There are many names that come to mind when thinking about the people who made Irish whiskey history: John Jameson, of course, along with column still inventor Aeneas Coffey and Joe Sheridan, who came up with the world-famous Irish Coffee. Nowadays, the who’s who of the industry is filled with innovators, business people and veteran tastemakers that are driving the spirit’s new golden age.
With Irish whiskey exports having increased by 18.5% in the first half of 2017 (22% in the United States), it has become the world’s fastest growing spirits category and ambitious goals are set for 2020. Who are the masterminds and key players in today’s Irish whiskey renaissance?
The list below highlights some of the most powerful and influential individuals in the industry, but ultimately, every bar manager stocking local liquid, every bartender showing enthusiasm about Irish whiskey, and every consumer discovering or rediscovering uisce beatha, is part of this success story too.
John Teeling is one of the most notable pioneers in the revival of Irish whiskey. He realised the spirit’s potential during his student days in the United States in the seventies and after years of planning, in 1986, he went on to open the Cooley Distillery, which was sold to American Bourbon giant Beam Inc in 2011 for over €70 million.
Then in 2013, he acquired the Great Northern Brewery in Dundalk from Diageo and turned it into his current venture, The Great Northern Distillery, where he focuses on producing single malt, pot still and single grain whiskey in bulk for both Irish and international customers.
Read our interview with John Teeling to find out more.
Originally from Dublin, Dr. Pearse Lyons was the first Irishman to receive a formal degree in brewing and distilling from the British School of Malting and Brewing and he holds a PhD in yeast fermentation. Along with his wife Deirdre, he acquired a former church building in The Liberties where they recently opened the Pearse Lyons Distillery.
After working for Irish Distillers, Pearse moved to the US in 1977 and in 1999, he purchased the Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company in Kentucky. In 1980, he founded Alltech, now a leading biotechnology company that, among several other divisions, encompasses the Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. in Kentucky.
Read more about the Pearse Lyons Distillery on TheTaste.
Alex Connygham is the co-founder of Slane Castle Distillery. The famous castle in which the distillery is located has been in his family’s hand for over three generations and it’s also the home of a world-famous music festival that has brought talent to the region since the early eighties.
Alex has studied art and philosophy as well as business, and worked abroad in different fields before returning to Ireland and founding the company with his father in 2009. A partnership with Brown-Forman, American spirits and wine corporation of Jack Daniel’s fame, made it possible for the father and son duo to build their own distillery (the company bought their brand in 2015 but Alex remains involved and is an active part of the brand-building).
Read our interview with Alex Connynham to find out more.
Ally Alpine is the Managing Director of the multi award-winning Celtic Whiskey Shop in Dublin and the Celtic Whiskey Bar & Larder in Killarney, Kerry. Originally from Glasgow, he has made Dublin his home and is the man behind Whiskey Live Dublin, the country’s main whiskey festival, running since 2011.
Ally also organises the Irish Whiskey Awards, another key date in the calendar of distilleries across the country, which held its fifth edition in 2017. Unlike other awards, this is a non-profit initiative made possible by Ally’s leadership, as well as cooperation from the industry and serious enthusiasts.
Read our interview with Ally Alpine to find out more.
Bernard and his wife Rosemary are the husband and wife team behind the prestigious Walsh Whiskey Distillery in Carlow. They created the company, The Hot Irishman, back in 1999 to produce a premium Irish coffee. After moving to Carlow, they developed The Irishman Cream Liqueur and in 2007 they launched a namesake brand of Irish whiskey.
After a successful start, they launched boutique brand Writers’ Tears in 2009, which shortly after became one of the highest rated Irish Whiskeys in Jim Murrays Iconic Whiskey Bible. In 2013, a €25 million strategic partnership with Italian company Illva Saronno allowed them to move to the idyllic setting of Royal Oak, where they were able to build a distillery and visitor centre.
Louise founded The Chapel Gate Irish Whiskey Company in 2015. After working in the US, UK and France for leading drinks companies, she quit and returned to Ireland, where she discovered the story of JJ Corry, who inspired her recently launched and award-wining Irish whiskey of the same name.
