Since five friends started Glendalough Distillery in 2011, the situation has changed quite a bit. Today, there are over 30 distilleries in Ireland already up and running or in the process of being built, making Irish Whiskey one of the most dynamic spirit categories out there.
We recently enjoyed a nice chat with Gary McLoughlin, one of the 5 founders of the Glendalough distillery.
What he and his creative director Kevin Keenan brought to the founders’ table were decades of experience in marketing Whiskey brands, enabling Glendalough to focus on building a truly unique and global craft brand. Gary shared his experience of building a brand, but doesn't forget to mention the role big Irish Whiskey brands played in promoting the category.
1. How would you describe Glendalough 7 to the Dalai Lama, who doesn’t drink?
I would enlighten the Dalai Lama with the story of St Kevin and how he took 7 years to find Glendalough and then built 7 churches in its valley. I think he'd dig that! I'd tell him that our 7 YO won the best tasting Irish Whiskey at the Global Spirits Masters last year, so he has to take my word that it tastes damn good!
2. What’s your second favourite Whisk(e)y?
This is a tough one, because there are so many good spirits out there and I love tasting craft spirits. I was in the US at the end of the summer and tasted High West Campfire. It’s really interesting, a blend of Scotch, Rye and Bourbon, which is really unusual, but it just works. It’s distinctive and delicious.
3. What superpower would you want to have?
Looking at the year ahead, I wonder how am I going to do all of that? I’d like to be able to be in two different places at the same time, maybe even three! To clone myself would be great.
4. What’s your favourite music and what drink goes with it?
I find this question really hard. I like lots and lots of different music, but I think Bob Dylan with a glass of our 7 YO would be great… In front of the fire, chilled and over a cube of ice. I like how a little bit of dilution opens up the flavour.
5. What would you want to eat and drink for your last supper?
I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but a really perfectly cooked steak with a really fine Malbec from Argentina. I’d wash it down with some Glendalough 13 year old.
You started the Glendalough distillery in 2011 – what sort of background in beverage industry did you have before that?
There were five founders of the Glendalough distillery and we were all friends. Some of us were working in advertising, myself included. We were working on big brands like Jameson and Tullamore Dew and had learned quite a lot about Whiskey back in the noughties, how to market and advertise them and how to build a brand. Two of the other founders were beverage analysts for an investment bank and they needed to know all about the trends, while the fifth founder was actually selling Irish Whiskey in the US.
We all brought different strengths to the table, but we shared one thing in common, and that was our love for Irish Whiskey. We were very passionate about where it came from. The Irish were the very first to invent alcohol for consumption, going way back to the 6th century. Monks like St Kevin, whom you see on the front of our bottle, were the first to ever distil for consumption. The Irish taught those Scots how to make Whisky.
Each of the five Glendalough founders brought different strengths to the table, but we shared one thing in common, and that was our love for Irish Whiskey.
All five of us had good careers, but we were young and ambitious and passionate about Whiskey, so we turned our backs on them in order to set up Ireland’s first craft distillery. At first, we worked nights and weekends, because we all had jobs and had to fund our passion.
We started with whatever we could throw together financially and just went from there. I think it’s one of the reasons our product and our brand are so good and so strong - because we have followed our passion.
Speaking about the brand, what’s the story of St Kevin, the monk on Glendalough’s labels?
In the 6th century, St Kevin was supposed to be the next king of the Irish province called Leinster, but he turned his back on the nobility and hiked the mountains for 7 years until he came to this glacial valley, which is Glendalough, and set up a monastery there.
He was a monk, but not the sort fo monk we might think of today, we like to think he was more like Bear Grylls – his passion was the wilderness, God and doing things his own way, the hard way. We really liked that about him - doing hard, but right way. That’s the reason he’s on the front of our bottle.
It sounds like the five of you were pretty much a dream team and had all aspects of the distillery business covered from the start. What did you learn and what was the hardest part of doing it all?
In my previous career as a managing director of an ad agency I worked on many big brands, but also on many smaller, challenger brands - brands with attitude. I loved that, because challenger brands simply have to innovate to do well and cut through all of the noise that’s out there.
That was what Kevin and I did when creating our brand. We soaked in 15 and 20 years of experience and used it on our brand, which is very personal to us. We wanted to make sure it stood for the values that we stood for.
The Glendalough bottle itself, for instance, is quite unexpected and stands out on the shelf. But the brand goes beyond just the bottle, it’s everything we do as a company and we like to think we stand apart from the competition even more in the way we finish our Whiskeys. We’re very proud of our Irish distilling heritage - that we were the first to distil. But we also like innovating and using different finishes, different casks. We’re small enough to be nimble and just say “Let’s try this”, and if it doesn’t work, that’s fine, we’ll try something else. Maybe that’s something bigger brands cannot do.
Apart from Poitin and Irish Whiskey, you also produce Glendalough Gin – how is yours different from the many other craft Gins on the market?
When we decided to make Gin, we wanted to do something different that we would be proud of and that was innovative. We decided that we would use botanicals from around the area where the distillery is located. Our summer Gin had 30 different botanicals in it, of this were 6 botanicals that you’d expect in a Gin, while the other 24 were picked and foraged locally. Wicklow is known as the garden of Ireland and it’s absolutely stunning.
