Billy has played a key role in selecting and carefully blending Whiskeys of different ages and taste profiles at Jameson for nearly ten years. And as if collaborating on the world’s best-selling Irish Whiskey wasn’t enough, he’s also had a hand in other Irish gems, like Redbreast, Green Spot, Yellow Spot, and others, altogether well over 60 products!
So how does one become a Master Blender? Well, it’s certainly true that there’s no such thing as a straightforward career path. For Billy, it started nearly 40 years ago when he became a trainee accountant at the distillery. Later, he left the ledgers and balance sheets behind to get involved in the production, where he gradually built up enough experience and knowledge to become a Master Blender.
Billy kindly took time out of his busy schedule for an early morning chat about Whiskey and flavors. His apparent passion for Whiskey was amazing and made Uncle Flaviar want to imbibe an extra dram of Jameson that day, so make sure to have one on hand before you read on.
1. How would you describe Jameson to the Dalai Lama?
Jameson is an exceptionally smooth and approachable Whiskey. A grain element in Jameson gives it a top, light, floral, perfumy type note. There’s a nice little bit of vanilla sweetness and spicy character from the pot still that comes in at the end. It can easily be mixed: a signature mix is Jameson, ginger and lime. A beautiful, refreshing drink, all those things work together well. But if you’re like me, you don’t want to put anything in your Whiskey.
2. If you could have one superpower at your job, what would it be?
Probably time travel. Because I live about 320 miles away from the Midleton distillery, I claim to have the longest commute in Ireland. I could go home every night and be with my family. There are so many people at the moment interested in Irish Whiskey and what I do, that sometimes I have to let them down because I can’t be at two places at once and I hate doing that.
3. What's your favorite music and what drink goes with it?
I would probably go back to the seventies. Bands like Fleetwood Mac, Dr. Hook or Tom Petty. In our range we have a drink for every occasion, so something like Powers John’s Lane, which is quite robust, spicy, earthy. It really is one for the rockers.
4. Do you have a favorite flavor?
Sherry! For two reasons: It always takes me straight to Spain, to the bodega that smells of wood and Wine, where our casks are housed.
The other aspect is what Sherry can bring to the Whiskey in terms of complexity and depending on the Sherry cask and period of time, it will deliver different things.
There’s a little bit of Sherry in the Green Spot, for example, and that brings in light fruity notes, like apples and pears. Once Sherry goes past 7 or 8 years, it becomes heavier with notes of dried fruits, raisins and sultanas. The wood influence brings a nutty character, like almonds or walnuts. A fantastic component!
5. What would you eat and drink for your last supper?
It definitely would be Whiskey. If it was my last meal, it would be Kobe beef steak washed down with Redbreast 21.
In what way is Irish Whiskey special in the Whisky world?
From an Irish distiller's, and especially Jameson perspective, Irish Whiskey tends to be lighter in character than Scotch, American Whiskey, or Japanese Whisky. That would probably be down to the traditional triple distillation method.
Although it is traditional, it's not the rule, although everything we do at the Midleton distillery is triple distilled. On the same site we produce grain Whiskey from corn that is produced in columns, whereas the pot still Whiskey that we make is a category on its own and made from a mash of both malted and unmalted barley. That kind of sets us apart from other Whiskies as well.
What makes it special for me are the people. It sounds a bit corny, but some people really are born into Irish Whiskey, like our previous Master Distiller, Barry Crockett, and some people, like myself, are really lucky to get an opportunity to be part of it. People who make Whiskey really have a high impact on how it turns out at the end. They’re there because they feel they are a part of something very special.
And you are a very important part of it yourself. Being a Master Blender, it brings up an image of you being surrounded with Whiskey samples, sniffing, tasting and mixing them… What is it really like?
That is part of it, a very important part of it. But I would say that the key part of my job as a Master Blender is to ensure the consistency of our products on a day-to-day basis. I’m dealing with 60 to 70 different brands that are pulling on the stock that is limited to what has been produced on site. We only use single distillery stock and don’t buy from other distilleries like the blending works in Scotland. Management of the stock we do have is therefore very important in ensuring consistency.
It also means that a lot of the time you will find me in front of the computer, because there are so many aspects that have to be handled ahead of the bottling, in order to make everything available as needed.
Take casks, for instance: To have a Sherry cask available for filling today, I would have had to indicate that requirement five years ago! We want to know the provenance of the casks, so we have them made especially for us in Spain, at a cooperative that we have a long standing association with.
They source the wood from their suppliers in Northern Spain, screening every tree that will be cut down for our casks. The wood is dried naturally and takes close to two years, before it can be made into the cask. Once the cask is made, it’s typically filled with Oloroso Sherry and seasoned in the bodega and then rested for another two years. So all in all, there’s a five year period of time to get a cask ready for filling.
