Saturday 21 April 2012

Beam turns off the taps

Cooley's parent company, Beam, turned off the whiskey taps for independent brands this week. Or at least for those without a solid supply contract. Lord Henry, co-founder of the Slane Castle whiskey brand (along with his son, Alex) made his displeasure plain in the Irish media. As a business, Slane Castle whiskey seems to have been going well. They have shifted 7,000 cases in Ireland and the US to date (plus a little in London) and were just about to sign a distribution deal in Asia. They are understandably frustrated, then, to have the rug pulled out from under them. Far from being the end of the road for Slane Castle whiskey, however, this setback could be the making of it.

ISS over Slane Castle (c) Shane Murphy - / @shane_murphy

I don't think it's unfair to call the current incarnation a "mixing whiskey". That's what they were shooting for and it does work fine in a cocktail. It has a tinge of rock'n'roll about it too, thanks to its launch at an Oasis gig in June 2009, one of a legendary series of open-air rock concerts in the grounds of Slane Castle. But it's not a whiskey I want to drink neat. It's a four-year old blend from Cooley. There is nothing wrong with the spirit; it just hasn't had long enough in the cask.

I spoke with Lord Alex Mount Charles about a year ago and he mentioned then that they were thinking seriously about building a distillery at Slane. They had even kicked around the idea of growing and malting barley on the estate. Whatever plans they had have now been brought forward. In a radio interview, Lord Henry announced that the distillery project is already underway.

For whiskey fans, then, this is a good news story. Slane Castle as a brand has plenty of cachet but the stuff in the bottle doesn't inspire. Now we are likely to get a whiskey with real provenance, something genuinely boutique and unique.

There will be other casualties of the move by Beam, of course. In a business where a lot of capital is tied up in casks of slowly-maturing spirit, Cooley kept the cash flowing by supplying many private and retailer own labels. Some of them are pretty decent, especially where the bottle declares an age. But much of it is low-margin and under-matured. It doesn't contribute much to the reputation of Irish whiskey. With Beam's distribution muscle and financial backing, Cooley doesn't need to sell its whiskey short any longer.

The proliferation of brands has also muddied the story of Irish whiskey. To get to grips with the topic, you have to start with the distilleries and acquaint yourself with their individual styles. But too many whiskeys are mere echoes of Cooley's output while giving the impression of something else. Look how the Vermont Department of Liquor Control describes Slane Castle whiskey:
Irish Whiskey distilled at the famed Slane Castle ... in Meath, Ireland. Slane Castle Irish Whiskey was hand crafted especially for Henry VIII.
I look forward to a tidier whiskey landscape with fewer brands and more obvious connections between label and distillery. (There will be fewer brands because there is no chance of the other two distillers stepping into the breach. Of course if another distillery starts up...)

Doubtless much of the whiskey diverted from independents will go into Cooley's flagship Kilbeggan blend. I really hope, though, that Beam will allow lower volume, high quality projects to continue. The finishes, the single casks, the Turf Mór, the Bog Oak... The Irish Whiskey Society shared a couple of wonderful casks a few years back with some other societies. The Palace Bar in Dublin was able to revisit its whiskey bonding days with a 9-year old single cask of Cooley malt bottled at 46%.

Cooley saved Irish whiskey from becoming a dull commodity business, reawakening interest in the spirit among connoisseurs. It would be a shame if it lost the capacity to surprise and thrill, even as it takes on Jameson around the globe.

The stunning photo above captures the International Space Station (ISS) flying above Slane Castle. It is used with the kind permission of the photographer, Shane Murphy. If you want to know the secret to getting the ISS in the fame just where you want it, he has posted a how to guide on his blog.