Why Does the Irish Whiskey Industry Not have Coopers?

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Eugene Quinlan Master Cooper With His Cousins Tools

I was at the Box Distillery in Sweden last week for the World Whiskey Forum. It was a gathering of those of us looking to push the boundaries in regard to innovation in whiskey. Between us we are shaping what the future of whiskey is going to look like and its pretty exciting stuff. I was the only person from Irish Whiskey in attendance, which was a surprise. All the other modern whiskey producing countries, Japan, Scotland, USA, UK, Sweden, Norway and even Iceland were well represented. It was a tremendous gathering of producers and I came away with some great new friends and some fantastic inspiration which I’m putting into action this week. Every single one of these whiskey producing countries has something in common. All of them have a thriving cooperage industry to support their thriving whiskey industry. All of them except my own fair Isle; Ireland.

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Hanging With The Coopers

To rub salt into this wound, Diageo randomly decided last week that February 10th was International Scotch Day…To celebrate it they got some 20 year old celebrity girl (Sorry I’m old I don’t know who she is…) to pose in a beautiful gown with a gaggle of manly looking Scottish Coopers. On social media the celebrity girl waxed lyrical about the generations of Coopers in the Photo and how wonderful they are and what an important element of scotch coopering is. This is not a photo we could replicate here in Ireland, not even if I put on my best ballgown ( I have a few Vivian Westwoods’ Myself) and did a ring around among all the coopers I know, which is two by the way. Those two are 50% of all the Master Coopers on the Island of Ireland.  For those of you bad at math, there are FOUR master coopers working on the Island of Ireland. Two work for multinationals so cannot offer their services to others formally. One John Neilly works at the small but nimble Nephin Cooperage which is a great initiative and the other Eugene Quinlan works with me. Eugene comes from a long line of coopers; six generations in fact. His advice is invaluable to me as I plan out my wood program for many years to come. I don’t know how other whiskey producers work without him or someone like him. (Eugene if you are reading this, your phone may begin to ring this week…..)

Bearing in mind we will soon be exporting half a BILLION euros worth of Irish Whiskey. Do we really think we have enough Master Coopers or apprentice coopers to tend to all the casks involved here in Ireland?? How does Irish Whiskey expect to continue to be taken seriously without a functioning Cooperage Industry?  Why are most new companies ignoring this essential element of whiskey production? So many questions folks!

None of the new multinationals in the game have started Cooperages’ to my knowledge…Diageo did NOT announce a cooperage alongside its George Roe distillery. Beam Suntory, William Grant, Brown Forman, Quintessential Brands, Sazerac;  all of these multinationals are building distilleries or releasing Irish Whiskey, NONE OF THEM ARE BUILDING COOPERAGES.  Why? Why? I need  cooper to advise me on cask quality, selection and ongoing care. I could decide to eyeball this, but would rather ask someone who has completed a 6 year apprenticeship and has 40 years of experience…Why is Ireland so special as a whiskey producing nation that we don’t need  coopers? The simple answer is we are not, and we need to take a long hard look at ourselves.

As whiskey makers in Ireland we need to decide if we are in the game simply to capitalise on the growth of the category and to grow a business and make big bucks on the back of fleeting consumer demand, some players are; that is clear. There is a bit of a Property Boom, Celtic Tiger thing going on it seems like…..

OR are we in it to, yes build a great business and brand, but also to build the industry and its supporting industries’ back up and ensure we are all future proof?

I have put everything on the line to acquire my whiskey spirit and I need to be Damn sure the cask the liquid goes into is the highest quality possible and that it is properly cared for. I need a cooper and so does anyone else who is making whiskey on the Island of Ireland in my opinion. No its not cheap and its an extra expense as a start-up, but I would rather pay for a skilled craftsman to care for my casks and plan my wood program than  cut corners for accountancy sake and just to fire some Cooley Stock out there without any thought. My heart and soul is in this business. I gave up a Six figure salary for a Zero figure salary, and God knows in addition to my long suffering husband at the end of his financial tether knows that I need to make this business work on a fiscal level, but I still want to do it right.

I believe in it so much that I am converting a 16th century barn on our site into a working cooperage for our ‘Journeyman’ Cooper. I brought back Irish Whiskey Bonding to this Island and now I will bring back the Journeyman Cooper Trade. Eugene’s 85 year old cousin sold us his cooperage tools, some of which are 150 years old. We’ll restore and use some of these and display others in our little cooperage. We’ll use these historic tools to educate people on the history importance of Coopering to the Irish Whiskey Industry. The tools are in a bag in the office right now. They embody 200 years of coopering and Quinlan family history. I’m glad we have them but its bittersweet. It is sad that Eugene’s cousin could not pass them down to his sons like this father, grandfather  and great grandfather before him. He had no-one to pass them to because cooperage is close to extinction in this country.

