Distillery Focus

Minnesota's Keeper's Heart whisky is raising eyebrows and capturing hearts

Combining Ireland and Minnesota to bottle the flavour of a collective identity
By Liza Weisstuch
Keeper’s Heart Irish-American Whiskey
Keeper’s Heart Irish-American Whiskey
Midleton, in County Cork, Ireland, looks as much like Minneapolis, Minnesota, as it does Barbados. Minneapolis does not have endless rolling hills in infinite shades of green. You won’t find the deer roaming freely or a nearly 200-year-old distillery making some of the world’s best-known, best-selling whiskeys. Temperatures in Minneapolis can fall below minus-40 in the winter. Yet Brian Nation, who spent 23 years at Midleton Distillery, home of Jameson, Red Breast, Powers and others, made a none-too-impulsive decision in early 2020 to hand in his resignation, pack up his family, and abscond to the American Midwest. His destination? O’Shaughnessy Distilling Company, which was still under construction in a circa-1945 building that once housed a potato-processing plant in Minneapolis’s Prospect Park. In the interest of diplomacy, we will call the neighborhood less than bucolic.

But where some would see desolation (aside from the buzzy two-storey Surly Brewing next door), Nation saw a glow of promise. When cousins Michael and Patrick O’Shaughnessy, the distillery’s founders, were finished with the buildout, Nation would have a veritable blank slate on which to devise a brand-new whiskey. It ended up being more than that. What he and the O’Shaughnessys came up with is a brand-new style of whiskey altogether.

“We could barely even get into the building the first time I visited, but I knew I trusted Michael and Patrick by the way the way we got on – by their knowledge and their passion. It really was unbelievable,” says Nation, who maintains he hasn’t endured much culture shock, just the shock of the winter weather. His new bosses shared the local wisdom with him soon upon his arrival: there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. It was January 2020, weeks before the start of the pandemic. He obtained visas for his wife and three kids in July 2021, and he makes a point to note that his family’s excitement was the deciding factor in his decision.

There’s another driving force in the mix. David Perkins, founder and CEO of High West Distillery in Park City, Utah, where he also distilled and blended, joined the team earlier this year. “We couldn’t believe he returned our call,” Michael says of both Nation and Perkins. He goes by the title liquid consultant and advisor. In the American craft spirits world, Perkins was an early adopter of blending sourced whiskey, openly discussing the tactic where well-known distilleries that sourced whiskey before him had not. Rendez Vous Rye, the first offering, was released in 2007. Others followed, as did the accolades: Campfire, Bourye, A Midwinter Night’s Dram, and more. Perkins made his exit when liquor conglomerate Constellation purchased High West in 2016.
Brian Nation

This past summer, the company unveiled its debut product, Keeper’s Heart Irish-American Whiskey, a spirit that embodies the collective identity – and soul – of the founding team. This 86-proof liquor is a blend of Irish and American whiskeys. Currently, all the components are sourced. There are two whiskeys from Ireland: a triple-distilled grain whiskey and a triple-distilled pot-still whiskey, both aged four years in ex-bourbon barrels. They’re blended with a four-year-old American rye, made with 95 per cent rye and aged in new charred oak. They’re firing up the stills this fall to start producing rye on site. Get Nation talking and he’ll also tell you dreamily about recipes he fantasises about trying (triple-pot-still bourbon, anyone?).

There are more than 2,000 distilleries in the US and it’s safe to say that Keeper’s Heart embodies a concept distinct among American spirits. And while many, many distilleries lay claim to some kind of superlative or milestone (the first distillery in [insert state of your choosing] since Prohibition, the only distillery malting its own grain east of the Mississippi, the tallest still as far as the eye can see from the rooftop parking garage, etc.), this distillery in the old potato-processing plant is singular in a way that will raise eyebrows among the global whiskey community. Few are the American distilleries to boast not two, but three hulking pot stills, designed expressly for making Irish-style whiskey. They’re perched behind a vast window on the building’s third floor, visible from the leather couches in the sprawling, sepia-toned tasting room below. There’s a 34-tray column still for clear spirits they may produce in the coming years, too.
O’Shaughnessy Distilling Company wash back

So what is it about the O’Shaughnessy clan that makes industry vets decide to leave a cushy job and join a start-up? When you start to learn more of each person’s story, the answer is rather corny, but also valid: family. To hear Nation tell it, the cousins made an appeal to his wife and family as much as they did to him: “Once my wife was on board, the decision was a lot simpler,” And the way he recounts the story of Michael and Patrick meeting her evokes narratives of boyfriends endearing themselves to future fathers-in-law. The O’Shaughnessys’ wooing game was clearly tight.

