Dad shaming

So the Indo asked me to write a piece on RTE’s sports reporter Des Cahill – Ireland’s most likable journalist – and his star turn on Dancing With The Stars. I don’t watch TV, nor do I have any interest in of knowledge of sport, but I do have a passion for paid work, so here we go: 

In the late Eighties, the Voyager I spacecraft had completed its tour of our solar system and was about to leave it forever for the vast emptiness of outer space. At a distance of about 6 billion kilometers from Earth, the NASA team controlling it from Earth gave an order for it to take a photo of its home planet before it disappeared from sight. The resulting image, taken on Valentine’s Day 1990, became known as the Pale Blue Dot. It inspired Carl Sagan – one of the team who gave the order to capture the iconic image – to write a message of hope under the same title, pointing out that in the great void of space, perhaps we should all learn to get along a little bit better on this pale blue dot, the only home we have ever known.

Our own opportunities for philosophical stargazing these days are limited by street lights, hoodies, Ireland’s cloud onesie, and that digital heroin, our phones. So thank the stars for Dancing With The Stars, and – specifically – the celestial Des Cahill. In a panorama of twinkling little twinkle-toed stars, Des is like Jupiter – a solid physical presence that makes all others seem like gaseous clouds, or possibly heavily-tanned asteroids.

His reassuringly physical form sweeps into our skies once a week to delight and enthrall us with his slightly elliptical and erratic orbit around Karen Byrne. Des’s performances have scientifically proved, once and for all, that the dadbod is the most desirable (and apparently aerodynamic) physique for the modern man. But this isn’t something that happens overnight – it takes decades of training.

Being a sports journalist, Des would have been at an early advantage, having attended many GAA supper dances in his career. Like the rustic, horse-dealing half-brother of a dinner dance, the supper dance is ideal for laying the groundwork for the dadbod, featuring in its late stages a motion that may be mistaken for dancing, but more importantly, a healthy dose of fried chicken and chips served in a tinfoil box.

If a big occasion is being celebrated such as a Junior B final being won, then some Asian fusion may be added via the addition of a large ladleful of curry sauce, most of which will end up on the ground, to ensure a rigorous movement of the legs and thorough stretching of the groin muscles. How else could Des have prepared for last Sunday’s salsa, which saw him nail The Dessie Swim – a more relaxed version of The Worm that saw him dragging his velour-clad posterior across the floor whilst being straddled by his dance partner. God be with the days when the most erotic thing on Sunday nights on RTÉ was Theresa Lowe asking a family of Leitrim sheep farmers if they knew where in the Czech Republic the town of Bendova was located.

Apart from supper dances, a well-balanced diet is intrinsic to achieving the dadbod. Too far one way, you achieve the less-than desirable deadbod – this about giving in, not giving up completely. Too far the other and you end up plain old fit, which isn’t what you want at all. Fitness – like sports cars, designer furniture and kale – is for the young. The dadbod is more about comfort – like the mini-van, well-worn sofa, and cake. Ask yourself this; if attempting a Dirty Dancing-style overhead lift with your dance partner, which would you prefer to fall on you – a human sideboard with rock hard abs, or a loveable bean bag?

Exercise is another key element, and it is important that this is carried out in the most low-cost way possible. The dadbod is topped off by the dadbrain, a kind of supercomputer solely designed to prevent any money ever being spent on anything.  Thus, no money will be wasted on gym membership when there is a dog literally crying out to be walked instead. Twice a week the family husky – a breed that, unlike its owner, has evolved to cover vast distances – will be taken for a brisk ten-minute stroll around the estate, with the duo returning triumphant and breathless from their Jack London-esque adventure, ready to reward themselves with a dinner of steak (trim the crispy fat for the dog, he’s earned it), mash, gravy and fried onions. If a game of fetch was enjoyed during the walk,  a slice of gateaux can be added to the menu, because you read somewhere that Michael Phelps eats 50 pancakes for breakfast and sher look at him he’s like an eel.

As with any planetoid mass, the dadbod is all about the core. Sit-ups can be performed anywhere – while attempting to get out of a sofa, bed, low office chair, or almost any position other than a perfect vertical. Everything becomes a sort of ab crunch, complete with huffing and puffing, or possibly a whispered ‘ah jaysis’ at some point. But you push through the pain, because the dadbod is all about endurance – if it could endure Christmas with the in laws, it can endure some mild to severe lower back pain. And that’s it – the training is complete, and the dadbod is ready to take on the world, if it has time, because it still needs to varnish the back wall of the shed or the rain will get in.

Des Cahill’s turn on DWTS has been such a success it’s hard for the viewer not to turn into Alan Partridge’s dictaphone, spitting out random ideas – Parkour with Des Cahill, Potholing with Des Cahill, Peyote with Des Cahill. And what about all the other sports commentators and their possible hidden talents – MMA with Michael Lyster, BDSM with Marty Morrissey, Hamilton the Musical with George Hamilton.

Des Cahill’s determination to give virtually any zany outfit and goofy dance move a lash is a solid reminder of how surprising people can be, how interesting we all are, and how hidden worlds turn inside us all. We can only hope that if Voyager I ends up in an intergalactic fenderbender with some alien craft a billion light years away, when they come looking for compo (or our annihilation), they are confronted with the sight of Des, dressed as a bullfighter, flapping his cape like a man possessed, and that they pause, and think ‘ah lads we can’t blow this place up, look at yer man’ – and that they will leave us to continue our strange little lives, hopping around on this pale blue dot, the only home we have ever known.

