Alex Conyngham is the co-founder of Slane Castle Distillery, one of the most high profile newcomers on the Irish whiskey scene. While this title already denotes leadership, his ties to the company transcend those of a contract, as the famous Slane Castle Estate, where the distillery is located, has been in his family’s hands for over three centuries.
“It wasn’t long after we founded the company in 2009 that we started to talk about building a distillery onsite at Slane, but the real planning on that front didn’t start until 2012”, he says as he points out the significant challenge building a distillery within protected 18th century buildings represented.
“We had a great team of distillers, architects and engineers, who put it together and we also got great support from other people in the Irish whiskey industry and from the local authority”, he adds.
Before settling into the family estate, Alex had the opportunity to work in different fields and broaden his perspective. A graduate of History of Arts and Philosophy from Trinity College Dublin and Entrepreneurial Studies at the Smurfit Graduate School of Business, his first job in whiskey took him to Australia where he worked with a leading Irish whiskey brand.
Life then took him to London where he worked in the fine art world, which remains one of his passions. Motivated with the idea of running his own business, Alex decided to do an MBA at the Graduate School of Business in Cape Town, South Africa, where he developed an interest in renewable energy technologies.
He returned to Ireland in 2007 and worked in that sector until 2009, when he founded the whiskey company with his father. “My experience in renewables has proved useful for the whiskey project as we have incorporated an Anaerobic Digestor into our distillery design, along with many other sustainability initiatives”, he points out, just an example of the importance of venturing into different fields before embracing a project as complex as the one that keeps him busy nowadays.
Alex’s father, Lord Henry Mount Charles, is no stranger to using the estate for something that gets people excited. He started to organise the now famous concerts in the grounds of Slane Castle back in 1981 and since then, the who’s who of rock ‘n’ roll has performed here, including Guns ‘n’ Roses, Rolling Stones, David Bowie and U2.
When asked if there is any similarity between organising the Slane concerts and directing a distillery, Alex finds a connection: “Dad started the concerts in 1981 and that took grit, determination and the courage to take a significant calculated risk. Working with him to get Slane Distillery off the ground took the same and he has continued to inspire me in this and other endeavours.”
Regarding the Boyne Valley region’s relationship with whiskey, Alex points out that it was “historically a haven for whiskey distilling due to the water supply from the River Boyne, good farmland for growing barley and a port for export at Drogheda.”
He recalls that “although there were no distilleries in Slane, there were several in Navan and Drogheda” and among his plans at Slane Distillery, he emphasises the goal of “recreating this, as the Boyne runs through the farm and we grow approximately 2,000 tonnes of barley every year, enabling us to potentially create a range of Single Estate Irish Whiskeys”, perhaps his words carry hints of things to come.
And while the project had been on the list since 2009, Slane Irish Whiskey wasn’t the first product of their efforts: “Dad and I originally founded the business in 2009 when we launched Slane Castle Whiskey, but sales of this ceased when our source of whiskey supply terminated in 2012.
“We had already dreamed of building our own distillery at Slane and the partnership we have now with Brown-Forman has turned this dream into reality, as we have now successfully launched both Slane Whiskey and Slane Distillery this year.”
For Brown-Forman, American spirits and wine corporation of Jack Daniel’s fame, Slane Irish Whiskey Distillery is its first distillery outside of the US. The company bought the brand in 2015, and the construction of the distillery began shortly after. At the time, Brown-Forman announced an investment of €50 million in the project and the Conynghams confirmed the family will remain “a key part of the brand-building model”, in Henry’s words.
Over two years later, Alex reflects on the experience this partnership has meant: “Like us, they have a family at the heart of their business – the Brown family. Sharing that long term perspective and focusing on the next generation and beyond creates a strong level of trust and long term commitment. That is the foundation of our partnership with them. They are good people to work with and have leading capabilities in producing whiskey and building global brands.”
Nowadays, Alex plays an important role in helping to crystallise the brand’s vision and often represents Slane Whiskey abroad. This has helped him develop his leadership style, which he defines as “informal, approachable and I am getting better at delegating, which was needed.”
When talking about the most rewarding part of this endeavour, Alex considers “getting the chance to build a business that is based at home and that uses the natural resources that are available, the River Boyne for our water supply and the farmland for growing the barley that supplies the distillery,” the highlights.
Seeing the yard buildings at Slane fully restored, welcoming visitors and employing locals, which they did historically, is uplifting. I also happen to love my Irish whiskey and it’s a privilege to work in this industry.
One thing he celebrates about the Irish whiskey renaissance is “that all jobs in Irish whiskey stay in Ireland as it can only be made here.” In the same lines, Alex points out that the sector generates tourism, which “can make a real difference” in the rural communities where many distilleries are located.
More distilleries coming into the mix is good for everyone as the category has significant opportunity for growth as Irish whiskey consumers are looking for greater choice.”
In order to keep the winning streak, “an important next step will be the development of an all island Irish Whiskey trail which has the potential to sit neatly alongside the likes of the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland’s Ancient East as a globally marketed tourism product”, he considers.
With more new whiskeys being launched, how does Slane stand out? For Alex, having an interesting story to tell which encompasses their unique access to land for barley cultivation and 300 years of family heritage is a good place to start. He doesn’t forget to mention Slane’s “rock ‘n’ roll roots.” Finally, the partnership with Brown-Forman gives them access to “customised and product-specific barrels which allows us to craft our own, flavour forward whiskey style”.
Alex describes Slane Irish Whiskey as “progressive, with a hint of rebellion”, and we can’t help but think he could easily be referring to himself. Regarding plans for the near future, he says they “will continue to try and grow Slane Whiskey in key markets like the US, Ireland and the UK, while laying down whiskey from Slane Distillery for future releases.”
With Irish whiskey as a category growing remarkably and consecutively for over a decade and the muscle of Brown-Forman supporting this endeavour, the future seems pretty rock ‘n’ roll for Alex and the team behind Slane Irish Whiskey.
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.