Podcast

Alex Conyngham From Slane Irish Whiskey

As one of the new generation of distillers reviving Irish Whiskey, we talk to Alex Conyngham about the blend, the casks and the future of Slane Distillery

By: Tiff Christie|April 9,2020

If you’ve ever been to Dublin, you’ve probably heard of Slane Castle.

If you’ve ever followed the tour plans of any large rock bands you’ve probably heard of Slane Castle.

If you’ve had a taste of Irish whiskey, then you probably also heard of Slane Castle.

In an attempt to keep this historic house and 1,500-acre estate in the black. The Cunningham family have spent more than a decade putting down roots in the now fast-growing world of Irish Whiskey.

To explain the grain, the blend, and the casks. we talked to Alex Conyngham who puts a rather titled spin on Irish whiskey distilling.

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If you've ever been to Dublin, you've probably heard of Slane Castle. If you've ever followed the tour plans of any large rock bands you've probably heard of Slane Castle. If you've had a taste of Irish whiskey, then you probably also heard of Slane Castle. In an attempt to keep this historic house and 1,500 acre estate in the black. The Cunningham family have spent more than a decade putting down roots in the now fast growing world of Irish Whiskey. To explain the grain, the blend, and the casks. we talked to Alex Conyngham who puts a rather titled spin on Irish whiskey distilling.

Thank you for joining us, Alex.

My pleasure.

So I'm correct in saying that the whiskey under the Slane name isn't quite yours yet.

I guess that's true in part. So we started distilling in 2017 and the Irish whiskey rules are, that it's got to be in wood for three years. So in order to get ourselves started, we actually brought distillate from other distilleries in Ireland. But rather than just blending that whiskey and putting it out to market, we did a secondary maturation at Slane to kind of put our own flavour stamp on it. So I wanted to try and create a whiskey that was smooth but full of flavour. So we'd had a triple cask process, which took us a further two years. So that bit we did ourselves.

So how much longer does it need to age?

So our own distillate, technically we started distilling in around October 2017 so legally to comply with the rules, it'll be October this year, 2020. But I reckon that would be more risky and it's probably going to need a bit longer. It will be ready when it's ready. I'm thinking maybe five or six years in total for the malt.

When that is the case, I assume that all the barley and the water you’ll be using has actually been sourced from the estate?

Yeah. So the River Boyne flows through the farm. So that's our water source for the distillery. A nice soft water with a little bit of minerality. On our 1,500 acres we do grow barley around somewhere between 1,200 to 1,500 tons a year. So I'd say within the next three years, we'll be able to supply everything that we need in terms of raw material, barley for the distillery. But we're on a learning journey there because I used to grow feed barley, which is very different growing malting barley.

Do you want to explain the difference with that?

Sure. So when you're growing feed, you want a high protein. When you are growing for malting barley, you want high starch, low protein. So it's a completely different nutrient management plan and we have-

Does that require a complete different strain of barley or is it just the way that you grow it?

Both. So it will be different varieties and also the way that you grow it will be different as well. So we've gone within three years of producing pretty good quality to absolutely top quality. The maltsters that we work with set our barley crop last year within the top percentile in terms of quality for malt in the country. So really proud of the farming team for pulling that off. But it will set us apart in that, it's unusual to have a link between the land and the distillery so close. So it's almost like a vineyard approach I suppose.

You were saying that the Slane that is being sold at the moment is basically sourced from other distilleries. Do you want to talk a little bit more about that and the process that it goes through?

Sure. So first of all, we are distilling now at Slane and our own distillate will gradually phase into the blend as and when they're ready. But the blend that we have out now, which we called triple cask, so it started its life in American whiskey barrels when we bought it. And there was a variation of different ages. So in order to add our own character, we took it out of those American whiskey barrels and put it into three barrels at the same time for roughly two years. And each barrel will bring something different to the equation with the intention of creating a blend that was still smooth, which is what you expect from an Irish whiskey. But some good depth, it's quite bold, full flavoured. So those three different barrels all bring something different to the equation.
So you've got a Virgin American White Oak barrel was the first one from the Brown-Forman cooperage in Kentucky customised specifically for Slane. And when you cook or toast the word rather than char it releases vanillins and that becomes vanilla. So you've got a lovely big head of vanilla on the nose. So, the first barrel, the second one we call seasoned. Now, that just means that someone has been in that barrel before you get it. Not a person of course, but another liquid. And in this case, because of our partnership with Brown–Forman, we were able to zero in on the Tennessee whiskey or Jack Daniel's barrel. And what that does is it deepens the sweet notes. So you're getting a lovely kind of brown sugar territory, like Demerara sugar.
Something that I'm particularly fond of, which has a little bit of a ripe banana tone, which is something you'll find in Jack. And that barrel when it crosses the Atlantic, it's going to have a little bit of liquid left in there because otherwise the barrel is going to dry out. So we don't waste any here in Slane. So we'll take out the bung, we'll nose out if it's good, we pour it on top. So that liquid is actually going to be directly absorbed into what becomes the future seasoned liquid. And then the last barrel is Older World, so it's an Oloroso Sherry cask from Herrath in Spain. And I added the three. It's probably the biggest and the boldest. Delivers a lot of lovely color to the whiskey, but it introduces a really nice kind of fruit cake.
So like raisins and dates and figs and on the finish a little bit of... Like a Brown or a baking spice, hint of clove and nutmeg. So Slane does have a little bit of space on the finish. But it doesn't... There's no bite because we want it to be smooth.