Dickhead for hire

The Indo asked me to write a bit on men’s fashions, so – after a breakfast pint in the wonderful Welcome Inn and on a bus ride to Walsh Distillery in Carlow, I wrote this:

The sight of Bono dining out with the Obamas this week raised some profound questions for the Irish man. Obama was in full style mode, ditching his brown leather bomber jacket and mom jeans in favour of a smart black suit and crisp, open-necked white shirt, offset by his 50 shades of grey hair. Bono, who clearly got a load of All Saints vouchers for Christmas, looked like Bono. But it did make you think – how stylish are Irish men? Back in the Nineties, Paul Costelloe made the shock announcement that Irish women didn’t have style. We were horrified. Apparently A-line skirts and twin sets were not the most fashion forward items one could wear, and there was horror around the country as Irish mammies realised that Paul wasn’t their fashion messiah, but rather a very naughty boy. Things did improve after that, with a steady transformation from ICA chic to MILF (Mammy I’d Like To Fornicate). But their male counterpart has stalled in his fashion evolution. The younger generation has taken a giant leap forward in the fashion stakes, being born in an era with the confidence to wear espadrilles to a ploughing championship, but for many Irish men, we are still making some basic errors. Let’s start from the ground up.

Shoes: In much the same way that sports clothes are really for sports, trainers, as the name suggests, are for training. Despite this we have expanded the concept of exercise to include sitting at our desk in work for eight hours a day, going to the pub, and fine dining on date night.

The average Irish man’s idea of dress shoes are some sort of chunky boot, as you never know when you might need to dig a ditch or cross several miles of rough terrain on foot, even though you are an accountant at a breakfast briefing in a four-star hotel. Our problem with shoes sums up the entire dilemma – not knowing how dressy is too dressy, or what dressy actually is. Do we dress like a slick tech billionaire, like Obama did, or do we just show up to events dressed like a gothic trawlerman, like Bono did? For most of us, the latter is the safer option. You don’t want that most dreaded of reactions – ‘who does yer man think he is?’ Thus you think those Rockports from 2003 are just the ticket for your wedding day, which is why you are still single.

Jeans: Even Obama, America’s Coolest President, makes mistakes in the jean department, having been photographed several times in his mom jeans – high-waisted, shapeless, saggy mom jeans. Irish men would never make such a  mistake, wearing as they do a pair of bootcut jeans in the style of 1996. Bootcut jeans, with their slight flare at the end, are a great idea in a country that is 90% puddle. This enables your knees to keep hydrated as the water seeps halfway up your leg. They come in a variety of options, from dark denim – ideal for the afters of a wedding or the funeral of someone you didn’t really like – to the classic stonewashed, which makes you look like a vacationing Russian oligarch (you hope). Most important is that you wear them one size too small, so the world knows that you’ve still got it. ‘It’ being ‘a large arse’.

Belts: You’ve had the same one since birth, and see nothing wrong with the fact the buckle is a confederate flag. So two reasons for you you to not tuck in your shirt.

Shirts: A shiny Ben Sherman shirt is a handy way of telling the world that you are past your prime. Nothing says ‘larging it in 1999’ like a well-washed shirt with flaccid collars, open to the sternum. You call it your lucky shirt, because every time you wore it out you somehow got home safely. You think it makes you look a bit like Gary Lineker, but with its bright colours and your large gut, it really makes you look more like a spinnaker.

Polo shirts: Polo shirts look great on mods, and make everyone else look like a creatine-riddled rugby fiend, who has to pop their collar to show where their neck used to be and thus makes their massive head look a little bit less like a thumb.

T-shirts: T-shirts are for the under-25s and those with superior physiques. For the rest of us they are like the flashing age alarms in Logan’s Run, highlighting our muscle wastage and the grim passage of time since we bought the T-shirt at the Something Happens Irish Tour (it spells a swear word!) in 1991. Something did happen – we got old.

Suits: There is a vast chasm between what the Irish male considers ‘well-dressed’ and ‘actually putting on a suit’. Most of us still suffer from PCSD, or Post Confirmation Suit Disorder, where we will do anything possible to avoid putting on a suit. Heightening this is the modern trend of the fitted suit. Most suits we own are fitted, as we bought them ten years ago and wore them twice – to get a wife and a mortgage, in that order. Fitted suits are great for the fey flaneur, wasting away from galloping consumption as they exist on a diet of free jazz and Proust. The husky Irish male was not born with skinny genes, so when Daniel Craig dons his shiny, tiny suits which look like 007 accidentally washed them at 700 degrees, we are under pressure to try and shoehorn ourselves into a glistening cocoon of polyester. Try to stick with classic fit, which along with classic rock, classic cars and golf classics are all signs that you will soon be dead, and nobody wants to be buried in a suit that makes them look like a black pudding that got stepped on.

Hats: These are varying degrees of ‘no’.

The trad cap: You will either look like a Healy Rae, never taking off the cap even as they battle hordes of Triffid-like rhododendrons, or you will look like a tourist, and thus get overcharged for taxis and pints, which, frankly, is more than you deserve.

The stylish hat: You think you look ‘fedorable’ but instead you look like someone who talks during movies and doesn’t wash their hands after using the bathroom.

The baseball cap: You look like Larry Murphy.

Hopefully trailblazers like Paul Galvin – who show that it is possible to be both brutally Irish and fabulously stylish – will inspire us all to make the grumbling move from pints of porter to pret a porter.

Method Man

Midleton Distillery Master Of Science Dave Quinn in the lab. 

Science is something of a dirty word in the whiskey business. Consider the life and work of Aeneas Coffey. After risking life and limb as a gauger, he applied all he knew about distilling (and a lot of what Scots inventor Robert Stein knew) to a new type of still. It was cleaner and more efficient, and was rejected wholesale by the distillers here. The Scots, however, were more receptive to his more efficient and cost-effective invention, and the rest is history.

In Ireland, Coffey’s still was seen as an affront to whiskey, making silent spirit that had no tongue to speak from whence it came – or, to put it another way, it was so pure that you supposedly had no idea what was in it.

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An ad for a Cork distillery rejecting column stills and all their works.

