For a long time Tullamore D.E.W. was a historic name without a distillery. Now the Irish whiskey brand is closing the gap on Jameson’s and enjoying life under William Grant’s stewardship.
The first thing you see when you enter the Tullamore D.E.W. distillery is a copper phoenix. It was adopted as the symbol of the town in 1785, a decade after Tullamore was seriously damaged when the crash of a hot air balloon resulted in a fire that burned down around 130 homes. It’s the emblem of the local sports clubs. There’s a bar in town called The Phoenix. Symbolically it’s the perfect image for the Irish whiskey brand to evoke, as it knows a thing or two about rising from the ashes.
The original Tullamore distillery was built in 1829 by the Malloy Brothers – Michael and Anthony Malloy. After passing through the family for a couple of generations, the business was left to Daniel Edmund Williams to run. “Williams joined the business in 1862 as a 14-year-old boy and by the time he was 25, in 1873, he was the general manager,” says John Quinn, the global ambassador for the brand. “Over the next two decades he proceeded to buy out the owners and began producing a whiskey that became famous and the famous ‘D.E.W. ‘was added, a play on Williams’ three initials and the word ‘dew’”. There’s an air of Willy Wonka about Williams. He added a bonded warehouse and bottling plant to the distillery, and transformed the town bringing modern amenities like electricity, telephones and cars, as well as opening over 20 pub-grocery shops. He even coinined the immortal slogan “Give Every Man his Dew”. “He was an iconic man, an iconic individual. It inspires us and it would inspire anybody,” explains Quinn.
Although the brand initially thrived, by the beginning of the 20th century it was barely surviving, a fate that affected most Irish whiskey distilleries due to a number of reasons. “The rebellion in Dublin that generated independence for Ireland also led to an economic war with Britain, which meant access to the likes of Canada, Australian, India and Britain was blocked. That coincided with the Prohibition in the US so the market was closed to Irish whiskey exports. Then, with the second world war, the American soldiers eventually based themselves in Britain and got a taste for Scotch,” explains Quinn. “Probably the most significant event, however, was the development of blended Scotch. The distillers of Ireland fought hard against its introduction and this inability to move with the times caused the Irish whisky industry to almost collapse. Combined with the financial difficulties that came with the new Irish state after independence a lot of the distilleries struggled, particularly as the overseas business had virtually gone completely. By the 1950s most of the distilleries in Ireland were closed”.
Tullamore Distillery held on until 1954 until it had to shut its doors. But the brand didn’t die off. It was sold to John Powers & Son in 1960 and six years later the Dublin distillers merged with two other Irish distilleries to form Irish Distillers. In the 1970s, Irish Distillers closed their existing distilleries and consolidated production at a new distillery built in Midleton, County Cork. In 1994, Irish Distillers sold the brand to the C&C Group before it was acquired by the owners of Glenfiddich et al, William Grant & Sons, for €300 million in 2010. At which point, Tullamore D.E.W. was still without its own distillery, with every expression released under the brand’s name being sourced from Bushmills and Midleton Distillery.
William Grant , however, had other ideas. It put plans into motion to build a new state-of-the-art distillery in Tullamore.”When William Grant took over we heard talk of building a distillery but I kind of refused to believe it because I’d heard it all before. People used to say ‘if we sell a quarter of a million cases, we’ll build a distillery’. We got to 600,000 cases, still no distillery. There was a commitment to build the brand but not to build the legacy!” says Quinn. “When William Grant took over I can remember the joy of talking to people who were also interested in whisky and history and legacy. A lot of people are getting into Irish whiskey trying to make money. With the Grant family, it’s in their blood and they genuinely are passionate about it. When you’re part of a company that lives and breathes whisky, it’s different”.
Quinn actually first realised that William Grant was serious about the project while managing a ladies football team. “One of the players needed a lift to the game and said ‘I’m sorry I’m late but I had to finish a report I was writing’. She was a ground engineer writing a report for a whisky company and said it was looking at building a distillery. Immediately I knew who she was talking about,” Quinn recalls. “Lo-and-behold, a month or two later we got an announcement that the distillery was to be built in Tullamore. It was the greatest thrill of all time for me because I’m the longest-serving Tullamore D.E.W. person at that time in the business. I’m like a child in a toy shop when I go down there because having spent 40 something years in the business I’m now six years with our own distillery and it’s still a novelty that I can’t get over”.
