By Dave Broom

A Phoenix Arising from the Peat

Dave attends the opening of Tullamore DEW new distillery
The likes of it had never been seen. As they craned their necks upwards on that morning of 10 May 1785, the Montgolfier rose over the town. A hot air balloon! In Tullamore! They watched as it headed, inexorably, fatally, towards the barracks chimney and crashed into it. The blazing balloon plummeted to the ground setting fire to a thatched house. Soon all of Patrick Street and Kilbride Street were destroyed. Tullamore, the locals proudly attest, was the scene of the world's first air disaster, though those of us with a classical bent would argue that the first was Icarus getting too close to the sun.

Tullamore rebuilt itself. The disaster resulted in the town being rebuilt and becoming an important centre for trade. Its coat of arms still bears the image of a phoenix. A burnished copper image of the same now greets visitors to the town's new distillery. It's a neat symbol not only of the return home of an iconic brand, but also of the fortunes of Irish whiskey.

When William Grant & Sons want to build a distillery, it does so quickly. It took only 18 months to transform the 58 acre greenfield site on the outskirts of Tullamore into a 1.8million litre capacity pot still distillery, with space for further expansion, and a grain plant.

"Of all the sites we looked at, this was undoubtedly the worst," said John Quinn, Tullamore DEW's long-serving brand ambassador. It was, after all, a peat bog. 2,500 piles were put into the ground, 250,000 tons of peat were removed (but retained for landscaping), the equivalent of 47 Olympic swimming pools, should any of you fancy a marathon peat bog snorkelling challenge. Water has had to be piped for 14 kilometres from the Slieve Bloom mountains. A challenging build, you might say, but its location next to the town made it the only logical one. Symbolism again. Tullamore had to come home. Equally, maybe family firms understand the importance of roots more profoundly.

Behind a façade designed to replicate the old warehouse like Irish distillery architecture, is an ultra-modern plant with (currently) four stills, all different shapes, one of which has the fat belly and offset neck typical of 19th Century Irish pots. Forsyth's of Rothes are currently working on two more pots which will allow the distillery to separate malt and single pot distillation.

And so, on a spectacularly sunny day, we all stood and watched distillery manager Denise Devenny turning the spirit safe handle from foreshots to spirit, returning distilling to Tullamore after 60 years of silence. There wasn't a dry eye in the house, not a dry throat either.

Any distillery opening is a cause for celebration, but this one has a deeper resonance. This was more than just a production facility for a growing brand, this was a personal triumph for men like John Quinn who has - virtually singlehandedly - preached the cause of Tullamore DEW for years, it was a boost for the town. Whisky, wherever it is made, has roots, it rises from whatever ground it lies on into something which is greater than just liquid.

My suitcase is now being regularly packed to attend another Irish distillery opening. Last year it was at Midleton, now it's Tullamore, and next year the €25 million Walsh Whiskey Distillery will be opening in Carlow, while there's the likelihood of a brace in Dublin.

That Irish whiskey is on a roll is hardly news. There are currently in excess of 20 plans afoot for new builds and while not all will come to fruition, there is a sense that here is an industry returning home, putting down roots, and thinking of the long term. These new distilleries represent not just a deepening of the category, but a broadening as well. New styles will emerge, new personalities will be born.

Irish whiskey is now more than just Jameson. People are buying it because of its singular flavours, its brands, the serves. It is recognised as being different and is therefore a challenger to Scotch in the medium term. It is a phoenix. It is growing. What of Scotch? Just as the cheers were being raised across Tullamore, in came the news that Scotch exports had fallen by 11 per cent. Has it, like Icarus, soared too close to the sun?