To this day, the spirit produced by the Coffey still is seen by whiskey drinkers as the child of a lesser god, rather than the result of a brilliant invention. Of course, its purity does give it a lighter flavour profile in comparison to single malt or the spicy mixed mash of pot still whiskey, but it’s still an example of how the scientific advancement of distilling is not always welcome.

Modern ‘advancements’ haven’t helped the average whiskey drinker change their quasi-Luddite minds – accelerated aging techniques, which range from spirit mixed with wood pellets, to ultrasound used on barrels, to the oldschool sherry hack of paxarette, are really just ways of cheating time. And time, as any human being will tell you, cannot be cheated.

But what is it that makes a whiskey great, beyond any subjective preferences, beyond any labels or marketing? What is the secret to a great whiskey? 

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Dave Quinn in the Irish Whiskey Academy during the Method & Madness press trip to Midleton.

If you wanted to ask someone, Dave Quinn is a good person to start with. He was part of that first generation of distillers who focussed on the idea of whiskey as a molecular event that needed to be explored – people who saw distilling as a science as much as an art.

From Longford, he went to college in Galway where he studied biochemistry and then biotechnology. Moving to Cork he started working with Irish Distillers in the 1980s, before transferring to Bushmills – then owned by IDL – in 1996, before transferring back to Midleton in 2002, where he is now their Master Of Science. But what exactly is the science of whiskey?

“Science is just a way of saying we are trying to find a better way of understanding what’s happening right down at the molecular level – understanding the link between what we describe as flavour and taste, and what are the congeners, what are the flavour compounds that actually contribute to that, to what you perceive as taste, flavour, aroma, and we have a certain level of understanding of that but not a complete one by any manner or means,” he says.

Of course, making whiskey isn’t a one step affair – and parts of the process are easier to understand than others, particularly those at the front end.

“It’s easier to understand the biochemistry of brewing and yeast fermentation, what happens to the yeast, the compounds it produces. Where things start to get a bit more tricky is when we get into wood maturation. We have an understanding of some of the wood compounds that contribute but there is a lot of other wood compounds that we don’t fully understand or know about.”

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Dave Quinn and Dagmara Dabrowska in a promo image for the Method & Madness range. 

But long before the spirit comes into contact with wood, Quinn and his colleague Dr Dagmara Dabrowska have a way of studying distilling. Squirrelled away within the Midleton campus is a pilot plant – effectively a fully functioning scale model of the distillery, in the style of Derek Zoolander’s school for ants. Initially created as part of their proposed energy saving programme, it began life as a 1/2000th version of the grain columns, and it is here that much of their work takes place.

“We have a pilot plant up there, where we have small pot stills and a column still so we can work on them there without even coming down here to the microdistillery. The pilot plant is very much more … automated isn’t the right word, but with more places where we can take samples and monitor a lot of the variables like temperature and pressure. With the energy saving programme we did a lot of that work in the pilot plant.”

The energy saving was one of the most impressive feats of an already impressive operation in Midleton. The pilot plant was commissioned to conduct R&D into the proposals, which saw them shave 20% off their energy use. Dr Dabrowska is credited with much of the success of that project. As Head of Analytical and Technical Development, she helped find new ways to transfer energy between the columns – a piece of equipment that, Aeneas Coffey would be delighted to know, produces more spirit than any other part of Midleton distillery. Their colossal grain output was finally celebrated with the recent release of both the 31-year-old and 11-year-old single grain bottlings, the distillery’s first under their own name (the Irish Whiskey Society released a Midleton grain bottling two years ago).

Launched under the Method & Madness incubator brand – a space for IDL to experiment with their output – the grain whiskeys were a striking departure from the heritage pot-still brands like Redbreast and Yellow Spot to a more modern aesthetic and an embracing of science. But whiskey is all science, despite what the marketing department might tell you. The modern distillery tries to site itself in a romantic pastoral dreamscape, where the distiller hand operates all aspects and divines the perfect cut using only his senses. The truth is rather different. Modern distilleries have more in common with pharma plants than the sort of thatched-cottage scenes on their labels. Distillers are – and always have been – scientists. But it is in the collision between the quantifiable perfection of science and the beautiful chaos of human nature that some of the most interesting interactions take place, as Quinn points out.

“For example, somebody is doing a sensory evaluation trying to use normal everyday words to describe the flavour that they are seeing or feeling, to try and take that –  say somebody saying I get a nice hint of floral note, a bit of rose petal and a bit of leather, and cigar tobacco in the background – there is no way that you could say well that is due to ABCD or E, as different people will have different terminology and different language to describe what they perceive as flavour.

“So one of the things we do in our sensory science lab is to try and standardise the language a little bit so that if somebody does say leather or cereal notes or whatever, we try and ensure that everyone uses the same language to describe that particular attribute in the whiskey. And then we might try and see if we can determine what is causing or what is contributing to that.”

But while the pilot plant and sensory science lab may be akin to the Large Hadron Collider, there is no one illusive God Particle that can create a particular flavour.

“Invariably it is not just a single congener – it could be the effect of multiple congeners coming together to give you a single sensory effect. You have some compounds that on their own … – you find a single compound and put it into neutral alcohol and increase its concentration so you get to a point where you could actually perceive it as an aroma , and then if you go below that minimum level and you don’t get it then that is deemed the flavour threshold – in other words, you have some compounds that have very high flavour threshold, in other words you need a lot of them for you to perceive it.

“But then some are very low flavour thresholds, levels that you can barely measure, but you can still pick it up on the nose. And it is those compounds that are the key ones in terms of bridging that gap between identifying the sensory act of compounds and identifying them and relating them to a particular character.

“What can happen is that you can get small individual compounds that might be below the flavour threshold; in other words, theoretically you should not be able to pick them up. But there’s a few of them that are sometimes present together that can almost act synergistically so that individually you wouldn’t be able to detect them but when they are combined together they give you a flavour and perception. And then you are getting into an area that can be very difficult to fully explore.”

