Sunday 28 September 2014

Tullamore Distillery

"Uncle Charles chose the path of greatest resistance." So said Peter Gordon, CEO of William Grant & Sons, last week at the launch of their new Tullamore Distillery. He was recalling a trip with Charles Gordon around Ireland to assess possible locations for the distillery that would supply their Tullamore Dew brand. There were suitable sites, and then there was Tullamore, boggy underfoot and lacking a rather essential ingredient: water.

Peter Gordon, CEO William Grant & Sons
William Grant & Sons is a family-owned company whose statement of values commits to "long-term thinking". Despite the daunting shortcomings of the Tullamore site, it was perhaps an easy choice for a company that can draw on a century and more of experience, and imagine itself looking back to this moment from a century hence. Expediency has preserved the Tullamore Dew brand in recent decades as it bounced from distillery to distillery, owner to owner. But 60 years after distillation ceased in Tullamore town, the Gordon family has brought it home.

Any problems were rendered trifles by the application of €35m and 1,200 distillery engineers and construction workers. 250,000 tonnes of spongy peat and soil were excavated (and redistributed to become the rolling landscape around the distillery) and 2,300 piles were sunk. Offaly County Council solved the water shortage by laying a 14km pipe from the Slieve Bloom Mountains. On September 17th, 2014, a mere 20 months after planning permission was granted, construction was complete, the stills were hot and hundreds of invited guests watched as the spirit flowed.

Not only was the build completed on-schedule and on-budget, they even brought forward some construction from Phase 2, not originally due to commence until 2019. That includes the section with the three pagoda roofs in the photo above, known as "Distillery House". (You can click on all photos to enlarge.)

The main building is a strikingly hefty presence in fairly flat and open countryside, but is visually broken up horizontally and vertically by clever detailing. Cues were taken from old distillery buildings around Ireland, echoing here in the small windows and brick lintels, for example.

The Tullamore Dew visitor centre in Tullamore town inhabits a late-19th Century bonded warehouse belonging to the original distillery. Observe the brick window surrounds and compare to the large arched windows in the new distillery that frame the copper stills.

Tullamore Dew Visitor Centre

Note the brick detailing, copper finials, Spanish slate roofs and yorkstone walls, rough-hewn at ground level and dressed above. 

The new building diverges from its forebears most obviously in its colour. That's yorkstone, less porous than native stone. Yellow sandstone is very unusual on a traditional industrial building in this country, though there is a light sprinkling of it on Dublin city streets, most notably, perhaps, on the Irish Whiskey Museum. It's warm and cheery, and they say it will look just as good in a hundred years' time.

Let's take a look inside. Distillery House - the bit under the three pagoda roofs, recalling the malting kilns of yesteryear - is where VIP visitors will be shown a good time, besides housing some administrative functions. This is the bar, on the first floor:

I'll have a, umm... Tullamore Dew, please. That's Ewen Cameron, Engineering Manager, at the end of the bar.
At the far end is the blending room, lined with cabinets full of cask samples, for serious product development work, and for hosting tastings.

One floor up and it's fine dining and comfortable lounging, accessorised by antique bits and bobs. They were still working on this as I passed through. I reckon they could warm it up with a few big old Persian carpets.

This level is directly under the pagoda roofs, which are exposed internally to reveal their traditional wooden construction.

Along one wall stretches a heavy, wooden screen concealing a view that drew gasps from our group when it was revealed, the gleaming industrial facility through the picture window a startling contrast to the wood panelling and antiques of our surroundings.

The shiny brewing and distilling floor has been decluttered by hiding services below, at ground floor level. A clear path leads visitors through the process of making whiskey. Let's take a look from the other side of the glass.

Mash conversion tun
The little window on the left of the photo above overlooks the grain mill, a Variomill conditioning wet roller. It's a wet process because the unmalted barley included in the mash for Irish pot still spirit is exceptionally hard and must be softened before it's crushed.

In the mash conversion tun, the milled grain is mixed with hot water. Enzymes in the malt convert the starch to sugar.

Pegasus C lauter tun
In the lauter tun, the sugary liquid (wort) is separated from the spent grain and goes on to the next stage, fermentation. A weaker solution of sugar is flushed out with additional water, stored in weak-wort tanks and used for for the next mash, so as not to waste any sugar.

Weak-wort tanks

There are six 34,000 litre fermenters, with room for six more. With the addition of yeast, the sugar is converted to alcohol in these vessels over three days.

The result is a beer, or wash, of 9.5-10% ABV. Now we are ready to distil.

