FIVE FRIENDS DISTILLING THE SPIRIT OF ST KEVIN

RE­PORTER DAVID MEDCALF EN­JOYED A SOBER CON­VER­SA­TION WITH GARY MCLOUGH­LIN, ONE OF A BUNCH OF FRIENDS WHO HAVE TURNED THEIR LOVE OF SPIR­ITS INTO AN EX­CIT­ING AND EX­PAND­ING BUSI­NESS CALLED GLEN­DALOUGH DISTILLERY

Bray People - - INTERVIEW -

GARY MCLOUGH­LIN knows a great deal about drink. This is not to sug­gest or im­ply or pre­sume that he is any way an al­co­holic. His en­counter with the re­porter from the ‘Peo­ple’ takes place at a per­fectly sober hour on a week­day morn­ing. Yet it is nev­er­the­less abun­dantly clear that Gary is very well versed in drink in­deed. We meet in one of Ire­land’s new­est ex­am­ples of an an­cient craft, the head­quar­ters of Glen­dalough Distillery, billed as Ire­land’s craft first distillery. It is lo­cated down the hill from Glen­dalough it­self in the un­pre­ten­tious set­ting of a New­town­moun­tkennedy busi­ness park.

‘You have to start some­where,’ muses Gary, against a back­ground of the pipes and vats which make the man­u­fac­ture of whiskey and gin pos­si­ble. ‘We have been here since 2013 and it is a great place.’ Nev­er­the­less, he hints that a move to a quainter, more tourist friendly site is on the cards.

The pro­duc­tion of spir­its in this coun­try has long been the pre­serve of ma­jor com­pa­nies, with the well-known brands owned by vast multi-na­tional cor­po­ra­tions. Gary used to see first-hand how these in­dus­trial gi­ants op­er­ated. As a mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive work­ing in Dublin, his port­fo­lio in­cluded Heineken and Harp lagers, as well as Mur­phy’s stout. Dur­ing his 15-year ca­reer in ad­ver­tis­ing he also helped to make Jame­son the toast of whiskey drinkers all around the world.

Whiskey was very much the topic of con­ver­sa­tion he had a few years ago with his bud­dies Barry Gal­lagher and Brian Fa­gan, who earned their liv­ing as drinks an­a­lysts, study­ing global trends in drink sales. They con­fided in Gary their con­vic­tion that there was room in the mar­ket for their own small distillery, though they were re­al­is­tic enough to per­ceive that they did not have a clue how to set about it. He per­suaded his friends that that if their hunch was cor­rect, then he was just the man to mar­ket their wares.

‘Barry and Brian had the idea and they came to me about the brand­ing. I picked up the phone to call Kevin Keenan, cre­ative di­rec­tor,’ re­calls Gary.

Within a few months, four be­came five as Barry’s cousin Donal O’Gal­la­choir was added to the grow­ing con­spir­acy. The Bray man was in the United States at the time sell­ing whiskey, so he was a log­i­cal per­son to turn to. Five years ago, the quin­tet all had good ca­reers in well es­tab­lished busi­nesses but now they are com­mit­ted to mak­ing Glen­dalough known in pubs and cock­tail bars around the globe.

They looked at a whiskey mar­ket dom­i­nated by the likes of Jame­son, Mi­dle­ton, Bush­mills and Coo­ley, all con­trolled by multi-na­tional cor­po­ra­tions. The con­spir­a­tors, all men in their thir­ties, noted that distilling used to be scat­tered across Ire­land in hun­dreds of lo­ca­tions rather than con­cen­trated in a hand­ful of places. It was time, they reck­oned, to re­cap­ture some of the 19th-cen­tury ap­proach and set up the first Irish craft distillery of the 21st cen­tury.

They hit on Glen­dalough and St Kevin as their in­spi­ra­tion.

‘You can tell a great story with a spirit,’ says Gary. ‘Grow­ing up, we were all brought for walks to Glen­dalough. It is an amaz­ing and spe­cial place, a place we loved.’ Heaven alone knows what the her­mit Kevin would make of be­ing en­rolled in an al­co­holic en­ter­prise but McLough­lin in­sists that the saint pro­vides plenty of in­spi­ra­tion. ‘St Kevin is our favourite Irish monk and he is prom­i­nent on all our la­bels.’ His name­sake Kevin Keenan and Gary came up with the logo.

The im­age shows the holy man stand­ing with arms ex­tended and hands raised, a bird set­tled on his right palm. It il­lus­trates the le­gend which tells how the saint chose to stay stock still for months on end rather than dis­turb the bird which had cho­sen to nest in his hand. The tale is cer­tainly ap­pro­pri­ate for pro­duc­tion of whiskey, which takes a long, long time to ma­ture. The five lads were just a tad more im­pa­tient than their holy in­spi­ra­tion as they set about their rev­o­lu­tion­ary ac­tiv­ity.

So they have started out by sell­ing whiskey dis­tilled by some­one else (though ma­tured by Glen­dalough) and with pro­duc­ing drinks which take less time to make. They are the front-run­ners in an emerg­ing move­ment which has al­ready spawned a dozen new, small-scale dis­til­leries around Ire­land, with more on the way. Gary in­sists that it was the Irish who showed the Scots how to make ‘uisce beatha’ and now it is time for the Scots to re­turn the com­pli­ment.