That ‘area’ is us. Our perceptions are based on a combination of nature – the senses we are born with – and nurture – the tastes we develop as we grow, which are impacted on by the culture and environment around us.

“Different people will have different preferences, different likes, even different sensitivities to flavors so there will  be some elements of flavour that some people will pick up readily and other people cannot perceive them at all.”

Quinn’s work with Irish Distillers is less about stripping the soul from whiskey than it is about understanding how to make the best whiskey possible. It may seem like a eugenics programme, where error and, thus, personality, are eliminated under the jackbooted march of lab technicians in white coats, ruthlessly striving for a dystopian purity. In reality, it is what science always aims to be – about doing better.

“We are trying to understand distilling at a molecular level. The key is – the more you can understand, the more you can make informed decisions about what influences the taste or the character of whiskey. But it is also about what aspects don’t affect it. If you don’t have some level of understanding then you can’t really go and do the same distillation with confidence. You can only do this if you have a good understanding of the technical, science element of what you’re doing, because if you’re just relying on old wives tales and superstitions about not changing anything in the distillery, then you will never be able to develop something unique and interesting.”

Quinn knows a thing or two about doing unique things, given that, along with Peter Morehead, he was one of the chief drivers of the runaway success that is Jameson Caskmates, inspired by a spirit of innovation, experimentation and adventure.

But while the Method & Madness brand has the space for more mad-scientist style experimentation with wood and distillate styles, in both the main distillery and micro distillery, part of Quinn’s work is to ensure that as the Irish whiskey category explodes worldwide, a consistent standard is maintained, not just of quality but also of flavour profile. Distillers used to be full of superstition, where any change to the process – even the cleaning of cobwebs in the stillhouse – was deemed to be bad luck in case it affected the spirit, a culture of what a scientist might refer to as ‘poppycock’.

“You can keep doing the same thing over and over again but if you have a better understanding of what the fundamentals are then you have a much better opportunity of directing your research and your experiments in a path you know will change the spirits, and you can say ‘let’s try it’ and know more or less what the outcome is going to be. You go from a chancing-your-arm, needle-in-a-haystack approach to having a far more focussed approach.”

The distillery in Midleton is one of the most impressive, modern facilities in the world, and it has shown that you can be the biggest and also be the best. While the public facing side may be one of heritage and tradition, scientists like Dave Quinn, Dagmara Dabrowska and the rest of the Masters and their apprentices have shown that they are getting ever closer to unlocking the secrets of a perfect dram and entering a brave new world of truly great whiskeys.

  • Footnote: There is an excellent interview with Master Distiller Brian Nation in the Engineering Journal, which you can read here. It goes into some depth on the energy saving programme. There is also a recent presentation by Dr Dabrowska which you can read here, which goes into her work on the column stills. 

The Gatekeeper

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The Irish have always been good at booze. Whether making it, selling it, or simply consuming it, we have a national identity that is forever linked to – and somewhat soaked in – alcohol. We may wring our hands over the complexities of our relationship with the demon drink, but we sometimes forget the power of being a nation where craic addiction is seen as a good thing. Brand Ireland is as much about a nice drink, a singsong and good company as it is about poetry, prose, saints and scholars – and our skills with alcohol travel with us. Take Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond.

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Born in Philadelphia to Irish immigrant parents from Kilrush in County Clare, he served in the army before deciding military life was not for him. He moved to New York and built an empire by bootlegging liquor during Prohibition. Known as ‘the clay pigeon of the underworld’, he survived many assassination attempts and became a socialite and media darling, a loveable Irish American rogue.

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Speaking to Louise McGuane, it’s hard not to hear the ghost of Legs Diamond in her voice. Her accent is a bizarre mix of her native Clare and the flat New York Irish of Brooklyn. Like Diamond, she briefly considered a career in the military, even serving a couple of years in the FCA: “My brother was in the Army, he was a cadet and then a captain in the artillery division, so he would have gone off to the Curragh. I loved the whole idea of the Army, the camaraderie and sense of adventure,” she says.

But instead of heading east to fire shots across the Curragh in the rigid world of the armed forces, she opted to head west to America and fire shots across bars in the slightly more fluid world of high-end alcohol sales.

“Well it was the Eighties and Nineties in rural ireland, this was pre-Celtic Tiger – everybody left, it was a cultural thing. I had two aunts that had gone – there was a lot of emigration to the US in my family, I had cousins over there, so when I emigrated there was a cousin waiting to pick me up when I got off the boat, so to speak, and there was a culture of emigration out west anyway. It was just what you did.

“I just sort of fell into the drinks industry. I did philosophy and literature in college – I’m a big believer that whatever your degree is, unless it is something really technical, it is fairly irrelevant to whatever you go on to. And in America they simply don’t care what your degree is in – they just want to know that you can do the job, you’re not really judged on getting a 2.2 or 2.1 or any of that, or at least back then they weren’t. Kids have it tougher now in relation to that in terms of the competition for jobs.”

America, the land of opportunities for thousands of Irish emigrants in the Eighties, was a very different bureaucratic beast to the old country. When she started to work in the drinks industry in the States, McGuane soon realised that the world in which Legs Diamond and others operated – the dry America of the Volstead Act –  still cast its long shadow.

“I was with Moet Hennessy first, doing on the ground sales and marketing work, which is really valuable because the US market is a really tough one to get your head around. Ever since Prohibition all of the individual states set their own liquor laws – so it’s almost like 50 different countries that you have to know individually, and then at county level those laws can change again, as you can have dry counties. You also have state boards that run the liquor so your point of contact for that state in terms of sales would be two guys who work for the state office.”