She has been a vocal innovator who has focused on bringing back the art and trade of whiskey bonding, which consists of sourcing whiskey to either mature or blend it to create something unique. Whiskey bonders were once a common sight in Ireland but as the spirits reputation faded, so did theirs and the practice slowly faded away. She matures the whiskeys she sources in a custom-built bonded warehouse in the family house in Co. Clare.
Read our interview with Louise McGuane to find out more.
With over four decades of experience, one of these as Master Blender, Billy Leighton is a real veteran of Irish whiskey and the man responsible for the different blends and world-famous Jameson as well as other brands from the Irish Distillers portfolio.
This dedicated tastemaker has been a pivotal figure in the launch of recent innovations, including Redbreast Lusteau Edition and the Method and Madness range. It is ultimately up to him to ensure that releases by Irish Distillers’ brand remain true to themselves, while also staying exciting and appealing to today’s consumers.
Read our interview with Billy Leighton to find out more.
The Teeling brothers have brought distilling back to Dublin with the Teeling Whiskey Co. They’ve built a prestigious brand and become one of the spearheads of the latest wave of premium Irish whiskey from small-batch companies. Jack and Stephen are sons of John Teeling (who is also featured on this list).
Barely a year after being created in 2014, Teeling Whiskey Co. won “Experience of the Year” at the prestigious Luxury Travel Guide Awards. The company sold a minority stake to Bacardi last summer, a move that helped them ensure precious distribution channels, especially in the US. One of their most recent launches, Teeling Revival IV, was chosen as Irish Whiskey of the Year at the Irish Whiskey Awards in 2017.
After a long career in media, Peter ventured into distilling and co-founded West Waterford’s Blackwater Distillery in 2014. It was the first micro-distillery in the county in 174 years and has launched a series of gins, including their flagship Blackwater No 5, which has earned numerous national and international accolades over the last couple of years.
Peter launched his first whiskey, The Retronaut, at last year’s Whiskey Live Dublin. While his own spirit is not yet ready, this bottling is one that will become a series of high-end limited editions made from whiskeys he has carefully sourced. Before retiring from his writing career, Peter published The Whiskeys of Ireland, a great overview of the history and evolution of Irish whiskey.
Belfast natives Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon run The Dead Rabbit Bar in New York. Chosen as the best bar in the world in 2016 and consistently making it to the top five in the World’s 50 Best Bars 2016 rankings, this Irish-owned venue has been pivotal in spreading the word on Irish whiskey overseas, especially among the on-trade.
Jack and Sean took inspiration from the iconic bar at the Merchant Hotel Belfast as well as working-class establishments like the popular Duke of York, to create one of the world’s most famous Irish bars. They regularly visit Ireland to stay ahead of the curve and get new ideas, and on their most recent visit, they held a residency at The Sidecar Bar at the Westbury Hotel in Dublin.
Read our interview with Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon to find out more.
Jean is the CEO and Chairman of Irish Distilleries Pernod Ricard. After taking on the role in 2016, the Bordeaux-native has made it his business to accelerate the growth of the company’s brands, including the world-famous Jameson portfolio, which is one of Pernod Ricard’s most valuable names and a spearhead in the revived interest in Irish whiskey internationally.
Jean has represented Pernod Ricard in different markets including Asia and Australia, where he looked after the corporation’s wine division. One of his goals is to give Jameson a push in Asian markets, which would ultimately open more doors to Irish whiskey in the highly coveted region.
Pat is another Irish drinks active veteran. After selling the Gleeson Group Tipperary Water to C&C, he focused on producing cider and nowadays, he has ventured into distilling and brewing in Ireland with two family-run projects: The Boann Distillery, in the heart of the Boyne Valley, and Boyne Brewhouse, in Drogheda.
Along with his wife Marie and his sons and daughters Sally-Anne, Celestine, Peter, Patrick and James, the family combines four decades of valuable experience and run several successful Irish drink brands including Irish whiskey, The Whistler and Merrys Irish Cream Liqueur.
