Whiskey expert with a taste for success


The former master blender at Irish Distillers is the go-to man if you want a seasoned opinion on a new drinks product or help to make it better

BARRY WALSH IS not a household name, but anyone who enjoys a glass of Irish whiskey has reason to remember it and be grateful. He is the man responsible for the taste of a roll call of Irish whiskeys, from Jameson and Middleton to Bushmills and Paddy.

Walsh was the master blender at Irish Distillers for 22 years, and although now retired, he is still helping to shape the taste of Irish spirits. He is the man today’s entrepreneurial drinks producers call on when they want a seasoned opinion on a new product or help to make it better.

He has had an input into products from independent drinks companies such as Cooley, Tullamore Dew and Castle Brands. Most recently he has been working with fledgling West Cork Distillery preparing its Drombeg, Lough Hyne and Kennedy products for market.

“Barry is enormously respected within the field and is the undisputed expert on the taste of Irish whiskey,” says company co-founder, John O’Connell. “For a new company like ours to be able to tap into his vast knowledge and expertise was invaluable. As newcomers we lacked a certain amount of confidence. Barry gave us a real belief in what we were doing. It also brought a level of credibility to our products as people in the trade have a lot of time for him.”

Walsh describes his much sought-after palate as “middle of the road” rather than highly developed. “In the tasting business an overly sensitive palate is a drawback,” he says. “You need a palate that can pick out the key elements that need changing. A very sensitive palate will pick up too many small things that ultimately don’t matter.

“In the case of West Cork Distillery, I helped them mellow the flavour. Theirs is a niche product, somewhere between a liqueur and a whiskey. It needed to retain a sweetness while decreasing the woodiness, which was too strong.

“I think innovative projects like West Cork Distillery are very brave but also very important for this country. There is a long history of distilling here and world recognition for it which new products can benefit from. My advice to anyone starting up is make quality and integrity the hallmarks of your product. If you try to do things on the cheap you’ll end up in trouble. Put the investment into developing something good from the outset and stick with it.”

Walsh is evangelical about quality and says Pernod Ricard (which owns Irish Distillers) shared this commitment. “When Jameson was designated as the major export brand for the future, they put a lot of thought and money behind developing a Jameson standard with peerless quality as key and this has paid off,” he says.

Jameson is the brand with which Pernod Ricard is taking on the world and it aims to have it in the world’s top 10 whiskeys by 2020. Net sales of Jameson rose 25 per cent in the six months to the end of December 2011.

There has always been a battle between Ireland and Scotland for whiskey honours. During the 19th century Irish whiskey was pre-eminent. Then the Scots got the upper hand because they started blending (crucial for mass market success) a century before we did.

Today, Scotch whisky has about 60 per cent of the global market compared with about 3.5 per cent for Irish whiskey.

One of the big differences between the two is scale. The Scots outproduce us by some measure.

However earlier this year, Pernod Ricard announced a €100 million investment in expanding the Jameson distillery in Middleton, Co Cork, while it is also spending €100 million on a new maturation facility.

Walsh originally studied science and agricultural botany before joining Irish Distillers in 1975 as an experimental chemist. He became master blender in 1982. Ask him of which product he is most proud and he says Jameson 12-year-old Reserve. “That’s the one I still love although I have enjoyed blending all of the specials. Bushmills 10- and 16-year-old and Middleton Very rare For example. They are all distinctive in their own way.”

For generations, Irish Distillers was one of the bedrocks of Irish business but in 1988 the business community was rocked by a bitter takeover battle for the company. This battle was eventually won by the French-owned Pernod Ricard group.

“The arrival of Pernod Ricard was a game changer and naturally people were apprehensive about what might lie ahead,” Walsh says. “In fact, it was a very good outcome. Budgets and targets were set but we were pretty much left to get on with it and to take full advantage of the enormous market opportunities presented by being part of a much bigger organisation. Pernod Ricard had a very positive impact on Irish Distillers and basically saved the company as we know it.”

Walsh says Pernod Ricard was pleasantly surprised by the professionalism of the Irish distilling industry when it arrived. “I think they came here expecting us to be driving around in donkeys and carts.”.

As a retiree, Walsh enjoys hillwalking and likes to write following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Maurice Walsh, whose short story The Quiet Man was made into an Oscar-winning film starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.