Production

The Cooley effect

In the second of three features asking ‘what is Irish whiskey? 'Dave Broom gets caught up in Cooley
By Dave Broom
Now, mind your head!” Just as well he said that. The roof beams could have delivered a nasty crack to the skull as we wander further into the gloom, the sonorous voice of the guide almost drowned out by the burbling of the steam engine which is now giving it mighty licks.We emerge, blinking slightly, from behind the inner workings of the water wheel into a moist Irish afternoon. The river glides sluggishly past water meadows green and dotted with flowers.Lacy traceries of black mould are draped like mantillas over the whitewashed stone showing that there’s alcohol in the air.There’s stories too, stories which encompass stolen cows, pig farming, industrial architecture, republican pubs, steam engines and water wheels. This isn’t a tale, as you might have gathered, which is going to run in a straight line.This is not surprising, as we’re talking about Cooley for whom the convoluted and surprising has been the norm.Take the three stills that Peter Mulryan and I are now looking at. They have the big-bellied, short-necked look of a trio of prosperous country squires whose girth is a signifier for their prosperity, or to be strictly accurate, former prosperity. These days they are cold and green with verdegris. They’re the perfect example of the lost days of Irish whiskey and how this distillery, in narrow-streeted Kilbeggan was another of the victims of the cruellest run of luck, bad management and government interference ever to beset a whiskey industry.That we are wandering around a whiskey museum is not a surprise. The Irish specialise in whiskey as heritage. That’s not what a distillery is about though. It’s about steam, smell and energy not museum exhibits, no matter how fascinating.And then, the picture changes. In an alcove is a tiny bulbous still, steaming away, redistilling low wines produced at Cooley’s distillery in Co.Louth. Does this make Kilbeggan a distillery again? In the eyes of the law probably not, but the fact that the aroma of clear spirit is once again permeating these buildings somehow symbolises the revival of Irish whiskey-making.The still is estimated to be 150 years old, a direct link to 19th century Irish whiskey making and is a perfect addition to this remarkable distillery. That steam engine, by now making noises out of The Man in the White Suit was built in Glasgow in 1897 and, until the still started up, was the last ‘improvement’ made. Indeed, some of the equipment seems as if it could have dated from the date when it was founded in the late 18th century (some say 1757, some 1770).There’s nothing as fancy as a Porteus mill here, Kilbeggan used millstones instead, no lauter tun but a vast, side-draining shallow pond which fed to an ‘underback and worts cooler’ otherwise known as a pipe submerged in the mill race. It’s a stubborn old survivor. When John Locke bought the plant in 1843 he was entering an uncertain business. This was seven years after Father Mathew’s temperance crusade started, a campaign which had already converted eight million Irish people to the cause and closed 20, predominantly rural, stills. It was also in the midst of the Great Famine, the effects of which reduced the country’s population by 25 per cent.Locke’s hung on, prospering in the late 19th century, then a victim of the disasters of the early 20th. It finally stopped distilling in March 19th, 1954 when the buildings were sold to a German pig farmer. Cooley bought it in 1987 for its warehousing capacity.Cooley itself has been plugging away for more than 20 years. It’s been the odd one out in Ireland, defined as much by what it didn’t do as much as for what it did. To “purists”, Cooley was simply making Scotch in Ireland. After all, had not we been told that all Irish whiskey was triple distilled and unpeated? “Say who?’ was master blender Noel Sweeney’s response earlier in the day. “The idea that all Irish whiskey was triple distilled and unpeated is a misnomer. Read Alfred Barnard. There was tripledistilled, double-distilled, all malt, mixed malt and peat was used. To be fair, Irish Distillers Limited (IDL) had a marketing strategy in place from the 1960s as it needed to differentiate itself from Scotch, but that didn’t ever mean that all Irish whiskey had to be made that way.” But you were criticised for not making ‘proper’ Irish whiskey? “I thought it was a joke. Actually, I thought it was a disgrace to be so arrogant as to make such a claim. IDL was in a very strong position. It owned Irish whiskey, but that didn’t give it the right to use that dominant