„I want to be the Compass Box of Ireland”. Interview with Louise McGuane, Chapel Gate Whiskey

Louise McGuane is the first Irish Whiskey bonder in almost a century. And she has set herself an ambitious goal: "I want to become the Compass Box of Ireland", she says. Some days ago, I was lucky enough to catch up with Louise in Germany, where she presented her first release after two years of development. In the course of the evening, I learned a lot abour Irish Whiskey and what it means to be an Irish Whiskey bonder. Here is my interview with Louise:

Louise McGuane, Irelands first modern Whiskey bonder

MM: Louise, you just told me that you are the only Irish Bonder right now. What exactly does an Irish Bonder do?

Louise: Irish Whiskey Bonding is a very old business model, which died out in Ireland a long time ago. Back in the 1800s, up to the 1930s, distillers didn't bottle their own whiskey, they passed it on to third parties, and those third parties matured it, blended it, and bottled it under their own brandings. And they did that in very large scales. Up in Dublin, there were masses of big bonders, and big warehouses, but very small scale as well.

Where I'm from, on the West Coast of Ireland, it was normally mercantile owners, grocers, or publicans, who would buy a few casks of whiskey, matured them on site, and custom blend them for their customers. So, every town had its own unique sort of whiskey, there was a huge amount of variation. But it all died out in the 1930s, when we went from having hundreds of distilleries to having only four. And those four distilleries cut off the bonders, began to control their route to market, and began bottling and blending themselves.

I want to bring this old tradition back.  I'm doing it under the brand name J.J.Corry. He was a whiskey bonder from my locality in the 1890s. I have a lot of archived information about what he did and how he did it, and where he sourced his stock from.  I'm taking it as an inspiration and I try to give it a modern twist for the modern whiskey drinker.

MM: Is that the reason why the label of your first release looks so classical Irish?

Louise: J.J. Corry had a little shop in  Kilrush, just three miles away from my farm. You could buy all sorts of things there, like Rum, Port, Brandy, and even ammonition and bicyles. And he also sold his own blend "Corry's Special Malt."  J.J. Corry's shop was open until 1983, when his daughter died. She hadn't changed anything since the 1930's, when her father died, so everything was exactly the same.

The shop then was sold, and the interiors went to an Antiques Dealer, who sold it on to a folk park. You can still see the shop there today. At the attic, the dealer found labels, and wrapping paper, and advertisments from J.J. Corry, and telegramms, and receipts and stuff like that. So we have a huge amount of paper about the old company, which is very valuable for me, when it comes to archive and research. And we also have the original labels. I just modernised them a little bit, but I had a pen artist to redraw the shamrock, because it was a pen artist that would have done the original label.
 
MM: Do you have a background in the drinks industry? 

Louise: Yes, I left Ireland in 1995 and I joined Moet Hennessy, and then I went to Pernot Ricard, and then Diageo. My whole career has been spent in marketing and with big multi-national companies. But when I got married some years ago, I didn't want to travel around the world any longer, and I went home to Ireland. My parents are farmers, and as they are getting older, it was also time to think about the future of the farm. 

MM: So you have a farm, and a warehouse with many casks, but you don't have a distillery.

Louise: I source whiskey from other distilleries, and I've built a bonded warehouse on my farm, specifically for maturing my own whiskey. I'm also building a blending facility on the back, so I will be able to do the blending onsite as well. It's under planning at the moment, I hope for it to be open by June of next year. Right now, I'm doing the blending and bottling offsite.

Reviving an old tradition: J.J. Corry


MM: Where do you source your whiskey from?

Louise: I wouldn't have been able to do this ten years ago, because there were only one or two distilleries in Ireland at that time. But now, there are about 32 distilleries either planned or in operation. At the moment, I'm sourcing from one particular distillery, by the end of the year, I will be sourcing from two more, and then I will have three different types of whiskey in my rack house, and at the end of next year, I'll have between two or four more different distilleries. The wholesale market in Ireland has completely changed in the last three years. The new distilleries are waiting for their whiskey to mature, many of them are selling on the wholesale market, and I'm going around and building relationships with all these new distilleries and trying to source as much stock as I can - from the big distilleries and also from the very small guys, where it gets really interesting.

MM: Do you source matured whiskey or New Make or both?