So once you are producing from the ground up yourselves, how difficult is it going to be to replicate those same flavours that people now associate with your brand?

So one of the wonderful things about whiskey is, it's a completely natural process. You'll have two barrels from the same part of the warehouse from the same spirit or rum and they will be different. And that's just the wonderful thing about whiskey. And so consistency is really important. So yes, I would say, our malt style, for example, we triple distill at Slane. The new make that we've got off the stills is really fruity and bright and fresh. So like pear drops and pineapple and passion fruit. That would mimic, I guess some of the more that we bought in. But as it goes into the wood, it's only going to evolve in its own way. But bearing in mind that the stock that we brought is all different ages and our stuff will mature as and when it's ready, we'll start to blend it in.
So what will happen is we should be able to get some good consistency and if anything, nudge up quality over time because now we're able to control the quality of the cask from day one as opposed to buying distillate from others that was in barrels over which we have no control. So it's not suddenly someone else's juice and then one day it's ours because the whiskey is all different ages. So it's more of a crossover mashing over time. Gradually blend in and replace what we made ourselves from what we bought from others. So I'm confident we will be able to meet consistency and certainly quality. And the funny thing, the ambition would be to to try and equal or surpass what we've got from others and then prove over time.

And I suppose to some degree it's going to come down to the skills of your blender as well.

Very important. You're absolutely right. And so we've got a really skilled team on the ground in Slane. We've just actually recently taken on a new head distiller, Gearoid Cahill who brings a lot of experience to the team. We've got a young team as well, Alan Buckley who I took on initially, so Gearoid and Alan lead the efforts on the production including the blending and I still have a role in as well.

Okay. I was about to ask how involved in the distilling and the blending are you?

So I'm obviously on the road a lot now. I was very involved in the distillery design and getting it up and running, but I don't have an active role in production per se, but I'm still very keen to get involved in blending and tasting and our new product development in particular. So deciding what our whiskeys of tomorrow are going to be. I'm actually involved in that.

I suppose also as the brand matures and there's less touring involved, that will give you the opportunity to be more involved in what's happening on the ground.

Yeah, I have huge confidence in our team, in the production team. So day to day involvement in production is no longer... I guess that's not really my remit, but I certainly want to make sure that our whiskeys of the future and indeed maintaining quality on the blend still happen. So yeah, I still knock on their production doors guys. Doors and get involved. They are very good about involving me as well. So I love tasting the new make. Watching malt evolve already as being a really exciting process. So as I say, some of our spirit has been in the past for coming up on three years and it's coming together really nicely.

How much knowledge did you have of Irish whiskey and of testing in distilling and all of that sort of stuff before all of this started?

So my very first job in Irish whiskey was over 20 years ago now. I actually started out as a brand ambassador here in Australia working for Jameson many moons ago. So I guess that's when I first started to delve into the Irish whiskey world as then we put together early blends. I was very involved in working with the distillers because we sourced from other distilleries. So I'd say I've got a reasonable experience of tasting at this stage, but I'm not a master distiller or a master blender. I don't profess to be, but I guess I've had to learn as I go and I'd like to think I would hopefully know a good whiskey from a bad one anyway.

Now, you've taken the estate in a very different direction to your father and in fact one could say involved a lot more of the land and the space. How has his response been to what you're doing and what you're trying to create?

