Question: Can Irish Whiskey make an honest woman out of a lass with a strong Scotch pedigree? Hell yes it can.
Just ask Jennifer Nickerson, managing director of Tipperary Boutique Distillery. She grew up living beside many of the Scotch distilleries her dad, Stuart Nickerson, was managing. A 35-year vet in the industry, Stuart’s managed Highland Park Distillery, Glenrothes, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Kinivie and Girvan Grain distilleries—any of those ring a bell?
But Tipperary’s tale is also a bit of a love story. Because when Jennifer met Liam Ahearn, an Irishman with farming in his blood, this former finance whiz moved to the Irish town of Tipperary—also known as Ireland’s Golden Veil because of its amazing farmland.
Between Jennifer’s business acumen, Liam’s farming know-how and Stuart’s vast industry knowledge and connections, Tipperary was born. So we sat down with the father-daughter team and talked all things Irish Whiskey, the future of Tipperary Boutique Distillery and… 90s indie rock.
Tell us more about Tipperary and its founding as a relatively young company!Jennifer: The guys on the farm had always wanted to diversify. They were thinking about things they could do rather than just selling grain back to big merchants. So when Stuart raised the possibility of building a distillery, it seemed like an ideal proposition because we had these unique skills.
With that opportunity and those skills, we believed we could make something special in the Irish Whiskey category that would have real terroir and be linked to the land itself.
Dad’s worked in the Scotch Whisky industry for the past 40 years and also, there’s a unique heritage here because Liam's family, the Ahearns, had been farming the land for so long. With that opportunity and those skills, we believed we could make something special in the Irish Whiskey category that would have real terroir and be linked to the land itself.
Our goal has always been to do field-to-bottling on the farm. But Irish Whiskey is similar to Scotch in that you have to age the spirit for at least three years before it can be called Whiskey. We also had to construct a distillery on the farm, as well. And that was always gonna take more time. So what we're doing right now is independently bottling. We're buying a mature stock, cutting it to bottling strength with our own water and then bottling that under the Tipperary Boutique selection label.
We are fairly close to having a building completed. So hopefully by the summer, we’ll be able to distill white spirits and by the end of the year, we'll be distilling Whiskey.
You both have quite a bit of experience with Scotch. Why are you in Ireland now?Jennifer: I married an Irish farmer. That's probably the reason for the Irish connection.
Stuart: It was just so opportune. I was working as a consultant helping various new start-up distilleries and one of the distilleries was in Ireland. So I was spending a reasonable amount of time across from there as they were building their distillery and I kept going down to the farm area. It just became so obvious that this was a place that grew fantastic barley. And when I saw the type of barley they had, the maturation conditions, the fact that Irish Whiskey was starting to take off and that we had the skills to build a good business, it just seemed like the natural thing to do. And it gave me something that I really wanted to do, which was to make a spirit that wasn't Scotch but was very close to home.
Jennifer: Do you mind me going a little bit into Scotch versus Irish, as well?
Flaviar: Please do.
Jennifer: I'm originally Scottish and I'm a huge fan of Scotch Whisky. I think that it's fantastic. People say that Irish Whiskey is all easy drinking, smooth and sweet, but the rules around the GI verification of Irish Whiskey means that Irish Whiskey doesn't have to be that way. It has at least as much versatility as Scotch, and arguably more, in what you're allowed to mature it in. And it has the capacity to be really interesting and exciting, and it's starting to grow into that a little bit more now.
It gave me something that I really wanted to do, which was to make a spirit that wasn't Scotch but was very close to home.
That was the other interesting thing about doing Irish Whiskey instead of the Scotch. Scotland has over 100 distilleries and has been pretty well explored over the past couple of hundred years. Whereas Irish Whiskey didn't have that level of experimentation. There were only two Irish Whiskey distilleries up until the 80s. A third one opened in the 80s, and even now, there are only 26—and most of those are too young to have their own Whiskey coming out.
So there's a huge amount of development that needs to be done in order for Irish whiskey to figure out what each location’s style is gonna be. What's gonna be the style of the Whiskey in Connacht versus the style of the Whiskey in Munster?
