You might not be familiar with the name, but Irish Distillers – maker of Jameson, Powers, Redbreast and more – is an Irish whiskey linchpin, and not just because it’s the country’s largest distiller. Without it, Ireland’s national spirit would’ve been consigned to the history books. Here, archivist Carol Quinn delves into the company’s history and shares insight into her own fascinating role…
Until the 1960s, never had a drink category’s future hung so heavily on the cooperation of three rival companies. It’s no exaggeration to say that without the ingenuity and flexibility of Cork Distilleries Company, John Jameson & Son and John Power & Son, Irish whiskey would’ve been toast. It certainly wasn’t part of a plan to monopolise the industry – the three family-owned producers pulled together as the category collapsed around them.
“The 20th century had not been kind to Irish whiskey, and that’s an understatement really,” says Irish Distillers archivist Carol Quinn. “ In the 19th century it was sold all over the world – I have records from Cairo, Uruguay, Honolulu, Portugal, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada… you name it, Irish whiskey was sold there. And it was a very high-end, prestigious drink. It was sold in places where customers ordered Cognac, Champagne.”
The success of the category started to unravel with the arrival of the first world war. Irish whiskey trade was export-led, says Quinn, and there was a lot of submarine activity around Ireland, being the last stopping-off point before you cross the Atlantic to America, so shipping was restricted. It was a blow, but despite the turbulence, Ireland’s distillers simply knuckled down and carried on.
“I see this in the Jameson records,” she says. “In 1919 – when the war was over and the restrictions were lifted – they had their best distilling season ever. They were producing more whiskey than ever and were delighted with life. Which was unfortunate, because in 1920, Prohibition hit America. While they hadn’t been selling in America for a few years anyway because of the first world war, Prohibition meant they weren’t going to re-enter it for a long time.”
For a decade, this wasn’t too disastrous. Ireland’s distillers were still exporting to the likes of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and beyond. But that came to an end in the 1930s, says Quinn, when Ireland entered into an economic trade war with Britain and lost any territory associated with the British Empire.
“Now at this point, they’re frightened,” she says. “This has been 20 years of bad times. And then you go straight into the second world war, and that’s the killer blow. In the 1940s and 1950s you see distillery after distillery closing. They just didn’t have the money to recoup what they’d lost, even when the export markets opened back up. There were a number of years in the 1950s when Old Midleton was only distilling three weeks a year.”
By the 1960s, the only three distilleries left open were – you guessed it – John Jameson & Son and John Power & Son, both in Dublin; and Midleton, owned by Cork Distilleries Company. Irish whiskey had shrunk to the domestic market, says Quinn, and it was still an expensive drink. It became clear that the three distilleries would wipe themselves out if they remained in competition.
“At the time, those three distilleries were owned, managed and run by the descendants of their founders,” she says. “Frank O’Reilly, of Powers, invited the other two companies – John Jameson representing Jameson and Norbert Murphy representing Midleton – to come together and discuss the situation. They met in secret at the home of Shane Jameson under the guise of a country house weekend and formulated this incredibly radical idea that they would merge; combining all their resources with the express intention of saving Irish whiskey.”
After two years of negotiations – there was a lot to work out, after all – Irish Distillers formed in 1966 (it’s now part of Pernod Ricard). From there, they set about rebuilding the category, starting with their own blends. In 1975 they refurbished and reopened Midleton Distillery as Europe’s most modern distillation plant, not only to distil their three very different styles of whiskey – Powers, Jameson and Midleton – but improve on them, too.
“The idea was never simply to replicate the past, it was to build upon it and to look forward and to move forward,” says Quinn. “Irish Distillers has always been incredibly progressive and fostered innovation, because it was born out of necessity and dangerous times. The guiding principle was to create a situation where we wouldn’t be the only distiller – where there would be such an interest in the Irish whiskey category that new entrants could come on stream.”
Irish Distillers’ forward-thinking ethos is unrelenting to this day. Throughout the 1980s, head distiller Barry Crockett laid down single pot still stocks at a time when this signature style of whiskey wasn’t selling, while operations manager Brendan Monks set about implementing a cask management programme that’s seen in the company’s recent releases, from the resurrection of Green Spot, Yellow Spot and Red Spot to the development of its pioneering Method and Madness range.
Fascinating stuff you’ll agree, and as Quinn continues her mammoth undertaking of cataloguing Irish Distillers’ vast archive, who knows how many more pieces of Irish whiskey history will emerge. Here, she shines a light on the everyday aspects of her incredible job, from archival training basics to historically significant finds…
Master of Malt: First of all, could you share a little about your own career and how it led to your role as Irish Distillers’ archivist?
