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Tyrconnell Irish Whiskey

FATHER MATHEW must have turned in his grave last month at the news that, for the first time in its 39-year history, the World Distiller of the Year award was going to Ireland.

Although he didn’t live to enjoy it, the Apostle of Temperance would surely have cheered the century-long decline in Irish whiskey’s fortunes that began soon after his death. But Cooley Distillery’s success at the latest International Wine and Spirits Competition in London suggests his triumph was temporary. Whiskey with an “e” appears to be making a comeback.

A measure of the Irish industry’s fall from global leader to also-ran is that, en route to overall success, Cooley had first to win the European Distiller of the Year Award.

This is a bit like being European champions at cricket. Once our poor relations in whiskey production, the Scots are now so dominant they have a category of the competition to themselves. We’re in with the rest of the continent. But in the last round, as it were, Cooley polished off the likes of Chivas and Inverhouse to take the ultimate honours.

Despite being very much the new kid on Irish distilling’s block, Cooley’s path to glory started way back in 1971, in a bar in Massachusetts. The Plough and the Stars in Cambridge now carries a plaque to the effect that it was here Willie McCarter – then a student at MIT – and Harvard boy John Teeling hatched their whiskey-making plans.

One of the first things McCarter did when he came home was buy a couple of dormant brand-names from his native northwest: Tyrconnell and Inishowen.

In this he was consciously acquiring some of the area’s ancient distilling heritage: legal and otherwise. He quotes an official 1825 report that estimated there were 10,000 unlicensed distilleries then in Ireland and that “fully one-third” of these were in “the barony of Inishowen”.

But he was also buying into the era when Irish whiskey was supreme in the US. One of the distillery’s prized possessions, an old photograph from baseball’s 1919 World Series, underlines the point.

This was the infamous series thrown by the Chicago White Sox: the one that spawned the legend of a young Sox fan looking up at his hero, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, and pleading: “Say it Ain’t So, Joe.” Cooley’s fondness for the picture, however, relates purely to the fact that in the background, you can see a large billboard advertising Tyrconnell Whiskey.

The rise of Scotch was well under way by then. But fate – possibly influenced by Father Mathew – was about to deal a series of savage blows to the Irish distillers. First, ironically, there was independence, and the economic war with Britain that followed. Then there was US prohibition. Then there was the depression.

To cap it all, there was the second World War, when, in a Scotch maker’s dream, huge numbers of American GIs arrived into the UK. Survivors would take their new drinking tastes back across the Atlantic, just as the Scots were getting very good at international marketing. In the meantime, Irish whiskey manufacture shrivelled behind tariff barriers until what was left of it finally merged into a monopoly.

It was only in 1987 that McCarter and Teeling finally got around to setting up their distillery, in one of the old State-owned alcohol factories.

Built in the Bauhaus style, (another vestige of the economic war, when the fledgling Free State looked beyond Britain for architects) this is a little piece of 1930s Germany peering out from trees on the Cooley peninsula. But it was the beach-head from which the two men mounted their assault on the market.

It is another measure of how far it had declined that Irish whiskey generally is now again the fastest growing section of the market, with the muscle of Diageo (which now owns Bushmills) and Pernod Ricard (which owns Midleton) pushing the brands.

Even so, the industry still resembles Cinderella after the clock struck midnight. Scottish production is 100 million cases a year; Irish a mere 4 million. Of the latter figure, Cooley accounts for a tiny 200,000 cases, or 5 per cent. But it has a large and growing war chest: with 25 million bottles in stock, about half of them the single-malts much prized by whiskey lovers.

Thanks to taxation, the days when – to every temperance campaigner’s despair – whiskey was the poor man’s drink were already long gone. But a bottle of 10-year-old Tyrconnells, “finished” in a sherry cask, will cost you at least €70. Such specialist products prepared the way for the London award when, at a blind tasting session in San Francisco last April, Cooley won nine gold medals.

There is one slightly awkward fact about the McCarter/Teeling whiskey partnership: namely that, despite starting their adventure in a pub, neither man now drinks. Teeling gave it up 30 years ago; McCarter more recently, when he decided it was not compatible with his then busy life as head both of the International Fund for Ireland and the Fruit of the Loom textile company.

You might think their teetotalism would undermine Cooley’s sales pitch. On the contrary, when the question was raised once, McCarter remembers Teeling pointing out that both men had backgrounds in textiles (Teeling’s via Glen Abbey). “He said that at one time, between us, we were responsible for producing vast quantities of women’s knickers,” recalls McCarter. “But that, so far as he knew, neither of us had ever worn a pair.”

The Irish Times – Friday, December 5, 2008
Frank McNally – An Irishman’s Diary