While the American market is the one she came to know best, she also spent time in Asia, working in the drinks business in Singapore. After spending two decades learning the complexities of the liquor business with luxury brands such as Hennessy and (Tony Soprano’s favourite) Stoli, McGuane had a tough choice to make: Love or career.

“When I was with multinationals I was on the global trek, and you have to move every two or three years, which was great until I got married and then it just wasn’t possible as I didn’t have a trailing spouse, he has a luxury PR business in London so he has to stay there.”

So she quit. But she didn’t stand still for long – and it was a relic from Legs Diamond’s ancestral home that started her on her next adventure.

“It was this one guy, this JJ Corry guy, a Cooraclare native who became a whiskey bonder in Kilrush. I found his label on eBay and I called up the guy with the label and said what do you know about this. I found out all I could about Corry, then I met his great-grand-nephew, and made all these enquiries around his neighbours and the local historical society, and just decided ‘ok, I am going to do this’.

“The initial idea was ‘we’re going to set up a craft distillery, we’re going to set it up on the family farm, it’s going to be great, let’s buy stills’. That was the first idea – but then I thought ‘no we are not doing that’.”

So a distillery was not going to happen – but then McGuane had the crazy notion of resurrecting a long-dead trade. A century ago, the Irish whiskey bonder was a common sight. Grocers and publicans would buy their spirit straight from distillers (who at the time were mere wholesalers themselves) and then age it in their own premises to sell on as they saw fit. Over the decades as the industry contracted and consolidated, distilleries started selling direct to the public, and one by one the bonders disappeared. There are still relics of that time, famously the Yellow Spot and Green Spot whiskeys, but they are as close to bonded whiskeys as birds are to dinosaurs.

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So McGuane set to work. After using her extensive knowledge to put together a copper-fastened business plan, she turned to crowd-funding fountainhead Kickstarter to raise equity. She offered a variety of buy-ins, from small gifts aimed squarely at the Irish American market – a packet of shamrock from the Emerald Isle – to week-long stays in her County Clare home (a half-mile from the house Legs Diamond’s ancestors hailed from)  which has a backstory all of its own.

“So my grandmother was born in that property. My great aunt died in estate, so my dad had to borrow money from my aunt in Alabama to buy it back – and he did, back in the Eighties. So it’s all part of the family farm, which is dairy and peat. My uncle used to grow barley, so it is barley country – and growing it in the future is something I’m not ruling out, that whole grain-to-glass.”

Louise McGuane in her renovated farmhouse called The Safe House near the village of Cooraclare in County Clare.

Louise McGuane in her renovated farmhouse called The Safe House near the village of Cooraclare in County Clare.

But the property was completely transformed under McGuane’s guidance, from a traditional farm cottage to an architecturally designed beauty, all glass walls, brushed concrete and stylish Scandinavian aesthetics. It has become part of the brand for Chapel Gate, as her business is now known, being the HQ for investor meetings and venue for business events.

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“With the Kickstarter I sold eighteen stays in my house – I raised 18,000 that way! It’s a beautiful house and it ended up being a really good asset for the business. It’s right next to the rackhouse, on the same plot, and I’ve have a few potential customers come over, a few potential importers too, and it then becomes a really good spot to show people the modern face of the brand and show them how we operate from a design perspective.”

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The only possibly downside is that, should it all go south, all her investors now knows where she lives – although McGuane is quick to point out that hers is a pretty solid investment.

“A distillery was the first idea – but then I thought, no, we are not doing that. Maybe in the future-future-future, but who knows. The bonding piece, that is awesome, that’s far more low risk from a business perspective. The assets that I’m acquiring are appreciable assets – so if everything goes horrifically wrong I sell off all of my assets, and everybody gets their money back. The whole buying-a-still, commissioning-a-still – I don’t have that headache, whatever headaches I’ve had are nothing next to the headaches the guys setting up all over the country have.”

But one of the minor headaches she did have was trying to ensure that her investors were the best kind – connected ones.

“The kind of investors you get in this business – you don’t get institutional investors because your break even is about seven years if you’re lucky, and then your payback is if you suddenly sell out to somebody, because there will be a time where nobody is buying Irish whiskey distilleries anymore and what’s gone is gone. And then you have lifestyle investors – maybe ten guys who like the idea of saying ‘I have a distillery in Ireland’ and they come over and they taste whiskey and they have good connections like hotel chains, so you have to figure out who you want to invest, get the right investors for your business and your model.  Then when you become a going concern, then you’re into institutional investment, but in the early days you gotta pick your investors really carefully.

“All the investors care about is what’s the downside, if this goes under do I get my money back, and with the bonding model you get your money back, but with the distillery model you won’t because there is all this debt owed on the cap-ex basically. You have to prove to people that the downside is all but zero and then you’re alright.”

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Chapel Gate is now officially more than ‘alright’, as McGuane, since mid-December, is Ireland’s first licensed whiskey bonder in half a century. But with resurrecting a lost trade comes the need to resurrect a lost section of State tax law, and with that comes hassle.

When I ask if she has any advice on setting up an Irish whiskey company, she has this tip: “Don’t set up an Irish whiskey company. Definitely don’t do it on your own. It is a terrible idea. Because we are in the resurgence of the industry, there is no living memory, no institutional memory in government bodies.

“So normally the guys at Pernod, they had their revenue officer, they had their HSE guy, they had whoever else they had been dealing with for the last 50 years down in Midleton, and nobody in any of those departments had to even consider these issues. And now suddenly I have my revenue guy in Limerick – who, by the way, is brilliant, shoutout, love him – his name is David Browne and honestly he is fantastic. As a public servant the man deserves a bonus – he is brilliant. The process was new for him, it was new for me, I approached revenue in complete fear, panicking as to what was going to happen, and we worked it all out together, and he was incredibly supportive.”