Carol Quinn: I’m an archivist by training. It’s a very old profession, and there aren’t too many of us about. It’s a graduate qualification and you have to have your primary degree first. My BA was in history and archeology, so I always had an interest in the past, but not so much in dates or events – it was the more the stories of people and how the past could shine a light onto the lives of individuals. That’s why I like the archive. These letters, diaries and ledgers provide clues to the past, they’re literally the raw material of history. As an archivist, my job is to be a bridge between the items and the end user, which at the moment is Irish Distillers.
MoM: You mentioned letters, diaries and ledgers. What other records are kept in the Irish Distillers archive?
CQ: Everything relating to the production and the sale of our whiskies. Our distilleries were founded back in the 18th century, so there’s well over 200 years’ worth of records. One thing that’s very important are the employee wage books. At their most basic, they give you the name of the individual, the part of the distillery they were working in, the hours they worked and what they were paid. We don’t have a great tradition of record-keeping here in Ireland, and a lot of our official records were destroyed in the 1920s during the Civil War – so for a lot of people mentioned in Jameson’s wage books from the 1860s, there’s no other record of them living on this earth. Although the archive isn’t open to the public, if somebody contacts us I will have a look to see if I can find the name of their ancestor. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t, because we don’t have a complete set and it’s very time-consuming – it literally means taking a huge ledger off the shelf and going through it page-by-page – but I realise how valuable it is when people find that link. The Irish community is huge across the globe, so I get people from Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, enquiring about grandfathers, great-grandfathers… It’s lovely.
MoM: That is wonderful. How vast is the archive, what does it look like?
CQ: We have a purpose-built archival repository located in the distillers’ cottage in Midleton. The rooms are temperature controlled, humidity controlled, they’ve UV filters in all the lights and there’s no natural daylight allowed in. That’s where the records are kept. Some of them are digitised, but digitising records doesn’t preserve them, all that does is make access easier so you can search for things quicker. There’s nothing like a handwritten letter to really give you a connection with an individual. They’ve touched that page, they’re folded it with their hands. It’s a very different experience and I find it very visceral.
MoM: That must feel overwhelming at times! I’d be terrified of damaging it…
CQ: That’s where the archival training comes in, in that we’re taught how to physically handle the material, how to catalogue it properly and how to preserve it. With some of our ledgers, I won’t even open them because I know if I do I’m going to damage them further, so I’ll send them to a man called Paul Curtis first. He’s based in Killarney at Muckross Bookbindery, and he’s trained as a book binder and paper conservator. When I did that for some of our items about six years ago, one of them was this little pocket notebook. It looked early 19th century to me, but again, I wasn’t going to go through it because I thought it was too fragile. When Paul took it apart he discovered that it was the actual pocket notebook of John Jameson II – the son of one of our founders – and it contained his mashbill recipes for Jameson whiskey from 1826, when he was head distiller. When Paul took the binding apart to clean it down and re-sow it, out fell actual grains of barley from the Bow Street Distillery that John Jameson would’ve scooped up into his pocket as he was distilling.
MoM: Fascinating! That certainly isn’t an everyday discovery – what can we find you doing in a ‘typical’ week?
CQ: I often start the week in the distillers’ cottage in Midleton checking emails to see what’s come in over the weekend. Very often I’ll be on the train to Dublin mid-week – I might be giving a talk, doing some promotional work sharing our history or [liaising] with our marketing teams. Then, you’ll find me back in the archive doing the never-ending job of trying to catalogue such a vast collection! Sometimes I’ll take out a selection of items for our brand teams or the creative agencies who work with us to offer inspiration. Very often, a colour or font or some little nugget will spark the creative process. Recently we’ve had a repackaging of the Powers range; the design team came down – their brief was to give it a refresh – and when they looked through the records, this emblem absolutely jumped out at them. In the internal correspondence for Powers, instead of the name, they would write this diamond ‘P’, it was on everything. When you look at the new bottle, that’s what you see and it comes directly out of our history.
MoM: In your opinion, what are the most historically significant pieces in the archive?
CQ: What I really enjoy personally is the human element within the records. A few years ago, an elderly woman called up looking for a record of her grandfather, a man called James Leetch, who was a clerk in the spirits store in Jameson Bow Street. She remembered living with him as a young girl with her mother and sister. One day he went down to the cooperage and brought back a stave from a sherry butt, one of the largest of barrels, for her and her sister to use as a see-saw. I thought that was just lovely. The distilleries weren’t separate from the communities that they were located in; they were very much part of it.