Glendalough's Double Barrel, 7-year old and 13-year old Irish Whiskeys
Irish whiskey is experiencing a boom few other products have known. According to Irish food board, Bord Bia, it is the fastest growing spirit in the world, and experienced 300% growth over the past 10 years. In 2017, in the US alone, Irish whiskey sales increased almost 13% to reach $897 million dollars. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, much of this growth is credited to “high end premium” and “super premium” products. So, while fallback brands like Jameson are still popular (the most popular, in fact), the increase in growth and sales is due to the much more high-end varieties.
Another area of growth in the Irish spirits market is in the craft distilling industry. In 1987, there were only three distilleries in all of Ireland, but by 2017 there were at least 30 distilleries built or in the planning stages. Not all of them are making their own product (instead, some are buying from larger distilleries and then aging that whiskey), but all of them are planning on doing their own distilling in the future.
One of those companies, Glendalough Distillery, one of the first craft distilleries in Ireland, has earned some impressive accolades over the past few years. Currently, they feature three whiskey releases: a “double barrel” that’s aged first in bourbon barrels and then finished in Oloroso Sherry barrels, a 7-year old single malt that spent 7 years in American oak bourbon barrels and then finished in porter (beer) barrels, and a 13-year old single malt that spent its life in American oak and finished in extremely rare, Japanese Mizuanara oak. All three highlight the essence of a craft distillery. You can taste the time, the care, and the attention to detail in each. And people have noticed. The last of them, the 13-year old, won Best Irish Whiskey at the 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition(before it was finished in Mizunara barrels). Since it has spent time in this very special Japanese Oak, it has received a 96/100 score in Jim Murray's Whiskey Bible being described as probably having the most sensuous chocolate finish in the history of Irish whiskey.
In a field crowded with mega-brands like Beam-Suntory, Sazerac and Diageo, the small distillery, about an hour south of Dublin in County Wicklow, has had stunning success. It’s worth getting to know how it’s happened, and so to that end I interviewed Donal O'Gallachoir, one of five friends who founded Glendalough, to find out what it took to set up the first craft distillery in Ireland and to get their take on the current and future state of the Irish whiskey industry.
Donal O'Gallachoir (on the far right) with his friends and co-founders of Glendalough Distillery.
CL & DH: We're familiar with the Glendalough story (a group of friends realize a lifelong dream of opening a distillery) but know it also wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Could you please share a bit more about what your group faced when you decided the time was right to build and open the distillery?
DO: Initially when we set up I think we were a tiny bit naive about the complexity of the undertaking [and] everyone had to do a bit of everything. There was a lot of learning as you go and finding out quick what worked.
When we started, I began self-distributing in Dublin and around the country. There were a huge amount of challenges, from chasing up people to pay their invoices while trying to get them to buy more, to my beat up VW Golf getting broken into and whiskey getting stolen.
CL & DH: What kind of resistance did you face in terms of regulations, licensing, and laws?
DO: Again, I think there definitely was a learning curve here, the compliance involved with every aspect of setting up the distillery and then actual going about introducing to people in different countries is huge.
There were significant hurdles in terms of compliance with every market, [and] this was very time consuming when all you want to do is get out and talk whiskey.
We took a systemic approach to learning the lay of the land, definitely made a few mistakes along the way, but ultimately overcame these challenges (then got back to talking whiskey). I must mention how supportive the existing Irish Whiskey players were to us as new entrants. Irish Distillers and Beam Suntory were incredibly helpful and continue to be to this day.
CL & DH: Here in the U.S. it can take well over two years to complete all the regulatory requirements to start a distillery, what is it like there in Ireland? Is the atmosphere keeping new companies from forming? Is it, in your opinion, healthy or a detriment to the industry?
DO: There are similar regulatory requirements in Ireland to setting up a distillery. They are time-consuming but are necessary to protect the quality and reputation of Irish whiskey.
While the regulations can seem laborious initially, especially when all you want to do is introduce your story and whiskey to people, the regulations ultimately are in place to protect Irish whiskey, its reputation and quality. They are healthy for the industry.
CL & DH: What do you see as the future of Irish whiskey in general over the next ten years? Do you see continued growth? What do you think might be some trends we’ll see in Irish whiskey over the next several years? Is there anything Glendalough is doing to lead such trends?
DO: The future of Irish Whiskey over the next ten years is extremely bright. There will undoubtedly be increased growth.
Over the next few years some trends will emerge through the experimentation with different grains, distillation styles (Double, Triple and Continuous), the variety of oak used and climates in different parts of the country to age the whiskey in.
Additionally, remember there are three style of Irish whiskey, Single Grain, Single Malt and Single Pot Still. The growth of Single Pot Still and showing variety in this uniquely Irish style will be massively important for the continued success of the category.
At the Glendalough Distillery, we will continue to make and release remarkably different Irish Whiskeys. We have some more really distinctive whiskeys we will be launching in the next year or so that we are beyond excited about.