Some whiskey distilleries are shrines to copper & glass for whiskey geeks to worship at.
Other distilleries are housed in statement buildings to wow the tourists.
And then there is West Cork Distillers.
They make whiskey.
Lots of it – over 2 million litres of pure alcohol last year.
Housed in a variety of sites spread throughout the pretty West Cork town of Skibbereen the distillery is rather nondescript – hiding – as it does – in a small industrial estate.
There is no visitors centre. The distillery isn’t exactly pretty. But by prior arrangement I was lucky enough to be shown round the operation by an enthusiastic & energetic John O’Connell who along with fellow friends Denis McCarthy & Ger McCarthy, set the business up in 2003.
After a rocky start, the team at West Cork Distillers are getting into their stride.
The combination of John’s research & development background with Denis & Ger being former fishermen means they are used to relying on their on ingenuity and skills to pull themselves through. It also shows in the rather unusual ‘Rocket’ still that they made themselves – along with a lot of other rather ingenious inventions that aid in the distilling process.
But what of the actual spirit?
Well a vast amount of it goes to third parties, supermarket own labels, pub bottlings & other non distillery producers. That’s not to say it isn’t good quality. Many awards have been won for these products & I’ve chosen a few of them on a blind tasting as my best in class.
They also release under the West Cork label with some innovative & fabulous expressions – but more of that later.
A strong sense of ambition, drive, innovation & ingenuity is evident on being shown round the various sites.
Working 24 hours a day 6 days a week means a lot of barrels to fill & a lot of warehouses to store them in. The three I saw were packed to the rafters. Luckily West Cork Distillers are currently engaged in building more warehouses on the outskirts of the town – along with plans to erect a very large Coffey still which currently looks like a giant copper jigsaw set! I’m confident however they will put it together & fabricate it to their own requirements.
Some of these requirements are a desire to use Irish sourced malt, grain and yeast.
The malt is relatively easily obtained.
The commonly used grain for distillation in Ireland however is corn. Ireland unfortunately doesn’t have the climate to grow distilling grade corn. The bulk of it is imported. West Cork Distillers have therefore bucked the trend and are using Irish grown wheat.
This has posed problems for the master distiller Patrick Harnedy. Wheat is a more ‘lively’ grain to work with which has resulted in an overflow of froth on a number of occasions. But they are soldiering on and honing their skills.
On the yeast front they were looking forward to developing a strain sourced from the wonderful West Cork countryside that would be unique to West Cork Distillers yet still allow them to produce award winning whiskey.
Any tour wouldn’t be complete without the all important tasting.
Many familiar brands & supermarket releases were on show. A lot of them I’d already enjoyed. I was drawn to to those I hadn’t tried before or enjoyed only fleetingly.
The West Cork Distillers Glengarriff range was one that stood out.
They are single malts matured in casks that have been charred – by West Cork Distillers home made charring machine – with either Irish Peat or Irish Bog Oak.
I’m all for the return of peat to Irish Whiskey and what West Cork Distillers have produced here is rather unique.
It’s the first modern Irish Whiskey to use Irish Peat in it’s manufacture!
Most other peated Irish expressions have to use malted grain imported from Scotland as the process to dry out the barley with peat smoke has died out in Ireland.
I was rather surprised by how much of a peat influence there was on the nose of this youthful & fresh malt just by the barrel being charred with Irish peat as the fuel source.
It followed through to the very enjoyable taste too. A mellow malt start with hints of vanilla from the charred cask evolved into the softly glowing embers of a peat fire.
Nothing in your face, just the warmth of an open hearth gently warming the palate. I should add it’s non chill filtered and natural colour too.
And it won’t break the bank to get your hands on one either. O’Briens are stocking it around the €40 mark.
A final mouth pleaser was in order.
Asked to sample a poitín I gladly took a sip. Yes it was strong, but possessed a clear fresh taste & satisfying appeal.
Only then did John laughingly reveal the bottle.
John O’Connell’s Poitín bottled at 72%!
It was one of the marketeers mad ideas.
Did I say West Cork Distillers don’t have a marketing department?
That is left to the many third parties that buy their spirit. Parties like Halewood International that are behind both The Pogues Irish Whiskey as well as Peaky Blinder Irish Whiskey.
Both of which I’ve bought & enjoyed previously.
Knowing the source & meeting the team that made the spirit just makes it all the better.
West Cork Distillers are one of the most dynamic & innovative whiskey distilleries in Ireland.
I wish them continued future success.
I’d like to thank John for the generous amount of time & enthusiasm he displayed showing me around the distillery sites.
Many thanks too for the poitín – a fun drink indeed!