Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Give everyone their due...


This piece first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in March 2012

Tullamore, having for decades given its name to one of the world’s most famous whiskeys, is to get its due. Or, more correctly, its Dew.

The iconic whiskey, which is second only to Jameson in the world market, has not been made in the Offaly town since the distillery there closed in 1954. At present it is sourced from the huge Irish Distillers plant in Midleton, Co Cork.

This will change within a couple of year as Tullamore Dew’s new owners, the Scottish distillers William Grant, are to build a brand new, state-of-the-art distillery on a 50 acre site at Clonminch, close to the town of Tullamore. It will be the first new distillery to be built in Ireland for almost fifty years and it’s tempting to see this as part of a renaissance in Irish whiskey.

Scotland has almost 150 distilleries and myriad whisky brands. Currently we have four distilleries. The French multinational Pernod-Ricard owns the Midleton Distillery which is home to such brands as Power’s and Jameson, Diageo have the Bushmills distillery in Co Antrim and Cooley, recently bought the the US drinks giant Beam, have distilleries in Co Louth and at Kilbeggan in Co Westmeath.

By the end of this year, that number will have risen to five, with the opening of the Dingle Distillery in Kerry and the new Tullamore one will be up and running by 2014, making a total of six.

The scope is obvious but the problem is that whiskey (we and the Americans call it whiskey, the Scots whisky) production is a time consuming process and once out of the still it has to be aged for a minimum of three years before it can be sold. This is the sort of thing that drives business accounts mad; they are used to dealing with an immediate return.
Just as Ireland was liberally dotted with local breweries a century ago, so it was with distilleries. Whiskey was regional. Dublin was all about Jameson and Power’s (Jameson, allegedly, being the Protestant spirit, Power’s with the lion’s share of the Catholic following); Kilebeggan and Tullamore were the Midlands whiskies, Bushmills was big in the North, and Paddy an other products of CDC (the Cork Distillery Company) dominated Munster. And of course there were lots of small names which have now vanished.

The twentieth century was, by and large, disastrous for Irish whiskey. At the turn of the century it had been a huge seller in the US so with the lunacy of Prohibition from 1919 to 1933 the bootleggers labeled their hooch “Irish Whiskey”. As a result, the image was ruined and Irish whiskey became synonymous with moonshine: coarse, rough, fiery. It has taken almost a century to get over this and effects still linger.

After World War II, the American market shifted significantly towards lighter whiskies; blended Scotch, already doing well after the repeal of Prohibition, was there to take full advantage of the opportunity. Irish whiskey was seen as too heavy and having simply too much flavour.

The first man to realise that things had to change in Irish distilling was Desmond Williams of the old Tullamore distillery (and whose family owned the H Williams supermarket chain). He returned from a visit to the US in the late 1940s determined to create a new style of Irish whiskey and thus was born the modern version of Tullamore Dew (which was named in honour of Williams’s grandfather, Desmond E Williams who was inclined to sign instructions  with the letters “DEW”. This lead to the legendary advertising slogan “Give every man his Dew”.

The Irish tradition in distilling was based exclusively on the pot still which looks essentially like the ancient alembic, the sort of thing we all think of when trying to imagine a still. The patent or Coffey still, ironically invented by an Irishman, is column-shaped and produces the kind of spirit which feed into the modern Scotch blended whisky brands (and some of the cheaper Irish brands too, of course). Irish whiskey aficionados tend to look down their noses at such equipment.

Ireland’s first ever patent or Coffey still was installed in the Tullamore distillery in 1947. It was a momentous occasion and an audacious attempt at modernization, which underlined that Desmond Williams was a visionary (he created Irish Mist, the hugely successful whiskey-based liqueur, the same year).

But the timing was wrong. It was simply too late to rescue Irish whiskey in general and Tullamore Dew in particular. The last truly Tullamore Dew trickled from the still in 1954. The distillery was mothballed and, in the end, never reopened. In 1965, the brand was sold to Power’s.

Within a year of this deal, things were so bad for Irish whiskey that the few producers who had managed to survive in the Republic – Power’s, Jameson and the Cork Distillery Company – merged as Irish Distillers.  But it meant that Tullamore Dew, as a brand, would survive.

Irish Distillers finally offloaded Tullamore Dew to Allied Domecq’s subsidiary C&C Group (which had originally been called Cantrell & Cochrane) in 1994. In turn, C&C sold the brand to William Grant & Company in 2010. The actual whiskey is still distilled by Irish Distillers in Midleton and is bottled by C & C in Clonmel (where they have their huge Bulmers/Magners cider facility). This arrangement will continue until the new Tullamore distillery is up and running.

Considering that Tullamore Dew is the number two Irish whiskey in the world (admittedly, pretty far behind the leader, Jameson), Grant’s got the brand quite cheaply. They paid €300million for Tullamore Dew and Irish Mist, then sold Irish Mist on to the Italian company Campari along with Carolans cream liqueur and Frangelico for €129million. So, Tullamore Dew cost the new owners a paltry €171million.

As to the whiskey itself, the policy with Tullamore Dew was, for many years, to stick with the lighter style of whiskey which is designed to be consumed with a mixer. This is what Desmond Williams had in mind way back in 1947 and it served the brand well even if Tullamore Dew was not highly prized amongst whiskey enthusiasts.

However, there are now some very serious whiskies under the Tullamore Dew umbrella, such as the Black 43, a seven year old blend aged in sherry casks and, ironically considering what Mr Williams did back in 1947, 100% pure pot still. This merely goes to show that there are fashions in whiskey just as in anything else and that the wheel does, eventually, come full circle.

Irish whiskey has, for decades, lacked the kind of sense of place that Scotch enjoys. Admittedly Bushmills has always been made in the one place, but all the other Irish whiskeys have been made in either Midleton or Co Louth.

Kilbeggan is being distilled in its home once again, rather than starting life in Louth and being shipped down there for ageing. Dingle, with its mild, moist microclimate is bound to yield a whiskey with what the French would call the “gout de terroir”, the taste of the place. And soon Tullamore will be distilling its native spirit once again.

It’s an exciting time for Irish whiskey and its potential is being recognized at last. This is underlined by the fact that all of the current brands are owned by foreign companies (French, American and British). Perhaps it’s a case of our not realizing the value of what we have until it has been endorsed by outsiders.

In any case, let’s hope that the new distillery at Tullamore is the first of many and that our proud heritage of distilling fine spirits gets… well, it’s due.