Originally published 01/10/2020
So, we move onto part two of what I think I will affectionately coin the Down Distillery Appreciation Society as we give some air time to probably Ireland’s smallest distillery and one that I just can’t help but be excited about.
Hand beaten alembic stills? Check! Direct fired stills? Check! Worm tub condensers? Check! Someone more opinionated than me running the place? Check! Ladies and Gentlemen, I introduce you to Killowen Distillery and their Head Distiller, Brendan Carty. (This is a long piece so the intro is short.)
Malt: You used to work as an architect so what led you into distillation and running a distillery of your own?
Brendan: Really my journey started when I became chartered and I was laid off at the same time during the height of the recession. At that point I went to Australia, I was doing some lovely work out there, it was great...I still love architecture and I still dabble. But there was a whisky club out there called the Oak Barrel in Sydney and I tasted this whiskey from Belgrove Distillery in Tasmania and I thought this is phenomenal... we tasted a 2 year old and then a 3 year old and it was better than a 24 year old Redbreast... I mean this stuff was just amazing. It was so good I was wondering how could this be so young?
So I went down to Tasmania and visited Peter (Bignell), the nicest chap in the world and very welcoming, has a farm and told me what he was doing, everything in small batch and he explained the importance of Irish whiskey and the history of Irish whiskey to me. So I realised I didn’t know much about pot still whiskey or the complexities of its history... but that was all to come.
So here was Peter explaining it, talking about mixed mashbills and the use of rye and the fact that rye was used in small quantities in Irish whiskey historically. So at any point, I had free time or leave I’d go and visit Peter at Belgrove. Peter then actually came to Ireland, stayed with us and toured around with us. We took him to Echlinville, tasted their new make spirit and told them to keep doing what you are doing as it tastes great.
Before I left for Australia I had been making poitin for fun for local farmers. When I came back from Australia I worked in architecture for about a year but at the same time, I was planning my own distillery and looking for a shed essentially. A few places fell through but eventually, I got one and started building it with no money! Looking at what stills I could use which eventually we managed to get, what burners to use, got the planning permission but again had no money. Thankfully I got a bit of funding and one thing led to another and at that point, Shane McCarthy and Liam Brogan came on board as co-founders. They are childhood friends of mine from Hilltown which is just two villages away from Warrenpoint.
They had set up a company called Ireland Craft Beverages and were exporting quality Irish craft beers and spirits around the world. It’s a good business and the fact that they took the leap encouraged me to push ahead and to have them come on board to help with distribution and to assist with their business acumen. So there was a good young team being built with a good commitment from people who really loved whiskey.
While all this was going on in the background I was a regular a Fionnán O’Connor’s whiskey tastings in the Dingle Whiskey Bar (Dublin). I probably don’t give Fionnán enough credit but without doubt, he was a massive influence. I bought his book and had it shipped to Australia which is crazy because the book was actually printed in Australia, shipped to Ireland for distribution and then back to Australia, so the carbon footprint of that one book was massive!
His book is actually in the distillery as it’s a fantastic historical reference and along with going to his tastings, well it was like an indoctrination to be honest.
Plus I have a bit of a socialist mindset and the fact that there are multinational conglomerates that are controlling Irish Whiskey legislation through a lobby group that pretends that it’s trying to protect Irish Whiskey but in fact, I believe it is whitewashing its history and culture, these things just ring alarm bells! Next thing we know they will try to trademark the term ‘Irish Whiskey’ and it will be a slippery slope from there.
We describe ourselves as a ‘true’ distillery and we want to make the whiskey that people want to drink. I think that’s the good thing about Killowen is that we set up a distillery as whiskey drinkers and I think we are well in touch with what the public wants because we are the public.
Very quickly we knew that our ‘Bonded’ whiskies would be cask strength, no filtration, no colour... you know integrity bottlings that didn’t exist in Ireland and we want to set a new standard and let other people follow... which I believe is starting to happen. There are people looking at Killowen and thinking, ‘you know, we could do that too.’. Really we think everyone should be doing integrity bottlings which are far more commonplace in Scotland.
Malt: I think it’s that whole thing that in Ireland for years we have been told that Irish whiskey is and always has been ‘smooth’ which is a total fallacy, isn’t it?
Brendan: I think that was useful for the survival of Irish Whiskey in terms or re-marketing ourselves as smooth and triple distilled but we know with the historical evidence that’s coming out, especially through Fionnán and his PhD... we are being treated constantly to new information... in fact he should be paid by the government it’s so important. The whiskey industry should have key man insurance on him in case he dies! The information he is releasing is so crucial, I mean I don’t have the time to go about researching stuff like that in that depth and he really doesn’t get enough credit!
Malt: Killowen is obviously a very small distillery could you maybe talk us through the features of the distillery?
Brendan: So the distillery itself was actually a wee dilapidated shed with tree’s growing out if it, so we put it back together. It’s 10 metres by 10 metres with a 20ft steel container stuck on the side of it that was falling apart... so we cladded that up. Inside then we have two flame fed stills, a mash tun and two water tanks, a barrel store, a toilet and a bar which we use for tastings which often turn into a lock-in... a shabeen type of situation.
