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.
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.