A Clare Woman, A Kerryman, Some Antrim people walk into a bar in Beirut…Craft Collaboration Comes to Life in the Middle East

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Welcome to Beirut

Co-Opetition is a ridiculous word. Its one of those words that some consultancy was paid a ton of money to come up with and now dines out on. It appears in trend reports and Government body Industry powerpoints all the time. Words, however are powerful, and even though this one is a bit of a Frankenstein, I’m all for what it stands for in spirit. Any Indie drinks producer worth their salt is too. It is on the back of co-opetition that I’m writing this post from seat 36A of a Middle Eastern Air flight en route to Beirut. A dozen rows ahead of me are the forward-thinking disruptors from Ireland Craft Beers Bringing up the rear (due to a late connection via Dublin)  are 3 other Indie spirit & beer producing houses from all around Ireland. We are in Beirut for St. Patricks weekend together. If you work in the Irish Spirits Industry St. Patricks Weekend is a bit of a thing, it’s a great marketing opportunity a 48 hour period when everyone is Irish and everyone wants a little piece of Ireland in their glass.

Lebanon has a long winded, complicated relationship with Ireland, this is due to our armed forces  involvement with U.N. peace keeping. My brother served there several times as did many people from the parish of Cooraclare. Chateau Musar, one of Lebanon’s great wine houses exports a disproportionate amount of wine to Ireland.  The soldiers serving in Lebanon over the years there picked up a taste for it and carried that back home.

Now it seems The Leb is ready to reciprocate. Independent Irish Beers and Spirits are a bourgeoning sub-category in this part of the Middle East. The affluent nightlife driven consumers in magical Beirut want to know our stories, hear about our approach to production and at this time of year, they want a few authentic Irish People around. Who better than a bunch of irish beer, gin and whiskey makers to tip up to your St. Patricks Day celebration? It does not get much more authentic than that. We are here over the weekend meeting buyers, and media, hosting events and getting to know our distributors. We all came as a block you see, because there is power in numbers. For new independent brands opening export markets is expensive and logistically challenging. I have quite a few contacts from the old days that I use to kick down the doors of various markets, but even that is finite.

When an opportunity arises to enter a market under the Umbrella of ‘Independent Irish Beer and Spirit Producers’, you can be sure as hell I take it. Going into a market like this as a group does two things, first of all it validates the independent producer scene in Ireland, it provides a platform for all of us to launch from, its up to us whether we sink or swim in the long run but that platform is vital.

Second of all it distinguishes us from the Old Guard and the multinationals that own 98% or so of the market. I always make clear to people that Jameson and Tullamore Dew and those kinds of brands are NOT in my competitive set. I can’t compete over there with them, and neither can the rest of the Indies. But we can put up a decent fight as a sub category  . Everyone loves Jameson an they will always drink it, but there will come a time when they want to branch out of the Jameson, Bushmills, or DEW universe and that is where the Indie sub category kicks in.

I’m over here with the other indies and we are slowly growing our 2% market share and eeking it out between us. Establishing sub- category awareness and appreciation of Independent Craft Production is vital for that share to have any chance at growth. That is why quite a few or us get Testy about transparency and honestly with new brands. We care a lot about the reputation of Irish Whiskey and in particular the contribution new brands make to it, if there are a few bad apples in our cart someone could end up tearing down the proverbial Lidl with a stolen forklift if you get what I’m saying. All of here in Beirut this weekend are representing that sub-category we are not promoting Flaming Pickle Back Shots ,Guinness Hats and leprechaun outfits, we are promoting the provenance of the liquids we have given our heart and soul to produce. We tell the stories of where they are from and evoke all that is special about Ireland’s independent spirits. We have a louder voice and make more of an impression if we do that together.


Guys, We need to talk about the Looming Irish Whiskey Maturation Crisis


Rural but Secure

If my bonded warehouse is robbed, technically I will have to sell my Horse, House and car to cover the duty owed to the Revenue on the stolen whiskey. That is not a Typo. In order to secure my bond for my bonded warehouse I had to agree to sell all my assets to pay the Revenue in the event of a theft. In reality of course I will just have my insurance policy pay this should anyone make it past our Skynet security system and my neighbors with shotguns (its rural Ireland, we ALL have shotguns).

The Revenue however will not accept an Insurance policy ALONE as assurance that the duty on stolen whiskey will get paid. So for a small business (right now) like mine you have to put your personal assets on the line. I don’t have many personal assets, I sold all my Diageo shares to start the business, and also used all my savings, but I do own Ireland’s Home of the Year 2017, a piece of crap car and a Lovely Lovely Horse called J.J. So I went to the Bondsman and technically signed those over. Satisfied that this would cover the duty on my sleeping whiskey, he issued me a bond and I handed it over to the Revenue who gave me a warehouse keeper number which allowed me to fill my Rackhouse with whiskey spirit for maturation in our little microclimate by the coast.