Louise: At the moment, to get to market, I'm sourcing two different kinds of whiskey: one is matured, from the Cooley Reserves, and a little bit of Bushmills as well - that is the only really matured stock that is actually available. And it is less and less available, because so much been sold in the last two or three years. So, I have matured stock that I'm releasing over time, a thousand cases per year, for the next five years, and I'm also sourcing new filled stock. I'm talking about brand new baby whiskey, fresh off the still. That New Fill goes into my casks, which means, casks that I have sourced.

I'm meticulous around everything that happens from the moment the whiskey comes off the still. I make sure that my spirit is excellent quality, I don't buy from everybody, and I don't buy everything I'm offered. I start with excellent spirit, and then it goes into really excellent quality casks - juicy casks, that I know the origin story for. It's really important for me to have stewardship of the casks from the second they leave the distillery. Then it is all down to me as to what quality level I get at the end.

MM: Can you give me some examples of the kind of casks you have right now?

Louise: Currently, the first batch that is maturing at my farm is sitting in ex-bourbon and ex-Tennessee casks. I have Jack Daniels Casks, Woodford Reserve Casks, and Old Forester Casks. I went to Louisville, Kentucky and sourced the barrels from a guy who only sells to small, craft outfits in the US. He sources his casks directly from the distilleries; his cousins work in the distilleries. I specifically asked for these three different types, because I like those profiles, and then I dictated exactly what spirit went into each, wether it was malt or grain, for example. They arrived just five weeks after they've been disgorged, which means those casks were really fresh, and I made sure that they were not power-rinsed. A lot of the distilleries in the US power-rinse the casks to leach the final bourbon out of the wood, and that leaves the casks a bit less active. I didn't want those. My casks are really, really juicy.  I really see the difference. My New Fill Spirit is developing really nicely, and has taken on a beautiful colour.

Louise and Mareike, her German Importer, before the launch of J.J.Corry in Germany

MM: How long will we have to wait to see your first releases?

Louise: I don't know. It's coming along really beautifully, but I have to wait till it is ready. It will be at least five years, I'd guess. Maybe I will do a special release in three years, just for the hell of it. But I'm going to give it as long as it takes. I have enough matured whiskey to get me to year five. That's for sure. But then, I will have to figure out, if my whiskey is good enough to be released, or if I have to wait and get more matured whiskey.

MM: How do you keep track of your barrels?

Louise: I just have an Excel Spreadsheet at the moment, but every cask has its own place in the rack house, and that's all written down. Every time a cask moves, it is written down.  I don't have high computer technology, but I'm very organized. You have to be very meticulous about your casks in a bonded warehouse.

MM: What does it mean to have a bonded warehouse on your farm?

Louise: It means that the whiskey can travel from the distillery to my warehouse and I don't have to pay the taxes yet. It is outside the tax realm. The moment I remove whiskey out of the warehouse, I am liable to pay taxes on it. Excise officers can come whenever they like, they can knock on the door and check my warehouse.  I had to provide them an office on the premise.

MM: ... including the coffee machine?

Louise: Not quite. But I had to have a toilet, and full internet access. They need a full office environment. I think it's not as bad as in Scotland, and I have a very good relationship with my excise officer, that I have been building for the last three years.



MM: Can you tell me a bit more about your warehouse? 

Louise: A lot of people in Ireland are buying stock and selling it on, but the casks mature in big, centralised warehouses. I believe that my warehouse maturation conditions are going to create something unique. I have a clay floor in the rack house. It is the only clay floor in Ireland, I know that for sure. Once they were very traditional, because they are very good for humidity levels, but they are all gone now. If I need more humidity in my warehouse, I just spray water on the floor and it self-regulates.

The rack house is southerly facing, so we get good thermal energy, it can get pretty hot in there, which is good, because you want the day-and-night-temperatures really to fluctuate. I now have a very cool weather monitor on the outside of the rack house, and I'm waiting to get one year of data, to see what's going on about barometral pressure and temperature and all that. My bet is that that will give us a bit of a difference to the whiskey that comes out of my rack house.
Warehouse and Farm. Pictures courtesy of Lousie

MM: Do you keep your matured casks in the same warehouse like the New Fill? 

Louise: No, there is no point in bringing a 26-year-old whiskey down to mature there. It's done. It is, what it is. I have to say that we are really lucky, because that Cooley Stuff that I bought is actually really good. There is not a bad batch with it, all the casks I selected are really, really good. I knew how much 10-year-old I wanted, I knew how much 26-year-old I wanted, and I knew how much 15-year-old I wanted, because of the costs. So we went to the Cooley warehouse and pulled a lot of casks and tasted a lot, and we particularly hand-picked the 26-year old: It is really excellent quality stock. My challenge is, to begin to build a house-style of whiskey, that I'm working towards.

