Interview (English version): Jennifer Nickerson on Irish Whiskey, Transparency, and her own distillery

In 2015 Jennifer Nickerson decided to start a distillery. After five years of hard work, the time has finally come: in a few days the first distillate will be running  from her new stills at Tipperary Boutique distillery. For "Whiskeyundfrauen" we talk about Irish whiskey, transparency, terroir and her new distillery.

Jennifer Nickerson, Irish Whiskey Brand Ambassador of the Year 2019 and owner of Tipperary Distillery

Do I have to introduce Jennifer Nickerson? Well, probably not. The owner of the Tipperary distillery and daughter of a highly regarded Scottish distillery manager is no stranger to the whiskey world. In 2016 she founded  Tipperary Boutique Distillery together with father Stuart and husband Liam. But she is not only the "face" of the distillery, she is also the managing director and the driving force behind the project. In 2019, Jennifer was named Irish Whiskey Brand Ambassador of the Year.

When I met Jennifer in Germany a few years ago, I was impressed by her determination to make her own whiskey. Asked about her goals, her answer was clear: "I want to make the best whiskey in Ireland," she told me. One rarely hears such a sentence from a woman's mouth. It has been a long, winding and sometimes steep path since then, but her long-cherished wish is finally taking shape. In a few weeks the first new make will be running from her new stills on her husband's Ballindoney Farm. 

In our interview she talks about Irish Whiskey, Transparency, Terroir and also reveals the first details about her new distillery.

MM: Last spring, you became Irish Whiskey Brand Ambassador of the year. How much did this mean to you? 

Jennifer: It was a huge honour! Sometimes I get a little bit of imposter syndrome, and this gave me confidence that people believe in us, in our brand and in the legitimacy of our story. It also gave Tipperary Whiskey great exposure and created good recognition in the whiskey world for our whiskey.

 MM: There has been a lot of buzz about Irish Whiskey over the last few years. But how hard is it to promote Irish Whiskey as a category on an international level?

Jennifer: It depends! Irish whiskey has many different sub-sections and I think it’s important to understand your niche. So if you are selling a 40%abv blend, that’s fine as it fits with Jameson and Tullamore Dew and is easily understood in the traditional perception of Irish whiskey.

I think that if you are trying to develop an understanding of high-end blends as a category within Irish whiskey, it’s difficult, as the high-end whiskey drinker worldwide has traditionally focussed on single malts (this is ignoring Midleton as the exception to the rule).

If you are developing a niche single malt, then you have an opening to talk to the whiskey enthusiasts who already know their Scotch single malts, and if you have good whiskey and can persuade them to try your offering, then you have the start of a conversation and hopefully, a conversion!

With the growth of high-end whiskies outside of Scotland (Japanese, Taiwanese, and Australian to name a few), there is more acceptance and enthusiasts are more willing to try something new. And Irish whiskey has to capitalise on the openness of this by providing quality whiskies so that people will take us seriously and view us as capable of competing on the international stage.

MM: Waterford Distillery is currently causing a lot of discussion with its new approach. Does Irish Whiskey need transparency and terroir? 

Jennifer: Absolutely. Don’t get me wrong, while I would like it, I don’t think ALL Irish whiskey can be persuaded to invest in transparency and terroir. For a consumer who wants to buy a €20 bottle of volume blend, they are unlikely to care about the source of the raw materials that made that whiskey, and that is absolutely fine.

However, if we are looking at high-end whiskies, I absolutely think that we should care about transparency and terroir. We have only 3 raw ingredients (water, barley and yeast) in single malt, and to say that we don’t care about these raw ingredients and focus purely on the manufacturing or maturation process to me is ignoring a huge part of the source of flavour.

If we look at Whisky Magazine’s flavour wheel we can see that only 2 of the 8 flavours sections arise during maturation, with the rest coming from the barley, as a result of yeast in the brewing process, or in the distillation process. Why would we possibly ignore the source of 75% of flavour compounds?

I think the oft-quoted “70% of whiskey’s flavour comes from the wood“ is a marketing slogan that has somehow become “fact“ for many people, and it does a disservice to all the other factors that are involved in the process. I believe that wood affects 100% of flavour, but maturation should develop, enhance, or compliment the existing flavours of the spirit.

It is at best naive, or at worst dishonest to suggest that the entirety, or even most, of whiskey flavour arises entirely as a result of wood. We are hugely excited to see how using different barley strains, soil types and growing conditions impacts our spirit.

It will be several years of trial and error before we start to see the result of this, but studies by larger companies such as Waterford are already proving the premise, and I think this will be more widely accepted and valued as the concept is further developed and we better understand it.

We wouldn’t drink champagne and refuse to care where grapes came from. Nowadays we are seeing a push for local ingredients, better quality ingredients, and better traceability. I see this as a natural extension of that movement.

MM: When we last met in 2018, you had just partnered with a Hotel company in your distillery project, but it seems that you have changed plans since. What challenges and which speedbumps did you face over the last couple of years?

Jennifer: We’ve not really had any major challenges or speedbumps over the past 2 years – we’ve built a distillery in that time! The only major hit to our plans has been Covid. When we first started out on this journey back in 2015, our original aim was to build on the farm. Over the years, we’ve talked with potential financiers about other, much larger sites. We did go as far as obtaining planning permission at the hotel in 2019.

