Midleton Distillery in Cork, Ireland, makes the majority of Irish whiskey by volume, and by the range of globally recognised brands - Jameson, Redbreast, Midleton Very Rare, Green Spot, Method & Madness and more.
Before the whiskey, I wanted to understand the man. I think a person’s character seeps into their management style, and thus for a distiller, into the product - I asked how his friends would describe him:
“I suppose I’d be very passionate about anything I do, I have a keen interest in sport, I played quite a bit when I was younger – GAA (Ireland’s national sports) hurling and football, nowadays I do a lot of running, and I play golf with full enthusiasm. I’m a very loyal person. I’m a good family person, they are very important to me. I’m very passionate about drinks in general, and whiskey in particular, and have been for 30 years”
Kevin was raised on a dairy farm in Mitchelstown, Cork. I wondered how much this impacted his career choice.
“I remember when I was small we used to grow and harvest barley - maybe some of that went for malting, I don’t know, but I remember being up in the combine harvesters, I remember the aromas of the barely, the cereal, the dust, the yeast – all great fun.”
Graduating during uncertain economic times in 1990, he left home to find work in Dublin. He landed at Gilbeys of Ireland, then the makers of Bailey’s Irish Cream. It was the perfect start for someone intrigued by process and engineering, though he wasn’t yet a confirmed whiskey nut.
“It was on a trip to Scotland that everything changed for me. Four of us in an old jalopy of a car. It was to tour the distilleries, I can’t remember how many but it was a lot.
“That confirmed my interest in whisky when I saw the different types of distilleries, the characters and stories and the taste profiles.”
When a distiller role came up in Midleton in 1998, he jumped at it. He was done with Dublin – back home to his family, friends and his beloved hurling. Working under the legendary master distiller Barry Crocket he was involved in everything, from grain intake to brewing, fermentation, distillation and water treatment.
“Barry is an icon, I learnt an awful lot. Coincidentally, Brian Nation had joined just the year before, making it 22 years we worked together.”
Brian Nation is the master distiller that Kevin is replacing, and Kevin has nothing but kind words for his old friend, as he departs to Minnesota start-up O’Shaughnessy Distilling Company:
“I had a great working relationship with Brian, and we are very good friends out of work. He was a wonderful master distiller, very innovative, and he was a great team player. I’ll miss him very much”.
Kevin’s career path took him down the maturation route, becoming operations manager in maturation in 2002. He was responsible for the vat house, blending operations, filling and emptying casks, warehousing, and an area that was to define Kevin’s career: procuring casks.
He travelled around the world sourcing intriguing casks in which to age their whiskey, and all the while building deep relationships with the family-owned wineries and cooperages.
Much of the intriguing range extensions such as the Bordeaux-casked Green Spot Château Barton, or the Oloroso sherry finished Redbreast Lustau Edition, came from these relationships, and his passion for the environment and nature led to the highly regarded Midleton Dair Ghaelach series, finished in sustainable native Irish oak hogsheads.
In 2007 he became the head of maturation where he remained for 13 years, until that fateful day just two weeks ago when he was invited by the powers that be to succeed Brian Nation, combining the maturation role with that of master distiller.
“Brian is full of surprises and this was no different. I had a little time to think about it, but I just jumped at it. It was a surprise and a shock, especially for me, but what a wonderful op to put your mark on it.”
He’s a humble man – when I asked him for a highlight from his career he said: “The people I worked with down through the years. I was privileged to work with so many hard-working people. The good luck and best wishes I’ve received, it’s so hard to imagine, people who have retired, people from 22 years ago wishing me well.”
Midleton Very Rare, an annual release that’s highly prized by drinkers and collectors alike, was launched in 1984 and to date has borne the signatures of only two other men.
I wanted to know how it will feel to hold a bottle with his own signature:
“I haven’t got my head fully around it yet. Will be a very proud moment for me and for the team, and for my family as well. It’s a big honour to have your name on such a bottle, I can’t really put it into words.”
So, are we going to see big changes at Midleton in the near future?
“I feel like Brian is handing on the baton to me and so the first thing to do really is… don’t drop it, then go as hard as you can and hand that baton on in better condition.”
Ever the sportsman, always a sports analogy to hand.
“We produce the best whiskies in the world, I want to look after that. I’m also passionate about innovation, I love trying something new.
“We will continue Brian’s work in the micro-distillery trying new distillates, new cereals, rye and oats will continue, and maybe something different. I’ll add my mark to that working closely with the whole team. “
Finally, I ask what he will miss the most, with Brian gone:
“We had interesting and sometimes challenging conversations on whiskies, during the last 10 years.
“What Brian did had a big impact on what I did, and my work impacted his. We had a strong working relationship, running things by each other.
“I respect his nosing and tasting, and likewise, he trusted me. I’ll miss that. But mostly it was playing golf. Brian wasn’t exactly Rory McIlroy… took some money off him at times too!”
Nosing samples of Midleton whiskey