There's a lot of research into terroir right now. Like, how are the soil type and the barley type we grow gonna influence the flavor of our Whiskey? I think Irish Whiskey is a really interesting place to be right now because everyone's experimenting and trying to figure out what's gonna work best for them and their location.
You have chosen to source some of the best Irish Whiskey and bottle it while you work on your own distillery. What is that process like?Jennifer: I think the most important part is making sure you're born the daughter of someone who's worked in the Whiskey industry for a long time. We rely massively on Stuart and his connections, so I'll let him take this over in a little bit.
The current Whiskey that we bottle comes from three different distilleries and we wouldn't have those connections or access to those barrels if it wasn't for Stuart and his history in the industry. And to be honest, we're lucky that we have him to taste and advise on what we should be bottling.
Stuart: When it comes to independent bottling, we know many people in Scotland do it, but there is a much greater supply of cask availability than there is in Ireland at this moment. So we were reasonably restricted. But I knew all the people that were trading in Ireland, so we had access to a good range of casks, and therefore, we had good selection availability. We went to the distilleries, selected what we felt were the best casks and then matured them. In some instances, we have put them into other casks to finish their maturation. So it allows us to play with the liquid if you like.
We can release some when we've decided it's time. And in other instances, we think we could get a really interesting product if we take one base cask and then put it into, for instance, a red wine cask or a sherry cask. And then a year or two later, we take it back out again and bottle it.
1. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Stuart: Mine would definitely be to fly. That's what I'd like to do. Go around, visit different cultures. I always want to learn something new. Every single day, I think there's something new you can learn about Whiskey. So to be able to fly and see what people in the industry are doing and chat with them, that would be fantastic.
Jennifer: I'd have the power to control the weather like Storm from the Marvel Universe. I'm married to a farmer so I need rain sometimes. But then I want to have a fantastic summer and really hot days so I can go out and sunbathe.
2. How would you explain Tipperary in three words?
Stuart: Flavorful, balanced and appealing.
Jennifer: I think I would say “Irish” because so much of what we do is tied up in talking about Ireland and our Whiskey. Especially when we go abroad. So I'd say Irish. Then it would have to be “terroir” and “farm” because that's constantly what we're thinking about.
3. What is your favorite music and what drink goes with it?
Stuart: Lively, funky rock music. The contrast of that when you're sitting late at night—particularly in dark Scottish winters—and you just want to have a complex single malt on your own or with a few friends.
Jennifer: I'm a total 90s indie chick. It's not quite at the stage where it's coming back around again but it's starting to—and I really love all that. So I would go with something cool and funky but reasonably traditional, so I would say an Old-Fashioned. And I'd probably go with Knockmealdowns because I love a Knockmealdowns-done Old-Fashioned.
4. What would you eat and drink for your last supper?
Stuart: Well, the first thing is I'm vegan, so you're not going to get any steak from me. But I would probably have a dish full of vegetables and nuts. I don't drink Wine or Beer, but I do drink Whiskey, so I would definitely have a really nice, light Whiskey with a meal—something like Watershed.
Jennifer: I'd go out to a restaurant for my last supper because I'm an awful cook. Mikey Ryan's and The Old Convent are two restaurants quite close to us and they celebrate local projects, suppliers and farmers, as well as Tipperary. So, I would definitely go to one of those. I pulled up their menu and I think today I'd have whipped cooleeney camembert, Traas farm plum and truffle syrup, baby beets and comfrey cottage micro herbs, with pistachio toast. I think I'd be happy. Then I'd probably pair it with a Whiskey cocktail because it's my last supper. Why not?
5. Assuming Watershed is your favorite, what's your second favorite Irish Whiskey?
Jennifer: I was down at Waterford Distillery—it's about an hour from us. They're getting grain from 46 different farms in Ireland and distilling it. The whole idea is proving the concept of terroir. So when I was down there, they were letting me taste different distillates. It had been in the same type of cask for maybe 18 months, but they'd been distilled from different grains from different farms. So there was barley, but barley that was grown in the very north of the country. Then, barley that was from the very south of the country. And one from the coast. They were so different. I just think everything they're doing right now is so interesting.
