Irish Whiskey Shows Its Independent Side

by Jim Clarke
April 2004

Cooley Distillery is the only independent Irish distillery currently operating. As such, it is an integral part of Irish whiskey’s dramatic surge in popularity during the past fifteen years. It may even be a prime mover, having added an element of competition that had been missing for many years.

In 1966 four of the five remaining Irish distilleries – which had reputedly once numbered over 2,000 – consolidated into the Irish Distillers Group. Bushmills added its name six years later. On the market there was still a reasonably diverse number of brands, but they were all actually being produced by the Irish Distillers Group at the Jameson Distillery, near Cork, or at Bushmills, in the north. This was a truly alarming collapse for a country that many say invented the drink - medieval Irish monks are generally credited as among the earliest to master distilling potable drinks. The first half of the 20th century had taken the axe to the industry in the form of an English trade embargo and U.S. Prohibition; by the time the latter was lifted Irish producers had been unable to meet demand, and Scotch producers began to fill the void.

While a student at Harvard Business School in the 1970s, John Teeling saw this situation as an opportunity. After much research – in fact, he wrote his thesis on the decline of Irish whiskey - he bought a potato alcohol plant in Cooley, a coastal town 60 miles north of Dublin, in 1987. He converted the plant for pot-still as well as a continuous-still operation. Other entrepreneurs who were pursuing similar ideas joined forces with him over the next couple of years: Willie McCarter in 1988, followed by Paul Power and Lee Mallaghan, the former owner of Locke’s Distillery in Kilbeggan.

Producing Irish whiskey requires aging time – at least three years, often more – and while Cooley was letting its whiskeys mature, Pernod-Ricard bought out the Irish Distillers Group, who then attempted to use their new heft to take over Cooley, a move that would have restored the monopolization of Irish whiskeys. Cooley fought off the industry giant and eventually found a niche producing “Retail Own” whiskeys - supermarket brands, etc. This, along with support from Moët-Hennessy, cleared up their cashflow difficulties so they could move forward with marketing their own brands.

The brand names they chose were resuscitated from historic but no longer produced whiskeys of the past - names like Locke’s and Andrew A. Watt. Along with the name Locke’s, they also acquired that company’s distillery in Kilbeggan; it is reputed to be the oldest continuously licensed distillery in the world. Today they are exploiting its cool, damp stone warehouses as an ideal aging facility for their whiskeys, while actual distillation continues in Cooley.

Among their brands, Kilbeggan, Tyrconnell, and Connemara are the easiest to find here in the U.S. and represent a range of approaches: blended, single malt, and peat-smoked. Cooley’s use of revived, branded names keeps alive an awareness of their obligation to the smooth, traditional style of Irish whiskey, but hasn’t prevented them from exploring new ground by varying the malting and aging procedures for their different brands. Their whiskeys stand to gain fans from the ranks of bourbon as well as Scotch drinkers as they offer elements of both styles, and some of their brands even offer a great entry-level taste of a traditional drink that’s on an upswing once more.

No Bull: The Mascot

Actually, there is indeed a bull. The Cooley Peninsula is the setting for one of the great stories from Irish mythology, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley.” More a war than a raid, in this story the Irish hero Cuchulainn fought to protect Ulster from Queen Maeve’s army, who came on her behalf to steal the famous Brown Bull of Cooley. Today another brown bull lives outside the Cooley Distillery as their mascot, and has been given the name “Setanta” - Cuchulainn’s original name.