Variety performance

Variety performance

Irish Whiskey is entering a golden age hanks to the efforts of entrepreneurs such as Mark Andrews, Gary Regan met this king of Knappogue Castle.

People | 16 Apr 2000 | Issue 9 | By Gary Regan

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There’s a whisky for every mood, or rather there is a Scotch or bourbon one. But Irish whiskeys ... well the choice is more limited. Or rather it was, until such enterprising chaps as Mark Andrews, president of Great Spirits, a company based in Houston, Texas, came along. Andrews’ passion for Irish whiskey was passed on to him from his father, Mark Edwin Andrews, who travelled to Ireland from his native Houston in the 1930s. He fell in love with the country and eventually developed an obsession for tracking down Irish whiskeys unavailable in the US. And along the way, he bought himself a castle.Knappogue Castle, in County Clare, was in ruins when Andrews senior first found it, but he knew the answer: his wife, Lavoné Andrews, was a prominent architect, indeed one of the best known of her time. After returning the castle to its former glory, she was awarded the Irish An Taisce award for the best architectural restoration of an historic Irish building. That done the Andrews turned to restoration of a different kind on the whiskey front.Mark Andrews recalls his father watching with interest as single malts from Scotland became more and more popular in America. “He couldn’t understand why the distilleries in Ireland, which produced such wonderful single malts and pure pot-still Irish whiskeys, didn’t jump on the bandwagon. Instead, for reasons that were not completely clear to him, they chose to use their finest spirits as components of their blended brands rather than selling them in their pure form.“Dad took matters into his own hands. He had several friends who were experts in the whiskey business and, with their counsel, each year he bought a cask or two of single malt or pure pot- still Irish whiskey and developed the Knappogue Castle brand. While there were several distilleries that he liked very much, he gravitated towards Bushmills and for a number of years had an informal agreement with them to buy single malt. Unfortunately, as the ownership of Bushmills changed, [management] became reluctant and eventually unwilling to sell him any more. Several bottles of 1949 and 1950 distillations are all that we have left.”In desperation, Andrews senior searched and found a number of casks of 1951 distillation from the then-defunct B. Daly distillery in Tullamore. “He purchased all of them and stored them at the Cork Bonded Warehouse,” Mark continued. “Dad inspected the casks every few months and viewed them almost like children. In fact, one Christmas in my parents’ Christmas card where one might have expected to see a family photo, he included a photograph of the casks. In 1987, after being in the wood for 36 years, the whiskey had reached its peak and so Dad had the rest of it bottled.“Dad gave his whiskey to his friends and sold some of it in Ireland. But he never imported any of it for sale in the US because of the considerable red tape involved. Realizing that this had been a goal of his, I began pursuing it a few years ago and brought the first bottles of Knappogue Castle 1951 to market in America in 1997.”In the process of importing his father’s whiskey, Mark got to know Whisky Magazine’s consultant editor Jim Murray, and decided that, with his help, he would carry on the Knappogue brand with the hope of helping people understand how wonderful Irish whiskey can be. He went on, “We have now produced three bottlings, each done on a vintage basis according to the year of distillation (1990, 1991, and 1992). Knappogue Castle is different from most whiskeys from Ireland in that it is a single malt, not a blend. It is different from many single malts from Scotland in that no peat is used to dry the malt; and, hence, it is not smoky. The third salient feature of our brand is that it is bottled on a vintage basis. Rather than striving for total uniformity, Jim and I (and Dad before us) felt that it would be more interesting to let variations and nuances differentiate each year.“Our first three vintages came from the Cooley Distillery. I think that Cooley makes wonderful whiskey and, with Jim Murray’s help, we have been able to select some terrific casks. We have also reached agreement with Bushmills to supply single malt. This is gratifying given Dad’s prior relationship with them and his great love for their whiskey.“We feel very fortunate to have working relations with both of the Irish producers of single malt. Our intention is not to compete with Bushmills or Cooley, but rather to work together to advance the cause of Irish whiskey.”Will Andrews ever open his own distillery? He thinks not, although he might, at a later date, be interested in “entering into an agreement” with anyone who does open a new plant in Ireland. Meanwhile, though, with the help of Jim Murray, he hopes to offer a new vintage bottling of Knappogue Castle Irish whiskey every year.Talk to Jim Murray about Andrews and you’ll hear only praise. “The most exciting thing about the project was that Mark put the ball completely in my court,” declares Jim. “I couldn’t believe my luck. I was allowed to go to any Irish distillery and buy whatever whiskeys I deemed suitable. It seemed too good to be true. Mark was brave enough to put his money where his mouth is, when he called to offer me this project I could feel his enthusiasm burning down the wire.”But how does a whisk(e)y guru such as Murray go about creating new bottlings for Knappogue? Murray says that even though each distillery has a signature style, if you look closely enough, and sample every barrel made available to you, you can find some very special whiskeys. “At the Cooley distillery, for example, I found that some whiskeys distilled during specific weeks were superior to others. For each of the three vintages bottled thus far, I looked for another style. Some years [special whiskeys] were quite scarce, but in the years when they produced a lot, I would vat malts from within that year to create the blend,” he declares.The next vintage Irish whiskey from Knappogue, which should be available by late 2000 or early 2001, will comprise a single malt whiskey made at Bushmills in County Antrim where Murray found a different slant to create his blend. “Irish Distillers [owners of Bushmills] let me go through every barrel in their stock, which contains a very wide range of whiskeys aged in both bourbon and sherry barrels, and within those categories, of course, there are first-, second-and third-fill casks to choose from. Luckily, at Bushmills they know exactly what they have and where to find it,” noted an excited Murray.When he first went to select whiskeys from Bushmills, Murray had a preconceived notion that he would probably marry whiskeys aged in bourbon barrels to others matured in sherry casks, but things turned out differently.“The sherry-aged whiskeys were wonderful- spicy with toffee, raisins, and plum notes with a very rich character,” he recalls. “The bourbon-aged whiskeys, however, were very voluptuous, especially those from first-fill casks, but when I married the two, the sherried whiskey, even in very small amounts, took some of the higher, more complex notes away from the bourbon-aged whiskey. The blend didn’t have the sheen I wanted so I had to turn my back on the sherry casks.” Murray also noted that this next Knappogue bottling will be in a different style from the previous vintages, but predictably he’s sure his whiskey will be very attractive. UnquestionablyAndrews and Murray are shaking up the Irish malt business which can only be good news for the rest of us.
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