An interview with Irish Distillers Master Blender Billy Leighton

We speak to Irish Distillers Master Blender Billy Leighton about Redbreast, the latest Irish Distillers news including Jameson’s renovated Dublin home and the growing Irish whiskey scene.
 
Continuing from yesterday’s Spotlight on… Redbreast + WIN an incredible one-off Redbreast drawn straight from a single Sherry cask!, we had the chance to catch up Irish Distillers Master Blender Billy Leighton this week about all things Redbreast, recent developments at Midleton and in Dublin, their new brand Method And Madness and also the many burgeoning Irish whiskey distilleries. The interview was originally going to make up part of yesterday’s post but once we got Billy speaking passionately about single pot still Irish whiskey we knew this was going to be a post of its own. Are you sitting comfortably dear reader? Then let’s begin…

Jake: Can you explain in your own words what makes Redbreast such a special and well-loved whiskey?
 
Billy Leighton: That’s a very deep question! I think first of all the focus of Redbreast is on the Sherry cask contribution, that’s really what sets the Redbreast family apart from all the other styles that we have. It is the Sherry cask seasoning and how that then develops over time, and then how that balances with the pot still style. Your traditional Irish pot still whiskey, the spiciness of it – you don’t get a lot of what you might get in malts, you don’t get a lot of the cereal, the barley notes, it is much more spicy, a little bit more robust I would say. And then whenever you’ve got the Sherry cask influence over 12 years, that fruitiness of the Sherry that deepens over time takes on the dried fruit Christmas cake character, develops a kind of a nuttiness down to the style of – it’s Oloroso Sherry that it’s been seasoned with – the style of the Sherry.
 

Redbreast 12 Year Old
Redbreast 12 Year Old – just £35.99 until the end of St. Patrick’s Day!

The nuttiness then sort of bridges the flavour spectrum between what the wine seasoning contributes and the actual Spanish oak itself contributes so you’re going from a nice sort of fruitiness to heavier fruits – you’re talking prunes, dates, figs, that type of dark fruit – into a nuttiness which you can pick up as bitter almond or walnut – I usually get walnuts – and that leads you into the wood contribution then as well so you’ve got your toasted Spanish oak coming through. All these things faze into each other and then in turn are complimentary and actually enhance the spiciness which is the basic style of the Midleton pot still distillate in the first place. For me it’s a real balance – with the focus of Redbreast being the Sherry – of the wine used for seasoning the cask, the cask itself and the distillate that’s maturing in the cask.
 
How does that sound?
 
That sounds pretty good! Obviously you work on a variety of brands, single pot still and Jameson as well – is it fair to say that Redbreast is the one that’s closest to your heart?

To a degree…

Or is that like choosing between children?

Exactly! I feel an affinity to Redbreast because it is such a successful single pot still Irish whiskey – the top selling single pot still Irish whiskey. From the blender’s point of view you’re always looking at maintaining the consistency and the quality that obviously the single pot still Irish whiskey lovers are looking for. When I’m asked that question, “Which would be your favourite?” I’m always thinking “What’s the newest one we have out there?” Just last week we launched a new brand called Method And Madness, which is four new products that are a bit disruptive – maybe you could put it that way. So I’ve been watching those closely for a while now as well. Because I’m close to all the brands it’s very difficult to pick out a favourite.

Method And Madness
Irish Distillers’ new Method And Madness whiskeys

Sticking with Redbreast for a moment, can you tell us anything about where you might take it next? Are there any other projects or releases in the pipeline?

We don’t really have very much in the pipeline at the minute. We just last year launched the Redbreast Lustau Edition, which maybe raised a few eyebrows in that it was the first in the family not to have an age statement. That has been, pretty much, very well accepted by the loyal Redbreast follower because they get the story, they get the reason that there’s no age statement is because we want to take the focus off the age for this particular offering because it is down to the personal relationships between ourselves here at Irish Distillers and Midleton, and the folks at the Lustau bodega in Jerez.

At the launch people were keeping a close eye on what was happening to the rest of the Redbreast family in that typically perhaps what happens elsewhere is that if you introduce a no age statment it usually means that there’s an age statement about to disappear! But I think people have been reassured that no, this is a new member, a permanent member to the Redbreast family and none of the other members of the family are going to suffer as a result of that.

That’s pretty much where we are with Redbreast at the moment. We would be looking at something like what we’re doing with Master of Malt (and the awesome prize we told you about yesterday) as well. What we’re finding is that those people who really enjoy Redbreast are very interested in finding out a little bit more and experiencing it in a little bit more detail. We started this off with the (Midleton’s The Stillhouse members exclusive) online offering of Mano A Lamh which was two or three years ago now – the Sherry component of Redbreast 12yo – and that got a lot of attention. Now everybody’s wanting to experience that whole Sherry part of it. “The Sherry is the focus but could we just see the Sherry on its own?” That’s really where we’re going at the minute but as far as extensions to the family we don’t have anything else in the plan just for now. It’s quite possible that there may be special one-off small batches but as I say that would just be speculating because there’s nothing firmly in the plan at the moment.

