Business Profiles

The New Wave: Louise McGuane, Founder, Chapel Gate Whiskey

Louise McGuane established Chapel Gate Whiskey in 2015, on her family farm in Co. Clare.  Louise however is no stranger to the drinks trade, having spent the previous 20 years working for Diageo and Moet Hennessy in countries such as North America, France, and Singapore.

Her initial intention was to set up a distillery however upon doing research she came upon the old Irish trade of bonder, typically local grocers or merchants who would buy in small quantities of spirits to be aged in their own casks, before being sold to consumers.  The practice still exists in a form Scotland where it’s called independent bottling, but in Ireland this has disappeared over the last century.

Determined to bring the tradition back to Ireland, Louise founded Chapel Gate Whiskey and bought in stocks of whiskey.  She converted an old building on the family farm into a bonded warehouse and decided to lie the barrels on their side on a single level, as opposed to the modern method of upright and stacked on pallets.  This, she says, increases the whiskey’s contact with the barrels, thus improving flavour.

She makes it clear that she is a bonder, as opposed to a distiller, as distinct from a brand, and prides herself on this.

The brand JJ Corry is a reference to a renowned local whiskey bonder, JJ Corry, from Kilrush, Co. Clare, who sold a bonded whiskey called Corry’s Special Malt.  Indeed Chapel Gate’s first release was called The Gael, a reference to a bicycle J.J. Corry invented. It feeds into Louise’s belief in provenance and local stories, linking the liquid with the place and the people.

In late 2019 Louise completely broke the mould and released Ireland’s first super premium whiskey, called The Chosen.  A cask strength 27 year-old single malt, only 100 bottles of The Chosen were released and each came in at an eye-popping £6,500.  Understandably, The Chosen made headlines around the world. It was the first time that Irish whiskey was celebrated for its rarity in the manner in which Scotch so often is, and shows the bold confidence of Louise and her absolute belief not just in what she does, but in Irish whiskey in general.

From a farm on the edge of the Atlantic, Chapel Gate Whiskey is making a name for itself in the high end whiskey world.

fft.: How & why did you start your business?
Louise McGuane: After a 20 year career with multinational drinks companies all over the world, I found myself on a years long assignment in Singapore separated from my husband who was back in Europe. After two years apart, something had to give. My husband had his own business so could not move with me to Asia to be a travelling spouse for a multinational, so I agreed to quit my job and move back home with the caveat that I would found an Irish whiskey company. This wasin 2013 just when the irish whiskey industry was starting to evolve. I could see the upward trend so I gave my notice, wrote a business plan and moved home. 

What was the initial reaction?
There was scepticism initially from the Irish whiskey establishment. Mostly I think because I was a solo female founder which is very unusual in the Irish whiskey industry, but also because of my unique business model. Instead of opening a grain to glass distiller like everyone else, I resurrected the lost art of Irish whiskey bonding. Whiskey bonding was once a vital part of the Irish whiskey industry that had totally died out in the 1930s. The history of whiskey bonding had been hidden for a long time, I unearthed it and brought it back. When you zig instead of zag in any industry you’ll be met with scepticism until you succeed, and I was.

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Bureaucracy. The Irish whiskey industry is evolving quickly but legislation by governmental bodies is not moving at the same pace. The lack of support for independent whiskey producers and their specific needs is also a challenge. The IWA does not perform this function so there is disjointed advocacy for indie players which can be problematic.

How was 2019 for you?
2019 was a banner year. We launched The Chosen, which is the first true ultra premium Irish whiskey release to rival that of Scotch. It made a huge impression globally and cemented us on the Irish whiskey stage. We landed a round of funding which allows us to grow for the next five years.

What are your plans for 2020?
2020 is all about market expansion for us. We are expanding across the USA and the world with our eyes squarely on Asia and the luxury market there.

How do you feel about the Irish hospitality industry at this point in time?
I think the Irish Pub is at a turning point particularly in rural areas. The justified crackdown on drink driving and the lack of public transport in rural Ireland means that pubs will have to significantly change their offering or face extinction.

What advice would you pass on to someone coming into the industry?
Hospitality is a great career and can lead you to some amazing places. The people in it are passionate and by and large great fun. It is what you make of it, understand you are in a business that means that to evolve you have to constantly learn. Often that means self study.

Quick Fire

When were you born
A lady never tells!

What was your first job
I worked as a glass washer in a local nightclub on Friday and Saturday nights until like 3AM. I was 14 years old!

What Irish product (e.g. a spirit, a vegetable, a type of meat) most excites you
Irish whiskey of course but I am also loving our local brewery in Clare Western Herd, they are making really exciting beer

Where is your favourite place to eat & your favourite dish
Little Fox in Ennistymon is absolutely outstanding. They use local vendors and suppliers and create amazing food. I’ll eat anything they put in front of me.

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