should and who does control the narrative of our industry. There was a big argument around innovation with Serghios flying the flag for Pernod Ricard and some of us me included me maintaining that true innovation will really come from the smaller guys moving forward. I sort of loved hearing Jarlath master distiller up at Ehinvile speak. He, like Peter, is a distiller right in the weeds and doing really interesting and proper actual CRAFT stuff up there in the North whilst being pretty clear on their sourced whiskey releases.  Tim and Kevin also had interesting takes on the USA market and what is going on at the ground level with bars and consumers.

Everyone got to share a whiskey with  the crowd and to talk through it. I didn’t serve my own whiskey or anything Irish for that matter. I chose to serve Balcones Brimstone which I had picked up in Rhode Island that week. I served is because Balcones are an iconic USA indie brand, with a storied investor/founder narrative but a penchant for innovation that I consider to be second to none. These guys push the boat out. Brimstone is a smoky whiskey that embodies the regionality of the American South West, it uses Texas Scrub to smoke the 2 year old spirit in a ‘secret’ process. It tastes like Texas and I Love, Love, Love it. Not everyone does though, even Jared the distiller I met a few months ago admitted that, its an all in or all out whiskey. But I used it to illustrate a point around the potential for innovation within the confines of the (roundly despised) Irish Whiskey Technical File(except for the 2 year old bit) .

At one point as I yammered into the microphone, someone in front of me rolled their eyes and tutted when I said I hoped to make Whiskey of as good quality as that of the established Irish brands..I thought that was weird. I mean I bang on about some of the opaque, cynical commercially driven stuff multinationals do, but no-one can deny Jameson and the Tullamore Dew guys know what the hell they are doing when it comes to making good whiskey when they put their mind to it…..Falling into the  trap of thinking that smaller is intrinsically better is not a good idea. There are a lot of crappy craft spirit producers out there all over the world along with all the great ones. Craft does NOT mean quality, in fact it does not mean anything anymore due to the  overuse/misuse of the term unfortunately, a hot discussion point on the night.

My husband who I had not seen in 2 weeks flew in for the tail-end of the talk and to hang out a bit with me the person he rarely sees who he is married to.  As the night ended, I met some lovely IWS members and had some nice chats and then he and I walked off into the Dublin night. As we strolled up Grafton street my husband said “That was a lot of navel gazing really wasn’t it?.”  I bristled when he said that and then I thought about it and I said “Yeah actually SOME of it was.” There is in reality absolutely NOTHING any of us can do about the whole Cooley & Sourced stock thing, we are all going to be treading those boards for another few years.  None of us small guys can magic up ancient supplies of mature whiskey NONE OF US. That is our current situation we have to live through it. We are where we are. The only thing I can do the counter the resistance to that is be transparent about what we are up to.

The next wave of outrage will be at the young whiskies many of us will shortly be releasing using small casks and other methods of enhanced maturation. Them Days Is Coming Folks, Have NO Doubt About It, Gird your Loins.  Peter announced he has a project like that on the go and I am working on a thing along with many others I imagine. That will be the big Shitstorm of 2018-2020 I predict. After a few years it’ll all settle down and these exciting days will be long forgotten. There will come a time when Irish Whiskey is not the fastest growing spirits category globally, a time when a new distillery does not announce its planning application every few months. But WOW what fun times it is right now. How often do you get to be a part of the rebirth of an ENTIRE industry, either as a maker or as a consumer? Once in a lifetime that is how often.

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Not Dead Yet.

Similarly how often do you get to see Guns N Roses in the same venue 25 years apart with the exact same friends from 25 years ago like I did on Saturday? Just the once my friends, just the once.

So, let’s all keep on fighting the good fight and vent and rage against the machine and hold the industry to quality & transparency standards now in these early days. Open and honest debate opinion and discussion should continue to be encouraged. The industry is going to become a bit less exciting once the dust settles.

Welcome to the Jungle, let’s enjoy the chaos while we can, because just like Axl Rose in 25 years the category won’t have as much energy and excitement and glamour surrounding it as it does right now, but if we look after it properly it will still be kicking Ass.

 

“Hi! I have this Whiskey brand and all I need now is Some ACTUAL Whiskey, Can you help?”

I got the most bizarre email last week. I’m just going to copy and paste it below with the senders name redacted.

“Hi Louise,  not sure if you can help but though we would give you a shout,  we have developed a new Irish whiskey brand called REDACTED see attachment. We want to test it any chance you could give us a price for a minimum order of your youngest whiskey bottleled as we may have a UK distributor who wants to give it a try. Your help is much appreciated.”

I responded Thus.

“Hi REDACTED  I’m afraid I don’t wholesale. There is a scarcity of mature stock at the moment, so I’m hanging on to everything I have. But good luck with it.”

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They Make it In the Congo, So it is in conflict with the Technical File….

But what I actually meant was. “Wait, What?! You have created a whiskey brand, and have a distributor in the UK, so now all you need is some pesky whiskey?? Well that is a pain isint it. What a shame you can’t just bang some Um Bongo in there and release it, that would be so much easier all round wouldn’t it? “

 

Am I being too harsh here? No, I don’t think I am actually. Call me naive or better yet, well intentioned  but,  who goes and develops a whiskey brand and then as an afterthought goes looking for whiskey to put in the bottle when they find a customer????  This sort of carpet bagging is bad, bad news for our category. In a follow up email they mentioned that 3 year old would be grand. There is nothing wrong with three-year old whiskey, but we can all 100% agree, it is not as good as it could be. You can make a good effort to make it better by working with a skilled blender, but you have to make that effort, the lads at Dingle have a great young whiskey, but they made it themselves with love and effort.  I felt like this person will be releasing a whiskey that they clearly have little interest in as far as quality goes.

I have no respect for this approach AT ALL. The end result is that the consumer who buys this has a bad experience with a fakey brand with any old liquid in it at all and they associate it with Irish Whiskey. Enough of those experiences and you loose people, they will just go over to Scotch, American, Canadian or Japanese whiskey, we are not the only game in town. Its infuriating.

I’ve always said I will help out people who are getting into the game, but not like this. If you are living the struggle and trying to do something good for the category, maybe you have an innovative idea or are micro distilling or bringing back something that is lost in an authentic way, then I will help you any way I can by sharing information, contacts and experiences. I can’t in good conscience help this project out, as I don’t think it is right for our category.

I’ll give this person credit for entrepreneurship and obviously they have worked on creating the brand, but I just can’t agree with the approach. Creating a new Irish Whiskey starts with the Whiskey, not with the brand. Sort out what is going into the bottle first then develop the brand alongside that with a bit of integrity. At least it should if you are a newcomer in my opinion. This is a lazy way into our category and it is not good for any of us. This is the sort of topic I’ll be discussing as part of a panel  at the Irish Whiskey Society The State of our Spirit: A Still-Side Chat on May 30th. I’ll be in good company as the panel is made up of some important modern Irish Whiskey voices from the ‘New Guard.’ Its an important discussion to have. We are at a critical point in the road for Irish Whiskey.

Let’s not mess it up (Again).