Pro­duc­tion in Scot­land comes from 100 or so plants and he be­lieves there is no rea­son why this more scat­tered ap­proach should not be mir­rored on this side of the wa­ter. Scotch is huge busi­ness, though the Irish equiv­a­lent shows signs of catch­ing up.

‘Jame­son have opened the way for Irish whiskey to be great again – they are bril­liant,’ com­ments Gary McLough­lin. He likes the way that Jame­son not only makes and sells its prod­ucts but also wel­comes tourists who come to see the distillery in Dublin. The pro­duc­tion line in New­town­moun­tkennedy is a less grand af­fair.

The day that the still ar­rived from the Black For­est in Ger­many at the busi­ness park is remembered with laugh­ter by those in­volved.

‘It was pretty much flat pack – like a big Ikea project.’

The as­sem­bled con­trap­tion now that they have

put it suc­cess­fully to­gether is a thing of engi-en­gi­neer­ing beauty, with its as­sem­blage of cop­per or stain­less steel vats and pipes. It is now op­er­ated by Ciarán ‘Rowdy’ Rooney, who com­mutes out from Dublin city cen­tre to tend to the process of turn­ing Irish in­gre­di­ents into Irish spir­its. But the first batches were con­cocted by the five pi­o­neers over week­ends and dur­ing hol­i­days. They im­me­di­ately found tak­ers for their liquor – not just for the whiskey they have ma­tured in oaken bar­rels but also for poitín made from bar­ley and sugar beet and for gin.

‘I am full time since 2015,’ says Gary on his move from ad­ver­tis­ing other peo­ple’s prod­ucts to sell­ing his own wares. ‘It was as big de­ci­sion but I didn’t have to think twice about it – Glen­dalough was fly­ing.’ The other four have fol­lowed suit at var­i­ous stages and Glen­dalough is still ‘fly­ing’.

Two years ago the graphic of St Kevin with his arms out­stretched was ex­hib­ited on the shelves be­hind the bars of eight coun­tries. Now the to­tal runs to 36 coun­tries, with 16 peo­ple on the pay roll. Lithua­nia and Fin­land were re­cently added to the ever ex­pand­ing list, with In­dia due to come on stream shortly, though the US, Canada, UK, France and Ger­many are the ma­jor ex­port mar­kets.

THE key des­ti­na­tion is the United States, where Donal O’Gal­la­choir is based full time, en­sur­ing that dis­cern­ing drinkers in Bos­ton, Chicago, New York and Wash­ing­ton DC are catered for by a team of ‘ brand am­bas­sadors’.

Word is also spread­ing closer to home.

‘ This busi­ness is all about dis­tri­bu­tion,’ ex­plains McLough­lin, de­lighted to re­port that drink dis­tilled in Co. Wick­low is be­gin­ning to find its way into Su­perValu su­per­mar­kets and O’Brien’s off-li­cences. Per­suad­ing re­tail­ing cus­tomers to sign up has been made eas­ier by suc­cesses at events such as the San Fran­cisco World Sprits com­pe­ti­tion. In 2015, a Glen­dalough en­try was rated ‘Best Irish Whiskey’ by the dis­cern­ing ad­ju­di­ca­tors in San Fran: ‘I nearly fell off the chair when I got the news.’

With such hon­ours to boast about, Rowdy Rooney is hard pushed to keep up with the de­mand and a se­cond dis­tiller will soon be addedadded to the Glen­dalough Distillery pay­roll­pay­roll.

Glen­dalough gin is win­ning plenty of ad­mir­ers, as it is for­ti­fied with some most un­usual in­gre­di­ents. Glenealy woman Geral­dine Ka­vanagh has been re­cruited to add some Glen­dalough magic in the form of el­der­flow­ers, clover and wild rasp­ber­ries to the mix.

‘We are the first to do sea­sonal gin,’ de­clares Gary, who has seen the mixol­o­gists in the cock­tail bars of Lon­don fall in love with the ‘Wild Botan­i­cal Gin’. Whiskey takes long years to bring to mar­ket, gain­ing flavour in bonded ware­houses as it is stored in casks that once held bour­bon or sherry, while gin can be cooked up in less than two months.

Glen­dalough Distillery has at­tracted ad­mir­ers, in­clud­ing for­mer Irish rugby cap­tain Brian O’DriscollO’Driscoll, who can look for­ward to an ex­pand­ing choice of of­fer­ings com­ing their way. The cur­rent range cov­ers the whiskey (aged seven or 13 years), the poitín (se­lec­tion em­braces a sherry cask spirit and the dy­na­mite 60% al­co­hol ‘Moun­tain Strength’) and the gin (‘Wild Botan­i­cal’ or pick any one of the four sea­sons).

The mar­ket­ing spiel traces the his­tory of distilling back to around the time of St Kevin when sixth-cen­tury Irish monas­ter­ies were recorded ex­per­i­ment­ing with rudi­men­tary pot stills when not at­tend­ing to their pray­ers. Gary and his com­rades reckon they are tap­ping into the soul of Ire­land’s drinks tra­di­tion as they bid to re­cap­ture the days when the is­land boasted more than 200 li­censed dis­til­leries.

Cheers!

The ‘flavour li­brary’ at the distillery. ABOVE:Chief dis­tiller Ciarán Rooney. LEFT: Bot­tles of Glen­dalough gin.

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