position in that way.” A nerve’s been touched. We’re joined by David Hynes, Cooley’s MD. ”IDL still thinks it owns the category to the point of saying what is Irish whiskey and what isn’t. I suppose the survivors write the history but what we are told is the heritage of Irish whiskey dates from the 1950s when it should be from the 19th century.Thank God for Barnard!” Sweeney and Hynes are talking, shouting really, as our conversation is taking place next to the hissing column still in Cooley’s distillery in Co. Louth whose main claim to fame is as one of the settings of The Tain (aka The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the epic medieval Irish narrative in which a king and queen battle over the ownership of a magical bull. If one wanted an analogy over the fight for soul of Irish whiskey could be drawn.Don’t be fooled into thinking that the Cooley distillery will be a slightly more up to date version of Kilbeggan. The setting with views across Dundalk Bay may be bucolic but the plant is brutally functional. So unfashionable is this utilitarian, greenpainted concrete boxes that there’s probably a protection order slapped on it, but who said distilleries must be pretty?This started life as one of five government-owned plants which originally had produced industrial alcohol from potatoes, though by the end of the ‘70s it was making spirit for Bailey’s. In 1989 it was sold to John Teeling, thus testing a business thesis which had its genesis in the Plough & The Stars bar in Cambridge, Massetussets. Teeling’s pub talk had turned into an economics paper on the Irish whiskey industry.Buying the distillery finally allowed him to see whether his theory of taking on a monopoly was possible. The fact that Cooley is still here suggests he was right, but it has been a struggle. There’s a reason why Ireland’s countryside is scattered with old warehouses and heritage distilleries.Why though take a production position diametrically opposed to the IDL model? To create clear green water economics?Perversity? “Personally speaking, I reckon a bit of each,” says Sweeney. “We were lacking in expertise as far as triple distillation went and IDL wouldn’t talk to anyone! When we started we had two Scottish distillers and in time a Scottish blender so we went that way [all malt, double distillation].” David Hynes, the firm’s managing director has another reason. “I think we wanted more flavour. If we had done triple distillation in these stills it would have been too light.” The three stills (two wash, one spirit) he is referring to are identical in size and shape and the Cooley method involves charging the spirit still with the equivalent of 1.5 fills from the wash still.This, plus a slow distillation regime, upward angled lyne arms (with cooling pipes inside) encourages reflux.The result is a very sweet distillate seen at its best in the 15 Years Old Kilbeggan whose soft fruits mingle with cocoa butter softness from exbourbon wood.The fact that an identical regime is used for Connemara (bar the use of peated barley obviously) gives that brand a sweet centre which balances the quite pugnacious turfy smoke.Cooley’s grain is maize-based and run through a Barbet column set up with 28 plates in the rectifying column. “We use maize because we want flavour from the grain,” says Hynes. “Since we were blending with our own malt we had to have flavour in the grain, otherwise all it would be doing would be diluting the malt.” The tongue-coating butter popcorn flavours of Greenore single grain shows the style at its best.Now Sweeney has a new (albeit tiny) baby to play with at Kilbeggan. “We’re planning to put in wash stills this year but we won’t be mashing there for a few more years,” he says. “It was always our intention to get it up and running, but the issue was always resources. Irish banks haven’t been used to dealing with distillers! For the moment I see Kilbeggan as being like a micro distillery, a pilot plant.” Though Sweeney would love to see the big Tulllamore stills running again, Hynes is quick to curtail that plan. “The big stills?Oh I don’t think so! We might just turn one of them into a bar. We’d need rather large washbacks to fill those and you’d have to use all three. We do though have a Coffey still. That’s a more likely option.” What about traditional pot still like IDL? “We could do it and it might be easier than people think, but not at the moment though I wouldn’t rule it out!” To confound people’s assumptions?“Not really. People think it’s all well planned, but sometimes it just happens by accident!” He grins.Somehow this optimistic trust in fate is very Cooley. Look where it’s got them.