Well, first of all, my dad, Henry deserves credit because it was his idea to do the whiskey. So, but he and I did it together. Dad's been a complete inspiration to me. And he obviously started with the rock concerts in '81 and that's how we held onto the property. And next year it'll be 40 years of slaying concerts. So we recognised back in 2009 when we started the business that we needed to diversify. But I've always had his full support. We did this together. He went out on the road just like I did selling whiskey, doing tastings and he loves it too. But I guess taking it in a different direction, being able to, as you said earlier, involve the land and our water source and most of all the actual site for the distillery itself was right next to the family homes Slane castle.
So to see those buildings repurposed, come back to life and once again, employing local people, which we would have done traditionally on the farm. But dad had to lay off a lot of people when he took over in the '70s because couldn't afford to pay the wages. And now many years later we're once again employing local people, adding value from what we grow on the farm and making some great whiskey in the process.

Now, to get this up and kicking, as you mentioned earlier, Brown–Forman has been involved and have invested quite heavily. What does that mean to the brand and how much influence have they had on the direction that you've taken?

So the partnership with Brown-Forman started in 2015 I was lucky enough to meet Garvin Brown, who's the chairman of Brown-Forman he's a Brown family member. And I remember actually when we had the initial lunch, we spoke about the Irish whiskey opportunity. They had said they wanted to get into the category. I had a project was ready to go, but we actually spent most of the lunch talking about what it means to be a family business. And that's the philosophy of I guess always thinking about the next generation and beyond. And they think that way too. So it was really a meeting of minds and that enabled us to get the deal done. Myself and dad knew we couldn't fund the construction of the distillery by ourselves, we needed a partner.
But I wanted a partner who knew how to make whiskey, knew how to sell it and were decent people as well. And those three things came together. So they transformed the project because it meant we could build a distillery. And they have a great presence out as a route to market in over here in Australia and other countries like America. So yeah, it's totally transformed what started out as an idea around the kitchen table into what will hopefully become a global brand.

Have they had much influence on the barrels you use, the way you disillusioned or the way that you operate?

It's very much a collaboration. A good example would be the Virgin American Oak barrel that we use in Slane as one of the three. Because they have their own cooperage and make new barrels. It was an obvious direction to include that as part of the mix. That would be pretty unusual Irish. And it has developed a very distinctive note as a result. So they bring a lot of experience to the table, that research and development into maturation. They know whiskey and I think that's going to make us stronger in terms of the style and capability in whiskey production as a result. So we are an Irish team, but we have the backup of all of that very extensive R&D and technical support from that long and credible experience in whiskey.

Now, you were talking earlier about the whiskey being triple cask, what exactly are the rules for Irish Whiskey?

The only rule is it needs to be in a wooden cost for three years. You could use multi-cask, you could use one cask, there's no stipulation. You can actually even experiment with different woods as well. So the triple casking is just... I guess what it brings to the table is it increases the complexity of the liquid. So we could have, as I said, just blended the molten grain whiskey that we bought from others back in 2015. But we said, "No, we want to put our own stamp on this and, and try and build some additional complexity." It took us two years to do it, but I think it was worth it. I remember when we got the gold medal in the Irish whiskey awards for the second time in the blended category. That was a real, I guess pat on the back for the team who put it together. And the judge's comment was that we had over delivered on flavour for the price point and that's exactly what we set out to do.

Now, I assume that same triple blend will exist in future expressions.

I don't think we're going to necessarily confine ourselves to triple casks for all of our products because I would like in the future, it'd be nice to have a single barrel or a single cask program. So that would mean confining the whiskey to one cost for its entire life. I think that can produce some wonderful whiskeys as well, but the triple cask blend is here to stay as our core offering.

Well no matter how you don the casks in the future, is there perhaps a particular note or flavour that consumers can easily say makes Slane stand out from every other Irish Whiskey out there.

Well, I think firstly, without diet Slane has a lovely kind of sweet heavy nose. So starting with the nose and the vanilla note that comes from that Virgin Oak is very distinctive. You won't find that in the other Irish blends because they don't use Virgin Oak. So that pulls us apart. But then in terms of the palette, the body, I would say Slane is smooth, accessible, but full of flavour. That's our style. I don't want anything light coming out of Slane distiller. I'm not interested in the fluffy stuff. I want big full flavoured whiskeys.

Obviously you need to age what is being blended for at least three years? Are you looking to age it beyond that or what sort of age, such area are you generally-

So we actually make three different whiskey types at Slane. We make a triple distilled malt whiskey. I tried to distill pot still whiskey, which is the introduction of our malted barley into the Nashville. And then finally we actually have six column stoves so that we can make grain whiskey or column distill whiskey as well. All of those whiskeys are going to mature at different rates. So grain tends to come right the quickest. Malt will need longer again, and then the pot still just has more character to interact with a wood. So I think that's probably going to take the longest, but it'll be ready when it's ready. And as our stuff is sitting there, I've been lucky enough to taste a lot of other whiskeys from other distilleries. I think at three years old on the day, it's still kind of too young. It's going to need a bit longer to really come out. And any of them.

