We had a lot of fun chatting with Louise McGuane from whiskey bonders J.J. Corry about making the leap from the corporate world to running her own business, when experimental casks go wrong and why the new Department of Agriculture rules on labelling Irish whiskey are “unenforceable”.
J.J. Corry’s Louise McGuane described herself “a lifelong drinks industry person” with stints at Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Moët Hennessy. But it’s clear from speaking to her that she was not exactly a natural fit in a big company.
Striking out on her own
She compares corporate culture to the Death Eaters in Harry Potter “sucking out the soul of the kids.” Nevertheless, she managed to have a long and successful career in these drinks behemoths because, for a time, the perks outweighed the downsides. “You’re flying around the world doing interesting things and working in drinks. That’s fundamentally an interesting, fun thing to do,” she said.
She particularly relished working closely with producers whether they were in Tequila, Scotch whisky or wine, making great liquid. “There’s real people at the end of it and I always gravitated towards that,” she said.
But eventually the Death Eaters got too much and it was time to strike out on her own. She founded J.J. Corry Irish Whiskey in 2015. “It was terrifying to take the leap, quitting a very well-paid job with a big expense account to do something for zero money,” she said. But she has relished the move not least for the opportunity to get things done quickly. “You can move a lot faster, so you can go ‘in three months’ time we’re going to launch a new whiskey’ and you can physically do that. And in a corporation you’re looking at 18 months to two years.” She continued: “If I had pitched this idea at Diageo, it would have gone through 1,500 committees and gotten shot down in the end.”
A whiskey revival
So what is the idea behind J.J. Corry? The company is a revival of an old firm of whiskey bonders in her home town of Kilrush, County Clare. In the 19th and early 20th century, Irish distilleries, of which there were many, mainly sold their whiskey in bulk rather than bottling and marketing it themselves. It would be bought by so-called whiskey bonders who would mature it under bond (ie. without having to pay duty) hence the name. Most would run a pub, general store and buy wine, as well as supplying various whiskey blends to the local market. “Every town in Ireland had two or three whiskey bonders, you’ll still see the term ‘whiskey bonder’ written over pubs in gold lettering but it all died out as part of that industry collapse, “ Louise McGuane explained.
In the 1930s, the dwindling number of distilleries began bottling and marketing themselves, and the supplies of whiskey dried up. The industry consolidated to two distilleries, the New Midleton in Cork, and Bushmills in Northern Ireland. The bonders may have disappeared but their legacy lives on in brands like Green Spot, originally made by Mitchell’s, a firm of Dublin wine merchants.
“And that was the end of whiskey bonding as we knew it until I decided to bring it back!” she said. J.J. Corry is, according to her, the first new bonder in Irish whiskey in over 50 years. Another whiskey bonder Hyde over in Cork was founded around the same time.
It was auspicious timing with the explosion of new distilleries across the island. “It would be very boring if I was just sourcing whiskey from three big distilleries like Cooley, Great Northern Distillery and Bushmills. I absolutely do source from the big guys because I need consistency of supply but what’s really interesting about what I do is that the big part of my job is to build relationships with the small guys. The guys who are making one cask a week, or two casks a week, in styles that are very often hyper-localised, like Donegal whiskey [Sliabh Liag], ‘peated with Donegal turf’”.
I asked her what she’s going to do with these small batch whiskeys she has maturing. Would they be bottled as single distilleries? She replied: “It’s too early to say with most of our stocks because we’re just waiting to see what happens. Some of the stuff will make it to single cask, most of it will make it into blends.”
In some cases she knows from the beginning what she’s going to do with particular spirits: “There’s a company called Thomond Gate who are growing all of their own barley in Limerick. And then there’s a guy up in Donegal, he makes like a cask a week and then Boann, for example. And they all make pot still and we have some pot still from them, it’s very young pot still. But we just blended three of those young, young pot stills and put them into a vat that we have here and we’ll sit around now and wait and see kind of what happens with that,” she said.
She is always trying to make something unique. Take the J.J. Corry Hanson blended grain, for example: “It’s very hard to replicate a blend down here that we do of three different grains from three different distilleries,” she explained, “but it’s very easy to buy a load of grain and then just bottle it and send it out the door.”
