Producing citric acid at a factory in Ringaskiddy, Co Cork, might not seem an obvious stepping stone to a career heading up one of the most respected bourbon distilleries in the world. But Dubliner Conor O’Driscoll made just that journey.
"It is gratifying, terrifying and a hell of a lot of fun", is how he describes his first few months as master distiller and distillery manager at Heaven Hill in Kentucky.
The distillery is the sixth-largest spirits supplier in the US, and the second-largest holder of aging bourbon in the world. It was established in 1935, just a little more than a year after Prohibition ended. Its founders included Joseph Beam (first cousin of the better-known Jim Beam) and the Shapira family, who still own the business.
O'Driscoll admits that even after working for 15 years in the industry it was a little intimidating becoming master distiller, not least because Joe Beam was the company's first, and all bar one of his successors has been a Beam.
Heaven Hill now has dozens of different drinks brands, including Carolans, which it acquired from Campari in 2017
"The Irish of course invented whiskey so I keep reminding people of that when they seem surprised that I've been put in charge," jokes O'Driscoll, who comes from Goatstown in Dublin.
“The main plan is pretty much not to screw things up,” he adds.
Fortuitously for the Dubliner, he has landed the top job at what is a boom time for the brown spirit.
Just as the Irish whiskey renaissance seems to know no limits, so it is with bourbon. Last year more than 24 million 9-litre cases of bourbon were sold in the US, generating more than $3.6 billion in revenue for distillers, according to American industry body, the Distilled Spirits Council.
This compares with sales of just $1.3 billion in 2003, when the sector was in the doldrums.
Heaven Hill has been quick to capitalise on the growing demand for bourbon. Since 2010, the company has invested more than $100 million in Kentucky bourbon, primarily through distillery expansion, warehouse construction, and tourism.
Late last year, just months before O’Driscoll took over in the hot seat, it announced a $65 million expansion of production facilities and of its visitor centre in Bardstown, Kentucky.
“The distillery I’m running is a significant player with 1.6 million barrels aging in nearly 60 warehouses, which is equivalent to about 20 per cent of the total bourbon barrels stored in the US,” says O’Driscoll.
Heaven Hill now has dozens of different drinks brands, including Carolans – the second-largest selling Irish cream liqueur globally – which it acquired from Campari in 2017.
Having originally intended to be a vet, O'Driscoll decided to study chemical engineering instead as he figured it would be a quicker way to make money. Shortly after leaving UCD, he got a job with Pfizer at its Ringaskiddy facility working on a fermentation aged process that resulted in citric acid. Less than a year after joining the company, he was asked to work on a project in Indiana.
"They sent me to Terre Haute to start up a plant that was breeding genetically-engineered bacteria to make the enzyme that makes cheese. It was all pretty esoteric but in laymen's terms was essentially the first genetically-engineered food ingredient to be approved by the FDA so it was a big deal at the time.
“I was there for four months when Pfizer told me they wanted me to relocate there on a permanent basis and was given just a week to make up my mind. I was having a lot of fun particularly as I had some friends in Louisville that I would go spend my weekends with.”
O'Driscoll opted to stay and continued working with Pfizer for a few years before jumping ship for a role at the engineering company Aker Kvaerner, where he spent five years.
“I [then] rode my motorcycle across the country for a summer and spent the winter skiing in Lake Tahoe and came back to Kentucky for the Derby in spring. I met my wife then and moved down to Louisville.
“I’d originally thought that at some point I’d head back to Dublin and try and get a job at Guinness, which I thought would be pretty cool. But, given I was in Kentucky, started thinking instead of trying to work with bourbon. It took me two years of knocking at doors, but eventually I landed a job as operations manager at (Jack Daniels’ owner) Brown Forman in 2004 and I’ve been in the sector ever since,” he says.
I still make it home to Dublin usually every other year
Over the following 15 years, O’Driscoll built up his expertise working at a number of distilleries, including Woodford Reserve and Angel’s Envy, both in Kentucky, before ending up at Heaven Hill.
Talking of heaven, the master distiller says that aside from loving working with whiskey, Kentucky remains the place he most wants to be.
Living in Louisville
“Part of what led me to stay in the US when I had the option of returning home was the many trips I would take down to Louisville because there really is nothing better than being on a houseboat on a lake here in September. I’m living here a long time now and it is still such a great town for food and music. It’s also a wonderful liberal oasis given where we are on the map,” he says.
“I still make it home to Dublin usually every other year, but what with taking on the new job and with a 14-year-old daughter who just started high school this week, we’ve had to skip that this summer,” O’Driscoll added.
As thrilled as he is by the bourbon renaissance he’s as equally happy to see how well the Irish whiskey sector is doing.
“I’m a long-time fan of whiskies such as Redbreast and it is pleasantly surprising to see the sector going from strength to strength.”