NOT Caught in the Tartan Trap: Why Irish Whiskey is Poised To Fly Even Higher Than Scotch (IMHO)

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Still Buzzing Over This!

Alrighty folks!  There is a lot going on here at Chapel Gate Towers. Our first release The Gael is doing really well and getting great feedback since it won its Gold Medal in the Irish Whiskey Awards. We are smashing it now in Germany and we are gearing up for a very exciting U.S. launch. Blaise is over in the U.S.A. embedding with our importer orders are coming in and we are go-go-go for launch. I’m putting in planning for our Blending and bottling facility next week and working on some very, very exciting collaborations for 2018. We are firing on all cylinders now and are just out  of the gate and actually trading! Its been two long hard years and the crazy thing is that the work is only now beginning.

I did have some disturbing news recently due to a notification received a week or two ago. It has woken me pretty consistently now every night at 3AM and taken up a lot of my time mentally and practically. I’m hoping I can find a good solution for it, but I am really saddened by what it means in the context of our category and the burgeoning camaraderie within it. That is a post for another time or maybe never, I need to see if I can find a solution and make the issue right my end or fundamentally work toward changing it for the good of the category.

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Sorry Can you Speak Up? I can’t hear you over the Tartan

It is that very category that I want to talk about. I realised something about it last weekend. I was with our German distributor at a Whiskey Festival in Bavaria. We were sampling The Gael to hard core whiskey fans, the kind of people who pay good money to go to a Whiskey festival for an entire day and just revel in the stories and the flavours. The kind of people it is a pleasure to meet, because they don’t pull punches, if your whiskey is bad or good they will tell you to your face. These kind of people are very important to me, they allow me to understand how we are doing in terms of our quality and that level of in-depth and highly educated consumer feedback is invaluable as we develop our product line.  Our German partner specialises exclusively in Irish Whiskey and some other Irish spirits. The festival, as many whiskey festivals are, was very heavily Scotch dominated. By that I mean there were probably close to 1500 Scotch variants on offer by the various vendors and distributors but there were only about 15-20 Irish.

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There Can Be Only One

The entire event venue was covered in Tartan of various kinds, in addition to a bit of heather here and there. There were quite a few attendees sporting full Highland regalia, sporrans, Kilts, and those long white socks included. Some ladies were proudly wearing various clan tartans. Remember we were in Bavaria….It all felt very Braveheart both in terms of imagery and iconography and I suppose that is sort of the point for Scotch.

They cemented this sort of Highland oldie worldie imagery back in the 70’s and they have been pretty consistent with it since. They have organisations that celebrate it like the Keepers of the Quaich and I remember spending many a fun evening at the former Diageo owned Drummiur Castle, a mecca for whiskey lovers, where we all ate haggis and wore, you guessed it, tartan for dinner. It is powerful imagery for sure and it is single minded, but you know what? I am glad that we in the Irish Category are not tied to the Irish version of that. New  and old Scotch producers are trying to wrestle free from that platform, but their older skewing consumers are hanging on to it. I did not see anyone under 35 in a kilt at that whiskey weekend in Bavaria, but I did see a LOT of people under 35 exploring and enjoying whiskey on their own terms.

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And I would Walk 500 Miles!!!

This is why I think as a re-awakening category we have an advantage over Scotch. We are not tied to Miserable Mother Ireland imagery when it comes to Whiskey and nor should we try to place ourselves there. Most of the new guard are forging their own paths in their own way focusing on provenance yes, because it matters, but doing it in a way that is not pastiche or, well, Diddildy I Di.. We are fortunate the Technical File has allowances for some kinds of innovative thinking, I’ve heard tell of IStills being used here for example, a pretty amazing piece of kit and very progressive in its thinking. It is more difficult in Scotland.  Innovation, beyond new cask finishes, is going to be a big part of Irish Whiskey as the category grows. Our positioning will evolve over time and I have every confidence it won’t for the most part manifest itself in leprechauns and lucky charms.