J.J. Corry has, however, released some single distillery whiskeys such as the award-winning and pricey The Vatting No.1. She explained: “We’re very fortunate to have quite a bit of 1991 single malt stocks, all ex-Bushmills stock and quite a bit of it is in sherry casks. “Some of it is extremely heavily sherried, like sherry-bomb varietal. But what we wanted to do with the vattings was to show that sherried whiskies can be nuanced, layered, and complex.”
“So we selected a number of casks and then we just blended them essentially at different ratios to showcase precisely that,” she continued. The resulting whiskey was then kept in an ex-Macallan cask for about a year. “The goal there was we just wanted to see if any of those almost ‘heathery’ tones would come out of that. And we got a little nuance, you know, it’s a nuance and that’s all it is.”
The intricacies and complications of the interaction between whiskey and cask is what really gets McGuane enthused. When I spoke to her she had just come back from Montilla, the fortified wine region bordering Jerez, searching for suitable barrels. According to McGuane the “industry is having a tough time. But I hate to say it, it’s kind of good for us!” Long-aged premium Montilla is a tough sell but it does mean that there are casks well-seasoned with quality wines available. In fact, the whiskey industry is a lifeline for many small producers.
But there’s much more to J.J. Corry than ‘sherry’ casks. “We have a whole plethora of mad cask finishes going on at the moment and we’ll see where it lands”. She’s currently working with casks that previously held maple syrup and apple brandy acquired from a cooper in Maine. Then there’s agave spirits: “There is actually a hardcore Tequila and mezcal programme going on as well actually, I’m going to Mexico shortly to finalise that.” But she warns that they’re tricky to use. “We just got this agave, kind of vegetal green tone and once we got that I realised I couldn’t use malt, malt was completely the wrong thing, we just had to be using grain in there.”
When wood goes wrong
These aren’t the only tricky customers she has in her warehouse. “We have some chestnut on the go”, but, “you have to watch them like a hawk. It goes very very badly wrong very quickly,” she explained. She’s had more than her fair share of cask disasters. She finds beer barrels too erratic: “You can taste it on a Monday and by Friday it’s just gone in a completely different direction,” she explained. In fact, she had to chuck a load.
The ultimate goal, she says: “is to build the most diverse library of Irish whiskey in the world.” It’s very much work in progress: “Most of that stuff is ‘baby whiskey’, it’s between zero and 18 months old. So it’s going to take several years before we start to see that come through. We’re as transparent as we can be about what’s in the bottle essentially.”
Transparency in Irish whiskey
She becomes quite animated on the issue of transparency. “The reality is that the Irish whiskey industry was run by two or three companies for a hundred years and they were not honest with people.” She cites the example of Jameson until recently still having Bow Street, Dublin on the bottle despite having been made in Cork since the 1970s.
Newer players who have been criticised for not being entirely honest were taking their cue from the big boys, according to McGuane. “The reason why Irish Whiskey labelling regulation has been so bad in this resurgence of Irish whiskey is that the bigger businesses didn’t get a handle on it and weren’t transparent for a long time.”
And yet she is not impressed by the latest regulation from the Irish Department of Agriculture saying that whiskey has to be labelled “produced for” if it’s not distilled by the company on the label. “Bringing in something like ‘produced for’ it belittles what I do for a living. I can tell you something, Teeling are not going to be putting ‘produced for’ on their bottles.” she said. “I don’t see that regulation lasting or being enforceable because it’s coming from the wrong place.”
“The Department of Agriculture is just kind of trying to do the best they can to catch up with the pace of what’s happening in the industry. So it’s very frustrating for somebody like me, or somebody like Killowen Distillery. Both of us have gotten into extremely serious trouble with the Department for attempting to be completely transparent on our labels. And when I say ‘completely transparent’ I mean ‘this whiskey is from this distillery, it was distilled in this year and it was blended with this that was distilled in this year’. But there’s resistance to that: there’s resistance to total transparency because I think it’s perceived as a competitive advantage for small guys, which is ridiculous because we can’t compete with the big guys,” she continued.
Plans for the future
After this we return to less controversial territory. I ask her with the explosion in new distilleries, does she have any plans to construct one of her own. “I’ve never had an intention of doing that and I think there is no need because of the breadth of production that’s happening in Ireland now and the variety of flavours that I can put in the rackhouse. The only thing I’ll ever be building is probably a bigger blending room and certainly additional rackhouses around the county. Thank God I don’t have a distillery, it’s a lot of work.” Not that McGuane is afraid of a bit of hard work.
J.J. Corry Irish whisky is available from Master of Malt. Click here to buy.