Distillery Focus

Saved by rock and roll

Music and whiskey run deep in the roots of this Irish family home
By Liza Weisstuch
Alex and Lord Henry
Alex and Lord Henry
It was a chilly Saturday afternoon in Slane, about 30 miles (50 km) north of Dublin in the Boyne Valley of County Meathe. Alex Conyngham was showing me around his new distillery in the grounds of Slane Castle, the grand property where he grew up. It’s been in his family since 1703.

The distillery is located largely in a building that surrounds a courtyard and once served as stables and working space for blacksmiths and other tradesmen. In a small room designed to showcase the barrels and maturation process of Slane Whiskey, he revealed a colossal sherry cask and invited me to take a whiff of the contents inside. It was enchanting, its intensely raisin-y smells made me think of drinking saffron wine on a moonlit terrace in Seville.

“Grandpa introduced me to whiskey way before he should have,” he said. “He loved sherry-influenced whiskey.”

While he doesn’t say that Slane Irish Whiskey is inspired by his grandfather, the whiskey, not to mention the distillery, wouldn’t exist if not for Alex’s devotion to his family.

He waxed rhapsodic about his grandfather, he loved farming and came back to farm after he served in the military, as he pointed to a rendering on a plaque on the wall of a hay fork logo that appears on the bottle. It’s the “Conyngham fork,” he explained, noting that it symbolised events that date back to the 1100s.

The Scottish Prince Malcolm was on the run and he ended up on the property of Malcolm Conyngham, one of Alex’s ancestors, who hid him in a hayloft, risking his own life to keep the prince from capture. When Malcolm later defeated Macbeth and became king, he went back and rewarded the family with land. That fork remains a symbol of the prince’s hiding place. “Fork over fork” was adopted as the family motto.

But to hear Alex tell it, the logo transcends that anecdote. Cheekily, the triple prongs also represent the spirit itself: triple distillation, the use of three whiskeys in the final product, and the method of triple-casking then marrying the spirit. Then, the crescendo: they represent the three pillars that define the family: rebellion, perseverance, and determination. Might sound a bit cliché, but when I heard Alex tell the story of his father, Henry, a lord, and then when I met Lord Henry, those attributes were very clearly intrinsic. It was that very trifecta of qualities that led to the establishment of the distillery.

“There’s real grit there,” said Alex. “I’ve seen him go through difficult times, from the challenge with the whiskey project to his past experiences. It’s inspired me to just keep going and get it done.” With ancestors, like Marcus of Anglesee, who led the charge of the heavy cavalry at Waterloo, the grit is little surprise.

It all started with a devastating fire in 1991 that gutted the centuries-old castle. In an ironic twist, U2 had recorded its album Unforgettable Fire, perhaps best known for Pride, in the castle before the fire. Alex can point out where the recording equipment was set up in the dining room. (“Next to the door.”) He remembers running around the room as a kid as the album was made. He can also point out the scars from the fire: burn marks in the sweeping Gothic style ballroom floor and the cracks in the stonework in the living room from the heat.

Lord Henry had long loved music and, as Alex explains, “Rock and roll was the answer to bringing in more money.” That goes for pre- and post-fire. In 1981 he had organized the first of what would become an epic annual music event. The concert would establish the castle’s status in the ranks of pop culture. It remains inextricably linked to the concerts today. Thin Lizzy and U2 headlined. The early 1980s Ireland was in the throes of the Troubles. People needed a distraction, Henry thought. Something fun. Henry needed something to do.

Dublin band Thin Lizzy’s 1973 hit Whiskey in the Jar came to mind as fittingly epic song to get things off the ground, so he set off to get them to come play.

Henry told me all this himself when Alex took me to meet him at his home, a short drive from the castle. The high-ceiling entryway led to a living room that was grand and elegant, but cosy. Family photos sat on every surface. Paintings of ancestors hung on the wall. Alex walked to the couch to give his father a hug. The Lord, who carries the title of the eight Marquess of Conyngham, was drinking tea out of a mug cheekily decorated with a crown and the words 'His Lordship.'

He looked a bit weary, which could only be expected, what with him having just got out of the hospital. Recent weeks had been a series of ups and downs as he battled with lung cancer, but he was happy to welcome a guest and eager to talk. He got increasingly animated as the afternoon went on, explaining how he went from a humanitarian mission to South Africa to studying at Harvard during the politically tumultuous 1970s.

He worked for the iconic humour magazine, the Harvard Lampoon, while he studied. He’s still quick to drop a wry, waggish remark. After finishing at Harvard, he scooted back across the pond to London where he worked for Faber and Faber, the publishing firm. But as economic circumstances took a nose-dive in the late 1970s, Henry’s plans changed. He went home to help care for his legacy.

“Suddenly I was dumped into an historic Irish estate with precarious finances,” he recounted. “It was during the Troubles, the middle of a hunger strike. It was an extremely dark period. I wanted to do something big, something iconic.” Naturally, music came to mind. He started dreaming up a show. It would be an outside open-air gig and it would be epic. Dublin band Thin Lizzy’s 1973 hit Whiskey in the Jar came to mind as fittingly epic song to get things off the ground, so he set off to get them to come play.

That concert on the front lawn of his family home has become an annual event with audiences that clock in around 83,000.

Evidence of its renown is on display at the new restaurant at the distillery, Browne’s Bar, where photos of Henry with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Freddy Mercury to Robin Williams adorn the wall.

“I did for Slane what grandfather did for Navan. He’s my hero. He started Navan Carpets,” Henry explained, noting his father’s business in a neighbouring town brought jobs and economic health to the small population.

So how did the distillery come about? This reporter made the mistake of framing her question quite incorrectly. “So was the distillery Alex’s idea?” I asked. “No,” Henry shot back. “The distillery was my idea. It sounds crazy, but a lot of things about Slane are my idea. To make Slane strong, I envisioned we’d have to attach a product.” He paused to cough. “Sorry, having just got out of hospital, I’m not in good form.”

“The whiskey is that product,” Alex said, finishing his dad’s thought. The two came together late at night before the concert in 2015 when, in a moment of frenzy to tie up loose ends, they signed the deal to sell all shares to Brown-Forman, which would then invest $50 million in the distillery and the brand.

Even with that partnership, though, family remains first and foremost.

“One of the great things about this project is being given chance to work together with Dad,” said Alex.

“The way families like ours survive is by always planning for the next generation and beyond. It’s so much more effective when you can actively work together at the same time because it creates a stronger long-term vision. He’s had fun in the process and so have I. You can’t forget to do that either.”
The still house at Slane Distillery
The still house at Slane Distillery
The renovated stables where tastings can be held
The renovated stables where tastings can be held
The clockhouse at the entrance to the courtyard
The clockhouse at the entrance to the courtyard
The Slane Distillery
The Slane Distillery