I love it when care packages show up from my distillery friends in Scotland. I rip into them like a kid on Christmas. But when one showed up with a return address of Dublin, Ireland I was curious.
Opening up the large envelope revealed a packet from Jack Teeling at Cooley Distilleries – producers of Connemara and Tyrconnell, both single malts from Ireland.
Yes, I know this is the SCOTCH Blog, but let’s examine the facts:
- Cooley Distillers is independent. I love independent.
- They produce a line of Single Malts. I love Single Malts.
- They are from Ireland. My sweet Grandma Madden was from Ireland. Done deal.
After all…what separates Ireland from Scotland, but a few miles of water?
First, let me familiarize you with Cooley
The first new Irish distillery in over 100 years, Cooley Distillery PLC was formed in 1987 – and their first Malt
Whisky Whiskey was distilled in 1989 – but it wasn’t until 1991 that Cooley’s distilled a peated single malt. Yes, that’s right. I said peated.
Cooley’s whiskies are all distilled at the Cooley distillery (named for the Cooley peninsula on which the distillery sits) and matured at the warehouses at Locke’s Distillery (also owned by Cooley Distillery PLC) in Kilbeggan – the oldest licensed distillery site in the world (1757). There are plans to begin production again in Kilbeggan, though for now the distillery is used only for warehousing and the Cooley cooperage. Cooley Distillery is not only independent, it’s the ONLY independent in Ireland AND the only Irish owned distillery.
Wait a second – there are dozens of distilleries in Ireland
Actually that’s not true at all. There are only three distilleries in all of Ireland. Bushmills in Northern Ireland; Midleton in the County Cork (Republic of Ireland) and Cooley, also in the Republic of Ireland.
No, I didn’t forget the famous Jameson – Jameson is produced at Midleton – along with Powers, Tullamore Dew, Murphy’s, Redbreast, Midleton, and a number of other brands.
It also surprises people that despite the "Bushmills is for Protestants" and "Jameson is for Catholics" schism, Bushmills and Midleton (and thus Jameson) were, until very recently, owned by the same company…Irish Distillers Limited, which has, in turn, been owned by France-based Pernod-Ricard since 1988. It was only this past June (2005) that Pernod sold off Bushmills to UK-based Diageo for €298 million in a move to gain support for
the Pernod acquisition of Allied Domecq.
Now on to the whiskey
Connemara is a single malt, which is rare in Ireland, but the addition of peat makes Connemara unique. Connemara is distilled twice, in copper pot stills – while other Irish whiskeys which are distilled three times. Cooley uses 100% Irish grown barley.
Cooley currently produces three expressions of Connemara:
- Connemara (no age statement) is very light – You get hit with the peat quickly, but it fades just as quickly. Tasty and sweet. 40% abv. Way back in Issue 3 of Whisky Magazine, the Connemara got VERY respectable 8 ½ and 9 ratings from Michael Jackson & Jim Murray. $40 at Binny’s.
- Connemara Cask Strength (no age statement) Strong. Not an Irish version of an Islay which is what one might expect – more pear; spicy sweet at the start; peat and malt dominate the middle; with a long chocolatey finish. Alcohol content varies, the one I tried was 57.9%. $56 at Park Avenue Liquor.
- Connemara 12 – Spicy, sweet and very malty. Great Vanilla/almond after-tones. A good complex malt, Irish or otherwise. Spice is predominant in the finish – which is medium long and pleasant. 40% abv. Only 5,000 bottles are produced each year – Malt Advocate gave the 12 year-old a “90” in the 4Q2005 issue, while Whisky Magazine’s reviewers Peter Mulryan and Dave Broom gave it a 8 ¾ and 7 ¾ respectively in issue 43. $89 at Binny’s.
Cooley also produces another single malt (not peated) called Tyrconnell, which is something different altogether. The nose reminds me of Isle of Jura – citrus, pine & sea salt. It is sweet and tastes of vanilla and honeyed caramel – this is not your standard Irish Whiskey. A pleasant dram with a long malty finish…$40 at Binny’s.
Jack and I had a chance to chat, and I thought I’d share that discussion.
KE – Why a peated Irish?
