At the time of writing the UK has voted to leave the European Union, but a frequently heard question in Ireland is, "What has Europe ever done for us?" Were this asked from an Irish perspective I could confidently answer "The roads". In this fertile time for Irish whiskey distillery start ups, I have travelled the length and breadth of the country attending ribbon cuttings, sod turnings, still blessings and first spirit runnings. Barely a month passes without occasion to hit the road and join in the excitement of milestone events in the history of Ireland's fledgling distilleries. Most of these distilleries are outside Dublin, many in old estates, which in the past would have been a challenge to reach in a timely fashion. Mercifully the country is now ribboned with efficient bypasses, resplendent in tarmacadam, each festooned with the starry ensign of the EU and a reminder of their investment in eradicating delays from the travelling lives of each of its citizens.
M1 Belfast to Dublin
Bushmills is the true constant of the north, turning out fruity tripled distilled malts and some iconic blends. Acquired by Jose Cuervo last year, they hoved back into view earlier this year with their first new whiskey release since 2008, Steamship, a whiskey matured exclusively in first fill Oloroso sherry butts. Despite Bushmills lengthy history, the provinces first licence to distill was only granted to Shane Braniff in 2012. As the Northern Irish First Minister pointed out at the commissioning of Braniff's Echlinville Estate Distillery in April this year, since the province was only established on 1921, the estate's licence was technically the first granted by Northern Ireland. Echlinville's first whiskey, a 3 years old single malt will be launched on Braniff's birthday this August. In the meantime, Head Distiller Graeme will continue to distill single malt and single pot still from malt grown on the estate. Shane Braniff is proud of the distillery's farm to glass approach, "We will be bottling whiskey produced entirely on this estate, using barley grown and floor malted on our land, produced in our distillery and matured in our warehouse."
Up the road in County Down, husband and wife team David and Fiona Boyd-Armstrong initially established a gin distillery at Rademon Estate. After taking out a slew of awards with their Shortcross Gin, they quickly moved into whiskey distillation. Last August they casked their first batch of single malt spirit and plan to upgrade their pot stills to increase production and create a visitor centre on the site of the historic estate.
Near the border in Fermanagh, Joe McGirr who recently worked for Darren Rook's City of London Distillery has fired up his stills in his hometown of Enniskillen. Boatyard Distillery will commence whiskey production before the end of the year, but in the meantime have released a gin made using their own base distillate, a strong sign that they are committed to ownership of their process from beginning to end.
Down the road in Dundalk, Great Northern Distillery is the latest venture from John Teeling, widely viewed as the father of the modern Irish whiskey industry. After selling his first distillery, Kilbeggan, and its megalith sister distillery Cooley to Jim Beam in 2012, John Teeling acquired the former Harp Brewery in Dundalk in 2013 and post-conversion is now approaching six million litres new-make spirit a year with plans to double that. Far from being just a powerhouse pumping out stock for third party bottlings, Distillery Manager Alan Anderson plans to experiment a little, "We are currently making grain whiskey, double distilled malt, triple distilled malt and heavily peated malt. We have even triple distilled heavily peated malt. We will be doing single pot still by the end of the year. Every year I am going to lay some stock aside in different barrels. I am particularly interested in sherry, both for malt and pot still. There will be plenty of different whiskeys!"
Crossing back into the Republic, work has commenced on Slane Distillery on the grounds of the historic Slane Castle. The owner of the timeless Irish estate Henry Conyngham vowed to see his spirit rise, despite some setbacks. American Drinks giant Brown-Forman is the financial force bringing the dream to life. The Slane Distillery is the first new distillery Brown-Forman has built outside America and is expected to be completed by the end of the year. Brown-Forman bought all shares of Slane Irish Whiskey Company from the Conyngham family earlier this year, though the family remain centrally involved in the development of the new distillery in the grounds of their home.
As the road reaches Ireland's capital Dublin, there is much activity, especially south of the river, in an area once dense with distilleries and breweries. Teeling Distillery continues to forge ahead with its innovative and energetic approach to the industry. June marked the one year anniversary of the distillery's opening and the company has released the first spirit from its own stills, a Poitín called the Spirit of Dublin. The Revival range continues to impress, following up their recent award winning all rum cask matured 15 Years Old with a Calvados finished single malt. Master Distiller Alex Chasko has also recently started distilling peated malt.