I want to build a great business and a great brand, but I also want to see this industry thrive in the long term. We need to innovate to ensure Irish Whiskey has relevance moving forward. But innovation should not happen for its own sake, it should have its roots in tradition. For me it means some Ninja Coopering and for that I need a Master Cooper.

Watch this space, if I have my way I’ll be posing in a ballgown with a  whiskey in hand in front of the next generation of Irish Coopers within 5 years.

 

Without Trees There is No Whiskey

workshop-of-a-cooper-barrel-maker2Trees, casks and cooperage in that order are on my mind this week for a few reasons. I’m putting in an order to my guys in Kentucky for some juicy ex bourbon casks for our next batch of New Fill, second I’m planning a trip to Portugal to have a look at some other interesting vessels and third I have a visit coming up this week from one the only working Master Coopers left on the Island of Ireland. I understand there are four Master Coopers left here. Ger Buckley down in Midelton, John Neilly is coopering for Nephin from his base in Kilbeggan. Jose Cuervo have someone at Bushmills too.  Pernod Ricard and Jose Cuervo have brought on apprentices in recent years but 2 more apprentices do not a dying industry make.

Making whiskey is or should be an holistic process. Everything from the grain of the wood that makes the staves of the barrels to the source of the water used to cut it is what makes this wonderful liquid. I’m all about the wood at the moment, and because of my upcoming Master Cooper meeting I started to dig into the backstory about Irish woodlands and how it affected the whiskey industry and the art of cooperage,

Here in Ireland  up to the Bronze age about 90% of Ireland was covered in forestry. Much of it was oak and giant oak at that. Even into the early Christian era swathes of the country were covered in trees, with many place names deriving from the abundance of them. Mayo (Meigh  Eo) “plain of the yews” etc. The hardcore deforestation really kicks in during the Medieval period. Blast furnaces sprung up across Ireland with huge industrial works located in Derry, Wexford, Leitrim and Laois all of which had good proximity to the woodland necessary to produce charcoal for smelting. Glassworking then begins to add to the pressure on forestry as does shipbuilding and indeed cooperage. By 1603 when Elizabeth the 1st died, tree cover in Ireland was estimated at 2%. Even so, shipbuilding was really taking off at that time and the East India Trading Co. established a shipyard in Cork. All of this combined with a four-fold increase in population between 1700 and 1840, led to the fact that any appreciable forests existing in Ireland in 1600 were GONE by 1800. Yes GONE.

You know why I’m buying my barrels from Kentucky and Portugal and anywhere but here? It’s not because the native species here is not conducive to ageing whiskey, several original species are.  It is not because its traditional in the true sense. It’s because we ran out of trees. Back in the 1800’s we started importing casks to age our whiskey in from abroad because we had no choice. We chopped down all the trees people. We chopped down all the goddam trees.

Afforestation has been ticking along since about 1930 with Irish the free state. A big push was made in the 80’s with a grant scheme for farmers to plant their ‘lands marginal for agriculture but suitable for forestry.’  This led to large swathes of peatbog being designated suitable. Many thousands of hectares of now lost biodiversity fell sway to monoculture planting of non-indigenous conifer species.  They went with these species as technically you can harvest them faster than broad leafs. We have about 25 hectares of it here on the farm ourselves. I remember planting some of it with my Dad. It is my intention never to chop it down, even though I’m sad about all the bog it sucked up.

In fact, the 700,000 hectares (about 10% of landmass) that have been planted since the Afforestation drive began is 75% conifer. Conifer is great yes, it is good that we are bringing back our trees, but it’s the broadleaf species like oak, birch, hazel alder etc. we need back. We need them for biodiversity and you know what? I need them for whiskey.

How sad is it that Pernod Ricard’s “Dair Ghaelach” (which is a great whiskey, no doubt) touts itself as “The First Ever Irish Whiskey to Be Finished in Virgin Irish Oak Hogsheads.” It’s sad because it is kind of true, in that virgin Irish Oak has not been used since 1800 because we ran out of it. I have no doubt virgin Irish Oak was used prior to that for whiskey but they have a fair marketing stance there. Let’s remember that every single bottle of Kentucky Bourbon sold is aged in virgin American oak, it should not be THAT big of a selling point, if only we had our own woodland. There is a push here by The Forest Service who manage forestry, towards planting sustainable long-term broadleaf species with a view to having biodiverse and productive forestry industry. Sadly, I don’t expect there to be a sustainable supply to service the Irish Whiskey industry in my lifetime. “However as they say Big Things come from tiny acorns.” I’m hoping to discuss something long term but super interesting with my Master Cooper this week.

