Whales' Tails at Clonakilty Distillery

Clonakilty Distillery

From Ireland’s ‘other capital’, Cork, head south and west for Kinsale and the wonderful coast road, until you meet signs for the route that has become known as the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s a fair way (2,500km) and it runs alongside the Atlantic, and can get pretty wild. Here in Clonakilty, about 35 km west from Kinsale, local farmer Michael Scully bought the empty building of a bank and decided to turn it into a distillery. That’s kind of apt, because banks have always had a close relationship with distilleries, albeit of the love-hate kind: love the amount of money you’ll have to borrow, hate your business plan (“Erm... how many years did you say it will be before you turn a profit?”).

Michael, one of eight generation of farmers in his family, can even use his own barley to make whiskey, and that’s attention to provenance that most other distillers can only dream of. I ask him why he set up a distillery, and he tries to explain that he got fed up of the business trips he always seemed to be on and was looking for an extra angle to the farming. Distilling seemed the only natural thing to do: You have a farm, you have cereal crops, and so what’s left after feeding the cows, you turn into whiskey - what more of an explanation can there be than that?

Irish whiskey is, in many respects, a small world at the moment, and it is in the sort of serendipitous encounter that small worlds are good at, that I happen to be here when the Irish Whiskey Society (IWS) are visiting too - among whom are Brian, who manned the stand next to me last year at WhiskeyLiveDublin, blogger and Harley rider Zoltán, and a fellow whiskey writer Fionnán, author of the definitive homage to pot still whiskey A Glass Apart.

Ewan, manager of the Clonakilty Visitor’s Centre side of things, takes us round and explains that, like most farms, this is very much a family business: Michael’s two sons and daughter also work here, along with over 30 people from the area. Clonakilty distillery has been 6 years in the making; there was nothing much to see except the empty building when I passed here on my Whiskey Burn a couple of years ago, and after investing a cool EUR 10 million they opened last March (2019).

Local barley is malted in Cork, then delivered here to be ground in a Swiss Bühler mill, and because they make the traditional pot still whisky, where a ratio of usually around 60/40 of malted and unmalted grains is mixed at the mashing stage, a mash conversion vessel is needed to soften the starches in the unmalted cereals. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel washbacks for 72 hours with the addition of powdered yeast until it becomes a ‘beer’ of 8% ABV that is ready for distillation. 

The beer is then sent to the first of three handsome, still glinting and shiny, pot stills - wash still 7,000 litres, intermediate and spirit 4,600, made by Barison Industry of Trento just north of Lago di Garda in northern Italy. Head distiller Paul (ex-Teeling) comes by as Ewan is talking and he starts tapping away at the touch screen to our right; this is not a fully automated distillery, so each process needs careful and constant monitoring by the production team. The wash distillation gives off 25% ABV, the intermediate 50-60%, and the final run is treated to a cut in the middle of the process to capture the ‘heart’ of the distillation in the region of 80%.

New make spirit is then casked with well water from the family farm at 63.5% and eventually bottled at 43.6 %, cut over two weeks with more well water that has been treated to remove the minerals by reverse osmosis, a process that’s the reverse of natural osmosis in plants - something to do with pressures either side of a porous membrane, and if I’d paid more attention in biology at school I’d know what that was exactly.

Michael takes us up to the warehouse near the family farm on a high cliff above the ocean. The IWS are interested in buying a cask, so Michael gets warehouseman Bernard to open up some samples. Tasting whiskey in a warehouse is always going to be a special experience, and it will be interesting to see what the society members choose. They will buy it, bottle it when the time is right, and sell it as special releases to their members, the lucky devils.

Clonakilty whiskey is casked in a variety of wood, in particular what is known as ‘NEOC’ (New Era Of Cask) – hand shaved and re-charred Bordeaux wine barrels, so adding rich fruit notes while heightening the effect of vanillins and reducing the tannins, or something like that. We taste a few casks, full of red berry, apple, vanilla, and spices – but the most interesting comment has to be the smell of ‘my grandmother’s house’ according to one of the IWS lads, which leaves you wondering what his grandmother put in her tea.

I leave Michael and the IWS to it, as I’m heading back to Cork for the evening – my friend Eric, a distiller at Midleton, is holding a vintage Jameson evening in the Old Oak which I might just be able to make, but I leave confident that Clonakilty Distillery with its gin education, whisky tours, cliff-top warehousing and on-site bistro is going to be one of the defining features of the as-we-speak forming and burgeoning Munster whiskey trail - just the thing to revive the spirits after a long trek along the Wild Atlantic Way.

BTW, Clonakilty make Minke Gin (the whale's tail is the distillery emblem) and they also have a gin school at the distillery where students of such alchemy can come and make their concoctions of spirit and botanicals, and then distil in mini-stills, and so their own personal gin is ready to drink by the end of the day. Sounds fun. Bring on the whiskey school, I say, though admittedly considering the 3 years minimum for a whiskey to be ready to drink, that’ll be something of a higher education.