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Oh Danny Boy, the Pipes, The Pipes

The Whiskey category has changed, its consumers have changed and here in Ireland we are re-emerging at just the right time to embrace that change and grow exponentially as a result. Its super exciting times in the Irish category and its future.  The internet and the availability and desire for instant product information allows consumers to be a part of the discussion around how our category is shaped. We should embrace that as a category its inevitable and its the right thing to do.

Scotch will probably spend the next few years trying to fight its way out of a tartan box and that means more market share for us to take.   We just need to be true to our modern selves and be reactive rather than dictative  to what this evolving market wants and we’ll be poised to do even better than predicted.

Onwards and upwards folks, onwards and upwards! Its such a privilege to be part of this category right now and so exciting to see it evolve. Great things are afoot and ahead.

 

 

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.

 

Woah! Check Out That Rackhouse!

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Hello Beautiful! 

Feast your eyes upon this lovely little building to the left. Observe, if you will, the Barrel Roll roof, a key part of the West Coast of Ireland’s agricultural architectural vernacular. A traditional style of barn you will see dotted up and down the west coast to this day. Marvel at the local stone cladding the frontage. Installed by a true masonry craftsman. The stone was salvaged from the gable end of the cottage my Grandmother was born in, and that I now live in with my husband and recycled back into this lovely Rackhouse.

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P.J. My Dad and Eugene The Craftsman Installing the Doors Also my Husband Dominic Looking on….

Note with wonder the salvaged teak doors still resplendent with the seating numbers they once boasted when they were part of the benches of a local Gaelic Football Field. These were destined for the bonfire if you can believe it until my very own Father (who is 78) made a few phonecalls…..Many is the backside that clenched tightly whilst perched on these seats as they cheered on their football or hurling teams or waited for the final whistle during a close game. I have SAVED these doors from that awful fate both the bonfire and the Arse Clenching stuff.

You will have already noticed, of course, the building’s Southerly aspect, thus ensuring it gets the full force of the sun all throughout the day. The windows? An Unusual addition you say? Perhaps here in Ireland, but we want all that thermal energy flooding in and pushing up the daytime temperature so that our whiskey has just the right conditions to breathe deeply and interact with all those lovely wood sugars in our barrels. Hence the rationale behind painting it black, we need every incremental thermal nudge we can get. It gets goddamn cold here on the West Coast of Ireland on the Wild Atlantic Way and we want OUR maturation environment just above 7’ Centigrade for as much of the year as naturally as possible.

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We even have a Logo on there For God’s Sake! 

My 78-year-old Father P.J. takes full credit for designing the doors and I will give it to him on this occasion, we usually clash over practicality vs. aesthetic. Without him, these lovely doors would not be there. So shout out to P.J. and another big shout out to Eugene our master carpenter who constructed them so beautifully, he is a TRUE CRAFTSMAN.

Am I slightly overexcited about the Rackhouse? Could I talk about it for another 40 minutes or so? Yes, 100% Yes.  I could yammer on about the interior the finishes the floor, the planned piece of High Tech kit that will measure every minuscule barometric, humidity and temperature change inside…(there are graphs and everything!!!!!)..but I will not.

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Off to Stare at This Again Now….

The Rackhouse was in my head for a long time. It’s based somewhat on several of the Bourbon Rackhouses I’ve seen, a little on a few French Whiskey Warehouses I’ve been to and influenced heavily by the old traditional dunnage houses that were once common here in Ireland. There was a shed just like this on the property when I was growing up, but it fell over. Now its back! The Rackhouse is the first part of our Whiskey Business vision come to life. The science of distillation is amazing but the science of maturation is even more so, (at least for me) if only because so much more goes on over an extended period of time. I am super excited to see what this little building will produce.  Excuse me while I leave my desk to go and stare blankly at it and dream about the future…..(again).

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……