JT – Why not? The traditional method of distillation in Ireland utilised the abundant natural resource of peat, especially in the west of Ireland. One of our aims in creating a traditional Irish whiskey, one that encapsulated the heritage and beauty of West of Ireland, required that we were true to our roots.
As a small independent distiller we also needed to create a niche for ourselves and stand out from the multi-national marketing machine that is Pernod Ricard. So, by focusing on developing Single Malts and even more so, a Peated Single Malt – while Irish Distillers, prides itself on the non-Peated nature of its whiskies – allowed us to develop a whole segment of the Irish whiskey market that we could call our own.
KE – Why did peating fall out of favor in Ireland?
JT - Peat fell out of favour once coal was introduced as a cheaper form of fuel. Prior to that all malting in Ireland was done by peat – but as boats began bringing large amounts of coal on their inward journey and barrels of whiskey on their way out, it made economic sense to utilise coal. Also, with the demise of unlicensed distillers (a result of increased British regulation during the 1800′s) many of the smaller peat-using distilleries in the West of Ireland were shut down.
KE – Why don’t more Irish Whiskies utilize the abundant peat in Ireland?
JT – The majority of Irish whiskey sold is Jameson, a blend, and their apparent aim is to make this accessible to as many people as possible. Their big drive is for Irish Whiskey to be seen as a drink which can be utilised in cocktails, or as a long drink. For example, a recent Christmas tasting campaign at the Dublin airport involved getting people to try Jameson and Cranberry juice.
Good luck to them, but we are aiming on increasing peoples’ appreciation for quality Irish whiskey rather then diluting the experience for them. One of Irish Distillers’ unique selling points is that their whiskies are non-Peated – probably to differentiate them from Scottish whisky. I would be interested to see how Diageo approaches the notion of a Peated Single Malt given their success with such Scottish brands.
KE – Why single malt Irish?
JT – There was no history of Single Malts in Ireland as Irish whiskey was traditionally Pot still blends. The Cooley distillery was set-up to produce whiskies that were going to expand the narrow category Irish whiskey found itself in during the 80′s – and I think we have succeeded in doing this.
We wanted to create our own distinctive whiskies, thus the choice of what barrels we used, the fact we distill our whiskies only twice rather then three times, the choice of pots, etc. were all chosen to produce something different in the Irish category. We want to compete more with the Scots who ran the roost at the time, then the stuttering Irish. We saw the trend emerging in Scottish Single Malts and developed Tyrconnell in particular to compete against the likes of Glenfiddich.
KE – What makes you different from other single malt Irish – Clontarf, Knappogue, Bushmills, etc.
JT – Clontarf and Knappogue both have their roots in Cooley. We worked with both Roaring Water in developing Clontarf and Mark Andrews of Castle Brands in developing Knappogue. Our whiskey was used in the first three impressions of Knappogue Castle (1990 1992 & 1992) until we had supply constraints and they switched to Irish Distillers. We had been the sole supplier of whiskey for the Clontarf Brands until last year when they were taken over by Castle Brands – who secured a long term supply contract with Irish Distillers for both Clontarf and Knappogue.
Bushmills, even though it is a malt distillery, uses the majority of their whiskey for blending (Bushmills & Black Bush are both high malt blends) – and prior to our development of Tyrconnell, they had put little or no effort into developing their own range of malts. Still, to this day, the main use of the pot stills in Bushmills is to produce malt for the Bushmills Blend, which will be in more demand then ever as a result of the might of Diageo.
KE- What makes Cooley’s expressions different than the big blended boys – Bushmills & Jameson.
JT – I think I covered that earlier in some of the other questions. We never saw ourselves as competing against only the Irish – thus our whiskies were created with the very notion that they could stand on their two feet against the best Scotland could offer.
Prior to Cooley’s creation, the Irish whiskey market was a monopoly – with little innovation and bad marketing . Thus, we felt that if we could create whiskies that could compete against Scotch, we would be in a good position to compete against the lethargic Irish. Of course things changed with Pernod entering the market, and again with Diageo’s entry in 2005.
KE – Tell me a little about your Blends – Kilbeggan and Lockes.
