New-age whiskey

New-age whiskey

Peter Mulryan talks to Dave Phelan and Pat Rigney, the men who broke the mould producing a charcoal-mellowed Irish whiskey, Clontarf

People 13 Jul 2003 | Interviews | By Peter Mulryan

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Last summer, I was in one of the most popular pubs in the middle of ultra hip west Cork. It was a Wednesday afternoon (whisky writers don’t have real jobs), and I was leaning on the bar that, over the previous few months, had been leaned on by Liam Neeson, Quentin Tarantino and Jeremy Irons, when in walked a couple of tourists. I knew they were tourists because they were clutching one of the 800,000 copies that have made McCarthy’s Bar an international bestseller, and, yes, the pub also features in that book.They pushed in beside me and asked the young barman for two whiskeys, Irish whiskeys, two really good Irish whiskeys; “the kind you can’t get in England,” the man added hopefully.Now this is a really good question, and I have used a similar one to devastating effect in numerous bars across Scotland.But back in this picture-postcard pub, the barman just blinked a couple of times. They might as well have asked for a two-headed turtle. In the end he gave them a Jameson, though for a moment I think he seriously considered Teacher’s.It’s eight months later, and I am sitting in the boardroom of Roaring Water Bay Spirits in the heart of Dublin, telling owners Dave Phelan and Pat Rigney this story. It obviously touches a cord, as Dave slams his fists on the table.“That’s my point!” He exclaims.“Every time I open The Irish Times and glance at the obituary column, I see another dead whiskey drinker.” Dave is not a man to mince his words. “If we don’t get younger people excited about what we do, then there is no future for Irish whiskey.”Business partners Dave Phelan and Pat Rigney set up Roaring Water Bay (named ironically after a famous west Cork beauty spot) in 1998. Former directors of the cream liqueur company R & A Bailey, they left shortly after their baby, Bailey’s whiskey, was smothered at birth.“Now that was a product!” says Dave, fading into silence. You get the feeling that five years on, the stillbirth of this brand still smarts with him.“We could have gone either way,” says Pat, “but in the end we decided to extend our comfort zone.”Dave takes up the point: “It was personally more risky to do our own thing, but ultimately it is much more satisfying to realise your dream of running a very focused drinks company than to work for some faceless conglomerate.”In a country where the spirits sector is dominated by a single multinational, Dave and Pat’s gamble was a big one.“We wanted to go straight in with a whiskey … “ says Pat, “but in the end we were pragmatic about it … ”Dave finishes his partner’s sentence; you get the feeling that this happens all the time. “ … so we started with a vodka. It’s just an easier market to break into, and we figured we’d learn a lot.”So in 1999, the friends launched a quadruple-distilled, charcoal-filtered vodka, and unlike the market leaders Smirnoff and Irish Distillers’ Huzzar, they dumped all the Russian nonsense and named the brand after the last high king of Ireland, Brian Boru.“Why Boru vodka?” I asked.“Why not!” came the reply, and the Irish public clearly agreed. The minimalist label and the nifty trinity bottling (three flavours for the price of one) caught the imagination of young drinkers sick of the faux-Russian stuff their parents drank. This quickly turned the vodka into a marketing
executive’s wet dream: Boru was simply cool.“Boru was a pretty steep learning curve,” says Dave Phelan, “but it got us all fired up for our real passion; Clontarf whiskey!” It’ll come as no surprise to learn that the brand takes its name from the sleepy Dublin suburb where the aforementioned high king of Ireland lost his life in 1014. The Irish have very long memories.There’s a knock on the door, and Phelan and Rigney are called out. I am left with a cup of tea, two biscuits and the Roaring Water Bay mission statement. It contains loads of marketing buzzwords such as “provocative”, “physically different” and “challenging” Easy enough for the white