Method And Madness
The Redbreast family

Obviously the single pot still range has already grown a lot in recent years…

Well, yes it has, from just having the 12 year old. Whenever we launch the single pot still collection at Midleton here (back in 2011) effectively at that point in time we only had Redbreast 12 Year Old and Green Spot. We then added the Powers John’s Lane and the Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy to make it a collection.

At that time Redbreast 12 Year Old was the only Redbreast that we had and now we effectively have 5 permanent members of the family as an ongoing offering, so it’s fairly healthy.

There’s quite a lot going on at the Midleton distillery at the moment – you’ve just had 3 new stills arrive I believe?

3 new ones, uh-huh. Those went into the new Garden Still House which already had 3 new stills in so we’ve got 6 stills in there plus the 4 original ones that they have in the other, which we refer to as the Barry Crockett Still House now. So 10 pretty massive stills.

Midleton stills
Three new still arriving in Midleton earlier this year

It’s really quite the setup isn’t it? They’ve been lowered in through the skylights, is that right?

Yeah, just in the last two or three weeks there. I think they arrived in three or four weeks ago, but they’re all in place now. The new still house – the Garden Still House – was designed for that kind of expansion so it was just a matter of lifting off sections of the roof and dropping them straight into place, but we do have a lot of contractors on site at the minute just on that project trying to get them up and running as soon as possible so maybe in two or three months’ time they’ll be operational.

Does that take the capacity to over 80 million litres?

It could do. Under the current shift pattern you’re probably talking about 60, maybe 65 million and then if we change our method of operation – and there’s certain things that will restrict your capacity but everything going well like fazed maintenance rather than a shutdown period – that will take the total capacity to around about 80 million, yes. That’s grain and pot still.

Midleton Garden Still House
The Garden Still House at Midleton illuminated in green for St. Patrick’s Day 2016

For a lot of our readers who are perhaps more familiar with Scottish whisky distilleries, talking about a bunch of 75,000 litre stills and 80 million litre capacity will seem like some mind-boggling numbers!

Yeah I know! The numbers are huge and it’s all down to getting our forecasting right so you can see where you’re running out of capacity and where you have to then consider expansion. I wouldn’t be involved so much with the forecasting – the forecast numbers are coming in to me – but it’s then doing the number crunching as to the level of sales. How does that transfer into demands on maturing stock? Then working things out from there. For everything that we do here we’re looking at forecast case sales for 40 years, which people find is fantasy-land! But it’s not really, and if you don’t do it you could be caught on the hop.

 

The role of the Master Blender

Absolutely. I had as part of my next question actually how far I know you guys do plan ahead and crunch those numbers. I was going to ask whether, with such a huge jump in capacity and apart from the continuing growth of the Irish whiskey sector – and a targeted 30% increase in single pot sales by 2030 I think I read…?

Yep, that’s right.

…I was going to ask whether we should be expecting any entirely new brands, but obviously you’ve just recently revealed another one with Method And Madness.

Well I can’t see just now that there’s going to be huge volumes behind Method And Madness, that’s not really what it’s about. It gives us a bit of a forum to let the consumers see what we do from an experimental point of view at Midleton. It’s making the statement that we have some very successful brands out there but that doesn’t mean that we’re not looking in different directions to bring some innovation to the category. We’re also doing a lot of trial work in our microdistillery that we’ve been operating now for the past two years and that’s given us a lot of experimental opportunities from a distillation point of view.

We have the opportunity there to play about with distillates and distillation techniques and different cereals, different mashbills. You combine that with the trials that we’re doing with maturation, there’s an awful lot out there and the existing or established range of brands don’t give you the opportunity to see all these odds and ends that are going on. Some of the trials are very successful but the result does not fit into the style of an existing brand and that can be frustrating for the people running these trials! You have something that works but you don’t have an opportunity to include it in an existing product so that’s where Method And Madness is very valuable. It let’s us commercialise some of the trials that we’re doing, of course, but it also lets the consumer see that we’re not stuck in a rut and just riding on the success of existing brands, we’re happy to put it out there and let people see that we’re capable of doing these things that sometimes could only be attributed to people that might be categorised as a craft distiller, you know?