I'll never be able to have exact consistency, it's going to take a decade until we have a real kind of flow going, but in the meantime, we can start to experiment with the whiskey we have, and start to figure out what our kind of approach is. For example, I have four beautiful smokey casks with 26-year-old whiskey, the nose is very heavily peated. The whiskey is not peated but it was filled in peated casks, which at some point had peated something in them. I have to think about if I'm going to use these beautifull casks as a top note in my next blend and or if  I'm going to isolate them and blend them together. That's were things begin to get interesting, when we start to dig into the detail of exactly what we have, and it gives us a huge range to play with.

MM: You have come to Germany to launch your first release today. Can you give us some specific information about its content?

Louise: I wanted to come out of the gate with a classic Irish whiskey, rather than a finish. I wanted to prove our blending skills. We put an enormous amount of effort into it, and went through 15 different blends, before we decided on this one. Our approach is, that we flavour-block every single cask that we have, and every single vintage, we then vat a core blend, and from that, we decide where to go and what to add. So we  landed on a core that we really like and then we topped it up with a 26-year old whiskey, and a grain as well, and it ends up being a very fruit-forward kind of Irish Whiskey. It has lovely white stone fruit notes, like peaches, citrus notes, a nice peppercorn finish, a bit of minerality, it's undeniably an Irish Whiskey. It's that juicy fruit-bomb flavour that people look for. That's what I wanted to deliver. It is seven and a half thousand bottles of it, and then we will go on to batch two. I will wait and see how people like batch one, before I decide on batch two. It will probably come out in February or March. 

MM: We've tried J.J. Corry Batch One tonight, and I was amazed how pronounced the twenty-six-old Cooley/Teeling Whiskey sticks out in this blend. Did you want to make it taste like an old Teeling?

Louise: Five percent of the recipe are  26year old John-Teeling-Whiskey. That is a very bold thing to do, because it is very rare stock. I will be very honest with you, when it came down to do it, we had Blend A, B, C and D, and we blind-tasted all of those with many people, and everybody landed on that blend. There were other blends, that had only 2 percent, or three percent, but people liked this one the best. And I just went for it, because it was what people preferred. Those casks are really special, and they were all Ex-Sherry-Butts.

MM: Which is a prove that people actually can taste the quality of a whiskey, even if they don't know what is in it.

Louise: Yes, it is. But for my investors, it wasn't a good conversation. They were like "...this is really expensive" and I said "Yes, I know, but...." It was a real important key point that I made the decision to use it, even if it is more expensive. This rare whiskey is gone now forever, but I didn't want to go the cheaper route. I wanted quality over volume. And I hope, that people will notice the difference.

MM: What are the other components of your blend?

Louise:  It's 5% 26 Year Old Single Malt from Ex-Sherry Butts, 27.5% 15 Year Old Single Malt, 27.5% 11 Year Old Single Malt, and 40% 7 Year Old Single Grain.

MM: Where will your whiskey be available?

Louise: We are a very small company, I will launch my whiskey only in the Ireland, in the US and in Germany. Germany is a great market for me, and working with Mareike is wonderful. She has a real passion for it.

MM: What if people want to come and visit your farm and rack house?

Louise: If somebody is super-enthusiastic, I'm happy to show them around at the moment. But officially, we will open a small visitor center next summer for small tours. We have have an old barn on site, which was the original dwelling from the 1500s, and I will put a little cooperage and tasting room in there.

MM: Your are the owner and the founder of the company. Who else is on your team?

Louise: I started the business very much alone, and I run the business very much alone. Recently I've taken on a young woman, who will go to the US for us as Brand Ambassador. I have a wider team around me, I have a master blender that I work with, I have a master cooper that I work with, and I have a lot of friends from my days in the whiskey industry. But day to day, it's just me and my dog Ruby working in the office.

MM: Does it make a difference, that you are a woman?

Louise: Well, it does. I wish it didn't. When I first started sourcing whiskey in Ireland, nobody took me seriously, because I'm a woman. The expectation in the industry still is that it is the guys who run the business. The advantage is that they under-estimate you. And being under-estimated is a very powerful place to be.

MM: It's women like you who can make a difference. Thanks a lot for this interview, Louise.


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