Sometimes you visit a distillery when there is something amazing happening. I mean let’s face it, the entire alchemy of distillation is pretty impressive really; but there are those moments that make you truly stop and think. Perhaps you are there when the distillery is taking delivery of its stills, or the first time the spirit has run from those stills, perhaps new washbacks are being commissioned or even changing grain variety, something just to make you stop and wonder at the joy of this age old process of removing delicious spirit from grain.
However, the day I visited Walsh Distillery in Carlow went just a little bit beyond this. There are only a handful of times that you visit a place when history is in the making. There is this tiny plastic vial in front of me, quite innocuous, which marks that slice of distilling history; a true world’s first – organic pot still.
Thankfully this little sample of clear distillate lived up to its moment in the spotlight: yeasty, vibrant, clean, fruity and packed with orchard fruits.
It’s not an easy road setting up your own distillery, and then to push for organic certification generally adds another layer of worry, for want of a better word. But in the first week of January, Walsh Whiskey Distillery, at Royal Oak, decided to go for it, and the preparation work paid off.
Head distiller Lisa Ryan explains that the process to get accreditation was a huge challenge for the distillery.
She adds: “You have to crawl through the whole plant and make sure that there’s no crossover of anything anywhere. The certification process is quite rigorous, the Organic Trust (the accredited body for upholding the integrity of Irish organic food and drink) come down and walk through the whole plant and initially get into every nook and cranny, which is great because it sets a high standard. It really feels like an audit and you feel like you get something out of it because they come in and they know what to do, so when they give you the approval then you feel that you have achieved something, it’s all very exciting.”
Following certification by the trust, the distillery started creating its game changer of a whiskey.
Using locally sourced malted and unmalted barley, the new make spirit was triple distilled in the distillery’s three copper pot stills and will be matured, bottled and finally released under the Writers’ Tears label from 2023 at the earliest. It is anticipated that this batch will yield in the region of 30,000 bottles of what will be a first for Irish whiskey.
Owner Bernard Walsh says the organic new make single pot still spirit would be filled into both first fill Bourbon barrels and virgin oak barrels and will mature for at least minimum of five years.
He adds, “We had the ambitions for it, and we knew it could be really interesting. Whiskey is not straightforward, so to add the complication of organic was fun, but I am really pleased, it’s different, it’s interesting. I love the creaminess of it and I think that will mature really well. We are going to have to follow it very, very carefully. I can’t see us opening this from a commercial point of view anything before five years.
“With both the pot and column stills allied to the capacity available to us here at Royal Oak, as well as the strength of our brands, we aim to be leaders in the development of and innovation within the Irish whiskey category – and this is one expression of that goal.”
For head distiller Lisa Ryan, the organic pot still project represented the benchmark for the future whiskeys that at the moment are just a glint on the still.
She adds that this is not only part of the commitment to the highest quality ingredients and innovation in the development of the full range of Irish whiskeys – pot still, malt, grain and blended – but also something personal.
She continues, “My dad was a farmer and what I loved about it was the appreciation all the organic guys have in relation to their farms. The appreciation that they have for the land and the care that they take of the land is done really kind of in a sacred way. They are really passionate about what they do and really take a lot of care of what they do.
“It was great to be able to strip everything back and just see what happened, and to think, potentially, this was how it was done hundreds of years ago without any additions or fertilisers and just using what was there.”
The innovation in the distillery does not and will not stop there. Commissioned in March 2016, Walsh Whiskey’s manually-operated distillery is one of the largest in Ireland (eight million bottles annual capacity) and is equipped with both pot stills and column stills in the one still house.
Bernard explains that with the capacity and production scope available to it, he and his team are preparing the ground for the future by laying down significant stocks of whiskey.
Lisa adds that there are some noticable differences when you switch from creating one style to another, but that each day brings interesting and different challenges.
She says, “It’s all really interesting, but for me it’s just the level of spiciness that you are getting in your pot still.
“The biggest difference I have noted was the triple distillation versus double, the fruity character is just much more pronounced with triple distillation. I think it brings another level of complexity to it.
“Obviously, the grain is a completely different process and you want to really refine the spirit you get. The column is like a baby, if you make a change today you have to wait and leave it and let it settle and be gentle.
"It takes a couple of days to get it to balance out because it’s a continuous feed process and you have different temperatures that you have to monitor and different pressures at different levels in the column itself. But we have it running really, really well, there’s a lovely light spirit coming off it now.”
With the distillery itself set up and running happily away, Bernard says he has plans to put Royal Oak on the tourist map again with an ambitious restoration project of the nearby Holloden House, Royal Oak’s historic Georgian mansion dating back to 1755.
He adds, “From a visitor’s point of view, at the moment we are looking across the field to the house with its farmyard and walled gardens and it has to be restored. It’s a project that we have planning permission for but it will be a good two-year project to bring it back to life.
“I’d love to see you here every year but if you did come back in two years’ time I would like to be welcoming you into the drawing room, we’ll have whiskey and cigars, dinner in the dining room, food preparing in the kitchens, you know it will be a real working house.
“You see it in Scotland and I love what they’ve done there. When you think of Macallan and some of the great visitor centres, how they have married the two together and we have learnt from that.”
There is so much to be said for such an enthusiastic, passionate and close-knit team (there is even a distillery running club) and their approach to distilling, that the age worn writer’s closing remarks about being a “one to watch” certainly ring true here. Keep the humidor topped up Bernard, I have a feeling we will be back.