Remaining in the Liberties area of Dublin, American bio-tech firm Altech are placing the finishing touches on the conversion of St James' Church, including a 50 tonne glass spire. The firm previously distilled whiskey at Irish microbrewery Carlow Brewing Company and this whiskey is due to reach maturation later this year. They will commence distilling in the church by year end.
Another Liberties based whiskey brand, Dublin Whiskey Company was acquired earlier this year by UK drinks group Quintessential Brands. The new owners plan to build a new distillery and visitor centre, continuing the planning process that the previous owners started. Opening is planned for 2017 and production of Quintessential's existing Irish whiskey brands, The Dubliner and The Dublin Liberties, will move to the new distillery. The company has also recruited Darryl McNally, who spent 17 years with Bushmills in Northern Ireland, as General Manager and Master Distiller.
M4 Heading West
William Grant's new Tullamore Distillery has now been producing pot still and malt new-make for the Tullamore DEW brand for 18
months. While they await its maturation, the stalwart Irish whiskey brand recently released two new expressions, each a four cask finish consisting of Bourbon, port, Madeira and sherry finished whiskey. Both are triple distilled single malts, one is 14 years old and the other 18.
Up the road from Tullamore, Kilbeggan Distillery (formerly known as Locke's) is the home of Kilbeggan Brand. The company has recently expanded their mashing facilities at sister distillery Cooley to meet global demand. There are also rumours afoot that they plan to re-release the heavily peated Turf Mor single malt later in
The Connacht Whiskey Distillery in Ballina opened in October 2015 with production of single pot still whiskey starting later that month. The distillery aims to produce 70,000 cases per year. The five directors are comprised of former drinks industry professionals and finance executives, who have returned home from the US to enter the Irish whiskey market.
M7 Heading South
Established in 1999 by husband and wife, Bernard and Rosemary Walsh, Walsh Whiskey Distillery Company is located on the 18th Century Royal Oak estate in Ireland's County Carlow. The distillery was officially launched on 21st June and will have a 650,000 case capacity per annum. The company already owns The Irishman and Writers Tears brands, which are currently blended from stock distilled in other Irish distilleries. Half of the distillery is owned by Italian drinks company Illva Saronno SpA of Milan. The distillery will produce all three styles of Irish whiskey - pot still, malt and grain - under one roof, giving great versatility to the whiskeys they will produce.
Newly founded Tipperary Boutique Distillery has already celebrated the launch of its first expression - a single malt Irish whiskey called 'The Rising'. The distillery is the brain child of local farmer Liam Ahearn, his fiancée Jennifer Nickerson and Jennifer's father Stuart Nickerson, of Glenglassaugh and Shetland Distillery fame.
Down the road in West Cork John O'Connell's West Cork Distillery moved to a larger premise in Skibbereen in 2013, allowing them to expand and release bottlings such as Pogues and their own 3 Years Old single malt.
Heading to Waterford, and the banks of the Blackwater River, former Whisky Magazine writer Peter Mulryan is behind the Blackwater Distillery. Currently the portfolio contains a number of gins, with Blackwater Number 5 the flagship. The brand is currently raising capital as they move into the whiskey category with two Frilli stills on order arriving this coming winter.
Staying in Waterford, Mark Raynier has already fired broadsides at the native industry, and laid claims about changing the way Irish whiskey is made. His distillery, in the former Guinness Brewery in Waterford town is all about the barley, with each of the twelve farms supplying him distilled separately with a real sense of terroir.
As the road curves back towards Dublin, we reach the monastic site of Glendalough. The five friends who founded the Glendalough Distillery started with the DNA at the heart of Ireland's spirit tradition, poitín, and since then they have moved to whiskey. They have also released a 7 and 13 Years Old whiskey supplied by Cooley.
It would be remiss to finish a round up of Irish distilling news without mentioning Irish Distillers, the guardians of the Irish whiskey category for so many years. Based in Midleton, they have boldly committed to releasing two new Single Pot Stills each year until 2020.
The road ahead holds many milestones for Ireland's distilleries. For some, the next road marker is installation of stills, for others it is a matter of patiently waiting for spirit to mature.
From the life long protectors of the pot still style to the new young turks, with their swagger and bravado, there is the promise of some amazing whiskeys to come from this land very soon.