West Cork Distillers working in a different spirit

New Irish spirit-based drinks have potential as long drinks


Having traditionally played second fiddle to its Scottish brother, Irish whiskey has been going through a renaissance in recent years, with a rapid growth in international sales.

The future looks promising too. Irish Distillers is achieving success with a steady stream of special editions as well as Jameson, its core brand. Bushmills, now in the hands of Diageo, is providing competition, and last year US giant Beam took over Cooley, which will certainly provide access to the US market. Two new distilleries, in Carlow and Dingle, will release their first spirits later this year, shortly to be joined by West Cork Distillers, which is renovating an old distillery in Bandon that it hopes to open in June.

West Cork Distillers is the brainchild of John O’Connell and two school friends, Gerard and Dennis McCarthy. They were fishermen in O’Connell’s hometown of Union Hall in west Cork, but were looking for an alternative form of employment. O’Connell is a food scientist with experience working with Unilever and the Kerry Group.

“Unilever taught me the science,” he says, “and Kerry its application.”

The trio saw a gap in the market. “If somebody wanted a savoury brown spirit their choice was limited to whiskey, brandy or rum. These were all around 40 per cent alcohol,” says O’Connell. “Conversely, everything from 15 per cent to 25 per cent was either fruit-derived or heavily sweetened. Drombeg was the first savoury brown spirit in the long-drink category.”

In 2007 they began making Drombeg in Dennis McCarthy’s garage in Union Hall. It is made by first fermenting sugar beet and malt, then fortifying it, before infusing with oak shavings using a method developed by O’Connell. At 22 per cent, it is categorised in the same duty bracket as fortified wine, meaning it sells for a competitive €12. As O’Connell argues, unlike many other drinks in this category, Drombeg is not sickly sweet. He suggests serving it as a “Gaelic Pimm’s”, made with 50 per cent ginger ale and a good squeeze of lime.

Their next drink, Lough Hyne, is made by the same process but fortified up to 30 per cent alcohol, and matured with Irish and Bourbon cask oak. The third product is Kennedy, a “Celtic fusion of whiskey and malt” made from young whiskey infused with Irish and Bourbon oak and steeped in malt.

The three enlisted the help of Dr Barry Walsh, former master blender at Irish Distillers. “To be truthful,” says O’Connell, “we lacked the confidence. You can fool yourself that what you have created is good. He tasted Drombeg, and advised us that it was a little too oaky. We created the drinks and he brought the final 5 per cent.”

There has been local comment about the names of the first two drinks. Drombeg (Ireland’s oldest stone circle, unearthed by O’Connell ’s archeologist grandfather) and Lough Hyne both lie in neighbouring parishes, leading to some good-natured teasing. Local rivalry aside, O’Connell is very grateful for all the local support. “The whole village is behind us,” he says.

He is also full of praise for distributor Barry & Fitzwilliam, as well as Musgrave and BWG, which gave them great support in the early years both at corporate and local level. They now export to China, Russia, Ukraine, the US, France and other countries.

Purists are unlikely to be amused by the drinks created by West Cork Distillers. Some of the labelling could possibly be mistaken for genuine whiskey. O’Connell argues that they are merely broadening the category, and creating a new range of brown drinks in what has been a conservative market.

“There has been a large degree of curiosity about our products and some of our rivals have even entered the category since, which means we must be doing something right,” he says.

They have also been successful in several international competitions.

I tasted the three drinks alongside Powers John’s Lane 12-year-old single pot still whiskey. The Drombeg was interesting, with some whiskey character and enjoyable in O’Connell’s “Gaelic Pimm’s”. It would make a great summer drink. The other two were also very pleasant. However, none had the power, intensity, complexity or length of the John’s Lane. Then again, they cost considerably less.