Not everyone is in a position to do that. For the larger whiskey enterprises backed by corporations this is a non-issue. But for us regional guys its a massive issue. In Scotland Insurance is simply accepted to cover the bond so it is a NON Issue. Ok, so major hurdle No. 1, pretty bad right? Now on to major hurdle No. 2.

There is no consistent planning regulation on maturation warehouses which  takes into consideration scale and location. For my bonded Rackhouse (I call it a Rackhouse, get over it)  is in County Clare. I dealt with Clare County Council and the local fire officer. I satisfied them that what I was doing was cool and I got all my various approvals and built the thing, They were not working to any code exactly. but I over specced everything anyway as I am protecting my whiskey and my livelihood.   Therein lies the problem. I’ve had quite a few calls from fellow producers around this. Regulations are not hard and fast when it comes to whiskey maturation warehouses. In most cases County Councils are dealing with applications for the first time in living memory. There is no precedent in the County so arbitrary regulations are thrown at the plan. Sometimes these are punitive and oftentimes they stop the build before it has started.  Being asked to install a 30K Fire prevention system or to dig a Moat around your tiny warehouse in the middle of a field to prevent fire spread  is quite common. Now on to Major Hurdle No. 3


Brand Ambassador for Chapel Gate Whiskey at Cooraclare

You can’t do that if your casks are 40 ft in the air, 

The Possibility of a Terrorist Attack, Fear of Fire, Fear of Flood, and/or Fear of roads being clogged otherwise known as NIMBYIsm. Due to the fact that small rural distilleries and producers find it so tough or impossible to get a bond,. Many are all being forced into centralized maturation facilities. Massive buildings in industrial parks like the desolate Nun’s Island one, with concrete floors and palliated warehousing. Homogenous maturation for all.  Irish Whiskey is on track to hit 20 million cases and we  need a place to store it all, even the multinationals do. So where do we put it all. The guys at The Vault (cool Name) came up with workable plan. They presented said plan at a public meeting and locals came out vociferously against it using all the objections noted above. When asked about the risk of fire the project developers explained there would be a big tank of water on site ready to put it out at any time, then someone else piped up and said that there was s risk of flood.  You can’t win in a room like that, and in the end their plan was rejected by the council. They are I understand planning their next move on the project.

So, in the meantime, will someone please explain, where is everyone supposed to mature their whiskey? It is currently unclear.

What bothers me most about all of this is the fact that this will stymie the re-emergence of regional styles of Irish whiskey. Small producers need every competitive advantage they can eek out over behemoths. There is no point in growing your own organic barley in field No 6, harvesting it, distilling it and then maturing it at the other side of the country because you can’t afford a bond or could not meet random regulations without breaking the bank. I don’t love the homogenised maturation facility move, I think its fine and necessary for multinationals and huge players, but for Indies I don’t think that it is the right solution, just my opinion mind you. The solution to that is super easy, we just need the Revenue to agree to accept insurance policies on Bonds up to lets say 500,000 euros or so as a start.  That would allow all of us indies to mature our own stock. We also need commercial bond insurance companies to enter the Irish Market and facilitate that.

Currently there is not a single trade organisation  looking to pursue this route to the best of my knowledge. Its not on the multinational’s agenda and so its not on the trade body agenda. The solution put forward and lobbied is that of large scale homogenised maturation, a one size fits all approach. It’s not the right solution for small producers. Maturation location MATTERS for regional styles of whiskey.


When I want to check my casks I just walk the lines. I look under to check for leaks

But more importantly being able to steward your casks through the maturation process is really important for someone like me. I get to manage on an ongoing basis the humidity levels in my Rackhouse. If a cask is leaking I can see it and fix it. I don’t have millions of casks so I CARE about leaks, its money dripping onto my clay floor. If your casks are sitting on pallets stacked 40 ft in the air in a 3rd party warehouse, good luck finding leaks,  good luck sampling your distillate without disturbing everything and paying through the nose for warehouse workers time and the hire of forklifts etc. its expensive trust me) an lastly good luck explaining to visitors why they can’t visit the casks…”They are in a concrete warehouse in Wexford with everyone else’s” won’t cut it.

We need a Commercial Bond trade and Revenue allowance in Ireland for small producers and we need lobbying for same by trade bodies. The 2% of us who make the rest of Irish Whiskey that the multinationals don’t make need it,we’ll just have to lobby for it ourselves.  Oh and by the way, if my whiskey does get robbed, you can take my house and take the car, but you are NOT taking my horse.