If you are reading Whiskey Burn and have a pen handy, cross out “Walsh Whiskey Distillery” on page 91 and change the name to Royal Oak Distillery. Bernard Walsh, director of his eponymous distillery in County Carlow, Ireland, has announced the demerger with his business partner following what the Irish Times reports is: a dispute with part-owner Illva Saronna about its future.
Illva Saronno’s stake in the company dates back to 2015, initially an exclusive distribution agreement, but in reality an investment opportunity that effectively ensured the existence of the distillery, though perhaps this has proved to be something of a double-edged sword. Walsh started his company in 1999 offering his own outsourced liquors and whiskeys, and successfully opened the distillery in 2016. Now the business is being split in two: Bernard will continue with the brands (made in any case in Midleton) that stocks pubs and off-licence shelves with the popular “Writers’ Tears” and “The Irishman”, while Illva Saronno (Tia Maria) gets to own the distillery outright - ooh, come sono geloso! Italian companies are not exactly new to whisk(e)y; Glen Grant, after all, is owned by the Italian Campari Group and they have made a pretty good job of that since 2006, even though the entire board of Glen Grant resigned when they received news of the takeover.
The good news is that there are to be no redundancies as a result of the change, and tweets from the distillery staff all tell us that it is business as usual, albeit a new dawn. But there is something sad about this latest piece of Irish whiskey breaking news, isn’t there? This writer for one shed a tear or two at the news. When I was in Carlow writing Whiskey Burn, I met Bernard at his distillery, and was pleased to encounter a proud Irish owner of a brand new Irish-owned distillery. From now on, it may not have that kudos, but hopefully the Italians will continue to produce some fine whiskeys - not under the name of Walsh, but as ‘Royal Oak Distillery’ (- arguably not a really wise choice of name in the Republic of Ireland, but that’s another matter).
One thing it does show, though, is that nothing is permanent in the whiskey business, and, as Jackie at Ardbeg told me, every ‘up-to-date’ book about whiskey is out of date before it hits the shelves. It’s not a ‘whiskey’ business, it’s a ‘risky’ business. The history of distilling is littered with stories of hopeful entrepreneurs who set up their distilleries, only to be bought out by other companies that later made the fortunes: the founders of Dalwhinnie, for example, were forced to sell up after only a few months of production. Recently we heard that plans by Niche Drinks for a distillery in (London)Derry in the North of Ireland, owners of The Quiet Man brand, have been shelved.
We are not losing Bernard Walsh's affable presence in the business, however, and his excellent whiskeys will still be around, but perhaps it is a cautionary tale for those of us who may have at an impressionable time in our lives had one of those pipe dreams of opening a distillery at some time or another ('join the queue', I think is the expression). And so I’ll just finish with an apt-ish quote from the closing stages of Whiskey Burn:
How long the current boom will go on, who will come through at the end of it, who will be in the driving seat of the bandwagon, and who will fall off the back of it, time will tell.