After an initial €3 million investment upgrading the visitor centre (housed in the old distillery’s warehouse that closed in 1954), William Grant spent €35 million on a brand new, state-of-the-art facility in Tullamore, which opened in 2014. Initially it had the capacity to produce up to 1.8 million litres of pot still and malt whiskey per annum using four pot stills, but provision was made for the installation of a further two pot stills in the distillery, which doubled this capacity to 3.64 million litres. Following an additional €25 million investment, a grain distillery with a gigantic three column still and bottling plant were added in 2017. That spend brought total monies invested over the past eight years to €100m. “We now employ over 90 people locally and we have great facilities now for innovation, for trialling, for working on different casks and finishings,” says Quinn. “We even brought over Tom, the original distiller from 1948-54 who had emigrated to New York City, as the guest of honour. He got the keys that were lent to us by the Williams family to reopen the distillery”.
The installation of a grain distillery means that the distillery can now produce all three components (pot still, malt, and grain whiskey) of its Tullamore Dew blended whiskey on-site, which matures in six warehouses filled with close to 300,000 casks. It’s the only triple-distilled blend, grain to glass Irish distillery. “We’re very proud of that. It’s the key thing about our brand that we distil three kinds of whisky, malt, pot still and grain, and each of those is triple-distilled [the grain in the column still]. That gives us a whiskey that’s complex, approachable and unique. There isn’t a lot of whiskey made that way,” says Quinn. “Pot still is a very interesting component in that it gives a viscosity and oiliness to the texture of the whiskey. It’s an iconic style in Ireland so it’s important that we have it in our blend and we’ll hopefully release a pot still whiskey in the not too distant future, which will be exciting. A single pot still won’t have been made in Tullamore in a long time, it would have been 65 years.”
Another blend is the Tullamore D.E.W. XO Caribbean Rum Cask Finish, which finishes its original blend of pot still, malt and grain Irish whiskeys in first fill Caribbean rum casks which previously held Demerara rum, while the brand also has a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old single malt in its portfolio, both of which were produced at Bushmills. At the visitors centre, you can also pick up the Tullamore D.E.W. Old Bonded Warehouse Release, which Quinn describes as “a variation of our original whisky with more pot still and sherry cask, it’s a big seller at our visitors centre because you can’t buy it anywhere else”. Excitingly, there’s more to come. “We’re in a process of innovation and we will be launching new expressions this year. They probably would have been launched sooner if it wasn’t for COVID-19, but we will have at least one, if not two expressions, coming certainly between now and next April. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you any more about them because there will be a big reveal and launch,” Quinn explains.
Tullamore D.E.W has the distinction of being the only distillery in Ireland that uses Irish winter wheat as its grain, which is considerably more expensive than say French corn, a more commonplace choice. “I remember when the grain distillery was being built and the project manager suggested it and I said I would love it to use Irish wheat rather than French corn if it’s possible! The thinking behind it at the time was that Girvan [grain distillery owned by William Grant] works with wheat and so our guys were happy to work with wheat from an engineering point-of-view, but for me, it was fantastic because it’s another part of our story which is interesting and different,” says Quinn. “Being environmentally conscious is still high on our agenda even with a pandemic going on. We have a distillery where the grain is all Irish and where the movement of your spirit from your distillery to the warehouses and from the warehouses into a bottling hall is just there beside you. It gives us an efficient carbon footprint statement. There’s no other distillery in Ireland that’s doing that. We’ve got three types of whiskies, all of them being matured on-site and all of them using Irish grain and all of them being matured and bottled in the same campus”.
Part of this consideration to act responsibly and ensure provenance meant that William Grant also built a water pipe to receive the water from the Slieve Bloom Mountains as part of the construction of the distillery, which is 14 kilometres away. “The water coming from the mountains is probably softer but mostly we wanted to ensure that we had our own supply of water, rather than taking it out of the town supply or from underground even from wells below the distillery,” Quinn explains. The consideration for the local environment extended so far as to plant plants in the distillery grounds in order to facilitate a bee corridor and use a patented William Grant engineering department system called ‘thermal vapour recompression’. “Essentially it reuses the latent heat built up around the condensers to fire up the stills again so we don’t need nearly as much energy to run them, so it improves our efficiency by another 17% beyond what it would have been. I’m very proud of that part of our business. We’re just lucky that we’ve got this site big enough and the company had the vision to do everything on one site”.
