Cork-based bonders Hyde has been wowing drinkers with its rare bottlings since 2015. We talk to founder Conor Hyde about the art of cask ageing, the history Irish whiskey bonding, and the future of the category.
Conor Hyde’s family have been in the drinks business in Ireland for ten generations. He joked that he and his brother Alan are “the first of the Hyde family not to be born in a tavern or pub in West Cork.” Hyde Whiskey, however, is a new venture for the family. It was launched in 2015. They don’t have a distillery, instead the business is based on buying and maturing new make spirit as well as finishing bought-in mature whiskey.
Traditionally the big Irish distillers didn’t bottle their own whiskey. Instead they sold it to merchants, who would mature it under bond (ie. without having to pay duty) and bottle it under brand names. Hyde filled me in:
“There’s some very famous Irish brands who have come from bonding whiskey, including Tullamore D.E.W., which has only just built its own distillery two years ago, and Green Spot, Red Spot and Gilbey’s, these are all independently-bonded whiskey products.”
Bonding died out as Irish whiskey declined throughout the 20th century. According to Hyde, “there was a collapse of the Irish whiskey sector until there were just two distilleries in Ireland. One in Northern Ireland (Bushmills) and one in southern Ireland (Midleton). And they made the decision then to stop supplying independent bonders. There wasn’t enough spirit to go round.”
Today, Irish whiskey is booming with new distilleries opening all over the country but, as Hyde explained, until these stocks age, “mature whiskey is in really, really short supply because we haven’t had the distilleries in Ireland up to now.”
He buys from two distilleries but wouldn’t reveal which when I pressed him – though you can probably guess (hint, reread the paragraph before last). Hyde explained the process: “We do two things at Hyde. We take new-make spirit which we have contract-made to our specification and we mature that all the way through in different casks. But we also buy mature whiskey because we haven’t been around long enough to have enough of that put away.”
For Hyde, cask management is an art form: “If you have enough money and big enough pockets, anybody can open a distillery, but not everybody can manage what’s really, really important which is the maturation and the wood. Some casks react differently so we have had situations where we have finished whiskey in three months. But in some cases you have casks that maybe are just a bit slower to give up their flavour profile and we may have to leave them for nine months.”
I tried two expressions: Hyde No. 4 President’s Cask and Hyde No. 7 President’s Cask (coming soon). Both are triple-distilled six year old single malts. The only difference between them is the finishing yet they are startlingly distinct: the former aged in rum is sweet and fruity whereas the No. 7 is thick and nutty from ageing in an oloroso hogshead. Hyde said: “They seem like completely different whiskies. If you blind taste them you’ll swear that they’re from different distilleries. It shows the power of the wood and the cask and the finishing.”
He is currently working on some interesting finishes, including Madeira and Argentine Malbec barrels. As well as single malts and single grains, the family produce a (absolutely bloody delicious) blended whiskey, Hyde No. 6 Special Reserve, which contains 18 year old single malt: “It’s 75% grain, 25% malt. And they are originally matured in bourbon casks, then we married the two of those together in the vat, and then we put them into an oloroso sherry cask for somewhere between six and nine months. And that’s what gives it the amazing, buttery, Christmas cake, chewy, biscuity overtones in the product. And that’s what won us Best Irish Blended at the World Whiskies Awards in London in June.”
Best Irish Blended Whiskey – World Whiskies Awards 2018
Hyde went on to say: “We’ve won every major international whiskey award that you can possibly win.” Irish whiskey as a category is on a bit of a roll at the moment but there is still a long way to go, Hyde told me: “A lot of countries, we’ve discovered, actually don’t know Irish whiskey. We are the new kids on the world whiskey block, in a way, even though Irish whiskey was the number one whiskey in the world. We’re having to reinvent ourselves again and reclaim our position on the world stage.”
Hyde admitted that some Irish brands haven’t always been as clear as they could have been in their labelling: “I think transparency and clarity is really important. And I think it may have not been as important in the past. But I think consumer sentiment has shifted and changed in the last number of years and consumers want to know what they’re drinking and where it comes from.” New guidelines are about to be launched by the Irish Department of Agriculture on whiskey labelling.
Hyde’s motto is “It’s all about the wood” but I had to ask whether the family have plans for their own distillery at some point. He replied, “yes, we do, we have it in our business plan and we’ve had it from day one.” It will be a long time, however, before we see any Hyde-distilled expressions; fortunately, there is a great range of whiskeys to try while we wait.