The independent spirit of Ireland
Growth in a time of austerity
Despite the deepest economic downturn in decades gripping Ireland there is one industry that is currently bucking the trend – Irish whiskey is enjoying something of a boom time. This is largely due to the success of one company, Cooley Distillery. Irish owned, innovative and fiercely independent the Cooley story provides a beacon of hope to a beleaguered nation by winning international admirers at the same time as bringing in export revenue and funding much needed jobs.
You don't have to go back that far though to discover a time when things weren't so rosy for Irish whiskey. In the second half of the 20th century Irish whiskey production had all but disappeared and by 1987 Irish owned whiskey production didn't exist. The remaining distilleries were in the hands of foreign companies and Irish whiskey held a very small share of the global whiskey market.
Like so many talented Irish individuals prior to the “Celtic Tiger” - the rebirth of the Irish economy towards the end of the last century - John Teeling found himself in America and it was while studying there that he first started to investigate the demise of the Irish whiskey industry. What he discovered was that at one time it had enjoyed huge success and dominance in many foreign markets but due to some bad luck, and a good deal of mis-management, it had fallen away in global importance. By the late 1980s there were no Irish owned distilleries.
A new dawn
In order to compete they were going to need tenacity, resilience and some very clever thinking.
John resolved to do something about this if the opportunity ever presented itself and so it was that in 1987, along with business associate Willie McCarter, he secured the finance to buy Cooley Distillery for the production of whiskey and the old John Locke distillery, in Kilbeggan, for maturation.
As well as buying the distilleries Cooley purchased and revived some older Irish whiskey brands such as Kilbeggan and Tyrconnell. They've also created a few new ones in Connemara and Greenore. They are adventurous in their whiskey production and equally bold in their marketing strategy – unafraid to create brands and styles to respond to demand. That's not to say its all a cynical ploy to make money any which way – rather they realised that in order to compete with the foreign owned & dominant forces in Irish whiskey, or even to take on the competition in Scotland, they were going to need tenacity, resilience and some very clever thinking.
The truth is as compelling as the myth
Many distilleries self mythologise and the Cooley brands are no different but in many ways the reality is more of a fairy tale than any of the marketing led back stories. John Cashman, Cooley Ambassador, talked to us about the history of the Tyrconnell brand telling us the story of a racehorse which had won against the odds in 1876 and had the whiskey named after it. However it was when he discussed the modern Cooley story that his eyes really lit up.
He explained how it had taken them less than three decades to turn an old ethanol plant and a group of people who knew nothing about whiskey production into a successful and hugely respected distillery – producing some of the most interesting whiskey coming out of Ireland.
Cooley don't accept the notion that Irish whiskey has to be bland, they distil spirit full of character and flavour.
Cooley produces the only peated Irish whiskey in a land where peat is one of the most abundant natural resources. They created one of the most successful single grain whiskeys on the market and challenged the dominant thinking in Irish whiskey production by using double instead of triple distillation.
Cooley don't accept the notion that Irish whiskey has to be smooth to the point of blandness – instead they distil spirit full of character and flavour. They experiment with finishes, new methods of production and find innovative ways to market and bring their products to wider attention. In a time of negative economic growth Cooley are going from strength to strength, always looking forward and garnering praise, winning awards and new fans along the way.
In our film we speak to John Cashman about why the Irish whiskey industry fell away in the early part of the 20th century and how Cooley reinvented Irish whiskey. We also speak to Noel Sweeney who gives us unique insights into the production of Cooley whiskey and what the future holds for Cooley.
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