Tuesday 18 March 2014

How many Irish whiskey distilleries are there?

Update 30 March 2014: Added new information about whiskey production at West Cork Distillers.

Global interest in Irish whiskey peaks around this time each year (eg Google searches). Let's do a quick run around the existing and proposed distilleries to see where we are and where we are going in 2014 and beyond.

I have only included announced projects. I have seen plans for more distilleries and heard rumours of others but until they are ready to go public I won't mention them here.

There are eight whiskey distilleries currently producing. There could easily be another five by the end of the year.

Operational Distilleries

Without missing a beat, Midleton completed its project to double capacity in 2013 and passed the Master Distiller baton from the legendary Barry Crockett to Brian Nation. The distillery fuels the remarkable volume growth in Irish whiskey (via Jameson) while simultaneously releasing some of the best whiskeys in the world (most recently Redbreast 21 year old). Expect more of the same this year.

They still make good whiskey but don't seem very interested to talk about it or to release new expressions. But they do launch wooden headphones and sunglasses, and promote indie music bands. Please, Bushmills, give me something to write about in 2014.

Cooley / Riverstown
During the Noughties, Cooley was garnering the appreciation of enthusiasts with lots of experimentation, innovation and fine whiskeys. Cooley's new owners, Beam, abandoned that approach for a pure volume play. With Beam now due to be swallowed by Suntory, I am hoping the good times are on the way back.

When Cooley was independent, Kilbeggan was their small, experimental distillery that was building up a stock of all sorts of interesting spirit like pot still, rye and so on. Beam renamed the whole company after Kilbeggan and tasked the distillery with producing a standard malt that could be vatted into the signature blend along with the far greater volumes produced at Riverstown. Perhaps Suntory will allow Andrina Fitzgerald, Kilbeggan's distiller, play around with the mashbills again.

Distilling since the end of 2012. Not just whiskey, but vodka and gin too. The gin (just launched in the US) has been very well received and I expect it to kindle an interest in craft Irish gins. I'm surprised among all the announced distillery projects that there hasn't been one targeting gin exclusively but chances are high that some will try their hand at gin anyway, just for the immediate return on investment.

Distilling since June last year. They recently acquired a defunct but well-known Belfast whiskey brand, Dunville's. This will be handy when their own whiskey matures (their other brand is the jokey Feckin Irish Whiskey) but they have somehow managed to put Dunville's on the market already (a rebadged Cooley blend, one presumes).

Alltech / Carlow
Distilling since November 1st, 2012 on Carlow Brewing Company premises but due to move to James's Street in Dublin in 2014. They have recently announced a cask pre-purchase scheme.

West Cork Distillers
West Cork are well known for their innovative brown spirit drinks (like Drombeg, Lough Hyne and Kennedy) but they are also laying down whiskey spirit that is maturing in first-fill bourbon and sherry casks. They tell me they have an Irish whiskey on the market already, which I missed but hope to get information on soon.

West Cork are also fuelling the attempt to launch poitín as a viable spirit category. They have their own Two Trees brand and supply some of the other labels on the market too.

Not yet operational

Tullamore Dew is made under contract by Irish Distillers in Midleton but William Grant, who bought the brand in 2010, have been building a huge new distillery in Tullamore to take production back in house. It recently took delivery of four copper pot stills from Forsyths, replicas of the originals from the old Tullamore Distillery that closed in 1954. It should begin distilling in the autumn.

Recently secured planning permission for a new distillery in Newmarket Square, Dublin 8. Aims to be in production by the fourth quarter of this year. Of course Teeling has been releasing quality whiskeys already, distilled elsewhere but finished in their own wood and custom blended by Alex Chasko. We can look forward to more of that in 2014.

Slane Castle
Received planning permission for a new distillery last July. Camus Cognac was involved back then but its two directors have since resigned from Slane Castle Whiskey. I believe the project proceeds regardless.

Glendalough Poitín is an attractive range of spirits with an affinity for red lemonade. Currently made under contract, the team is looking to build a distillery close to Glendalough itself. I haven't been able to find an associated planning application but I'm told this is happening, and sooner rather than later.

Dublin Whiskey Company
A planning application has been submitted for a distillery in Mill Street, Dublin 8. The team includes Dr Jim Swan who has consulted for distilleries such as Penderyn and Kavalan.

Alltech / St James Street Distillery
The stills are moving up from Carlow and they are going to need some new mashing and fermenting kit they have been borrowing from their hosts up till now. A planning application has yet to be submitted for the former church and lighting showroom but it's due to be lodged soon. You might think the €35,000 they had to fork over to the Church of Ireland would have secured permission from The Highest Power of All but apparently Caesar must be rendered unto separately.

Walsh Whiskey Distillery
Carlow is losing one distillery (when Alltech decamps to Dublin) but gaining another, thanks to Bernard Walsh and his successful Irishman and Writers Tears brands. Although Bernard's signature "blend" of pot still and malt whiskeys is unique in the business and cask selection is overseen by himself, the liquid has always been supplied under contract from Midleton. Together with his partners, Italian company Illva Saronno, he is going to build a new distillery on the estate of Holloden House, County Carlow. The derelict house will be restored too. The planning application has been submitted, with a decision due in mid-April.

Great Northern Distillery
The epic name was a gift from the site's previous incarnation as the Great Northern Brewery, until recently part of the Diageo empire but now surplus to requirements and sold on. It was bought by a new company with the utterly prosaic name of the Irish Whiskey Company. Two-thirds owned by the Teeling family, it's going to be a huge operation, second only to Midleton. The initial idea is to supply bulk whiskey to private labels, retail brands, etc. It's supposed to be operational during the third quarter of 2014.

Belfast / Titanic / Crumlin Road Gaol
The company behind the Titanic and Danny Boy whiskeys got permission in April last year to construct a distillery within one wing of the historic Crumlin Road Gaol. It has been pretty quiet since then but I note that an engineering consultancy was awarded a contract for the mechanical and electrical fit-out at the end of January. That bodes well.

Niche Drinks / Derry
Niche Drinks was granted permission to to build a distillery on the outskirts of Derry in May, 2013. Niche already makes Irish cream liqueur on a different site in Derry and has been seeking planning permission to redevelop that location as a supermarket in order to have the funds to invest in the new distillery. The application has been tied up in objections and other correspondence and is still undecided.

Outline planning permission was granted for a micro-distillery in Portaferry on the Ards peninsula in June 2013. I've heard nothing more about that.

Other announced projects

Planning permission was recently denied for Horse Island off the coast of Cork. It doesn't sound like owner Adrian Fitzgibbon is going to pursue that location but he is reported to be looking for another site.

West Cork Distillers were reported in March 2013 to be renovating an old distillery in Bandon. I don't know the status of that project.

Dingle Brewing Company have long threatened to open a distillery in Dingle and even named their future whiskey "Shackleton". Given the length of time and lack of action, my feeling is that this is not happening.