“Patrick and Michael have never met a stranger,” says chief executive officer Mike Duggan, who held various senior management positions at Diageo before taking on the role of CEO at the historic family-owned Minnesota titan Phillips Distilling Company.
O’Shaughnessy Distilling Company pot stills

The cousins are career entrepreneurs, but hadn’t dipped their toes in the alcohol industry. Until they did. The idea for a distillery was born in the same place that many Irish ideas and schemes take root: at a raucous family reunion. The O’Shaughnessys’ is a classic immigrant story: their great-great-great grandfather came from Ireland in 1867, settling outside Boston and working as a bootmaker. His son followed in his footsteps (pardon the pun) and made his way to Minnesota, where boots were a critical need for loggers in the booming lumber industry. Fast-forward a few generations to the cousins, serial entrepreneurs who began to feel the tug of their heritage as their various ventures barreled into the future. That pull came into stark relief as they watched the US craft distilling scene evolve.

“One thing that captivated us – the thing that sparked the blaze – is when we looked at the Irish whiskey space in terms of history, we were blown away to find out it was the world’s great whiskey pre-Prohibition. About 80 per cent of whisky in the world came from Ireland,” says Michael. “It declined with Prohibition and the Irish temperance movement, but there’s a totally new renaissance now where it’s become one of the world’s great whiskeys again. There was such an opportunity within our family – as Irish-rooted and now Irish-American – to embrace this long history, and in some regards stand on the shoulders of giants. With a world-renowned master distiller with history, authority and integrity in the Irish whiskey space, we can bring that to life and do it in a new way.”
Outside the distillery

The cousins never imagined it would turn out like this. Fancying it a moonshot-level wager, they placed a call – an actual phone call – to Nation. As the story goes, Nation answered the phone and they chatted for about five hours, only addressing the topic of whiskey in the last 20 minutes. At that point, Patrick blurted out, “We’ll be there in three days.”

Sure enough, a few days later, the cousins arrived in Dublin. They met Nation for dinner and within hours, Keeper’s Heart went from a ‘what-if’ to a ‘when’.

“He spoke of a vision,” Nation says of Patrick. “It did spark interest, but I was busy enough at my work as master distiller at Midleton. I told him I was happy at my job, but I’d be more than happy to help in any way.”

Flash forward a few short months and helping in any way turned into helping in every way. Nation first arrived at the under-construction distillery in January 2020, met his soon-to-be co-workers and examined 3D models of the facility. It was two months before the pandemic drew the world to a screeching halt. Having decided to join the company, he went back to Ireland; but as lockdowns were enacted – and prolonged – he had to create the blend for the flagship release in an ad-hoc lab in a rented office space.

“It’s no easy task to begin with, but it’s infinite times more complicated when you’re doing it virtually and relying on Fed Ex to deliver samples,” Nation tells me, estimating that he came up with about 45 prototypes that he deemed good enough to be contenders for the final product. The process lasted from July 2020 to April 2021, start to finish. “It’s not a process you want to rush. I wanted to make sure we were getting the best of both worlds. It was important that the Irish whiskey is showcased and the American whiskey is showcased. My whole life had been around Irish drinks. I never spent time appreciating American whiskey and seeing the influence it could have on something like this.”
Construction underway at the distillery

Nation formulated some prototypes with bourbon and others with rye. The feedback he received from people in Ireland was distinctly different from the response of Americans. Palates diverged that vastly. This process was whiskey-tasting as anthropology.
He ultimately decided that rye would bring a vibrancy and confectionary sweetness to the whisky, and the grain’s signature spiciness complements both the pot-still and grain Irish whiskeys.

Of course, the million-pound question remains: how does it taste? I visited the distillery in late June, just as decisions about furniture for the Whiskey Lounge were being finalised. The stills were still a few weeks out from their first run. The basement level of the 30,000-square-foot distillery building had an antique, romantic citadel-cellar vibe about it.

Nation led us through a tasting of the three components. The pot-still whiskey, made with malted and unmalted barley, has a heavy-duty fruity wallop on the nose and a musty top note reminiscent of applesauce. The palate reveals what I think of as a purple quality – all sweet violet and juicy muscat grape. The barley lends it a creamy aspect. It’s easy to understand how the distiller who made commanding pot-still spirits like Red Breast and, from 2013 to 2020, chose and blended casks for the prized Midleton Very Rare would choose this muscular and complex, yet still mellow spirit as one of the components. The bright Irish grain whiskey, made from 95 per cent corn and 5 per cent malted barley, gives off a curl of perfume – all potpourri and Bosc pear – which gives way to buttery, malty flavour notes. The buttery note outlasts the rest in the finish. And the rye whiskey does its rye whiskey thing, delivering a bouquet of allspice, peppery spice and dried fruit on the nose.

It’s hard not to see that as a metaphor for the coming together of Michael and Patrick O’Shaughnessy, Duggan, Nation and Perkins – each bring something distinct to the mix, each highlighting the others. The Keeper’s Heart logo features a key designed to symbolise locking experiences in place. Judging by the mood as the product makes its debut, it looks like the company’s whiskey move has a lock on an exciting future.