Then there’s the aging. Jameson Original for example, has a portion of the Sherry cask maturation in the final product. To get it to seven years, it’s another seven years on top of the five that were needed for the cask, which means that we have a forecast of twelve years.
And we’ve got a 10 year forecast for distillery production. So suddenly the 12 year forecast changes to 22 years, for just a standard brand. With older releases, such as Redbreast 21 year old, we’re all the way out to a 40 year forecast to have everything laid out in advance and that stock available on a day-to-day basis for each of the brands.
To stay on top of it, we use software for managing stocks, where we input the data, such as existing stock and formulation by type, the cask type, sales forecast and also warehouse losses - the Angels’ Share.
With the quantities you’re dealing with, the Angels’ share must be quite significant?
We lose about 2% a year to angels' share, on average. Based on the stock that we had at the warehouse towards the end of 2014, it means that we'll be averaging 29 thousand bottles of Jameson a day! Many people have tried to prevent these losses, but it’s a perfectly natural thing and when you try to interfere with things like that, you don’t get the same result. It’s Mother Nature at her cruelest.
The palate and the nose are important for your work, what do you do to keep them in top shape?
People think I’m crazy sometimes, but I will literally put everything to my nose on a routine basis and associate it with a component in the Whiskey. I'm always analyzing smells. When I walk along the seashore, I observe the aromas coming from the sea and the sand, when going for a walk in the woods, you’re getting some woody notes from the trees, notes of vegetation…
The smell is definitely the primary sense for my work. When working in the lab, it’s 90% smell. Whenever I’m putting together batches of premium brands, like Jameson Gold Reserve, or any of the pot stills, I screen every single cask that goes onto each batch. And that’s all by nose. New product development is all done by nose as well, up until it’s narrowed down to a few options. That’s when the taste becomes important.
Speaking of new product creation - how does that happen?
Any new products would be driven by our marketing people, who would give me some direction on what they’re looking for. All of our ranges have their own particular style that links everything together. New product will typically be a line extension, rather than something completely new and the marketing people will already have categorized it into a family range, giving me a pretty good idea of the style, but also how it should be different from anything else in that range.
With the Jameson Black Barrel for example, it was going to be in the Jameson family, but we wanted it to be slightly sweeter in style. So I went to my toolbox to see what can I do to elevate the level of sweetness. We experimented with a few things, and it turned out that a slight change to the grain component, with its unique sweet and creamy butterscotch flavor would be best. And it’s up to me as to what I need on hand to make those little changes that the Whiskey drinkers are looking for.
Do you do any experimenting? In other words: Are there any secret barrels somewhere in the distillery?
Yes, everybody will have something in the background. In the Whiskey business you can’t just come up with a good brand and leave it. You have to have some innovation or potential for innovation. We have casks maturing Whiskey that don’t really have a home just yet.
We do bring in casks from Europe: Sherry, Malaga Wine - some of those casks have been used in Yellow Spot - Marsala, Port and also Madeira Wine casks that haven’t found a home for yet, but no doubt will at some stage.
I also experiment all the time in the lab: I'll put components together that normally don’t come together in any of our products, just to see how they work and log it away at the back of my mind for future reference.
Elizabeth I was allegedly a big fan of Irish Whiskey – how was her Spirit different than what we drink today?
Skipping again to modern times, have you seen the Whiskey change through the span of your career?
In more recent times, the distillation at Irish Distillers hasn’t really changed much. But with modern technology we’re able to use controls that give a more consistent distillate, which is good for me as a blender, because I have every confidence in the stock that’s been put away, since I really know what to expect.
On the maturation side, we’ve become really aware on how important the quality of the wood was for the consistency of the product, so we’re investing heavily in the wood. Within the next 12 months, we’ll have 140,000 ex Bourbon barrels coming in from America and 5,000 Sherry butts coming in from Spain. We cycle our casks three times; after that, we reckon they don’t have any contribution left that we feel is desirable in our Irish Whiskey.
It’s a little bit different in Scotland, where they would typically distill just twice, so the distillate would not be as refined as the Irish triple distilled distillate. So the character of Scotch is mostly in the distillate, rather than what the cask is bringing at maturation, whereas we’re kind of supplementing it, the triple distilled pot still character with the cask contribution. Therefore, the consistency of the cask quality is very important to us.
What do you see coming up for Irish Whiskey in the future?
At Irish Distillers, we’re seeing that there’s a huge interest in Irish single pot still Whiskey, with Redbreast forging the way.
What’s very exciting in Ireland, is the interest in Irish Whiskey, with nearly 20 new distilleries either just up and running, or in the planning phase, whereas up until just recently, there have only been three distilleries operating in Ireland. And now everyone is going to want to make their own mark and do something slightly different than the others.
The Irish Whiskey category has loads of room for everybody that wants to get involved, because we only have a very small percentage of the world Whiskey market, 4% or so, so there’s plenty of room for growth for everyone.