Supportive he may have been, but her struggle to get the business off the ground was not without it’s difficulties, as catalogued on her blog. McGuane’s knowledge of the industry means she has confidence in speaking out against bureaucracy and what she sees as unfair control of the market by big firms – including her former employers, Pernod, owners of Irish Distillers Limited, the custodians of Irish whiskey.

Her trials and tribulations with her own project were all laid out on her blog, moving from frustration, to anger, to joy – the full rollercoaster of emotions that come with bringing a project like this to life. But while it played out like a sweeping epic, her journey from genesis to licensed whiskey bonder has been rather a short one.

“One year from Kickstarter to bonding; it feels like it has been about a decade. But the blog and social media aren’t just about keeping people involved in the project – it’s also an outlet. I use it a lot to vent, because I am usually just sitting in an office on my own all day, it’s me and Ruby the dog, and that is very difficult, because it feels like forever, and there is no one there to bounce ideas off. So social media is a way to share the experience with people, so people have to hear the sort of nonsense you have to go through. I use it sometimes to make a point as I know the Revenue reads it and I know the local planners read it, so every once in a while I will use it to deliver a barbed question at them on whether or not they want to create jobs.”

In a business like hers, however, the number of jobs is fairly low – although she did advertise for a warehouse cat (one that, presumably, must love dogs).

Because she resurrected a dead trade, she also needed to hire someone versed in an almost dead craft; coopering. Currently there are only a handful of qualified coopers working in Ireland, so she set about finding one with a bit of time on his hands.

“Our cooper Eugene Quinlan is from Midleton, and he worked with IDL up until the 1990s when they got rid of them all. He does that trip now from Midleton to west Clare every couple of weeks, and it is a trek. He comes up every couple of weeks, so if we bring in any casks he can check them over, he comes up and repairs leakages, and also just to keep an eye on the wood, check the casks over, make sure everything is as it should be.

“There are four coopers in Ireland. There’s Ger (Buckley, in Midleton) who has an apprentice now, there’s somebody at Bushmills and an apprentice there too, there’s a guy at Nephin, John Neilly, who is actually Scottish originally.”

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The lack of whiskey experience in the job market here – and the abundance of it in Scotland – is another stumbling block to setting up a whiskey business in Ireland.

“Finding staff is a real issue here as almost anyone working within the industry in Ireland right now is working for a massive multinational, so they probably have a pretty sweet package going on and a nice pension – you are not going to poach those older guys away, the really experienced guys, as there is no culture of moving around from distillery to distillery like there is in Scotland. So everybody is looking to America, they are looking to Scotland, they’re looking all over basically. But that is just one of the growing pains of an emerging industry and we are just going to have to go through that for a while.

“You have to go outside the country to look for someone – but I struggle with parts of this. If you’re going to bring in a Scotch whisky expert, their palate is going to be very much in that sphere, technically.

“But there are guns for hire, liquid consultants in Ireland, Scotland and America, and Sweden – mostly women actually – and I work with some of those. Their palates are very wide, so you give them a brief on Irish whiskey and they will get into that headspace. So you have to carefully pick who you work with. I am actually now using a Scottish liquid consultant and he is doing a great job.

“But there is change here; the Carlow Institute of Technology has their recently launched brewing and distilling programme, and IDL have a particularly good internal programme where they are going to start to share their knowledge with newcomers to the industry within the Irish Whiskey Association.”

The Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) is the body which oversees the category in Ireland – but like everything else here, it is a newborn entity that is going to a mix of very large, powerful firms (Pernod, Brown-Forman, Diageo) and almost micro operations like McGuane’s. So in order to balance this out, the smaller firms are banding together.

“I work very hard to make it happen – on Friday we are having a meeting in Limerick of about eight of us. It’s very informal, just a lunch… but the industry is so new, that all of us have just had our heads down just trying to get through licensing and all that…But I have high hopes that the smaller firms will start to come together. We all have common issues, for example the craft drinks bill affects all of us; the wholesale market affects all of us, the excise and duty – we need relief for that for smaller producers, we have to have that.”

The craft drinks bill is an issue for Irish alcohol producers as a whole so the IWA will be pushing have the law changed so that distillers and brewers and bonder  (singular; currently McGuane is the only one) are able to sell direct to the public from their premises without having to fork out 80 grand to buy a pub licence.

“The craft drinks bill is really imperative – I’m just joining the IWA formally, and I went along when they were launching their tourism initiative, which is great. But my concern is this: With programmes like the mentorship, none of those firms are going to be paying 80 grand to get a license to sell direct to customers from their distillery, because the pay-off on an investment like that happens over years and years, depending on where you are and on how you are doing it. Maybe you would get the payback in a year, in areas where there is a lot of tourism, but in rural areas where tourism is seasonal? The crafts drinks bill is, in my opinion, tantamount to the success of those firms and the IWA tourism strategy itself. It wasn’t integrated into the IWA strategy because it came out of nowhere the week leading up to the launch, but Alan Kelly TD (proposer of the bill) was there and he spoke about the bill, and it is really important to the success of us smaller guys.

“And the smaller guys is often where the really interesting stuff happens. It’s nice to visit big massive distilleries, but you’ve been to a million of them, I’ve been to a million of them, it’s the same-old same-old. It’s going to the smaller craft guys that has real value – both for the tourism and for the industry, those rural regions that need it.

“Scotland has the market cornered in whisky destination tourism – but here in Ireland we have the Wild Atlantic Way and a whiskey trail that could piggyback on the success of that, but it will take a lot of close work with Bord Fáilte and with the IWA, to make it happen. It needs definitive timelines and it needs that craft drinks bill to make it happen for the smaller guys.”

Another issue she would like to see the IWA tackle is some of the shenanigans in the independent bottling scene, which is awash with non-existent distilleries, false provenance, and the products of three distilleries being sold by third parties under multiple identities.