JT – Part of the strategy back in the 1980′s was to resurrect old brands that had died out during those dark days for Irish whiskey. As part of this, the Old John Lockes Distillery in Kilbeggan and its old warehouse as well as the Kilbeggan and John Lockes brands were acquired. To this day our whiskies our matured in the old 250 year old granite warehouses in the Centre of Ireland.
Kilbeggan is our main blended brand. It is a sweet, delicate and smooth whiskey with a good malty nose. It has taken a decent share of the Irish whiskey market in some European markets. It is by far our highest selling brand.
Lockes has a higher malt content, giving it a full malty and spicy middle – as well as a delightful, honeyed sweetness. The Lockes family is very hard to find outside of Ireland as we have not actively search for distribution partners for this yet.
KE – Tell me about distribution in the States and Canada.
JT – We are going through a lot of changes at the moment in the US. Heaven Hill was one of our first customers and through whom we had sourced the used bourbon casks we use in maturation. They had been our importers and national distributors for Kilbeggan and Tyrconnell until the end of 2005. Connemara had been distributed through a boutique importer/distributor called Preiss Imports, in Romana California, until the end of last year as well.
While we have enjoyed good relationships with the two we felt that we needed a change. The US is our priority market and we wanted to consolidate our distribution with one partner. That’s why from the start of 2006, Sazerac has been appointed our Importers, and their subsidiary Monsieur Henry, run by Jon Mowry, will be our National Distribution Managers for Kilbeggan, Tyrconnell and the Connemara Family.
We have been very impressed with what Sazerac have been doing in the premium/super premium end of the Bourbon market in the US, along with the staff they have. The relationship is at the beginning – but I hope it will be a long beautiful marriage.
In conjunction with this, Preiss Imports will be taking on a new brand for the US in 2006 – Greenore 8 Year Old Single Grain Irish Whiskey. This is a small batch bottling that will be bottled over the next 4 years with the age profile changing every year. The bottlings we are going to have are 8,10,14 and 16 Year Old. We are very interested to see how the wood effects the whiskey over the different ages.
KE – How does being independent make a difference?
JT – It provides the flexibility to try different things. Irish Distillers/Pernod’s focus is solely on Jameson, while Diageo’s will no doubt be Bushmills. We are there to provide choice, and an opportunity to educate and expand people’s palates. We are a very flat organisation – thus things can happen quickly. The Chairman can pick up the phone and talk to anyone in the organisation – everyone is on first name basis. At this stage there are only two generations of my family involved but I hope there will be many more.
KE – What are the plans to start distilling at Locke’s Distillery.
JT – They are on ice at the moment. Unfortunately, we have too many coals in the fires and this is not a priority.
KE – Can people visit any of the Cooley facilities
JT – At the moment the only place open to visitors is the Old John Lockes Distillery in Kilbeggan where the old distillery is actually in near-working order – even encompassing the water wheel. It is like steeping back in time as we have left it as rustic as we possible can. You will not experience the glam of visiting somewhere like the Jameson corner in Dublin – but rather, a real insight into what was involved in the old days of whiskey distillation. We have our coopers on site, who can be seen in operation, and the opportunity to visit our maturation warehouses.
KE – Who do you view as competition? Scotch Single Malts, Irish Blends, Vodka?
JT – Our malts are positioned to compete with Scotch Single Malts while our Blends compete with the other Irish Blends.
KE - Who is the perfect audience for Cooley?
JT – People who like to experiment. Be it someone who has never had a whiskey before, to an experienced Malt drinker who tastes Connemara for the first time and can’t believe it is an Irish whiskey.
KE – Tell me about Single Malts Scotches - Some you like, or those which are comparable to Connemara & Tyrconnell.
JT – We would see Tyrconnell being
similar to many Speysides, while Connemara compares to a mid-level
Islay. I personally have a tinkering for Macallan 18 Yr Old and Gran
Reserva along with some Glenfarclas bottlings.
KE – Any finishes in your future?
JT – We are experimenting with some sherry, port and rum finishes for both Tyrconnell and Connemara which should see the light of day in 2006/2007. We are launching a Single Barrel Offering for Connemara in 2006 in selected markets as well.
KE – How do you suggest people enjoy Cooley whiskey?
JT – With an open mind and good company.