Tuesday 17 April 2012

A visit to the Irish Distillers bottling plant

About 18 months ago, I toured the Midleton distillery in Cork where Jameson, Powers and other whiskeys are distilled and matured. The story ended slightly prematurely on that occasion because no whiskey is bottled at the distillery. Instead, it is tankered away to various corners of Ireland to be wrapped in glass and christened with fancy labels.

Last week, the Irish Whiskey Society was invited to peek inside Irish Distillers' main bottling plant. This industrial facility is known, rather charmingly, as "Fox & Geese", which is the name of the surrounding Dublin townland. We weren't able to take photos inside (it's a safety restriction that prefers to keep electronic equipment away from alcohol vapour) which is a pity because it is really worth seeing.

I didn't know until very recently that Fox & Geese was a maturation site for John Power & Son back in the 1950s. The original buildings are still there, low and windowless, and not entirely suited for the uses they are put to today. It got its current role as a bottling plant in 1965, at about the same time that Irish Distillers (IDL) was formed from the Powers, Jameson and Cork Distillery companies.

All the big IDL brands - Jameson, Powers, Paddy - are bottled at Fox & Geese today, along with Dunphy's, Crested Ten and Coleraine. Coleraine was a surprise to many of us since it has a strong association with Bushmills. It used to say on the label that it was distilled, blended and bottled by Bushmills. When Bushmills left IDL in 2005, the Coleraine brand stayed behind. I suspect its malt component still comes from Bushmills though.

The Bushmills connection remains in another respect too: Jameson still rolls off the Antrim distillery's bottling line. It's a contingency in case something goes awry at Fox & Geese.

IDL puts gin and vodka through Fox & Geese too (Cork Dry Gin, Huzzar, Nordoff). And, in another surprising revelation at how friendly the whiskey business is, Fox & Geese produces Southern Comfort for all of Europe. That's a Brown-Forman brand, ie the company that owns Jack Daniel's. The arrangement is known as the Clintock contract and it has been in place since 1982. (Clintock is an Irish subsidiary of Brown-Forman.)

In the 1990s, IDL repatriated all of the bottling for the US market. Up to then, whiskey was shipped in bulk across the Atlantic. Transporting in bulk sounds quite economical to me but IDL prefers to have absolute control over the whole process, even if it means shipping a lot of glass. The Pernod Ricard philosophy is to leave the local organisations in absolute control over their own production and marketing so bottling happens in Ireland, where they can keep an eye on it and tweak it.

There are six bottling lines at Fox & Geese that can cope with bottles from 50ml up to 1,750ml. With all of the brands and country variations, they handle about 200 different SKUs (stock keeping units - essentially anything with a unique label) on the IDL side, and a fruther 75 SKUs on the Clintock side.

The plant also ships out whiskey in bulk volumes between 25l and 25,000l for food manufacturers and independent bottlers (Hot Irishman, for example).

The Vathouse

Five or six tankers a day roll up from Midleton and disgorge their contents into the many vats in the vathouse. The grain and pot still whiskey components arrive separately, at cask strength. Some blending is done at Midleton so the sherry/bourbon or first-fill/second-fill cask balance will have been sorted out already.

The largest vat I spotted holds 19,860 gallons (about 90,000l). What is remarkable is that these receiving vats are made from oak. The nicest surprise of the day was discovering that the oldest vat dates back to 1833 and came from the original Dublin Jameson distillery. Even the "new" oak vats here date from 1971.

There is no advantage to using oak over stainless steel. It has no effect on the whiskey and you can see the staining on the outside where the wooden vats have "wept" whiskey. But it's tangible evidence of centuries of the distilling craft and the company's heritage. They can even tell you the name of the cooper who made that 1833 vat.

I think these vats are where they add spirit caramel (for consistency of colour between batches). We passed the tubs of caramel on the way into the vat room. It was emphasised to us again that only very small amounts are used and that it has no effect on taste.


The whiskey is watered down to bottling strength at Fox & Geese. This water is from the public town supply, which was a bit of a thrill, since my home is on the same pipe. Here it's first put through a sand filter, then an expensive reverse osmosis filter to remove the chlorine, fluorine, calcium, magnesium, iron, etc. The result is pure, deionised water and that's what goes into the whiskey.


This was a fairly abstract concept for me before the visit. I knew it stripped some not-quite-dissolved components from the whiskey so the product would never go cloudy, even if stored at a low temperature. But I hadn't seen even a photo of a chill filter so couldn't guess how elaborate the process might be.

We saw one of the two chill-filtration units at Fox & Geese. It turns out it's a very simple device that first chills the liquid to about 0° in a heat exchanger then forces it through a filter made from cellulose plant material. About 160,000l can pass through the filter before it needs to be changed.

We were assured that blind tasting has proved that the filtered and unfiltered whiskeys are indistinguishable in flavour. We also sniffed a spent filter. It's not all that strong-smelling, which lends support to the claim it's not removing anything important. It is stained, though, and there is a discernible colour difference in the liquid after the process.


