The 2 Barries

The hands-on whiskey makers who have helped re-shape Irish whiskey, in conversation with Michael Jackson
By Michael Jackson
1: The distiller
He looks the part (a hint of the leprechaun?) but Barry
Crockett does not make his whiskey under a toadstool. He was born in a distillery – Midleton, in County Cork – and came of age when the industry wanted to re-create itself. MJ: People ask me what makes a whiskey Irish. There is also the question as to what makes a person Irish. I remember our chatting about this once over a drink in San Francisco. Romantics like to depict Ireland as a purely Celtic country, but I think your own blend – if you will pardon the expression – is more typical, isn’t it? BC: Barry is a Norman name. When the Normans came, the nearest part of Ireland was Cork. Round here, Barry is a typical surname. My maternal grandfather was called David Barry. Hs surname was passed on to me. Crockett may be a Huguenot name.MJ: Ah, a French Scotsman, like the famous brewer John Courage? The Huguenots made an extraordinary contribution to the drinks industry. BC: My paternal grandfather was of Scottish origin, but born in England. My father was the last Head Distiller at Watercourse. That was a long-established distillery in Cork city. It was owned by the Murphy family, who also owned the Midleton Distillery, on the site where we are now. MJ: You were born and raised in the distillery. Actually on site…BC: We lived in a house amid the distillery buildings.MJ: A large cottage, a significant example of Georgian architecture. What are your first memories?BC: I am not sure I was even three years old, but I have clear
recollections of farmers coming with their barley. The seasonal aspect of whiskey-making was more obvious in those days. The farmers were talkative characters. They brought the barley by horse-drawn carts. It was almost like a country fair. There were evocative smells, too. If the weather was overcast, or foggy, the whole town was shrouded in the aroma of the malting process. Sometimes, it was quite chocolatey.MJ: And the distillery?BC: As a small boy, I was told that certain places were dangerous, and that I should never go near them. The more I was warned about this, the more exciting these places seemed, the more likely that I would sneak in to take a look.MJ: The most exciting places?BC: The huge water-wheel picking up speed, hissing and clanking like a steam train as it drove the pumps that watered the steeps, or turned the rakes in the mash tun. Each operation had its own speed and noise. The stoking of the coal-fires under the stills was exciting. They were huge fires. I liked watching the stillmen. As they controlled the stills, they seemed to be in an inner sanctum. MJ: When you came to understand what the distillery made, were you aware of any anti-alcohol feeling, perhaps from some
schoolteachers, or some of your schoolmates’ parents?BC: No. There were jokes about people being drunk … or even the fish in the river becoming inebriated when we discharged pot ale. To be honest, in those days some people at the distillery were regularly found under the influence. It was not condoned, but the Managing Director would simply say: “It’s not a lemonade factory, after all.”MJ: When did you have your first whiskey?BC: When was five or six. I saw this glass full of an attractive golden liquid. I thought it was lemonade, and gulped it down. I got one hell of a shock. After that, I always took a close look, and a sip, before gulping anything. I became a lemonade taster.MJ: When did you first drink whiskey intentionally?BC: Youngsters did not indulge as early as they do now. I would have been about 17.MJ: And did you like it?BC: Whiskey is an acquired taste. It takes a bit of time …MJ: And was there a time when you realized that you had acquired the taste?BC: I suppose it was gradual. I didn’t really think about it until my work required me to understand the characteristics of different distillates.MJ: At 17, you were already employed at the old Midleton distillery, in the lab, working on the analysis of barley and malt. Later, you joined Power’s, in Dublin, for a time. Had there ever been any doubt in your mind that you would work in the industry? BC: It was understood that I would. It was still a much more patriarchal society. MJ: Even in the mid 1960s? BC: The company was still very traditional, but there were within it people who were very forward-thinking. Some people realized that the time was imminent for a different approach to production and the use of new technologies.MJ: What triggered the change of approach?BC: The component companies that now comprise Irish Distillers (Midleton, with whiskeys like Paddy; and the Dublin distillers Powers and Jameson) were being pulled together to create an entity that could compete in world markets. It was evident that there wasn’t a future for Irish whiskey unless we could re-establish ourselves beyond our shores.MJ: Re-establish?BC: After the repeal of Prohibition in the US, Irish whiskey never properly re-emerged. It vanished from the shelves when our Free State engaged in a protectionist economic war. MJ: What was your perspective on the changes in the industry?BC: I was only 17. I am not sure I had much insight. I was aware that change was in the air, but not where it was leading – to an extremely exciting time in the industry.MJ: And you found yourself playing a significant role in that.BC: The company had built a five-column continuous still, which was intended also to contribute to Cork Gin. It was very difficult to operate. I had the opportunity to get involved, to do some hands-on distilling. I like seeing how things work, and trying to figure out problems. Perhaps I have a mechanical aptitude. MJ: Your experiences with that still made you a likely person to help design the present still-house in Midleton. I know of nothing quite like it.BC: That was the most exciting part for me. Effectively, we were creating a new distillery complex using the latest technologies to produce as many different whiskies as the component companies had been making. We wanted to refine our methods to produce whiskeys that were still uniquely Irish, which the consumer would perceive as being in the tradition of Jameson, Powers, Paddy etc, but which would be seen around the world in a more positive light. Instead of allowing Irish whiskey to be defined by what it always had been, we took the best elements of that character and presented them in the way we thought most attractive. It was a revolution in our thinking. A Copernican revolution. MJ: And the outcome?BC: Very