The location is great and historically up until recently there was poitin being made around the area and it was known for that. Back in Napoleonic times, it was known for being a brandy route... taking the brandy from the laugh up into the north and all around the Mournes. But there’s also a whole load of magic around the area, singing, culture... it all fits in and isn’t contrary at all.
Malt: Your stills are unique aren’t they? Hand beaten alembic stills if I’m right?
Brendan: Yeah they are, we wanted to make our own stills but we were so busy juggling time between building the place and working that we went for the safer option. We found one still manufacturer who would work with us building what we wanted which was a hybrid still between an alembic and a Northern European whiskey still so with a pot belly but a tall swan neck along with a long lyne arm and a worm tub. There was only one company would let us do that and allow us to have flame fed stills as well.
Sourcing the flame burners that would provide enough heat without burning a hole in the base of the still was hard as was gaining Building Control, especially in regard to fireproofing, as well trying to source A-tex electricians on a minuscule budget. All the while trying to learn the trade by making poitin for local farmers... it was a real juggle.
So the local farmers tell me, and I not going to be arrogant enough to tell them that they are wrong, but if you have a stillborn lamb or cow that if you give them a dose of poitin it will bring them round.. so come lambing season all the farmers are looking bottles of poitin!
Malt: You aren’t just making whiskey....you are also making gin and poitin too just to help bring in some finances, right?
Brendan: Yeah, indeed and poitin got a bad wrap especially as a few dodgy ones were released. So we created one that was close to a pot still whiskey mash bill just changed slightly to make it more palatable. We thought it was good, full-bodied and flavoursome and something that we could release in small batches... something versatile which could be used in cocktails for example and Old Fashioned or even in Irish Coffee’s.
We have been looking at other things like liqueurs, even a seltzer... things that are fashionable but don’t get me out of bed in the morning, but will help us to finance the whiskey until it’s ready for release.
Malt: So thinking about the process from start to finish... you have a very long fermentation time don’t you?
Brendan: Yeah, we do and it’s not consistent in any way. The fermenter is a big tank that we wheel in and out of the still house. We mix our wort by hand, mill on-site and get our oats from the local area, we malt onsite as much as possible and smoke the grain onsite too which leads to little inconsistencies which we like.
When we get the wort out we let it cool down naturally, which is important because it means it will get infected by native bacteria and yeast in the local air which helps create a sour beer with lots of pineapple notes and citrus notes. Sometimes we will ferment outside for about a week, others we have left for 10 days and it will probably go on to 15 days. So it may go a bit manky but the flavours that come out of it are really, really interesting. Again this leads to inconsistency and variance in flavours.
Malt: That variance is something that may not be achievable for the ‘major’ brands as they feel that it could harm their market share. You, however, have come out of the starters gate expressing a desire to explorer flavours which a lot of consumers also want.
Brendan: Exactly, and I think the day that we stop being experimental, looking for flavours and making bold moves... well I think we might regret that. We obviously have made some mistakes undoubtedly, some that were very expensive. We did one that was 100% rye that was just a waste of money, effort, time, blood, sweat and tears. Rye seems to drink water and doesn’t increase in size and become buoyant, instead, it just turns into a sticky gloop. So we added oats and made the mash bill 90% rye and it was the nicest spirit we have drawn off the stills yet and then stuck it in Pinot Noir casks which we were assured would be brilliant and it totally ruined it! Although the spirit was unbelievable I wouldn’t be able to put myself through making it again. We have taken it out of the Pinot Noir casks now and out it into American rye casks to try and rescue it.
Malt: The saying goes that the man who has never made a mistake has never made anything so it’s all part of the learning process isn’t it?
Brendan: It is indeed, but then again our normal pot still, when we put that into virgin oak casks it just pulls out this amazing spicy, clove profile which is great too which was a nice mistake to make!
Malt: So after fermentation you have been doing everything you can to extract flavours from your beer... so going through distillation would you run your stills quite slowly?
Brendan: Yeah, so I did a week-long course over a Strathearn Distillery which is roughly similar size to ourselves although they have a bit of a better output. They use steam stills and use straight line condensers rather than worm tubs. The worm definitely slows things down as you are relying on the still to push everything through... so it’s a 13 hour still shift for us on a good day. I start off a run at 7 am and the stills are turned off at 8 pm which is a long, long shift and of course we are taking our cuts in between.
Our stills are 1000 litre for the wash still and 800 litre for the spirit still. We only fill our wash still with 700 litres of wash and the spirit litre with 500 litres... so we have a massive interaction between the copper and spirit. It’s very inefficient but we believe a much better spirit is produced and that doesn’t require as much ageing. We have pot still that is matured for only 1.5 years at present and I think it would sell no problem, especially the non-GI (geographic indicator) stuff, it’s even better again as it has a higher oat component that makes it more mellow on the palate but allows more complexities to shine through.
Malt: It would stand to reason then that with stills of that size and long distillations that you don’t have a massive output!