After blending, watering and filtering it's time to empty the vats into handy containers suitable for private consumption. There is some noisy theatre as the bottles clink along the line to be grabbed individually, swung upsidedown, rinsed out with whiskey, filled, checked, capped and labelled. All automatically, at a speed of about 180 bottles per minute on one line alone.

The glass comes almost entirely from Irish and UK suppliers - Quinn, Ardagh and Allied Glass. If you want the best bottles though, you have to go to the French, who have developed some tricks catering to the Cognac industry. So some premium glass comes from France.

Labels are printed in Italy and Scotland. The cardboard cartons come from Smurfit.

In one year, they are currently bottling in Fox & Geese 3,664,000 9-litre case equivalents for IDL brands and a further 510,000 for Clintock. (Recall that there is a backup line at Bushmills that pushes out another 0.5m case equivalents per year.) They foresee Jameson becoming one of the top ten global spirit brands by 2020 which would require at least a doubling of volume sales. It's still a single-shift operation at Fox & Geese (though the warehouse guys seem to have two shifts) so there is plenty of latent capacity.


They try to keep inventory to a minimum on site, but there is still warehousing to hold stock for a week or two until a load is ready to be trucked to Dublin port. The warehouse we saw was quite spectacular. It's eight storage levels high, with narrow bays. The shelves are stacked by humans in mechanised exoskeletons. Think of the AMP suits from Avatar. OK, not quite, but the reality is only slightly less awesome and lethal. The operator sits within what I'm going to call a "high-reach turret truck" (I don't know what they are called, just that I want one). Thanks to underfloor guide wires, the truck can zoom backwards down a bay, then lift both load and operator high into the air in a trice. See for yourself on YouTube.

Wild, eh? To drive one of those things you have to be certified in abseiling, just so you can get yourself down in an emergency. No kidding.

Customs & Excise

There is an old Customs & Excise office nestling still between the vats, and some of the caging that used to ensure that spirit couldn't be moved from one part of a warehouse to another without going past a customs officer. The taxman is no longer on site but he is still keeping a beady eye on proceedings, hooked into the plant's SAP control software. If someone makes a correction on the computer they can expect a phone call looking for an explanation.

Quality Control

The bulk whiskey that leaves Midleton is approved by a tasting panel before it's allowed off to Dublin. When it gets to Fox & Geese it is sampled again before the tanker is pumped out. As the whiskey wends its way through the various vats and pipes it is tasted 18 times against reference samples to make sure all is well. Samples will also be sent back down to Midleton for further analysis.

It is hard to imagine that any bad whiskey hits the shelves with all of this obsessive testing but, if it ever does, each bottle has a code so it can be traced back to the precise batch it came from. The cardboard cartons are similarly marked.


Many years ago, I made the pilgrimage by bullet train, local train and bus to visit the Toyota factory complex in Japan. The Toyota Production System became famous for constantly accumulating small efficiencies until there wasn't a production line in the world that could match it. The process of continuous improvement combined with various other practices became known as Lean Manufacturing and has since permeated medicine, software and many other industries that have nothing to do with metal-bashing.

I'm quite the fan of Lean (for a quick taste, read about the 7 kinds of waste on Wikipedia; it will change your life!) so I was excited to hear it and Toyota name-checked on my visit to Fox & Geese. They are, for example, tracking the Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) metric, and aiming to nudge that above 80%. Of course they benchmark themselves against other Pernod Ricard facilities. They are not the best yet but they mean to be.

Holding inventory is one of the classic signs of waste in Lean. It's just depreciating, tied up capital. They say at Fox & Geese that they turn over their warehouse contents 29 times a year. Good as that is, they see themselves moving away from warehousing towards a more temporary staging of product. In other words, they want to assemble truck loads directly from the bottling line without putting the goods through the warehouse.

Empty bottles are particularly bulky. Hewing closely to the Lean philosophy, they hold only a 6-hour supply of glass at Fox & Geese. Such a tight supply chain can only be implemented by working closely with suppliers. You would typically involve them when designing your production processes and give them real-time access to production data. It's a partnership. We were told that suppliers, like Smurfit and Quinn, are regularly on-site.

From Ireland to the World

Both Midleton and Fox & Geese have the same sense of calm efficiency I observed at Toyota. I can imagine the complex choreography of producing so many different products off the one line. I know that millions of units are being produced. I can even see it right in front of me. But the machine is so well-oiled, the workers so relaxed and in control, that it's still like magic.

Thanks to this operation, people all over the world can enjoy Irish whiskey and know something important about Ireland. Seeing the industrial-scale processes behind this just makes me appreciate the business, and the whiskey, all the more.

I would like to thank Michael Tracey, Head of Bottling Operations, and the rest of the team at Fox & Geese for generously sharing what they do with us. Thank you also to David Byrne and Liam Donegan of Irish Distillers for arranging the visit, accompanying us around the plant and, not least, bringing us for a wonderful dinner and whiskey tasting at the Old Jameson Distillery afterwards. We were truly spoiled.