The Chapel Gate Whiskey Co. – Ireland’s first bonder for 50 years – has launched its first blended Irish whiskey, J.J. Corry ‘The Gael’. We explore how the all-female team is bringing a touch of regionality to the dynamic category…
Set on a family farm in the quiet village of Cooraclare, located on the windswept west coast of Ireland, Chapel Gate Whiskey Co. was initially visualised as a grain-to-glass distillery. While delving into the region’s distilling history, founder Louise McGuane stumbled upon the life and work of shopkeeper, innovator, inventor and (most significantly) bonder, J.J. Corry.
It’s a strange truth that Irish whiskey distilling was historically an entirely third-party operation. Pre-1900s, distilleries would flog their new-make to bonders, who would then mature, blend, bottle and sell the whiskey as per their own unique style.
Bonders varied in size, from industrial operations to local entrepreneurs like Corry, who sold his very own Corry’s Special Malt alongside Assam tea from India, Caribbean rum, Port, sherry, wine from Bordeaux, guns, ammunition, bicycles and bicycle parts.
By the 1930s, the industry had completely collapsed. The distilleries that survived had consolidated their operations and were blending and bottling in-house. The diverse spectrum of flavours Irish whiskey once boasted then began to diminish.
“I thought, ‘that’s interesting, that’s a lost piece of Irish whiskey heritage, and I’m going to bring it back’,” explains McGuane. “So I did.”
She set about constructing a rackhouse on the farm and began sourcing empty casks from various locations, striking deals to secure new-make whiskey from distilleries across Ireland. “We’ve got 24,000 litres maturing at the moment, we’ll have 60,000 by year end,” she says.
“We’re making whiskeys riffing on his old bonder style, essentially,” she explains. “It’s a classic juicy fruit-style Irish whiskey. I didn’t want to come out with a finish or a hyper-innovative craft whiskey in the beginning. We might go bananas on innovation later on, but I wanted to go out the gate showing that we can blend.”
The liquid is made up of 5% 26 year old single malt, 27.5% 15 year old single malt, 27.5% 11 year old single malt, and 40% 7 year old single grain whiskey. As far as McGuane knows, it contains the oldest whiskies of any Irish blend on the market.
Being forthright about the contents of the bottle is part of the Chapel Gate Whiskey Co ethos, she asserts. “I’m a very big believer in transparency. I think it’s very important for people to understand what’s in their whiskey.”
Tasting notes for batch one, limited to 7,500 bottles, include bergamot and honeycomb on the nose, white stone fruits, lime, and pink peppercorns on the palate, and a dried grapefruit and apple finish.
A new batch will be released each year, and the flavours will “evolve over time” because McGuane “can’t be consistent, and I don’t want to be consistent per se. We’ll have a house style and we’ll have a core vatted blend, but I’m going to run out of vanilla-forward oak cask-influenced 15 year old at some point, and that’s just life.”
While the blend will be at the centre of the J.J. Corry brand, McGuane plans to release a limited edition bottling once or twice a year. A single malt is currently in the pipeline – “we’re working on that at the moment” – and she’s also casting a watchful eye over “a few” 26 year old single cask whiskeys. “It’ll be a tight little range, and always on the higher end.”
And as for the Chapel Gate Whiskey Co. rackhouse…
“I’m sourcing whiskey from multiple distilleries so the long game is that I’ll have this amazing library of distillate from all over the country and it gets really fun when I start blending that,” enthuses McGuane. “That’s when the rubber hits the road.”
New distilleries have been cropping up across Ireland in their droves in the last few years. In 2013 there were just four distilleries in the country. As of May this year there were 16, and a further 14 have planning permission.
“They all have different approaches and they’re all quite modern and forward-looking, says McGuane. “There’s a lot of grain-to-glass and organic operations popping up, so it’s starting to become really interesting.”
“Bringing back this style of whiskey-making will allow for more variety in Irish whiskey in terms of the original flavours we had 100 years ago that just don’t really exist at the moment.”
Whatever the outcome, we’ve got a wait on our hands before any lands in our laps. The newly-filled whiskey “will be ready when it’s ready, we’ll see what that product line looks like down the line,” says McGuane. “I have enough mature whiskey to keep me going for four or five years.”
Decorated with the original J.J. Corry label from the 1890s, The Gael is bottled at 46% and non chill filtered with no colouring added. Watch this space for more from Chapel Gate Whiskey Co!