Brendan: Absolutely, you’re right. 70 litres a day, which during Covid have been reduced to 3 days a week but hopefully we’ll be back up to 4 or 5 days a week soon. We are getting that from fourteen 25kg bags of barley which is expensive, malt really is expensive. Plus then we are using different things like wheat, rye and oats too. Actually making single malt was just be cheaper to do.
Malt: So we have touched on this earlier chatting about Fionnán, but you’re pretty keen on your mashbills aren’t you?
Brendan: Exactly, yeah. You can be contrived about these things and say there’s a mashbill from eighteen hundred and something from such and such a distillery and we’ll make that because it’s historically accurate....but the thing is those distilleries used those mashbills for a reason. It may have been handy, the equipment could work with it etc. Our mashbills are based on bags... so although they are loosely related to previous mashbills by coincidence only because we are toying about with things... but it comes down to being based on bags and half bags.
So our GI mashbill it uses half a bag, which is a bit of hassle but our non-GI relates to full bags and it taste’s much better. Just right now we are finishing off our current mashbill that was done temporarily during the Covid crisis because the supply chain was interrupted and we had to work with what we had and so it ended up using more oats than normal... it’s only a small shift but it makes a world of difference in the flavours achieved.
Malt: Thinking about the Technical File... about the Geographic Indicator... if you are producing a non-GI spirit how does that come to market then?
Brendan: Well I’m calling it pot still and I’m willing to take the legal fight. Somebody has to stand up and be counted and we are going to do it. There is corruption, an outright corruption the information being presented to the Department of Agriculture. This information doesn’t fairly represent the Irish Whiskey industry but in-fact acts with an increasing agency of one particular monopoly, well that’s how it seems to me anyhow.
But the structure of any government organisation, that influences law, should be made fully transparent. There should be the legitimacy of one person, one vote, rather than a secretive voting structure based on economic output. No one organisation can have the veto on Irish Whiskey unless it is fully public, transparent and 100 % government-financed.
So right now, as we speak the term ‘peated’ pot still is being removed from the Technical File description of pot still. You can have a peated malt but peated pot still is being removed. This should be debated in both the Dail and the Northern Assembly and not behind closed doors with an exclusive group.
Malt: That seems to be madness as many new producers are setting out to produce peated pot still... for example, the likes of James Doherty at Sliabh Liag whose modus operandi is to make peated pot still! So essentially he’s being hamstrung before he starts?
Brendan: Exactly. Reformation needs to happen but we know it will take time and at the same time we don’t want to cause a schism in the industry.
Malt: At present your are releasing the Killowen Bonded Experimental series which is sourced and you are completely honest and transparent about that. How long then do you think it will be before you release your own whiskey then?
Brendan: Well we have 18 month old spirit right now so I’d say once it is 3 years old we will release it with a label proudly telling people it’s age, letting them know what they are drinking... and we have a lot of interest in our product right now so we want to take people on the journey with us... so we will save some to allow it to mature further. I’m confident that it will be ready to drink at 3 years old and I’ll probably release single cask expressions too. If there is vatting of casks that will be explained on the labels. We will probably stick to the two core mashbills and then release other things as special releases. The two core mashbills will be the GI & non-GI with the non-GI also being peated which ironically is much more historically accurate than the GI release.
Malt: At present, you are releasing in 50cl bottles, will that continue?
Brendan: I think so, we are so small we can’t really do what the big players can do. As our batches are so small then the 50cl makes it more affordable for the consumer too. We may go with a different shape of the bottle but that will be a future decision.
Thanks to Brendan for taking the time to talk us here at Malt. To finish off the piece I’ll give you my tasting notes on his two new makes.
Killowen Pot Still - review
Geographic Indicator compliant, non peated 60% abv.
On the nose: sweet barley sugar, fresh sourdough bread, pear drops, tart lime zest and apricot schnapps with runny honey too.
In the mouth: Oily and mouth coating with practically no alcohol burn even at 60%. Malt driven, bready and biscuity, sour citrus zest - lime and grapefruit with some apricot followed by a pleasing spice warmth.
Killowen Pot Still - review
Non-Geographic Indicator, peated 57.5% abv.
On the nose: Again sourdough bread, malted biscuits, salted butter, coal tar, new rubber, dried tea leaves and sweet peat.
In the mouth: Sweet malt, toasted sourdough, salted porridge, chargrilled peaches and apples, pepper heat and lapsang souchong tea with some bonfire smoke.
As I said in the preamble Killowen is a distillery that excites me so much, it has so much promise. Fully hands-on, the essence of ‘craft’ with absolutely dedicated owners and staff who want to not just replicate Irish Whiskey of old but put their stamp assuredly on it. Sure Killowen Whiskey will never be cheap due to its monumentally small scale but it is certainly carving out a niche already that bodes well for its future.
I don’t want to preempt things here but I think that Killowen will be Ireland’s answer to Springbank. Uncompromising, inconsistent but wholly inspirational. Sure Brendan and co will not get it right all the time, tell me a distillery who does, but it’s going to be an exciting ride with Killowen.
I have already bought into a cask share based on what I’ve seen from Killowen and it’s a distillery I’ll continue to support wholeheartedly into the future.
Roll on 2022.
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