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Into the Limelight

Taking up the reins can be daunting but Irish Distillers' new master distiller is relishing the opportunity
By Rob Allanson
Stepping into the shoes of Barry Crockett, the man who effectively reinvigorated the Irish Whiskey market, would be overwhelming for most people, but for his pupil of 10 years it is a challenge but also an honour.

Brian Nation took up his new job at the distilling helm of Irish Distillers late last year and found himself taking care of the quality and consistency of some of the world's most sought after whiskeys.

In recent years Irish whiskey has grown phenomenally, with Jameson increasing sales year on year particularly in the USA. In 2011 Irish Distillers set itself the task of releasing two single pot still expressions every year for the next 10 years. To date we have seen Redbreast 21 Years Old, Yellow Spot, Powers Johns Lane, Powers signature reserve, Paddy Centennial and of course Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy, the first time since John Jameson that an Irish Distillers product has been named after a master distiller.

Let alone following the man who as been the custodian and saviour of the pot still style of whiskey for the last 47 years, just how is Brian going to cope with achieving 20 new expressions in the next 10 years?

"We are very lucky with the distillery and the expanded distillery as we have a lot of inbuilt flexibility;" Brian explains.

"Take the pot stills; you can change your mashbill or change the fermentation time, but the real difference comes with the cut points you make from your wash still to your feints to the spirit."

However this flexibility in creating different spirits does not stop there because by tweaking various points in the production process Brian ends up with a broad palate of pot still distillates.

He continues: "We might not always distil all the way down to water, we would produce different strength low wines and you take these to the feints still, then you can play different tunes and produce a variety of strong feints and weak feints strengths.

"Then the make up of the next batch of low wines coming forward with the weak feints in to the feint still can be adjusted. So you have a vast amount of flexibility with just those two pot stills."

That's just the variants from two stills. Brian has yet more tricks up his sleeve when it comes to the spirits still.

He explains: "The strong feints go to the third stills and here we can play tunes as well and vary our cuts to give a wide array of pot distillates. Then there is maturation where we have a brilliant wood management structure. We can take that pot distillate and put it in a number of different casks to produce different whiskies. This is what gives us the range we have."

Originally from a chemical and process engineering background, Brian found that during his time at the distillery, his love and interest for whiskey started to grow.

"I started at the distillery in 1997, and I worked in various areas and on different projects for a while, but from 2003 Barry and I worked closely together and we built up a good friendship and working relationship. This became very important for the transfer of information and knowledge.

"I was, and still am, interested in how whiskey is put together, where the flavours come from, how we manage them, how the different styles of pot still distillates affect the final whiskies and how maturation affects the whisky."

This passion and enthusiasm are all very important, but what about keeping the Jameson flagship on course, not letting the quality and consistency of the product change as the brand expands.

He adds: "When we embarked on the distillery expansion, we were scoping out what we needed to do and we all had great ideas of improving energy efficiency and extract yield; but there was one caveat in all of it: do not alter the quality of any of our whiskeys because that's paramount.

"For me as a distiller the idea of single distillery is very important and we can control from grain to glass. That's the key, once you have control of the process steps all the way through you have a better chance of achieving the quality and consistency."

So challenged and relishing the task ahead, but not at all overwhelmed, the future does look exciting for Brian and Irish Distillers. But for the fans of pot still whiskey what's coming next?

"When you look at the wood management plan," Brian adds with a twinkle in his eye; "Yellow spot has Malaga, Jameson rarest vintage has port pipes, we have a wide range of wood that we are maturing whisky in, like Madeira and Marsala casks. So we have a lot in reserve, but we don't want to give anything away."