The recent revival of interest in Irish whiskey has attracted multinationals and small-scale producers to the market. Louise McGuane is one such small-scale producer. As the woman behind the Chapel Gate Irish Whiskey Company, she has a lot to say about the current state of the industry.
Louise established Chapel Gate on her family farm in Co. Clare in 2015 but is no newcomer to the drinks industry. She spent the previous 20 years working for Moet Hennessy and Diageo in New York, France and Singapore.
“My plan when I came home was to set up a distillery but reading local archives, I discovered there used to be lots of bonders in Ireland,” she says. “These were people like grocers who bought small quantities of spirit and aged it in their own casks before selling it to customers. Because so much flavour comes from the barrel whiskey is aged in and the climate where that barrel is stored, this meant there was huge variety of flavour in Irish whiskey.”
Bonding still exists in Scotland – where it’s called independent bottling – but it had been forgotten in Ireland, until Louise decided to bring it back. This hasn’t been easy. Sourcing high-quality spirits was Louise’s first hurdle. Because there aren’t many distilleries, there’s a shortage of spirit in Ireland. Most of what’s produced is sold in large volume, which makes it difficult for small producers like her.
Louise eventually sourced spirit from the Great Northern Distillery and laid it down in her traditionally-designed bonded warehouse. Here, the barrels lie on their side and not on pallets as is the modern custom.
“Barrels were always on their sides in Ireland until the 1970s,” says Louise. “It’s more expensive and labour intensive but it means the liquid has more contact with both heads, improving its flavour.” Louise is meticulous about her choice of barrels. “In bonding, the maturation process is what I have control over and the barrels are a huge component of this,” she says.
It took time to find barrels that met her criteria. “They needed to be grade A and fresh – which means they aren’t thoroughly rinsed out before leaving the distillery and are still juicy inside,” says Louise. The barrels that met those standards are ex bourbon and ex Tennessee whiskey casks from Kentucky. “They’re giving a lot of colouration and flavour to the grains and malts and we’re only a year into the process,” says Louise.
The climate should also influence the taste of Louise’s whiskey. “We’re located between the Atlantic and the Shannon Estuary,” she says. “I won’t know for years if this briny atmosphere will have an effect but we have control casks in a dry warehouse in Dundalk so that we can taste the difference.”
She has laid down 24,000 litres already and plans to have laid down 50,000 by the end of the year. While she waits for that to mature, she has a blend that she is launching onto the market as JJ Corry ‘The Gael’.
It has the flavour profile she is aiming for with her bonded whiskey, and 7,500 bottles of it will soon be available. Releasing a small amount of whiskey now is part of Louise’s long-term strategy. “It allows me to set up quality standards and built distribution networks,” she says. “I can get a lot of groundwork done for when my own product is online.”
As the Irish whiskey market grows, Louise sees some problems. “Supply is an issue now that multinationals are getting in on the market,” she says. “That’s bad news for Jameson and even worse for smaller guys.”
Transparency is another issue, one that Louise thinks will be vital in the whiskey bonding business. “If I’m going to sell whiskey for $70 a bottle, my customers will want to be damn sure of what’s in it,” she says. “The story I tell them has to be true.”
Louise anticipates fierce competition in the Irish whiskey sector in the short term. “Independents have 2% of the market at the moment and that should grow,” she says. “But as Diageo, Pernod and the rest try to target back-bar placement; it’s going to get savage.”
For now, Louise is excited to be involved in reinvigorating Irish whiskey.
“How often can you say you were part of the resurgence of an industry,” she asks. “I’ve found real joy in bonding and I’m the first to bring back what is a heritage part of Irish whiskey. I don’t think I’ll be the last.”