Stuart: I don't live in Ireland—I live in Scotland. But I visit a lot and every time I go through the duty-free shop in Dublin Airport there's always a changing Irish Whiskey selection. So each time I go through, I pick up a different bottle. And in some ways, I really do like what's happening in the Irish category with so many people experimenting. I was trying to think of my second favorite after Tipperary, and I would have to say, it goes back to one that's well-known by everybody and that's Redbreast. I just think it’s an extremely well put together Whiskey. It's a really good example of Irish Whiskey.
Tell us more about Watershed, including the story behind the name and the product itself.Jennifer: We had spoken to a couple of different distilleries and this was a surprise for us, really. It's reasonably young Whiskey. It doesn't have an age statement on it and it's beautifully balanced. I think although it's still quite young and vibrant, it's complex for its age.
Stuart: It's reasonably young—not too young—but it has a real complexity. You can drink it neat, you can drink it short over ice. I think it's just a fabulous drink. We're really impressed with it.
Jennifer: We called the brand Watershed because it was the first Whiskey that we cut to bottling strength with water from our farm, so it was a bit of a watershed moment for us. It was another step in bringing the product back towards the farm and at the time, we wanted to play a little bit with water because it’s so important for Whiskey. So I wanted to have that in the name somehow.
What the flavor profile?Stuart: I like to use the word “fresh,” but I don't mean to say that it is young. The flavor has a freshness, a greenness to it. And then there's complexity with some light grains and fruits in there, as well. I think it's fresh and lively and incredibly appealing.
I find it really interesting to talk to different people about what they taste coming through because it's always a little bit different. Everyone's taste is quite a subjective sense.
Jennifer: I do a lot of tastings all over Ireland and abroad. And Watershed's one that I find really fun because it's matured in ex-Bourbon casks. So there's all that honey and vanilla that you would expect from a traditional Bourbon Whiskey, but at the same time, it's quite fruity. I find it really interesting that I'll go and do a tasting in Dublin, say, and someone will tell me that they get honey flavors coming through.
And then I was in Japan last week and someone was telling me that they were getting pineapple and all these tropical fruits. So I find it really interesting to talk to different people about what they taste coming through because it's always a little bit different. Everyone's taste is quite a subjective sense.
How do you suggest serving it?Stuart: For me, I like drinking my Whiskey with just a small amount of water. But I have drunk and enjoyed Watershed as a much longer drink. Again, with water and ice or even with soda water, which I'm not a great fan of, but it worked very well, indeed.
Jennifer: I do like my Whiskey straight and Watershed's a lovely Whiskey to have. I love Whiskey cocktails with a really good Whiskey-based spirit.
We worked with a girl who's based down in Cork and makes her own syrups out of flowers, and so she does rose petal syrups, dahlia cordials and marigold syrups. And then she uses the edible flowers to garnish the cocktails. So we did a Tipperary Rose cocktail which had Tipperary Watershed Whiskey, a deep rose petal syrup and Langs, and it was garnished with blueberries and a sprig of chocolate mint.
What food pairs best with it?Jennifer: Watershed is fantastic with goat cheese. All those honey flavors contrast really nicely with the goat cheese’s texture and it just cuts through the soft thickness of the cheese. The slightly sharper but light texture of the Whiskey cuts through that and it just contrasts and compliments really, really well.
Watershed paired with smoked salmon from Cork was amazing. Really simple, really basic. But it’s the same kind of concept as the goat cheese. Do you know how the texture of salmon is quite thick in your mouth? You have to bite through it—but Watershed is just a light spirit that cuts straight through that and it's just fantastic.
What does the future hold for Tipperary?Jennifer: I suppose it's always about growth—making sure that we're growing in the markets that we're already in and that we're getting into new markets. We're maturing on the farm now. We should be distilling by the end of the year. Once we have that process in place, we're gonna have to have a much bigger focus on making sure that everyone knows about us. That everyone knows about our story.
I think Irish Whiskey is a really interesting place to be right now because everyone's experimenting and trying to figure out what's gonna work best for them and their location.
We want to get out into new markets, as well. So we're in the States and we've got a decent presence in Germany and Austria—European countries that are closer to us. But I was out this year, traveling to Russia, Singapore, Tokyo, and Seoul, in Korea. So it's about constant traveling and trying to get out there and talk to people all the time, as well as pushing for production to be on the farm.