Whiskey brands know how to spin a good yarn. From evocative imagery featuring honey-hued barley rippling in fields to master distillers photographed at gleaming copper stills, many approach brands with a healthy dose of scepticism.
It is refreshing then to catch up with Patrick Cooney, the jovial and straight-talking patriarch of Boann Distillery in Co Meath, who, when asked about his approach to whiskey, goes straight to the numbers.
“I’ve been in the drinks trade pretty much all my life, but I always had an ambition to have a distillery and to name a whiskey. We sold our previous business in 2013, and this allowed me to establish our distillery.”
M&J Gleeson was the business, and since the 1970s Cooney, along with brother Nicholas, built up the bottling and wholesale business, importing wines and producing its own brands such as Tipperary Water, Finches and Merrys Irish Cream Liqueur.
Boann Distillery is self or “family-funded” as Cooney says, with some input from AIB and Enterprise Ireland. It is family-powered too. “Four of my children are in the business, and each of them has their own function,” he says.
This independence means the family can experiment. “It gives you the freedom to plough your own furrow,” says Cooney. “You’ve no board dictating the style of business that you do or the style of whiskey that you create.”
At the recent World Whiskies Awards, Boann Distillery was the Ireland New Make category winner for its new make spirit. And an innovation that Cooney is justifiably proud of is the company's Boann Cask Offer, which gives whiskey lovers the chance to own their own cask of premium Irish pot still whiskey.
Buyers can choose from 12 different maturation cask types. Ranging from 200 litre bourbon through rum, new era oak cask (NEOC), fino sherry, Marsala, moscatel, port, Madeira, oloroso sherry to a 500 litre butt of Pedro Ximenez. “This is ideal for someone who wants to buy a single cask of interest – perhaps they have a general interest in whiskey,” Cooney says. “Or maybe to lay down for a son or daughter’s 21st birthday, or a special anniversary, or for their business.”
A number of whiskey pubs have bought casks to lay down, which they will bottle and distribute under their own name, and there is an appetite from investors too. “Whiskey is seen by many as being a very good alternative investment asset class. These are people who buy a pallet of whiskey, which is six casks of bourbon or five casks of sherry, and will put it away to sell in five-to-10 years’ time,” he says.
Boann also has a Distiller's Cask Selection Offer, which is where a cask is bottled and subscribers receive a bottle from the selected cask, every year for the next 10 years. "This way you can really see the progression of the ageing and maturation process of the whiskey," Cooney says, adding with a smile, "And of course, you can drink it as well."
A shared vision
None of this would be possible without Cooney’s vision. The distillery is a marble-floored structure, with floor-to-ceiling glass, off the M1 at Drogheda, which showcases Italian-made bespoke copper pot stills.
“We went to Italy for a few different reasons,” says Cooney. “We wanted to introduce some new technology. The whole distillery is completely automated and controlled by a central Scada system. The stills themselves have nanotechnology, which exposes the spirit to six times more copper than normal – it is generally agreed that the more copper, the better the spirit.”
Cooling coils in the necks of the stills allow for control of the reflux. “We can control whether the whiskey is heavy or light in the still, and we also have sub-coolers that allow us to draw the spirit from the stills down to five degrees centigrade, allowing us to retain more of the flavours and esters. These are three really important elements, which no other distillery has,” he says.
Reviving mash bills
The innovations haven’t stopped with technology. Late last year, Boann Distillery began its vintage mash bill campaign, essentially tracking down old recipes for Irish whiskey to revive, where “mash bill” means the mix of grains. It is in collaboration with renowned Irish whiskey historian Fionnán O'Connor and it is producing spirit with recipes uncovered as part of his PhD; ‘The history and culinary potential of lost Irish mash bills’ with TUD, funded by the Irish Research Council and in collaboration with Heriot-Watt University’s world-renowned distilling programme.
“Fionnán has spent a lot of time researching and foraging for all old mash bills that use different grains and that had been lost with the closing of the Irish distilleries in the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th century,” says Cooney.
“While scotch is all malt or grain, or a blend of both, these mash bills allow you to use different amounts of malt, green barley, oats, wheat and rye. It gives a greater variety and a greater opportunity to create different styles of new make spirit.”
The project combines the fascinating history of silent distilleries with Boann Distillery’s technology. “This has probably been the most important piece of research ever undertaken on single pot still whiskey, and of course, pot still is the quintessential Irish whiskey,” Cooney says.
Each mash bill has been distilled separately and the new make spirit has been casked into four cask types; bourbon, rum, NEOC and oloroso sherry. Now safely held in bond to mature, these historic vintage mash bills pay homage to those who have gone before us – the ghosts of Irish whiskey history.
“What we’re distilling now won’t be whiskey for another three, four or five years, but it will be pot still, will be our own mash bill – what they call the recipe for whiskey – and will be unique at that,” says Cooney.
While you wait, rest assured you can still sample the Boann Distillery style. A range of 10 different malts, finished in different casks, are available under The Whistler name. You can buy The Whistler in Ireland from Celtic Whiskey Shop, Irish Malts and direct from boanndistillery.ie.
The cask offers
- As either a Private Cask or Portfolio Cask owner you will own a Boann Distillery cask or casks, complete with Boann certificate of authenticity
- You will be rewarded with a Boann tasting book to record your whiskey adventure plus a welcome box including your certificate of authenticity, and a 200ml sample of Boann new make spirit
- All new make spirit will be laid down to mature for five years, in premium barrels, with maturation time extensions possible with warehouse owners available by agreement
- You will have a choice of casks to age your whiskey, and each cask will be laid down under a government-controlled bond, under the buyer's name, offering full control and five years' storage and insurance pre-paid as part of the cask price.