We the founders go out ourselves, but we also have a professional forager – what a great job to have! – and we pick what’s good, fresh and local and put that into our Gin. You can literally taste the terroir in our Gin.
We’re very proud of that and the fact that we’re a little different from any other Gin out there. With the big brands, you can always buy their Gins anywhere around the world and they are going to taste the same. Which is good and people like that. But what we wanted to do was celebrate inconsistency, in a good way – you’ll always get a superior Gin from us, but every year it will change with the season.
We don’t chill filter any of our drinks, so if you put ice into a glass and pour a nice tonic into our Gin, it will go cloudy, but that just means all the good stuff is in it.
Your distillery is also part of the great Irish Whiskey expansion that’s been going on for the past few years. How does it feel being part of this Irish Whiskey boom?
When we started, there were only three distilleries in Ireland making every brand of Irish Whiskey and multinational companies ran them all. We were all individually working for these companies, but we said, let’s try to go back and revive the flourishing Irish Whiskey industry that was really part of the culture and the country.
Currently, there are around 30-35 distilleries either built or being built, so that’s like 30+ distilleries since 2011.
Currently, there are around 30-35 distilleries either built or being built, so that’s like 30+ distilleries since 2011. It’s a good thing, because obviously competition keeps you on your toes and you have to always be aware, but I also think there’ s no reason why we can’t get back to being the largest Whisk(e)y industry again. It’s probably not going to happen any time soon, since Scotch is so big, but I think Irish Whiskey can get up to the levels of maybe Japanese Whisky or Canadian Whiskey in the next couple of years.
What do you think are the main reasons behind the growing demand for Irish Whiskey?
There are a couple of reasons – there are commercial reasons behind it, but I think it’s also the taste factor. Irish Whiskey is more accessible and smoother, especially for someone who’s new to the Irish Whiskey category. In our case it’s the Double Barrel, our best selling Whiskey, which is very light and it has been aged in Bourbon casks, so Bourbon drinkers gravitate towards it more easily than say, a heavily peated Scotch Whisky.
The commercial part is about some of the bigger brands of Irish Whiskey that have done quite a great job for the category, spending millions in the US and around the world promoting Irish Whiskey. If they hadn’t done that, there wouldn’t be the demand for Irish Whiskey that we currently see. They’ve done a fantastic job and we’re all very grateful to them.
What also works in our favour is the fact that now when people go out and get a drink, they want something really good, and they’re very much into an experience, they like what’s craft and artisan and they want to support local. They want to drink something with a bit of realness.
Before there was Whiskey, there was Poitin and you’re producing a few expressions of it as well. It seems that with the growing popularity of Irish Whiskey, Poitin is gaining recognition as well. What’s your view on the role of Poitin in the world of fine spirits?
Poitin is an interesting one and takes quite a lot of explanation. It’s quite niche and quite different. If I’m talking to someone outside of Ireland, I say Poitin is where it all began - it is Ireland's gift to the world as first ever distilled drink. And that is awesome!
It’s a very old spirit and it’s what Irish monks made in the 6th century. It can be made from a number of different things, though many people in Ireland think it’s made from potatoes. But it existed almost a thousand years before potatoes were introduced to Ireland. Glendalough Poitin is made of sugar beet, which back in the day was found everywhere in Ireland, as well as malted barley.
For most people, Poitin is very new, and they are drinking it predominantly in cocktails, though some people also sip on it. In really cool bars in places like Brooklyn, East London - Shoreditch, where people like something a little bit different, we’re seeing Poitin replacing Vodka in cocktails. It has a depth of flavour and an interesting taste – it’s a little bit like a young Whiskey, but the sugar beet brings a mellow sweetness to it. Mixologists love playing with it and we have a cocktail cookbook with about 60 different recipes in it, all using Poitin.
After Poitin, there is Whiskey. When it comes to Glendalough Irish Whiskey, what are its signature characteristics?
Most of Irish Whiskeys are blends, but all our Whiskeys are either single malts or single grains. We don’t blend. We are standing apart from what other people do. One of the reasons that we do that is sort of a nod to the heritage of what our grandfathers were drinking in the heyday of Irish Whiskey. That’s something we feel quite passionate about and that’s the style of our Whiskey.
In 2015, our single malts were up against all the big Irish Whiskeys at competitions and did great. Glendalough 13 YO won the best Irish Whiskey award at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and Glendalough 7 YO won the Taste Master Award in the Global Spirits Master awards.
Quite a start for a young distillery! We look forward to seeing what else you have in store for us in the future – can you give us any hints?
We will be innovating more in the future, like we did with our Double Barrel, finished in Oloroso Sherry cask, and Triple Barrel that was finished in both Sherry and Madeira barrels. Our customers absolutely loved them.
We have laid down some pot still Whiskey from our own distillery as well, and it will be at least another 4 years before we launch it. In the meantime, we are trying different casks and finishes in the background, and that is what makes us very unique.
This year we will be releasing at least a couple more Whiskeys with really exciting finishes, such as a 10-year old single malt finished in a porter beer barrel.
May St Kevin’s spirit be with you, guys!