Bruichladdich Distillery’s former Managing Director, Mark Reyner, has made the south east of Ireland his home as the co-founder and CEO of Waterford Distillery, an ambitious project based on the site of a former Diageo-owned brewery and centered on the production of premium Irish whiskey. Last August, his venture raised €20 million and is on its way to produce a single malt Irish whiskey.
Mark sources barley from 61 Irish farms and 19 distinct soil types, favouring organic producers as much as possible, and he is a strong supporter of the concept of terroir, more often seen in the wine world. He is also vocal about the importance of transparency and traceability as well as the need for more regulations within the Irish drinks industry.
While his name is more closely associated with Irish gin, and specifically with the prestigious Drunshambo Gunpowder Gin, PJ Rigney has recently joined the dark (spirits) side with the introduction of what will be The Shed Distillery’s first whiskey.
With over 30 years of experience, he has contributed to the creation of numerous successful Irish drink brands, including Sheridan’s Irish Cream Liqueur and Boru Vodka and he has consistently proven to have a keen eye for spotting trends and creating highly marketable products of top quality.
Read our interview with PJ Rigney to find out more.
Colum is the Chairman of the Irish Whiskey Association and the Master Distiller at Bushmills. A graduate in Production Management from the University of Limerick, he has worked in the industry over the last two decades and has been part of the Bushmills family since 2002.
After being sold to José Cuervo in 2014, Bushmills’ latest launch, Red Bush, saw the company offering its first new product to the Irish market in five years. Colm celebrated the step as a way to get closer to the new whiskey drinker.
John is the Global Brand Ambassador of Tullamore D.E.W., one of the biggest brands and most famous Irish whiskey distilleries domestically and abroad. In this role, he has had the opportunity to contribute to the consolidating and introduction of Irish whiskey into different markets.
This veteran messenger of Irish whiskey has been part of the Irish Distillers group since 1974, and is constantly travelling across the world as one of the spokespeople that keep pushing the new wave of Irish whiskey globally.
Whiskey wouldn’t exist without barley, therefore, the cereal is a product of high importance for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Michael Creed T.D. was Fine Gael’s spokesperson on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food between 2007 to 2010, before being chosen for his current role.
He has praised the current Irish Whiskey Strategy and acknowledged the importance of Irish whiskey for the country’s economy and he looks after many issues that are pivotal for whiskey production.
Barry is one of the co-founders of Wicklow’s Glendalough Distillery, a pioneer of the small-batch spirits boom in the country, and they take pride in being “Ireland’s first craft distillery.” Before venturing into this project, Barry worked as beverages analyst for over a decade. Glendalough Distillery was set up in 2011 by five friends including Barry and Garry McLoughlin, Brian Fagan and Kevin Keenan, and and since then, it has expanded its offering to include poitín, gin and of course, a range of Irish whiskeys.
In 2016, the company secured a €3.5 million investment from Canadian drinks heavyweight, the Mark Anthony Group. In that same year, its Glendalough 13 Year Old Irish Whiskey scored a Gold Medal at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition (where their Double Barrel received Double Gold and their 7 year old was awarded Silver). Their gin has also earned international accolades.
Dr. David Ryan (pictured centre) is the Director of the IT Carlow’s Bachelor’s degree in Brewing and Distilling, the first of its kind in Ireland and the result of two years of research and development by the Institute of Technology Carlow. The course is set to train Ireland’s future professional brewers and distillers, at a time when both industries are booming.
David has been part of the IT Carlow team since 2003 and has a PhD in Biotechnology and Microbiology from the University of Ireland. The programme will not only help train the next generation of local talent, but it’s expected to attract international learners and contribute to the enhancement of agricultural science and research.
Oliver Hughes† (1959-2016) founded the Porterhouse Group which now has bars in Ireland, the UK and the US, and Dingle Distillery, the first purpose-built distillery in Ireland to open in two centuries, producer of premium Irish whiskey as well as gin and vodka.
Oliver is acknowledged as the pioneer of craft beer in Ireland and was one of the most successful publicans in the country. While he passed away at the age of 57 on the 31st of July 2016, this posthumous mention is our small homage to a man that did so much for the craft drinks movement.
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.