Tullamore D.E.W malt and pot still whiskey is distilled in handcrafted copper stills that were modelled on the original pre-1954 Tullamore stills, which are actually on display at the nearby Kilbeggan Distillery. “The engineers showed me the designs of the stills before and I thought ‘why is all this familiar to me?’ They told me they found the old designs and we’d gone to Forsyths in Scotland and asked them to make the stills’. That speaks to the importance of heritage and legacy and history in the business,” Quinn says. In keeping with the spirit of innovation, Tullamore D.E.W also brought back the art of coopering to its distillery for the first time in six decades. The brand’s cooperage currently employs one cooper who previously worked in Cognac and for William Grant in Scotland before he came to Tullamore. The plan is to hire an apprentice in the near future. “At first we didn’t think having our own cooper would be essential, but as time went on and the more casks that we put out, we realised we needed to have our cooper man on-site doing all this work’,” Quinn says. “It’s brilliant because it completes the whole picture”.
Tullamore D.E.W is certainly going to be putting those skills to good use as the brand has never shied away from experimenting with cask types, which the Tullamore D.E.W. Cider Cask Finish expression demonstrates. “The Scotch whisky people I talk to do have a degree of gentle jealousy that there’s flexibility in Irish whiskey to play with different casks that they don’t, or least until recently certainly didn’t have. We appreciate that we need to hold onto some of the traditions and not throw everything out, but that we don’t need to hamstring ourselves completely”, Quinn explains. “We’ve got great flexibility to do all sorts of cask finishing, which gives us an opportunity to offer expressions that might not otherwise have been available and therefore Irish Whiskey becomes really interesting. And we need to be interesting because we need people to be talking about it, you know?”
That conversation has been helped by the formation of the Irish Whisky Association in 2014, according to Quinn, who believes that the organisation gives those in the Irish whiskey industry a sense of common purpose and an understanding of the threat of not doing it right. “We’ve developed quality standards and technical and verification files with a view to geographical indication to help define what the category is. It brings us all together and gives everybody a chance to do well so the industry can continue to thrive and grow, employ more people and encourage a tourism industry that we haven’t had” Quinn explains. His ultimate aim is that it becomes sort of second nature to talk about ‘Irish’ when you talk about ‘whiskey’. “I remember a time when we had to remind people that there are other whiskies beyond Scotch and American. When convincing people that Irish whiskey has heritage, quality and flavour was a real challenge. You have to be careful that we don’t get complacent and what we definitely don’t want is the new smaller distilleries to fail and for us to find ourselves with closed distilleries again in Ireland. We want everybody to succeed and I can’t see any reason why anybody would want other than a thriving business”.
Cocktails have become a key part of this conversation and Tullamore D.E.W as a brand has embraced this culture, filling its website with recipes. This is something Quinn never thought he’d see in an article about whiskey and the fact that cocktails have become such a key part of the conversation is a pleasant surprise for him. “Did I ever think I would see myself talking about cocktails? No! But it’s great to hear bartenders responding to the different elements in the blend. I love that they can pick out the sweetness from the grain whiskey, the spice that’s coming from the pot still, the fruit that’s coming from the malt and then make something special with it. It’s this blend of thoughts, cultures and ideas that make us all interesting people and an interesting brand”.
Interesting though they are, in the current climate it’s harder than ever to predict what the future holds for Tullamore D.E.W. and Irish whiskey. Prior to the pandemic, it was on course to sell a million and a half cases this year. “If you had asked me this in December my answer would be that I see a very bright future for Irish whiskey, particularly in places where we’re really small and relatively unknown. In Latin America or Asia for example, where there’s a very strong Scotch culture, we’re trying to help people understand that this is a really interesting category and country. Our business is dominated by Europe and North America, so these markets are an incredible opportunity for us as a category,” Quinn says. “There’s potential there and I hope we’ll have an industry where there are lots of Irish whiskey distilleries with different flavour profiles and everybody will have a place in and will be living from a vibrant industry platform that talks with confidence and nobody worries about mothballed distilleries. That’s what I’m hoping, that’s what I dream of and that’s what I envisage. For the last 15 years, we can say that that’s certainly been the trend line”.
The Tullamore D.E.W. range is available from Master of Malt.