“The lack of transparency in the Irish whiskey industry is bullshit, and it needs to be addressed. Even Compass Box had real issues with this in Scotland,” she adds, referring to the brand who fought for the right to tell consumers what was in every bottle on the label. The SWA won that battle, but the new sheriff in town here, the IWA, has a far larger mess to untangle.

“The SWA and the IWA are very different bodies, the SWA is very mature and well-established, while the IWA’s core focus for 2017 is clamping down on labelling, but at the moment they are just on category level – so you can’t call yourself Irish whiskey if you finished your whiskey in Scotland, like (the recently withdrawn) Craoi Na Mona.

“I think there needs to be more transparency – and this is one of the reasons I am so open on social media about what I am doing; there is no bullshit in what I’m doing, I’m really open about where I get my stuff from, what I’m doing with it, although I actually can’t put on my label that it’s from Cooley or GND. I can’t boast about where it’s from as I’m not allowed to, but I will be 100% transparent to anyone at any time if I can.

“I don’t think it’s right that everyone is getting stuff from Cooley and everyone is just banging a label on it and making stuff up and creating false provenance. I appreciate that we are in a weird time, that we are all trying to build brands, but I don’t think anyone is buying it anymore – or at least, anybody in the know isn’t buying it.”

She also practices what she preaches, being incredibly transparent on every aspect of her operation:

Barrels: “I’m not going to tell you exactly where I get my casks from; but I spent about a year looking to get casks as there is a global cask shortage because there is such demand at the moment particularly in the US. But there are key cooperages you go to for ex-bourbon casks, mostly in Louisville Kentucky, there’s a bunch of coopers in Minnesota as well, so the barrels are located in those kind of hubs. I was going to all the big guys and they were all telling me it was an 18-month wait, a two-year wait, just for ex bourbon, so I found  a guy in Louisville in the end who only supplies to small craft guys, who gets casks directly off the lines basically, and he has cousins who work at the various distilleries, he is very small scale, has his own little cooperage and if I say ‘go to Jack Daniels and get me so many ex-single casks’ he can do that on a tiny scale. So he is my go to guy for ex bourbon and the scale is perfect for me.

“Then there’s a number of middle-men who sell on ex-port, and ex-Bordeaux, and ex-sherry casks as well. There’s a big company called Shen, based out of France, who bring in new American oak and things like that. So I get bits and pieces from those guys, but mostly I am starting to go direct to distilleries and direct to other wineries in particular. I do this as I am so small scale that I can, and it’s more economical as barrels are very expensive, particularly if you have a middle man, and the places I am going I can hand pick them, if I like the whiskey I can get one of their used casks.”

Spirit: “At the moment I am working with grain and malt, I’m working with John Teeling’s Great Northern Distillery, and they are moving to pot still now as well. The stills they have are fairly steampunk, they are converted kettles basically, so they were ironing out a few kinks, but they are really there now. Alan Anderson is the master distiller there and he is super flexible. Because it is early days for them they are very willing to work with you – if you want to mess about with mash bills and mess about with distillation times, they will do it. Or you can just push the button for you and spit out the usual stuff. But we are now starting to get into the phase where we are getting batches, so my first batch we fiddled about with the mashbill, and batch two was in January, and we started to make that more bespoke, tweaking it here and there.

“I went for grain and malt 50/50 because I think grain is starting to move up the ranks, the Teelings are doing really interesting things with grain, and finishing grain is something that is being played around with massively. But all of that is something that you just have to wait and see with, as you don’t really know what is going to happen in the cask, I can’t really plan until it is ready. But all those variables are one of the nice things about it – you don’t just turn on a pipe and get whiskey. There are many variables.”

Ageing: “We are racking, not palletising, so our capacity is about 550. A good start, and we have 110 in at the moment, with batch two going in May, and another batch by the end of the year so I reckon we will be at full capacity within two years. At the moment I am 100% focused on what I have just done, get a quality source of whiskey, get the right people around me, I have a great cooper and I have some liquid consultants and a really good source of casks from the US, rackhouse sorted, licensing done, boom boom boom, and the next piece is forward planning. So I’ve put together a wood programme where I am chopping down trees to send wood to Spain or Portugal for drying out so that in two years I can put whiskey in my own casks. So in 2017 I’ve had to start planning for three to five years ahead. The same thing goes with supply so I have X amount and while I have a contract for this year and next years I have to think about a decade from now – how much more whiskey do I need to cask for in ten years time? The same goes for rackhouses – I’ve built one now, so do I build another one, do I build a bigger one, where is the next one going, when is it going, I have to apply for planning and so on. So I need to make a firm plan for the next decade. We are playing the long game here.”

On bringing out a sourced blend: “What we are working on at the moment is this: I have my new-fill in cask, and I just have to wait obviously, and see what happens, and then in the interim I have a source of mature malt and a little bit of mature grain as well, so we are working on a very small launch portfolio. So we are going to come out with two …. I’m not even 100% sure yet, a single malt, but that might change, but we want to done very transparently, I mean we all know where the stock comes from….There is actually a smattering of different stocks that I have purchased, with a bit of Bushmills kinda thrown in randomly, and every cask has a really interesting backstory, some casks I’m really trying to dig into a try to figure out how they’re going to end up there. But we are coming out with a very small portfolio so we want to build a brand, get into the US, be very transparent about it. I don’t have enough stock to keep me going very long. I will barely make it to three years and I don’t know if we will be releasing anything in three years, probably not. Really you want to go to eight years, but will I get to eight years? Not now. Definitely not where I am right now.

“The wholesale market for a producer, for someone like me, supply is a massive issue. There is no supply. There’s not mature whiskey out there. Whatever you can get your hands on, you get your hands on it right away, before the price might do up. For me it just made sense to get my hands on what I could and then be transparent about that, and start to use that to start breaking my way into my core markets. I want to have a product that starts to express the style of whiskey that we want to make moving forward as best we can and then when we are ready with our own 100% bonded whiskey that we have aged ourselves and finished ourselves that we can lay more claim to I will have a market ready for that.”