light, smooth, whiskeys with a pleasant aroma and aftertaste.MJ: Has it worked?BC: Have you seen how many warehouses we are building?MJ: I always worry about ‘smooth’ becoming ‘bland’. Don’t you risk deflecting attention from the distinct character of Irish whiskey? MJ: The smooth, light, style is epitomized by the standard Jameson, which is our core product. We have a growing family of other styles of Jameson that are more assertive. In recent years we have begun to look again at the top end of the flavour spectrum, to reconstruct those traditional characteristics which were for quite some time frowned upon: the fullness and flavour of the pure pot still whiskies. MJ: At a personal level, which of you own whiskeys do you enjoy most?BC: I have a particular fondness for the Jameson 15, because we developed this ourselves here at Midleton, but I suppose I would choose the 1870.MJ: What do you like about the 1780?BC: It has that essentially Irish pot-still component. Then there is the contribution of raw barley and the malt. Finally, the influence of sherry. It encapsulates the best aspects of Irish whiskey.2: The blender
Our recent cover story on Whisky and Literature featured Maurice Walsh, one of whose stories was made into the film The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. We neglected to mention Maurice Walsh’s grandson Barry is one of the men shaping today’s Irish whiskeys … MJ: Walsh is a very typical Irish name … but your family have Scottish connections?BW: My grandfather came from Kerry, but had a job with the Customs and Excise at a time when the whole of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. For a time, he worked in Scotland, at the Dallas Dhu Distillery. That was when each distillery had an excise man permanently on the premises.MJ: Burns was an excise man. So were Neil Gunn and your grandfather. Was there something about excise men that gave rise to great writers?BW: One excise man per distillery … I don’t think they were always that busy. In the quiet of those old distilleries, their imagination could run riot, loosened by the steady tippling.MJ: Tippling … was whisk(e)y important in your grandfather’s life?BW: In his retirement, he would take a walk of about a mile each lunchtime, to his favourite pub, and have a couple of drams. He looked very distinguished, with his tweed cap, snow-white beard, and a cloak rather than a coat. People would say: “There’s Maurice Walsh, the famous writer.”MJ: And your father?BW: He was a bank manager. He had nothing to do with the whiskey industry, but he enjoyed its products. He liked the Jameson 10. Whiskey was part and parcel of the household, especially when we had visitors at the weekend.MJ: Can you remember the first whisk(e)y you drank?BW: Not the first, but one that made an impression on me. I had gone to Skye, walking. I visited Talisker and had an eight-year-old at 100 proof. It was a huge, knock-you-out whisky. A year later, I saw a job advertised at Power’s, in Dublin. By then, Powers was part of Irish Distillers. I had no notion of whiskey becoming such an
important part of my life.MJ: What was the job?BW: The industry then, in the mid 1970s, was still at the stage where people made the whiskey, put it away in whatever casks they could find, and forgot about it. The more adventurous and innovative people in the management realised this wasn’t the way the company ought to be doing things. They knew they should be monitoring what was happening to the whiskey in the casks, taking samples and analysing them, and building a body of data over a period of years. They didn’t have anyone of staff with time to do that, so they decided to recruit someone specifically for that job. One day in the early 1980s, I was asked to ‘drop in’ to a meeting with board members, bring samples, and make a presentation on what I had been doing.MJ: Were you nervous? BW: Oh, absolutely, yes. I was an unknown, and the board members were not the kind of people you chatted with in the corridors. On the other hand, I didn’t understand just how important the meeting was.MJ: What did you tell them? BW: At that meeting with the board, I said we had a huge number of worn-out casks that weren’t contributing anything. I was suggesting that we throw out hundreds of thousands of casks, and buy an entirely new inventory. MJ: How did they respond?BW: Afterwards, my boss came along, and said: “That’s fine. They have accepted what you have said. There will be a policy now of dumping those old casks over a number of years. Fortunately, bourbon barrels were inexpensive at the time, and the Scots were not buying much, because their industry was in a downswing. In the meantime, the entire stock has been replaced; we have developed a new warehousing system; we are doing some work with virgin oak; and we are using sherry, port, Malaga, even rum. As a blender, I have a choice from first fill to fourth. Talk to our Operations Manager, Brendan Monks, for more detail on our wood management.MJ: I will … Some of those unusual woods are just for finishing, I imagine?BW: No, we are also using them for maturation. We will have further innovative products ready to bottle in the next four or five years.MJ: And you are giving yourself more elements with which to work as a blender. How many whiskeys does the company produce as components of blends?BW: Three main types of grain whiskey and five or six styles of pot-still. We also occasionally do a malt whiskey at Midleton, in addition to the Bushmills.MJ: When did you become the blender?BW: When the previous blender, Brendan Tierney, retired, in about 1984. He had been my mentor.MJ: So you were eased into blending. BW: Yes, and the work I had been doing with the casks was a good grounding. The main thing is to have a familiarity with the stock. That is gained from trawling around the warehouses for several years, summer or winter, opening up casks and dipping them. A warehouse in the middle of winter is a bloody cold place. MJ: Which of the present products have been to a lesser or greater extent your creations.BW: Apart from the standard Powers, Paddy and Jameson, I would have put together everything new in the last 10 or 15 years.MJ: Do you have a favourite? BW: Midleton Very Rare is a big favourite. Jameson Gold is a lovely blend, my greatest favourite, but Jameson 1780 jumps out at tastings, and that is the one I drink at home. I like all the elements; grain whiskey matured for 12 years, almost exclusively in fresh bourbon wood; some of the pot-still whiskey aged the same way, some in sherry. It’s a medium pot-still that, even as new make, is a very mellow whiskey.