“No two days are the same” in the life of Billy Leighton, Jameson’s Head Blender and a man with four decades of experience in different areas of the Irish whiskey industry. He started in the Bushmills Distillery as an accountant, and “believe or not” spent nearly two decades in the finance side of the business.
Then “an opportunity came up to get into production” and he changed the tie for the lab coat, although he acknowledges that his accountancy and finance background has been extremely helpful through his career: “there’s an awful lot of number crunching in the blending world, no doubt about that. If we didn’t put as much effort into the stock control as into the actual job of blending, it would be very difficult.” He points out that stock management plays a big role in making sure that the quantities produced are enough to keep up with demand.
The whole mathematics that would have been useful in finance are priceless in the role of blender”.
Billy will be giving a masterclass this weekend at Whiskey Live Paris, where he’ll be speaking about the resurgence of single pot still Irish whiskey. But behind all comeback stories, there’s a previous rise-and-fall narrative.
What happened to single pot still Irish whiskey which made its popularity fall in the first place?
“Historically, Irish whiskey would have been all single pot still.” Billy explains how the development of distillation columns gradually replaced the pot still technology, mostly in Scotland where producers were faster and more effective at implementing it, which meant a remarkable reduction of costs and increased their competitiveness dramatically.
Then history happened: between the mid 19th century and the mid 20th century; famine, the independence war, WWI and WWII, and prohibition and the Great Depression in the United States all played a part in the drastic shrinking of the industry. Only a handful of brands survived, Billy points out Green Spot and Redbreast as examples.
And what is causing the category’s comeback?
“The resurgence of Irish whiskey has been lead by Jameson” says Billy, and when asked why now he mentions that “people that might have been more familiar with Scotch are ready to try something a little bit different” and he adds that “the pot still component that is in Jameson captured the imagination of people who became interested in the Irish whiskey category.”
Is there any major difference in single pot still whiskey nowadays compared to how it was traditionally made in the past?
“Not really, the process is pretty much the same in the traditional triple distilled whiskey” says Billy, who considers that the the changes are in what surrounds the whiskey and not in the drink itself: “I guess what might have changed compared to back in the day is the technology and the control that we have in modern distilleries. Even though the process is exactly the same, we can control how distillation progresses and we are able to achieve more consistent and higher quality spirits” he also praises the modern and “very strict” wood management system which involves the quality of the casks they use and which also adds to the quality and consistency of the end results.
But another thing that propels the resurgence of single pot still Irish whiskey is of course the energy that only a well thought marketing plan and appealing branding can bring. How much of the blending is influenced by market research, consumer insight and trends? Just as with the whiskey itself, achieving balance in this matter is vital for those who want to be liked by many and yet remain true to themselves.
“Marketing people will always be looking for something new that we might have to offer” Billy comments, and while he’s aware that it “can be very difficult whenever you’re working in a traditional industry and trying to stay traditional”, he mentions a recently launched Redbreast whiskey matured in Sherry casks as an example of what can be done when tradition and trends become a team.
Only a very experienced and firm hand is able to balance authenticity with progress and so far, Billy and his team are doing a brilliant job at the almost utopian task of keeping everyone happy. “The confidence that comes from experience” is critical, as is the ability to understand the industry from different angles: the science, the business, the art, the tradition… just as ingredients in a pot still, they all play a role in the resurgence of Irish whiskey and, if the passion and enthusiasm behind people like Billy and his team is an indicator of things to come, the spirit is only going to get bigger in the foreseeable future.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.