Pot stills. L-R: low wines, spirit, pot still wash, malt wash

The spirit for Tullamore Dew is distilled three times, in three different stills. The first is the wash still, followed by the low wines still, then the spirit still. At each stage the alcohol concentration climbs, ending up between 80% and 84% ABV.

You will notice there are four stills in the photo above. That's because there are two wash stills. Which one is used depends on whether malt (from malted barley) or pot still (from a mix of malted and unmalted barley) spirit is being made.

Note the offset neck of the wash still in the centre of the photo above. The shape of this pot is based on the still pattern used at the original Tullamore distillery that closed in 1954. Those stills ended up at Kilbeggan distillery where they can be seen today, though they are not in use. Note the similarity in shape:

The original Tullamore pot stills, now at Kilbeggan distillery
There is space beside the malt wash still for two more stills. These will duplicate the low wines and spirit still so that malt and pot still spirit can be made in parallel. When that's done, production capacity will double from 1.84mla (million litres of alcohol per annum) to 3.69mla. The plumbing for this is already in place so it's a small enough upgrade that could be in place by 2018.

Malt wash still, with space for two more stills

John Quinn, Global Brand Ambassador for Tullamore Dew, is adamant that the taste of Tullamore Dew won't change when its spirit is made on these stills, rather than on those at Midleton. I asked Brian Kinsman, William Grant's Master Blender, if he would be able to achieve this. Even though they were still dialling in the stills and hadn't started with the pot still mash, he didn't foresee any difficulty achieving the flavour profile required by, for example, adjusting boiling rates and cut points.

(I'm sure there are many of us who plan to keep by a bottle of today's Dew to compare with future versions to see if they pull this off.)

It's worth an aside at this point to note that "Dew" is not part of the name of the distillery. The Tullamore Distillery will make Tullamore Dew but other styles of whiskey under other brands are possible. I look forward to tasting the best whiskeys that this new kit can produce.

The William Grant company has an unusual tradition when commissioning a new still. Their coppersmith, Dennis McBain, insists on "sweetening the still" by boiling water in it, along with a bunch of juniper. This happened in Tullamore in August. Nobody knows where or why the tradition began. Dennis is the longest-serving Willam Grant employee, having started in 1958, and he picked it up from a predecessor.

A feature of most still rooms is the spirit safe. The condensed output from each still passes through the safe and can be diverted to various receiver tanks. The idea is to allow only the middle - and best - part of each distillation to proceed to the next stage. Like the pot stills, the safe here was made by Forsyths of Scotland.

Spirit safe
Unusually, it is triangular in shape. This is a reference to Tullamore Dew's triple-distillation and also its triple blend recipe of pot still, malt and grain whiskey.

A control room and lab sits adjacent to the still floor. The level of automation is such that the whole distillery can be run by just 14 people (most recruited locally). Remarkable.

Behind the main building are various receiver tanks and grain silos...

... and a pipeline to the filling store:

The filling store. Don't worry, that's not spirit soaking the floor, just water.
Conveyors will be added later to move the casks around the store. From there, casks go to a warehouse to rest for a few years.

There are currently two warehouses built, with planning permission for eleven more. Each can hold 55,000 casks.

In a nice touch, the first casks to be filled have been circulating around Tullamore pubs to be signed by locals. More casks were signed by guests at the launch last week.

Cask staves signed by guests

The distillery is up and running now, though tweaking continues. It can produce pot still and malt spirit but not yet the third component of Tullamore Dew, i.e. grain spirit. That's a lighter spirit made in a column still rather than a pot still. Planning for a grain distillery is already under way. A visitor centre and cooperage are coming too, along with more warehouses.

It's not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.
- Roy Disney
William Grant's values are written all over this project. The fit and finish of the construction and landscaping is superb, no doubt intended to reflect the quality of the craftsmanship within. I am not all that familiar with Grant's non-Irish portfolio but I had a chance to work through some of it during my visit to Tullamore, sampling Monkey Shoulder, Grant's Family Reserve, Glenfiddich 18-year old and Reyka Icelandic Vodka. They were uniformly excellent.

Charles Gordon, sadly, passed away last year, but he helped to give Tullamore Distillery the best possible start. There is no hurrying the next step, but the whiskey that finally emerges from those warehouses should be worth the wait.

The Distillery Ambassador, Jane Maher, will be at the next Irish Whiskey Society tasting, on Thursday, along with a selection of Tullamore Dew's more unusual and harder-to-find bottlings. If you are in Dublin, do come!