However, we’ve kept plugging away with our own site on the farm and our own small farm distillery, and we’ve been constructing the building over the past 2 years and installing equipment during the past 6 months. Once our permissions come through and we get our bond sorted, we’ll be ready to operate – it’s been an amazing time, though soured a little by Covid and the delay that it has caused us in getting operating.

MM: So you've given up on your plans to build a distillery in collaboration with a hotel?

Jennifer: I'm not sure about that - the planning permission is there and will not expire for a number of years, so it may be returned to in the future. For now, we're concentrating on getting the farm stills commissioned.

MM: So you are going to start your own distillery at your family farm very soon. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

Jennifer Nickerson, husband Liam Ahearn

Jennifer: We have a 200 kg mashtun and 4 stills, the largest of which is 1000 litres, so all very small! We have a gin basket on one still and plan to focus on perfecting a double distilled single malt initially, though we may do some triple distillation in the future. The fourth still is an experimental piece of equipment that we have some separate plans for. We will be very small initially, looking at production capacity of circa 6000 lpa for the first few years.

The warehouse is onsite and holds approximately 300 casks without any palletisation, though only 100 are currently maturing on site. We also have a small bottling room and will bottle on-site soon. We will still malt externally, and have used Athgarret malt for the last couple of years. He can do small batches for us and has been a great help – moving that element on-site isn’t something we would have capacity for right now!

MM: When do you reckon will the first spirit run from your stills?

Jennifer: As soon as we can get permission to operate the stills! Covid has slowed down a lot of government processes and we need a licence to operate, so hopefully we can arrange a site visit and put that in place as soon as possible.

MM: What part does your father play with the Tipperary Distillery? 

Jennifer: Stuart is a director and is very involved in importer, bottling and distilling decisions. He oversees all distillation (and will be commissioning equipment for us when we get our licence approved). He decides on our distillation parameters, yeast usage and wood purchases and also has the final say on what we bottle for our customers. I run the day-to-day operations, and Liam looks after our construction and raw material requirements.

MM: What kind of style will your whiskey have?

Jennifer: We want to perfect our double distilled single malt spirit first, but we don’t want to commit too strongly to a “Style“ yet. We will play with some cut points, see what’s happening with our barley, water and still shape, then make a decision on where the final spirit will be.

Stuart has spent the last number of years building a library of new make spirit which we will refer to, and we will evaluate the spirit to make the best, most flavourful, balanced spirit that works with the base raw ingredients, rather than having a set style in mind and fighting against our raw materials to get there.

MM: You had your own grains distilled somewhere else in the last two years. When will the whiskey made from it be released?

Harvest at Tipperary Farm

We first distilled our own home-grown barley back in June 2017, so we are aiming to release the first whiskey from our land in September of this year. We are hugely excited about this project and can’t wait to let everyone taste it!

MM: How is this year‘s harvest going?

Jennifer: The harvest itself has been good and yields of winter crops are excellent. We will need to see how the spring crops (including the spring barley which is used for our distillation) will produce. It has not been great weather-wise, but we’ve been lucky in that we’ve managed to get crops harvested at the right time and with good moisture rates, so the poor weather this year hasn’t really impacted us so far.

MM: You are one of the very few women who own and run a distillery. Does being a woman make a difference?

Jennifer: I always find this hard to answer because I’ve not had the experience of being anything other than a woman! It’s good in some ways – you get some leeway, for example before we had the forklift I would be loading pallets using a tractor, and you get some allowance made for mistakes made while driving. You also get decent exposure in the press as they like to highlight women in the industry.

On the other hand, sometimes men don’t take it well if you challenge them, but that’s the same for women in business generally. I don’t think the whiskey industry is any more or less sexist than other industries, in both a business and consumer sense. Yes, some people prefer dealing with men, some men react better to advice or information coming from a man, but that is the same everywhere. I am generally too busy working to notice or care much, and I don’t think it’s my personal responsibility to correct every man out there who decides to (wrongly) correct me or patronise me.

Where I think I can make a difference is in being a role model. I don’t want my nieces and nephews thinking that they are restricted to traditional roles. If they want to be an entrepreneur, do it. If they want to run a business, they can. It’s not easy, but your gender shouldn’t be the thing stopping you from getting up, going out and doing what you want. And it’s important for women in the industry to stand up and be seen, so that if there is little girl out there watching and thinking about what she wants to be when she grows up, they see a whole spectrum of possibilities.

MM: You are also a bottler of sourced Irish Whiskey. What is your favourite expression that you offer and why?

Jennifer: In Germany, it has to be the triple wood single cask. It was an absolutely stunning mix of sherry, port and rioja maturation, all rich red berries and fruits. That was heavenly and I only have one bottle myself. Of our current bottlings, I have a real soft spot for our 9 year old single grain, distilled in a pot still rather than a column still. It’s so sweet, and with far more character than you would expect due to the pot still distillation. I also love our 18 year old single malt bourbon – it had huge maturation losses so there are only 135 bottles, but as a result of all that wood interaction, it is a sensationally mature, complex whiskey. A real treat!

MM: Jennifer, I'm very excited to see your stills finally running. Could we have a sort of sneak-preview and see a picture of your stills?

Jennifer: I'm sorry, but I'm not putting out any official images of the distillery until we do a full press release, but we'll be doing that in the next 4 weeks, so I can send you some over as soon as I get them.

MM: What a pity, but I understand. I'm looking forward to the pics and to your first new make. I wish you all the best and thanks a lot for taking the time to answer these questions.


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