Stay Classy San Diego! Thoughts from The Craft Distilling Conference 2016

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Our Rye Whiskey Workshop in Trent’s Little Distillery 

I’m in San Diego this week for the Annual Craft Distillers Conference. Its a gathering of the great and good in this growing category. There are now over 900 licensed craft distillers in the U.S the barrier to entry to distilling in the U.S. is close to nothing compared to that in Ireland and this has fuelled serious growth nationally over the past decade. The craft distilling movement is following the same growth trajectory as craft beer and there is no end in sight. States are starting to soften legislation around direct sales and there is enough grass roots pressure to change limiting laws allowing for serious commercialisation. ARE YOU LISTENING IRISH GOVERNMENT?????

This is my second time at this conference and I’m here because these guys are about 15 years ahead of us in Ireland and Europe when it comes to the disruptive craft spirits making model. So its the perfect opportunity to see what is trending and most importantly its a great chance to learn. I did a Rye Whiskey making workshop on Monday at the San Diego Distillery. The distillery is located in a 642 sq foot garage and founder and master distiller Trent Tilton began making whiskey, rum and Eu de Vie last May. He was formerly a brewer so is technically quite gifted when it comes to Mash Bills and fermentation and this translates well to distillation. He has a killer custom make little 100 gallon pot and column combi still made by StillDragon and  produces and sells award winning Rye and Single Malt whiskey like its going out of style.

Unlike in Ireland there is no age requirement on Trent’s whiskey, so his youngest whiskey is about 3 months old and his oldest is not yet a year. Also unlike in Ireland of course he is maturing in New American oak. Like many American craft distillers he uses 5 an 10 gallon barrels for this. By doing so he can intensify the maturation process as there is more wood contact with the liquid with these smaller barrels. He also has the weather working for him. All his stock is aged in his little garage and of course San Diego temperatures hit well over 30º regularly in the summer, even more when you consider he has the still running adding even more heat to the place. All these conditions, the new oak, the tiny barrels and the high temperatures & fluctuations mean his whiskey takes on more ‘mature’ characteristics a lot faster. It also means he has an income stream and can begin to lay down whiskey for longer time periods whist ensuring he can keep his lights on.

In Ireland technically we can’t emulate Trent’s model. We have a 3 year and one day minimum maturation wait to produce “Irish Whiskey”. I’m in favour of this as it sets down an ongoing precedent and differentiation for ‘Irish Whiskey.’ Its important that we have our appellation protected.  It is limiting though and does kind of suck out some of the potential creativity and excitement from the world of “Irish Whiskey”.Right now all the mature whiskey on the market from new Irish distilleries is basically from the old Cooley Reserves because like Trent everyone needs to keep the lights on and there is only one place to buy old “Irish Whiskey”. This is why a lot of people make gin and vodka to get going.However a core pillar of my company is innovation and I’ll be honest, I am jealous of the freedom that Trent and all the guys here have, they seem to be having a lot of fun and making great quality whiskey. I too need to keep the lights on and I won’t be making gin any time soon. I do however have a cunning plan which this trip has helped to solidify in my mind……

Sand, Sea and Searching for Barrels

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Peniche on the West Coast of Portugal

Starting a business is, well, a lonely business.  I don’t miss working for huge corporations, but when I did, I was much better at ‘Switching Off’. Now that I work for myself there is no-one else to rely on, the future of this company depends on me, so every moment spent not working is guilt ridden. So, when old Diageo Buddies of mine got married last week in Portugal I decided to combine a little work and leisure travel, its known as “Bleisure” travel. I met  an old friend of mine on the East Coast of Portugal for a spot of surfing intermingled with some cask searching. In the morning we surfed, and in the quintaafternoon we hopped in the car to visit wineries and old distilleries to make connections and find some used barrels. One of the most captivating places we went to was ‘Quinta do Sanguinhal’ in Bombarral. This winery/distillery has been run by the same family for four generations. They have a phenomenal old distillery on one of their sites, once used to make brandy for the Port industry. The impressive column still built in the late 1800’s was in use right up until the 1980’s when it was replaced by more modern equipment, its a craft distillers dream, all steampunk and ingenious. The place has a great connection with county Clare where we are based. Apparently one of the owners of  Irelands largest wholesaler, based in Co. Clare, had a house nearby. He fell in love with their wine and decided to import it, as a result Ireland was one of the winery’s biggest markets for quite some time. More than anything though, I loved their approach to winemaking and their focus on family. My aim in this venture is to make great whiskey and secure a future for the family farm. I would love to imagine that someday my great granddaughter will be giving tours and telling tales of how we started the business. As wonderful as it was listening to the story of the winery and tasting the wines this was a “Bleisure” trip. I was sure to get a  good understanding of their cooperage and their barrel usage. They use mostly high quality new French Oak to age their red and fortified wines and the Portuguese grape varietals are really interesting, there are no Merlot’s or Cabernet Sauvignons here. This leads to some unique characteristics in their first and second fill barrels, which could be interesting for us. All in all a heck of a trip and between all the surfing and wine tasting, I didn’t feel guilty for one second…