spirits market, a lot harder to stand by in the world of whiskey.There can’t be many people reading this who don’t agree that what whisk(e)y needs more than anything is innovation.Vodka can and does change with the wind; it can be flavoured, frozen, mixed or jellied. Whiskey is bound by the conservative nature of drinkers who think a wood finish is radical, and legally by a restrictive definition of what actually constitutes whisk(e)y.So reinventing Irish or Scotch isn’t that easy, as there isn’t much you can play with. Sure, you can tinker with the bottle, and with Clontarf, Phelan and Rigney did just that. The trinity packaging that worked so well for Boru now offered the Irish whiskey drinker something different: a single malt, a single grain and a blend, all for the price of a regular bottle of whiskey.But for once, what was inside the glass caused the sharpest intakes of breath across these islands. For Clontarf whiskey was and is charcoal mellowed, a technique traditionally associated not with Irish, but with Tennessee whiskey.“The Jack Daniel’s image and story is just amazing. I mean, how do they get away with it?” Pat Rigney is back.“If you worked for Jack Daniel’s and sat around like that in a rocking chair taking in the Tennessee sunshine, you’d get your ass fired! Having said that, I was there the day they were making charcoal, and it was just incredible. What a story! I thought, I can’t wait to get back to Ireland and try this.”And it was as simple as that. From its very inception Clontarf was going to be charcoal filtered.The door opens and Dave Phelan is back.“Did it work?” asks Pat. Dave nods.“There was this guy on the radio,” Phelan explains, “probably a rep from another company … Anyway, he was trying to slag us off. I had to do something about it.”This ‘something’ is clearly one of the things that gives a small company the competitive edge over a lumbering multinational. Within minutes of the original caller going on The Joe Duffy show, Phelan had responded with a statement, which amounted to an advert being read out live on one of Ireland’s most listened-to radio programmes.The crisis had not only been averted, it had been turned to their advantage. It was clearly time for a celebratory drink.It’s a 10-minute walk from Clontarf HQ on the banks of the Grand Canal to Dublin’s Temple Bar district, but this being Ireland, it’s a 20-minute drive in Dave’s 4 x 4.The evening closes around us as we inch through the city traffic. On the far side of the road, a clutter of people are packed into a bus shelter, lit from behind by another black and white image of Lynchburg Tennessee. It catches Dave’s eye too.A hundred years ago, Dublin was the whiskey capital of the world … We took our eye off the ball.”We slide past the bus shelter.“These days, it’s down to product quality, image and personality. The Americans have great whiskeys and top brands, and they are not necessarily the same thing. But they all have huge personality, and, let’s face it, until recently Irish whiskey had suffered from deficiencies in all three areas.”By the time we have found a parking place, the wind has turned bitter-cold with sleet. Given weather like this, it is easy to see why the Irish have developed such a sophisticated pub culture.The Temple Bar, which takes its name from the district in which it is situated, is warm and welcoming, and the back bar is where you will find the largest collection of Irish whiskeys anywhere in the country.The barman arrives and we order. Three Clontarfs of course, one of each variety.“From the moment you see Clontarf, you know it is different,” says Pat.“We need to do what ever we can to make brands sexy and cool, like J&B have done in Spain. There whisky is treated like we treat vodka. It’s an accessible, fun drink!”Which is probably why 97 per cent of Clontarf whiskey is sold into export – a huge percentage for a three-year-old brand.We take our seats by the window and let the whiskey bring life back to our extremities. Radical as the packaging and charcoal mellowing may be, the whiskey goes down very easily.“That’s the whole point,” says Dave.“Wine used to be really stuffy, then the Australians and Californians came along. If you take the wine analogy, what we are doing with Clontarf is fusing traditional and New World technique.”The traditionally distilled whiskey comes from Cooley, the radical oak charcoal from windfall oaks in west Cork, and they are married at the bottling plant in County Cavan.“Cooley was a natural bedfellow,” says Pat from the back seat.“Also, Cooley boss John Teeling lectured me in college!”Outside, people rush past, their collars pulled up against the weather.“Our lives are getting faster and faster,” says Dave. “These days people need more immediate gratification. They want drinks that are easier to get into, such as vodka. We really need to ask ourselves if there is a lesson here. Can we help make the transition to whiskey drinking easier?”
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