On releasing a gin or vodka: “No, and here’s why. I was at Fortnum & Mason, so I went to the liquor department simply because I wanted to see what was going on. It’s one of those stores that you want to be in, you want your brand in there, no matter how much you might sell you just want to be on the shelf because it is just a great store to be in. And there was shelves and shelves of stock, Mortlach was there obviously behind bulletproof glass, and then there was a craft whiskey section, and there was a small shelf with irish whiskey on it with about eight brands, and then there was a gin section and it was the length of this hotel foyer, a 25 metre long, five foot high gin extravaganza. I love gin, I know gin, I know the category well, I worked with Tanqueray for a number of years, but I just don’t have the capacity to launch a super premium gin product into a very crowded super premium gin category and work it. It needs more PR and marketing, and more people to do those things. So my shtick is – make one thing and make it really well, so I am focussed on whiskey.”

So she is in for the long haul – but is the boom in the category? Can Irish whiskey sustain this incredible momentum?

“Eventually it will plateau but it will keep flying now for quite a while. Look at Asia. I spent a lot of time there, and if you go anywhere in Asia and ask for an Irish whiskey, you will be pointed to Ballantines or something as there is zero category knowledge or impact. Nobody has won there; Pernod has a tough time in Asia generally, but they haven’t launched the category there successfully, so that market is still completely closed, but it is going to open, they are going to start making inroads there. There is interest there now  – there are Irish Whiskey Societies setting up in Hong Kong and Macau.”

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A key trend she has identified is premiumisation – where a whisky is given a massive price tag due to a combination of age and a marketing department focussed on the super-premium category. It’s also humorously known as ‘Mortlachisation’ after Diageo ramped up the price of the previously accessibly Mortlach.

“I think there is a massive opportunity in ultra premium, which not everybody is going to want to hear, but it is there. The reason you’re going to see it coming out of Ireland is that we have genuine rarity. In terms of older, more mature whiskey in Ireland, you can’t get it. There is no open market, there won’t be an open market for 20-year-old whiskey until 20 years from now, so rarity in Ireland is even more exclusive than rarity in Scotland, where there are warehouses and warehouses of bulk whisky – there are three or four warehouses of that sort of aged stock in Ireland and most of it is accounted for. Ultra premium will definitely happen, based on rarity and based on design.”

Her predictions have already come true, with Irish Distillers recently taking the bold step of releasing a 31-year-old single grain for 1,500 a bottle. However, this doesn’t mean that the average consumer will have to pay more for their standard issue drams.

“It won’t hit consumers as it’s a category in itself. At that level it isn’t even seen as Irish whiskey – it is simply a luxury item. When it’s a 20,000 bottle of whiskey it supersedes the category of whiskey and becomes a luxury item – and that’s all it is at that juncture. But there is a market for that. Scotland, and all the big guys – Diageo in particular – have been playing that game very very well for a long time. You’re starting to see it trickle through here too in duty free, the Teelings have some really interesting releases recently, they started to be a bit more design led, we have something in the pipeline as well coming down the line. It’s an inevitability and I know people don’t like it, but it is more like a luxury product.

“There’s a halo effect – and Scotland does that very well, like Johnny Walker portfolio has whiskies that you can buy for 55,000 pounds, it’s not about how many you sell at that level, and I’m not predicting a 55k Irish whiskey any time soon, but it does become a PR event. But everyone does still want their blended Irish whiskey or their ten-year-old or their 15-year-old – so it doesn’t have to have a knock-on for the average consumer.”

So the boom is getting boomier. And thus it was for Legs Diamond back in the 1920s, and after making his fortune in liquor during Prohibition, he forged out on his own. However, once out of the protection of the syndicates, he was vulnerable, and ultimately someone caught up with the clay pigeon of the underworld, and he paid a supreme penalty. While it seems unlikely that a beret-clad French assassin is coming for McGuane (good luck to them finding Cooraclare), I ask her if it is worth it – forging out on your own, leaving the safety of a giant multinational, to pursue your own dreams, to put it all on the line just to be your own boss.

“By a factor of about 15,000, yeah. Those big multinationals are fantastic in that you learn, you work hard, you are exposed to a multitude of cultures, you get to know markets very intimately, and you get very specific market knowledge. So I could tell you the names of the top five bars in New York or Miami, or Seattle; I know my market down to that level because multinationals expect you to know that from the sales guys on the ground selling a case a week all the way up to category trends and market strategy – all that breadth of knowledge. Some of that information becomes useless when you come out on your own, but it is the confidence it gives you – I can walk into a room full of investors and know my category and my market better than anyone.

“I miss the perks though – the wildly extravagant expense accounts, the business class flying, and all the gold cards I used to have on all the airlines. Now it’s Ryanair, all the time, basically.”

With a growing stockpile of spirit, as well as plans ahead to release a sourced blend, and even a brand celebrating the legend of Legs Diamond, she may be due a seat upgrade to business class sooner than she thinks.

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Footnote: There was a great profile of Louise in the Indo which you can read here, and it contains a lot of material I didn’t touch on. Louise’s blog is located here and is really worth a read for anyone interested in whiskey, start-ups or Kafkaesque labyrinths of bureaucracy.  

There are two categories in Irish whiskey start-ups – the schemers and the dreamers. The schemers are the ones bottling anything they can get their hands on and pretending the are so much more than they are. The dreamers are the ones who actually went and created something more than just a label – people like Mark Reynier, Peter Mulryan and Louise McGuane. I was lucky enough to interview all three, and while they all have different routes to Irish whiskey, all are striving for the betterment of the category as a whole, and they deserve every support.