Dr Barry Walsh has been a central figure in the development of Irish whiskey and a big part of the reason it has reached where it is today – growing, both in sales and appreciation.
He worked for Irish Distillers for nearly thirty years, mainly as master blender, and still plays a role in Irish whiskey to this day as a consultant. He is also deservedly a winner of Whisky Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
During his career he played a part in Irish whiskey’s move from being a mainly struggling domestically focussed industry to being the growing, export-led category it is today with Jameson as the undisputed brand leader.
Barry Walsh began working for Irish Distillers in 1974 as assistant flavour chemist. Prior to this he had a university background in science culminating in a Doctorate in Agricultural Botany.
His appointment began in earnest in January 1975 at the Irish Distillers Central Laboratory in Thomas Street, Dublin.
This was then in the Power’s Distillery which had merged with the other remaining family concerns in 1966 to create Irish Distillers.
His job was to research maturation. The company knew little about this subject and their whiskey was stored in a number of rented warehouses around Dublin, Cork and at Bushmills; the latter had come into the Irish Distillers Group in 1972.
He went round these warehouses measuring humidity, temperature and dipping casks to check the losses. It also involved “opening casks, taking samples and bringing them back to the lab” where this data was collated.
The result of these investigations showed that the cask inventory was life expired – “the whiskey was going in white and coming out nearly white!” This was a turning point for Irish Distillers and “A decision was taken to put a lot of money into rebuilding the inventory and an awful lot of old casks were sent to garden centres”.
From this nadir Irish Distillers would rise to become known throughout the industry for the quality of their casks and Walsh’s investigations were the start of this journey.
During this time there were key changes to his work. In 1976 Power’s distilled its last and with it Irish Distillers’ Central Laboratory moved from an old distillery building to a modern office block in the grounds of the old Jameson Distillery in Bow Street.
In 1982, after seven years of being a maturation researcher – the job title had changed in that time – he was appointed as blender and later as master blender.
The main function of the job was quality control: “once the whiskey was in the cask, I took over. It was my responsibility to check everything was maturing properly and the blend formulations were right.”
Another key part of the job was developing new brands and changing the formulations of existing and Barry Walsh’s job would be to manage that change.
For example, Jameson is the leading Irish whiskey by some distance and to get there Irish Distillers decided to change the formulation gradually over time to make it a whiskey with wide appeal.
As Walsh explains: “If you take a whiskey like Jameson, if you went back 30 years it would be rather different, it wouldn’t be as subtle as it is today, smooth and mellow, it would be stronger flavoured.”
He was tasked with developing the formulations for new brands. There are three of his creations he regards as highlights during his time.
The first was Jameson 12 Years Old. This was one of Irish Distillers’ first forays into the premium segment buoyed by Jameson’s rising sales.
“That was the first premium that I developed and became my signature blend. It had to be a logical progression from the standard Jameson but with more potstill and a definite sherry influence.”
It clearly still has a special place in his heart “It’s the one that’s still my favourite actually,” he says fondly.
Another was Midleton Very Rare, released as an annual vintage since 1984. “That was developed to reflect the best whiskeys coming out of Midleton.” As the distillery only came on stream in 1975 it was “quite a challenge to produce something that would be right, that would be the very best. We did an awful lot of sampling. The first one was about nine Years Old, as time went by it averaged between 12 and 20 years, all matured in fresh Bourbon.”
The third of these creations was the resurrection of the Pure Potstill Redbreast which had been an old brand owned by Gilbeys. “I was tasked with producing something along the lines of the old Redbreast but much more modern, a lot of sherry wood but much more mellow than the old Gilbeys.
“Redbreast would reflect the core traditional style of Irish whiskey – triple distilled potstill.”
Another part of the job was Bushmills as Barry Walsh was chief blender for the group which included the famous Northern Ireland Distillery.
Frequent trips to Bushmills were part of his job and during this time he developed the range by creating the 16 and 21 Year Olds – the former finished in Port and the latter in Madeira.
In 1988 Irish Distillers became part of Groupe Pernod Ricard but this was received very positively: “It was huge, suddenly we had money to progress things to develop the marketing.
“They came in and recognised pretty quick that we had a very slick operation in terms of production, that we were making very good whiskey and they adopted a very hands off approach so from the word go it was very positive and friendly.”
A major change during his career was the attitude to marketing. In the early days there was a clear distinction between marketing and production, which is amazing looking back through modern eyes when key figures in production are also part of that company’s marketing arm.
“When I joined I was told very seriously by my boss that I shouldn’t talk to marketing people.
“Major, major change over my career was that this attitude went out the window and I became the interface between the production and the marketing.
“I was the voice of production in terms of the whiskey, that was great, educating the marketing people and also found another outlet in writing all the descriptors, tasting notes, I would have written most of them at one time.”
Barry Walsh retired early from Irish Distillers in 2004 aged 59.
The decision was essentially a lifestyle one: “The Central Laboratory was moving from Dublin to Midleton, we as a family didn’t want to up sticks to County Cork”. He initially tried to leave in 2002 but “the chief chemist got in before me” and Irish Distillers didn’t want to lose two key personnel in one fell swoop.
Two years of commuting to Midleton was endured as Billy Leighton was trained up to take his place.
“I was out the door in 2004 and straight back in as a consultant for one year.” This was to help with work on a virtual distillery project, the first of a few projects for which his wealth of knowledge and experience have been called upon.
He was then approached by C&C Group, the then owners of the Tullamore Dew brand, who wanted to develop some brand extensions. One of these was a malt whiskey and that brought him into contact with Cooley. Using his experience in developing the Bushmills range he suggested that finishing was the way to go.
The deal faltered and the whiskeys created became the new Tyrconnell range of cask finishes to much acclaim.
C&C changed their minds yet again and we now have a Tullamore Dew Single Malt 10 year old as a vatting of each finish. Also created was the Tullamore Dew Black 43 which has recently been released with a significant input of sherry aged potstill whiskey for a spicier final product.
He had also been involved with the Knappogue Castle range of malts especially doing educative seminars, something he greatly enjoys.
Barry Walsh’s dedication to quality is a key reason Irish whiskey is where it is today.
His influence is there in many of the whiskeys we drink today and, as he’s still working as a consultant, his influence will no doubt be felt for some time to come.