Do you want to explain the difference in taste that a column compared to a pot still can produce.

So column distilled whiskey is taken off to a much higher proof. It's a continuous process. You're going to get less congeners in there. So it's a lighter profile, but it's a great blank canvas when you put to wood. Your malt whiskey or pot still whiskey in comparison is going to... It's done on a batch process. It's not taken off to quite such a high proof from the final still, but it also because it has longer to evolve, there's a lot more character in there. There's more oils going on, there's more congeners and as a result it's a heavier spirit which is going to not fight, but it's going to dance with the wood a lot more. So your grain whiskey will tend to be lighter, but you can get some lovely wood input. The other ones, it's going to be more about the quality of the spirit itself.

Right. Now, considering that Slane has a history of rock concerts, are you going to be doing any sort of sonic enhancements, the way that Blackened have done with their whiskey?

Yeah, I know it always... It made me laugh. So it's not something we have done to be honest. I think you would have to do the sonic enhancement for a long period of time to actually agitate the liquid. So it's a great story. It'd be a fun thing to do, but we haven't done it to date. But maybe I should stick a barrel up on, on the front of the stage for the next headline. And we can have a bit of fun with that. You know?

or you could just keep playing that music to the barrel...

That's true. Yeah, we'd have to find a quiet room at the distillery. We'll soundproof it or something.

Until that happens, if someone where buying Slane for the first time, how would you recommend that they drink it?

So I think it's very important to taste it the neat first. But the most important thing for me is when you're, when you're meeting a new whiskey, the nose is so important. So before you go near tasting it, give yourself time to really take on the aroma. So I like to leave the mouth open and just breathe through the nose and do that a few times. And that kind of warms you up before you go near it and with Slane, you're going to get hit with the vanilla and the Brown sugar. You might pick up that light, little bit of ripe banana note. And then you enter the palette a little set fast, let it coat the palette. Breath a few times and then got back and have another longer and take your time with it. It's almost like chewing a toffee. Just give it a decent amount of time and that will start to unpick the rest of the flavour notes.

And the flavour notes are mainly sort of that quite strong, fruity ...

Yeah. So you're going to get a showery impact. You're going to get your raisins, your dried fruit notes. You'll definitely get the heavier brown sugar. So the vanilla is more on the nose than on the pallet. So once you enter the palace, it's Demerara sugar, it's ripe banana. You're getting into the raisins, for sultanas, and then as I say right on the finish, when the whiskey is gone, you're going to get a nice lingering little bit of spice, which is a bit of wood spice from the Virgin Oak and I like a delicate Brown or baking spice note from the Sherry cask.

Now this question I assume will horrify you, but if someone was going to not drink it neat but instead put it in a cocktail, how would you suggest they do that?

Well, first of all, that doesn't horrify me because actually a lot of very old cocktails came out of prohibition in the U.S and Irish whiskey was the number one drink back then. So cocktails have a long association with Irish whiskey. I think one of the ones that's interesting for me right at the moment is coffee and whiskey. So obviously there's the Irish coffee, which people would be familiar with, but it's quite hot here in Australia. So the one I'm enjoying at the moment is actually you combine it with iced coffee. So you make an ice coffee, you can add in a bit of milk if you want, maybe a little bit of sugar syrup if you've got a slightly sweeter tooth. But Slane's naturally quite a sweet whiskey anyway with those brown sugar notes.
So basically make an ice coffee was Slane and it's delicious. So it's something a little different. And then if you want to do a spirit forward drink and actually makes it pretty mean old fashioned again because of the heavy sweet notes. You can dial right back on the sugar syrup.

Okay. Now if people were experimenting and making cocktails themselves, what flavours do you think... what other flavours would work particularly well with Slane?

So you can either go... I've had actually some pretty good Tiki style drinks because you've got the tropical note from the banana so you can bounce into pineapple and stuff like that. Lemon and honey so that kind of acidity balances really nicely against the sweet notes. So a good one would be take some fresh lemon juice, some good local honey, put in some Slane. And then it sounds a bit weird, but talk about the tonic because that kind of sort of acidity at the tonic cuts against the sweet notes really nicely. So that one, I call it a River Boyne fizz. And that's one of my kind of favourite, nice, light, refreshing drinks.

