Deirdre O’Carroll in the lab.
Deirdre O’Carroll is disarmingly unassuming. In just a few short years, she has soared through the ranks from university graduate to the coveted role of blender at Ireland’s iconic Midelton Distillery. Her journey has seen her acrobat across numerous processes of distillery mechanics, from operating some of the world’s largest pot stills to overseeing millions of litres of whiskey in cask, and managing a team of over a dozen, before stepping up to join the blending team in 2021 under the guidance of esteemed master blender Billy Leighton and master distiller Kevin O’Gorman.
With all of this on top of a degree in food science and technology from Cork University and a diploma from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, I would have forgiven her if she’d been brashly confident, or even cocky. Instead, I found someone with humility, gratitude and an energy as fresh as Irish rain. In her gently lilting Limerick accent, she talked me through her time in the Jameson Graduate Distiller’s Programme, how it changed her understanding of whiskey, and how it feels to look forwards to the future of the industry in Ireland.
“Whiskey was always a big part of my household: there would always have been a bottle open somewhere, and it always would have been Jameson,” she explained. “There was always a certain allure to it for me, although at that stage it was maybe more of a ceremonial thing brought out for special occasions, and there wasn’t much of a conversation around it. I didn’t understand or question all of the intricacies and wouldn’t have discussed the flavour elements at that point.”
Deirdre O’Carroll with Midleton Very Rare in an Irish oak woodland
It was during university that the true depths of the spirit and its spectrum of flavours began to be revealed. “I moved to a town called Midleton coming up to 14 years ago, and I just haven’t left,” she said. “In the final year of the university course there was a module on cereals and related beverages that really piqued my interest. It was the first chance I’d had to really delve into whiskey properly and I remember thinking, ‘wow there’s just so much to it.’ ”
A diploma in distilling from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling followed, but the real pinch point, she says, came when she joined Irish Distillers in 2012 as part of the Jameson Graduate Distiller Programme. Providing access and experience across the entirety of the company during the course of the two-year programme, it unveiled not only the intricacies of the spirit, but of the whiskey business as a whole, from marketing conversations in the Dublin head office, to the still house, bottling line, lab, and transportation. Even the fabled Cooper’s initiation of ‘trussing’ played a part – an ages-old tradition where apprentice coopers find themselves bundled into barrels along with feathers and mud (thankfully we’ve moved on from the days of tar) and rolled down the cooperage. “There is photo evidence somewhere,” she admitted, sharing a glimpse of some of the good old fashioned ‘craic’ that lives on at the heart of one of Ireland’s oldest and most respected distilleries.
“Getting to know the company from the outside-in really helped me see the magnitude of what Jameson is, and I feel fortunate to have had that holistic view. One of the biggest things I noticed is that domino effect. You know, I worked in the still house, I worked in maturation, and now I’m in blending, so I’ve come all the way around, and I realised that not one thing has worked in isolation.”
During a significant expansion project that saw the build of Midleton’s Garden Still House, O’Carroll was appointed as process technologist and looked after the running of the brand new stills – some of the largest in the world. “It was very much sink or swim,” she says, “I look back now and while it was nerve wracking at the time, running these massive 12-storey high stills just straight off the bat, the support and how much they trusted us was extremely beneficial. It really hammered in the process, so the gratitude for having that hands-on approach initially has stuck with me.”
From the still house it was over to the warehouse and maturation, where she worked under the guidance of Kevin O’Gorman, who is now master distiller. There are 1.8 million casks maturing on site at Midleton, and as bond supervisor, O’Carroll oversaw the filling and emptying of casks, the logistics, and the cask management required to ensure that vessels taken in from all around the world are of the highest standard possible. The role also involved managing a team of 13 operators. To plenty of others, it would have been an intimidating set of responsibilities, but Deirdre puts her success in the role down, once again, to the freedom and hands-on approach picked up from earlier roles. “The trust is fundamental in Irish Distillers, and that was extremely confidence building,” she added.
Midleton Very Rare Dair Ghaelach.
For the last 18 months, Deirdre has been settling into her role as blender. Working with master blender Billy Leighton, she spends her time marrying flavours and aromas. “Working with Billy is incredible. He very much wants to share his knowledge and skills, but also he wants you to learn from doing. While he’s always there to support and give guidance, again there’s that level of autonomy that’s just the lifeline throughout Midleton.”
The first project she embarked on was the Midleton Dair Ghaelach, an exploration of using Irish oak for the maturation process. “It’s a relatively new adventure for us. Irish oak has a lower density and a higher porosity than, say, its Spanish counterparts, which means the wood has a more open structure and the extractions come out a lot quicker. We nosed regularly to see how it was progressing, until, after 15 months, we felt it to have the perfect harmony or balance. [The spirit has] the spiciness of the single pot stills and the characteristics of Irish oak, which are, typically, caramel and butterscotch. We work very closely together on blending, with both Billy Leighton and Kevin O’Gorman, so it is very much a team effort.”
Another release the team has developed is the new Jameson Anthology series, a limited-edition collection that aims to honour both the past and the present. Volume one, Jameson Remastered, harks to classic but discontinued whiskeys of the past, in this instance, the Jameson 15 Years Old Single Pot Still in ex-bourbon and oloroso sherry casks. The soon-to-come second volume, Jameson Remixed, will present a more experimental, future-facing take. “Working closely together, we’re continuously doing trials. We want to keep the core-brand ‘DNA’ of Jameson very much alive, but collections like this mean we can try a different slant on things,” Deirdre said.
This approach is one that aligns with where things are for the industry as a whole, as Irish whiskey is in the midst of a renaissance. From just Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley in the early 2010s, there are now over 40 distilleries at various stages of operation. At such a pivotal time for the industry, Deirdre is at the forefront of the new generation of whiskey makers shaping the category’s future.
“It’s obviously an exciting time to be part of the Irish whiskey industry. Going forward at Midleton, we’ll be pushing the boundaries with innovation. We’re not bound to using just oak in the same way that Scotch is, so we’ve worked with mulberry wood, cherry, and we’re constantly trying new cask types. The new flavour attributes that these wood types are giving are incredible. We’ve installed a micro-distillery to trial new distillates,” Deirdre added.
“I think you can see, from the smile on my face, that it’s a dream job,” she concluded. “There’s a saying that’s around Middleton, that every day is a school day. I’ve seen that in every role, and it’s no different in my current role now. I’ve learned a lot, but there’s still loads to go, and I’m only scratching the surface, really. And I wouldn’t be as happy if it was any other way.”
The still house at Midleton Distillery