By @SimonCocking. Fascinating conversation with three of the driving forces behind the renaissance of Irish Whiskey production, and also the flowering of new gin products as well. We interviewed Roy, Noreen and Ruth Court, who between them are having a massive impact on the development and growth of the Irish spirits scene. You can see more about their business here.
What are your various backgrounds briefly?
Ruth – I was hoping to venture into some form of medical devices or pharmaceutical science. My undergraduate degree is in Toxicology. I quickly discovered that wasn’t the industry for me and decided to follow my parents into New Product Development five years ago. I returned to college in Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh, and got my Postgrad in Brewing and Distilling.
Noreen worked in Cadburys in the laboratory in Coolock in Dublin, and went to work from there to the laboratory in Jameson 1973 until 1982. It was then Irish Distillers.
Roy came to Ireland in 1965 to work as development distiller and chief chemist in the Jameson Distillery at Bow Street in Smithfield, Dublin, previously, he had worked in the central laboratories of Scottish Grain Distillers. He also studied Chemistry (organic and inorganic) and Physical Chemistry, including Thermodynamics, the latter being important for the study of distillation, and obtained the equivalent of a BSc degree. He was then invited to join a research team with Associated British Maltsters (then the largest malt manufacturer in Europe) of Newark-on Trent, Notts. It is important for Maltsters to understand the end usage of their malt, so that they can match the malt characteristics to end usage so that optimal results can be obtained. Their main business had been with brewers and they had experts on English and continental beers, but they suddenly found their sales to distilleries were growing and they needed some expertise in that area, hence my appointment.
In 1963 I was invited to become chief chemist for William Grant & Sons in their new grain distillery at Girvan, Ayrshire, and moved back to Scotland. After about two years I applied for a job with John Jameson & Sons and came to Dublin in 1965. My job there was to improve both the whiskey quality and production process. Around 1969 Jameson had merged with the other Irish whiskey companies to form Irish Distillers. I became part of a small team to design one single distillery to produce whiskey for the entire group, whilst retaining the distinctive taste characteristics of each so that the vitally important home market would not be lost. This was achieved in the building of the New Midleton Distillery in Co. Cork. All three main brands Jameson, Power’s and Paddy retained their market share and some progress was made in exports, with Jameson growing at an exceptional rate on export markets, which continues today.
After eighteen years with Jameson/Irish Distillers I left along with my P.A. Noreen and we set up Longcourt NPD in 1983 Our clients included, Bacardi International, (London) Wm Teacher Scotch Whiskey(Glasgow), Glenmorangie Plc.,(Edinburgh and China The Hellenec Bottling Company (Athens) United Nations Industrial Development Authority (Sri Lanka)
Alltech, (Lexington, Kentucky), Also a number of Irish projects including Slane Castle Distillery, Horse Island Project and Cape Clear Island. We have recently developed a number of gins four of which have recently appeared on the market.
Does it seem like a logical path to what you are doing now?
If you strip it down to the fundamentals, I still use a lot of the same chemistry knowledge. However I am lucky to find I have a good knack for sensory analysis as well as flavour development. Inherited skills maybe?
Yes, I spent many years working on new product development at Irish Distillers, so when we set up our own business it was easy to get involved with several new products being developed by clients as they approached us. Over the years we have developed a wide range of contacts worldwide in the drinks industry, from suppliers of raw materials, to packaging and other producers.
1 minute pitch for what the services you guys offer now?
We specialise in New Product Development, specifically the product but also the process. we mainly have clients in distilling and in recent years we have many more Irish client than we ever did, for years the bulk of our clientele was overseas. When a client approaches us about a new spirit, we usually help them understand the science behind distilling, as well as the Irish traditions and origins of Irish Whiskey, Gin etc. We answer technical questions and advise them on purchasing of equipment, and train operatives when they get going. It’s a tight knit and friendly industry and always happy to see new players.
Together, the three of us we have over 90 years’ experience in the Irish distilling industry.
Roy, Noreen and Ruth (5th, 6th and 7th from left) in action advising the Cape Clear Distillery about new Whiskey and Gin products on for Ireland’s first island based whiskey distillery
How much has the process of creating Whiskey changed over the last few decades?
I would imagine the big aspect now is water management and environmental responsibility. Distilleries in general are much cleaner than many other plants (recycling cooling water is not a new idea by any means) but the departure from directly heating stills by coal to steam and electricity is vastly improving the carbon footprint of today’s new distilleries. Also, the new craft industry revival brought about the birth of micro distilleries. Getting off the ground small is very common now, brew pubs and still pubs turning their hand to producing their own.