Midleton microdistillery
Anna Malmhake (Chairman and CEO of Irish Distillers) and Karen Cotter (Distiller) at the opening of the Midleton microdistillery in 2015

You’ve talked about experimenting with different mashbills there. With the Irish Whiskey Association having led to the Irish whiskey definitions being formalised more than they were, I was reading a while back about how within the regulations for single pot still you can add up to 5% other unmalted cereals (i.e. other than unmalted barley).

That’s right.

I believe there’s a historical precedent for using oats. I wonder if that’s one of the things you’ve been experimenting with at the microdistillery at all?

Yes, that’s going to happen. In fact we have done some trials with oats, with rye and with all-malt liquor (100% malted barley). We’re doing trials on distillation, what works best… Rye, for example: a double distilled rye is completely different from a triple distilled rye. So things like that.

Also a few years ago we established our own archive here at Midleton and we have a full-time archivist. She’s been turning up some very old written evidence of old mashbills that would have been used in the past and we’re using that information as inspiration for some of the stuff we’re doing in the microdistillery. Like they say, if you want to innovate sometimes you have to look back and see what you’ve done before and sometimes that can inspire new ideas for the future. That’s pretty much the ethos that we have now with the microdistillery.

The archives do really interest me (I have an Ancient History & Archaeology degree so no big surprise there) they allow you to really point back at evidence rather than saying “according to legend, perhaps maybe this happened…” etc.

Yeah, yeah that’s right. Especially in the Irish whiskey category at the minute, we have got a lot of new entrants into the category that don’t have that kind of heritage to fall back on whereas we do have the luxury of all this evidence that means we’re turning up new facts and figures every day, which is hugely interesting.

Midleton microdistillery
A sketch of Jameson’s Bow Street distillery in Dublin from the Irish Distillers Archive

Which leads me neatly onto the many new distilleries in Ireland over the last few years. I was wondering if any projects in particular had caught your eye?

It’s very difficult to say at the moment. A lot of the new brands that are appearing out there, their background is not on new whiskey that’s the thing. It’s still early days. We don’t have a lot of whiskey from any of the new distilleries themselves.

Indeed.

So they’re pretty much all a variation on a theme if that’s the way to put it. A lot of the new products are using the same base material, probably only coming from two sources, but they’re putting their own twist on it by the use of different types of cask. That’s what I’m seeing. So I suppose the question is whenever their own spirit is matured…

A little further down line…

Yeah, down the line. Now, if they’re putting brands out there now that are the product of a different distillery but they’re putting their own slant on them by maturation techniques, then whenever their own product is mature they really should have established their own style if that makes sense. They’ve introduced a brand, so that brand is going to have to have a style, but they’ve got to be able to maintain that style when their own whiskey becomes mature. So I think that’s the key thing for me now for new distilleries, new brands. I think we have to be kind of vigilant on how they maintain the particular style that they have put together as being their own signature style. I think that’s something that might be a challenge for some of the new entrants to the category.

Having said that, the Irish Whisky Association is there to kind of police things. If when the time comes that they have got their own mature product it doesn’t mean they have to try and copy what they’ve already done. They can put something new together as long as it stands up to scrutiny at the end. My feeling is that the Irish whiskey category is still only a very small part of the global whisky category and the more people who are contributing to the profile of Irish whiskey, well, the more the merrier!

Midleton stills
The Jameson Bow Street visitor center in Dublin is due to reopen following an €11m redevelopment!

Absolutely. The other thing I wanted to ask you about was the Jameson Bow Street distillery in Dublin (closed in 1971 but a visitor’s centre since 1997), which is having quite the revamp at the moment and I believe is opening early this month?

Actually today (Wednesday 1st) is its first day – they’re referring to it as a soft-opening, so limited hours but it’s pretty much there. The target was to have it open for St. Patrick’s Day, which is coming up in a couple of weeks. I haven’t been myself yet, but I’ve seen the plans – it’s happened very quickly actually. They closed September last year and it’s been a huge project. It’s not just a revamp, it’s taking the thing, stripping it right back and redesigning it. It will be a different experience for the visitors, which is good. It was really needed because we found, particularly last summer, that we didn’t have the capacity to put through the visitors that wanted to visit and you don’t like sending people away disappointed. It’s designed now so more people have the opportunity to enjoy the experience.

Exciting.

I was just checking on facebook and one of the guys that works in the shop there had put up a photograph of the first bottle they sold in the shop, which was a bottle of Method And Madness single pot still finished in chestnut!

Excellent! I may have my eye on a bottle of that myself…

It’s interesting stuff.

Thank you so much for your time Billy, it’s greatly appreciated and I hope to speak again soon!

All the best now.
 
 
 
Jake
 

Categories : Irish Whiskey, News, Whisky

1 comment on “An interview with Irish Distillers Master Blender Billy Leighton”

  1. Toby says:

    Cracking whisky, cracking price!

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