When Diageo sold Bushmills in 2014 many thought it was to be their exit from the Irish whiskey market and at a strange time too, just as things seemed to be hotting up. Then, out of the blue, ‘Roe & Co’ appeared: a reimagined brand trading on the heritage of one of Dublin’s biggest distillery names of old, George Roe.
Behind the brand were bold plans for a new distillery, but unusually it wasn’t to be part of Diageo’s gigantic whisky empire. You’ll find it housed in the former powerhouse of the Guinness brewery, a startup within a corporation.
The distillery isn’t set up to just make any old whiskey - the intention is to do something experimental and maverick. To commission and run it they needed someone unique, a non-traditionalist, someone who knows the rules well enough to tear them up. They found this in former art student, DJ and perfumer-turned-distiller Lora Hemy. I caught Lora on a brief holiday before a very busy distilling season.
How do you think your friends describe you?
“A wee bit mad. A loner that isn’t scared of things. I like the sort of adventures that you can’t take your other half with you. I’d be a nightmare really as a friend or partner.“
How did you manage to find your way into distilling?
“I got into my 30s and was sick of music studios and the nocturnal lifestyle and decided to swap it for another full-on nocturnal life,” she jokes.
“I hated school, I found it boring and restrictive and I found my tribe, the freaks and weirdos were all at art school and I had a brilliant time, but I got less interested in painting in two dimensions and got into working with aroma chemicals. It’s sculptural really and whisky grew out of that. You can do these cool things, working with abject aromas and make them beautiful.”
When did you know that distilling was your future?
“It was at Glen Ord, it’s a super techy distillery and had a bunch of clever people talking you through the process in quite an unromantic but factual and interesting way. It took me a long time to work out how to actually make it happen. A 15-year opus.”
Lora trained at Herriot-Watt’s famous Institute of Brewing and Distilling, graduating just as the gin boom was exploding, “At the time there were loads of startups and lots of opportunities to get involved in distillery-building, and I fell into that by the virtue of being in that place at that time.”
She ended up at Halewood International (Whitley Neill, Liverpool Gin) and was part of the team that set up their first distilleries. She then bounced to Atom Group (Master of Malt and the Boutique-y brands).
“They were doing some super cool stuff and were aligned with how I think about new product development and the exploratory side of spirits, ‘just try stuff’, which is the best way to learn. I fell in love with their thinking. Then I got the call out of the blue.”
Coming from startups, was it a hard choice to work for a big company?
“I think on paper I’m not the kind of person people would expect to work for a company as big as Diageo, but it’s completely the opposite of what I expected it to be, it’s a brilliant place to work. We’re fairly unique, we don’t report up through the distilling and maturation line, we’re part of the beer line – we’re the only distillery in that part of the business. It’s everything you’d expect putting a tiny distillery inside a massive brewery would be.
“In the last 300 years, you’d struggle to find a more important street to the industry worldwide. Thomas Street and James Street back in the day, you’d have the world’s largest distillery on one side – the original George Roe, and the other the worlds biggest brewery. You can feel the heritage. I walked in the famous arch at St James Gate... it’s hard to say no to something like that.”
Can you describe your role?
“On paper, it is head distiller, but it can mean anything at the moment. It’s meant commissioning the new plant for the last two years. The first year was the build and I was very involved with the functional design process. We wrote and then tore up a lot of plans as we went which is brilliant.
“I’m now moving on to organising all of our innovation projects over the next year. We built the distillery to be very much focussed on innovation and doing cool stuff.”
What’s the state of the distillery?
“If you are thinking of building a distillery in an old building, definitely don’t do that. It’s so much more challenging,“ she joked.
“We’re in full production but clearly when using a new distillery it’s like using a musical instrument, you learn all the quirks of the plant when you put them together, they never do quite what you expect them to do on paper.
“In terms of how a distillery usually runs in Diageo, we don’t run like that. We have a very flexible production plan; I write it, which is unusual in itself and we input what we want to make and we just do them. It’s like a pilot plant in many ways.”
Their still setup is rather interesting. The stills themselves are made by Diageo coppersmiths Abercrombie, in Alloa. This not only gives them access to years of experience but their site is a kind of graveyard for old Diageo distilleries. In fact, part of their intermediate still came from the 1860s and was being used as a flower pot!
They have a high-necked, wide-based wash still with 14,000 litres capacity. The intermediate still, whose top was once a Tanqueray still and has been through perhaps five distilleries, has a double boil-ball still head (tons of reflux), grafted onto a more contemporary body. It’s 6,600 litres capacity. Completing the set-up is a tiny spirits still with a very long, skinny neck and 4000 litres capacity.
The triple stills can run as a balanced system or as a rather unusual unbalanced, double distillation system, with the wash still acting as the first stage and the spirit and intermediate acting in tandem as a spirit still stage. Apparently the spirit character is almost the polar opposite of the triple.
As to future releases, Lora is about to commence the 2020 innovation season where for three months they’ll be solely focused on innovation – rotating recipes every few weeks. In terms of liquid releases, there is a coffee cask release imminent, inspired by her trip to Ethiopia, and then two new distillery exclusive releases. This includes one partnering with the Guinness pilot plant using barrel-aged beer casks – one is a Brettanomyces Citra IPA finish.
She’s tight-lipped beyond that but very excited about the experimental things including a “different approach to maturation.”
I must admit, when I first saw Roe & Co launch a blend ‘made for bartenders by bartenders’ a few years ago, I was a little underwhelmed: the George Roe name has such legacy it seemed a bit weak. Speaking to Lora I feel confident that the history of this great if somewhat forgotten name is in good hands and I’m excited for what’s to come.