Will it continue to evolve and change?
Absolutely. Such is life. Wireless technology and app based automation tools are a staple of the new style of microbrewery and distillery. Homebrew Kits like iBrew which is smart phone application controlled are getting food gadget lovers into homebrewing; which is how every brewer starts. And if you want to distil you’ve got to be able to brew. The fact that this kind of tech is being bought and sold out there I believe stimulates the research and development sector. Any distillery you go into there is a potential to fully automate systems like pumping and bottling from a tablet device, you can purchase your software directly from your bottling equipment supplier. It is now a matter of preference or choice how much automation you want, not just a cost matter.
Roy’s background was in Scottish Whiskey but now (mostly) advises new emerging Irish Whiskey companies – how big a difference is the between the two styles?
It’s a big question and an important issue. The average whiskey drinker doesn’t know the vast difference in the distilling style of the two. Simply put, the Irish style was developed in response to the implementation of a tax on malt in 1661 under the rule of King James I. it was hard to test alcohol strength in those days but easy to weigh malt, so that is how they calculated duty owed.
To circumvent this, distillers in Ireland at the time starting subbing in other grains for their malt, namely oats corn and un-malted barley. This made it cheaper to make whiskey legally. This is known at a mixed cereal mash. This required a different style of distilling than the double pot still method already in use (and still used in Scotland) for single malt, also used worldwide for rum, cognac, armagnac, calvados, and other fruit brandies. As a result the Irish type of three stage distillation sometimes called ‘triple distillation’ is unique. Unfortunately, the three-stage process is subject to multiple interpretations. It is not sufficient to simply distil three times. Only the Jameson process gives the type of whiskey that the market seems to want.
Are we in a renaissance time for Whiskey in general? And how about Irish whiskey?
Its getting there, the interest and demand is there but the product base is only just emerging. The gin revival is going well but of course you can theoretically sell gin the day you bottle it. Whiskey requires by law to be matured in oak casks for three years before it can be sold. So you cannot go from drawing board to production to selling as quickly with whiskey as you can with gin. It may also be a case that some current producers of gin will move on to whiskey when the time is right.
Which do you prefer Scottish or Irish? (unfair question I know!), what are some of your favourites?
I think we are all great fans of both! Jameson is still the Irish brand of choice in our house after many years. Green Spot and Yellow Spot are very good example of how good Irish whiskey can be.
I do believe that a spirit never tastes as good as the first taste of it after a distillery tour. Many of my favourites are from places I have visited. In terms of Scotch whisky, it can be hard to know where to start, there is still so many distilleries. Tomatin and Tomintoul in the Highlands both have an exciting range of Scotch whiskies that are worth checking out.
As well as Scotland and Ireland, who else makes good whiskey in the world?
There are several whiskey producing countries emerging. Just a few years ago there were more whiskey distilleries in Tasmania than in Ireland, yet we are still more closely associated with Whiskey on the global market. Australia and New Zealand are both filled with interesting whiskeys that never make it this far for logistic reasons.
India and Japan are both getting very well-earned reputations for innovative distilling with brands like Kavalan Nikka and Hibiki 21 year old, by the industry powerhouse brand, Suntory.
What do you think the future could look like for Irish whiskey if things continue to go well?
I would love to see a situation where we can offer a good selection of Irish whiskey both home and globally. Ireland relies on tourism as a part of our GDP and whiskey holidays in Scotland (combining golf trips and distillery tours, or sightseeing and tastings etc)are a huge market we need to tap into.
It would be phenomenal to share some of the success that New Midleton have had with Jameson.
A whiskey brokerage system like that operating in Scotland could be a major help to new small emerging distilleries
Anything else you’d like to add / we should have asked?
Ruth – We have all seen the gin revival is alive and well in Ireland we have now got 42 Irish gins available to buy. It is fantastic to see. The Irish Spirits Industry is one of the fastest growing industries right now, and has the potential to create many jobs, stimulate a portion of the economy and tourism sector. However, we are still an expensive country to live in, work in and visit, not to mention to build a distillery in, so I hope the government can make some effort to get behind us and embrace this important and iconic Irish industry and attract potential investors, the way the Scottish government have done with the Scotch whiskey industry.