And what are we calling sorry?

A River Boyne fizz named after our water source so.

Now, what has the reaction of consumers been so far to the whiskey?

Always pretty positive. I do tastings all the time and education. I think generally when people taste Slane for the first time, and this is people saying to me, I think we deliver a lot of flavour for the price point. I wanted to make Slane, accessible and affordable. So I don't see it as a big overpowering or intimidating, but there's plenty of flavour there. And it's at a price point where you can buy a bottle without breaking the bank. So overwhelmingly people see this as a really accessible, easy drinking, smooth but full-flavoured.

Are they surprised? Scotch whiskey has been so prominent. Are they surprised that it's Irish?

That's a good question. I think Irish is enjoying great resurgence. So I think people know, people definitely know it's an Irish. This is not a scotch blend, it's an Irish whiskey, I guess with some American cues. Thanks to those two American barrels. Someone described this as a good Irish whiskey for bourbon drinkers, which I think has an interesting comment because it has got those nice American cues, but it is very definitively Irish because the Sherry barrel pulls it all the way back to that lovely Irish character. So yeah, I think it's a well balanced but we're seeing people moving between whiskey brands and between categories a lot more than we used to. So you might have a Japanese one day, an American the next day and then a scotch.
So I hope that when they come to an Irish, the reason that I hope you get out a Slane is there is no hopping around is the interested in flavour. And that's why I wanted to make a blend that had a bit of substance.

Okay. What is the reaction of bartenders?

Yeah, I have a lot of farmer bartenders. I think what they enjoy about it is because it's relatively complex. You can put it in a long drink or a cocktail and it's not going to get lost. It's got enough presence to work in those style of drinks. And so they really enjoy playing with it. I mentioned earlier like I've had bartenders make me a Tiki drink. I've had like a classic, like a Tipperary, classic Irish whiskey cocktail. So I think the reaction of bartenders overwhelmingly, and even talking to some last night, they said, "This is a spirit that has... I guess it's evil. Sorry. It's easy to... It's very flexible." Okay. So you can diversify into all the different structures with no problem. There's a lot there to play with. So it has been really positive. Had great feedback.

Now, you're talking earlier about the resurgence of Irish whiskey. How do you see its future unfolding?

It's only up and up at the moment. We're now close to 30 distilleries in Ireland and that's most of those... The vast majority of those have been within the last five years. If you look at the distribution of scotch globally, for example, Irish is still not very established in many... We're everywhere but in some we've only got a small presence. I think the opportunities for growth are huge, so I predict a very good next 20, 30 years for Irish, I hope and Slane will hopefully make a positive contribution towards that.

Irish Whiskey has a reputation for being quite traditional but you actually have have quite a bit of innovation in your distillery.

We definitely built in some innovation in the distillery. For example, we have an anaerobic digester on site, which we haven't commissioned yet, but that will take the waste product from the stills. We'll feed it into micro organisms. They will then create bio gas and then we can burn that gas to heat the stills. So that will reduce our-

It's working as a middle-

Well, it's basically saving energy but when it's up and running it's going to reduce our carbon footprint by about 30%. And then we're doing what we can in terms of the barley cultivation to deliver on quality and yield but also assessing our impact on biodiversity as well. Because I think we have a responsibility to try and leave things better than when we arrived. That's really what myself and my wife, Corinne are trying to do. So I would say, yes, we're traditional but we're trying to be progressive in terms of how we do things.

Now let us talk about where Slane is available. What markets have you gone into so far?

So not too many. So in Europe, we're currently in France, Czech Republic, and then we're in Australia but also New Zealand. And then a little bit of travel retail and that's it for now.

Okay. Is that going to expand over the next few years or are you looking to just keep that?

We're careful about where we go because we want to make sure if we do go into market we can give it the support it needs and focus and attention. So yes, we will be expanding to other countries but we're not taking a shotgun approach. We're nurturing the markets one by one as they come online. But yeah, over the next five years we'll be in a few more countries for sure.

You didn't mention the U.S

America. Yeah, so we're now available in... We did a full national rollout. So we're available in every state.

Oh really? Okay. Because that's quite a thing I believe.

Yeah. I had a friend who walked into Anchorage in Alaska recently and was happy to see Slane behind the bar. So we're getting out there.

Cool. All right. Well, look, thank you very much for your time, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your travels.

Thank you very much. Pleasure.

Cheers.

For more information about Slane go to slaneirishwhiskey.com

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Alex Conyngham From Slane Irish Whiskey

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