On the Mythical Lake of Ex-Cooley Stock

barrelsAs everyone knows, all the new distilleries and Irish whiskey companies around Ireland are currently selling Ex-Cooley stock. This is because it is one of the only mature sources of whiskey available on the open market and as the new distilleries wait for their own stock to mature they have to make some money. Fiscal break even for any whiskey company is approximately 8-10 years its just the nature of the business. Its a tough sell to investors and banks but a bit of an easier sell if you somehow can get to market faster and start to build your distribution and brand whilst you wait for your own stock your ACTUAL product to mature.

I was in a meeting with a U.S. importer a while back and he mentioned to me that there was a lot of the ex-Cooley stock coming onto the market, I’ve heard it said several times since and there seems to be a misconception that there is a flood of this stuff, I wish. The commodity market for mature Irish whiskey is INSANE right now. Its kind of like the whole Dutch Tulip craze of 1637. Getting your hands on ex-Cooley stock takes some serious doing and because of the lack of suppliers negotiating for it is rough, its not like you can just call up four or five other vendors and compare pricing.

I bought as much of the stock as I  could get my hands on, which is not a huge amount, and actually won’t be enough to keep us going until our own stock is ready. This keeps me awake most nights, but I’m working on it. I tottled off out to the warehouses where its all stored to individually hand select most of our casks because I’m picky like that.There are 3 warehouses THREE. Not three hundred. Three. Its not all 100% ex-Cooley either, the older casks in particular are a real mish mash, there is some Bushmills stuff in there if you look closely enough. There are sherry butts, ex bourbon casks and all sorts. Its a bit like a sweet shop for any whiskey lover. We found some insane casks that seemed to come from another planet, one in particular blew our minds. I have a special plan for that one. We also found some iffy ones which we rejected. We don’t have the luxury of blending faulty casks out we won’t have enough to do that. What we are going to do is use the stock that we do have to begin expressing our house style. We will play around with it and create something as unique as we can.

I guess the original point of this post is to try to dispel the idea that there is big Cooley Lake. It might feel like that at the moment, only because there are more whiskies on the market and the category is expanding rapidly. Lets put this into perspective, Jameson sold 3.9 million cases last year  thats 35 Million liters of whiskey in ONE YEAR. You ain’t gonna fit the supply for that that into 3 warehouses.

Some Thoughts on the Irish Whiskey Technical File

oodboard6I spent a few years working for Pernod Ricard the guys behind Jameson, and as a company I really loved it. I was based in London in a global role, so really got a feel for the place. It had a great company culture and was a great place to work and learn.  Although I have not worked there in years, I’d like to think that I have a good understanding of the inner workings of the business and the internal strategic thinking around big ‘Star’ brands like Jameson. I’m  in the throes right now of ‘Verification’ by the Revenue Commission as a whiskey producer. There are a multitude of hoops to jump through surrounding making whiskey thanks to some recent changes in E.U. policy. Its an administrative process like any other, no fun, but necessary. I’ve long held the beliefs I am outlining below but as we near production certain things rankle.

When I decided to make Irish Whiskey my full time business, there was no formal technical file for it. However in 2014 this was issued by the Dept. of Agriculture & the Marine in collaboration with the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) and ostensibly Pernod Ricard, the people who effectively OWN the whole category. The person at the IWA who led the work was hired by Pernod Ricard immediately after it was published, so you can imagine how closely they worked on it together.

The technical file  legislatively does some really good things for the protection of Irish Whiskey. It ensures that ALL whiskey has to be distilled and matured here in Ireland  in wood casks for a minimum of 3 years and one day, so it protects the appellation and safeguards some aspects of quality this is a very good thing and we need this.

However, it also does some TOTALLY Bullshit things. First of all, it lays down that all whiskey needs to effectively be made how they make it in industrial facilities like Midelton where Pernod make everything. To put this file together the only people on the Island making whiskey at the time (All industrial sized players) were consulted heavily and came up with the idea that legally all Irish Whiskey had to be made as per their methodologies. INCLUDING and this one annoys me, the allowance of adding caramel colouring to liquid that can be called Irish Whiskey….

To clarify here in Ireland its totally fine to throw in a bit of 100% artificial  chemical caramel colouring to your whiskey if you feel its looking a bit wan, that is totally fine…Now why if you are trying to protect the quality of a product would you write that into NEW legislation???? Surely to protect consumers and preserve quality for the category you would NOT allow that…..Its ridiculous, but look at the back of certain  bottles of mass produced whiskey and you’ll see caramel colour written there. Sometimes its written in German, but it is there. That should NOT be allowed and should have been written OUT of the technical file.

What the file does NOT allow are things like: Having a wash made for you by your local craft brewery so that you can distil it yourself and sell it locally, something craft distilleries in other countries do all the time with amazing results. This would be a neat and noble experiment given the rise of craft distilleries and breweries side by side in Ireland. Also it makes clear that Pot Still whiskey is “Usually Distilled in LARGE stills”, like 1600 litres and then yammers on about how why this industrial sized production is beneficial for flavour…….Also and this is kicker, you can throw a bit of column distillation into your pot still whiskey it is not necessary for it to be 100% distilled in a pot still….These methodologies are great for industrial sized production and quality and energy efficiency at scale but have no empathy or appreciation for any form of craft production whatsoever.

But for me more than anything else, its the overt effort at stymieing of potential innovation inherently contained within the file that hurts the most. Pernod are WORRIED about the rise of small craft producers, just like Diageo are. They have both watched the rise of craft beer totally disrupt the beer market.  Pernod in the time since the file came into being have opened ether own experimental distillery at Midelton. But its one thing to have an experimental distillery for the hell of it, and to be a small craft producer who HAS to pivot and innovate until their whiskey comes good in barrel over 6 years or so. The file, along with the shortage of Mature Whiskey on the open market is really going to push innovation in the category and that is a GOOD thing as long as people are transparent about it.  People like me have no other choice, the lights have to stay on in our little Rackhouse on the Wild Atlantic Way.

There I’ve said it. Have a good weekend.