“I feel hugely privileged to be a part of the re-birth of the Irish Whiskey category”, says Louise McGuane, who founded The Chapel Gate Irish Whiskey Company in September 2015.
She left Ireland in 1992 to study Philosophy and Literature in the UK and after that, she moved to the US and worked in Moët Hennessy. She eventually moved to France as part of the Global marketing team with Veuve Clicquot and her career continued with global roles in Pernod-Ricard in London and then in Diageo, first in London and then in Singapore.
“I quit my job so that I could return to Europe to live with my husband! I discovered the story of JJ Corry and off I went”, she recalls, as she explains how the Irish whiskey bonder inspired her current venture.
“JJ Corry was a whiskey bonder born in the parish of Cooraclare in the 1800’s”, she explains. He operated from his pub at 63 Henry St. Kilrush from 1893 until his death in the 1930’s. His daughter Bridie continued to run the business until her death in 1983. JJ’s family still lives in the parish.
“An antiques dealer dismantled the shop and sold it to Bunratty Castle folk park. As a result I have a lot of archival information about JJ, what he sold and what he made”, she says, adding that she was able to take inspiration from original labels and that nowadays she aims to bring back his way of making whiskey for the modern whiskey drinker only a few miles away from where he was born.”
Doing Things Differently
Until recently, Louise was the only employee in her own company. To test the concept, she ran a Kickstarter campaign which raised 125% of the goal, “99% of those funds were raised in the US and that allowed us to prove that the concept would work there.”
The Chapel Gate Irish Whiskey Company became the only Irish whiskey business to be successfully crowdfund so far. Louise offered a series of creative rewards to those who contributed, “like having a candle lit for you in Cooraclare Church, or other more high-value rewards like a week at our guest house.” She was able to attract angel investors and soon she was hands on.
I found a source of casks, partnered with a blender, built the rackhouse on the family farm and we put our first whiskey into cask in May of 2016, then we struggled with licensing and approvals but eventually accepted delivery of the casks in December 2016.
Now she has welcomed her first employee, Blaise Kelly, who looks after sales and marketing and will help strengthen their presence in the US, this makes her business the only all-female Irish whiskey company.
Loise is “a big believer in the Lean Startup model” and proudly mentions that having over 20 years of experience herself, she didn’t need “to spend hundreds of thousands on consultants” and so far has done almost everything herself, or working with trusted external resources when it makes sense.
Reviving the Art of Whiskey Bonding
At The Chapel Gate Whiskey Company, there are no plans to distill their own spirit in the foreseeable future. Louise emphasises that they’re whiskey bonders, a figure that “is alive and well in other whiskey making regions”, but that faded away in Ireland as the industry shrunk drastically during the 20th century.
Whiskey bonding is the practice of sourcing whiskey and either maturing it and then blending it or simply blending it to create something unique.”
Louise points out that “it was once the only way that whiskey was sold in Ireland” as distilleries didn’t bottle nor brand their whiskeys but used to sell it to third parties like JJ Corry. “This meant that there was once a huge variety of flavour profiles in Irish Whiskey which was totally lost by the 1930’s or so.”
At The Chapel Whiskey Company, they mature whiskey in a custom built bonded warehouse on the family farm in County Clare. “We have to wait several years for that spirit to mature however so in the meantime we are blending mature sourced whiskies to create unique offerings”, explains Louise, adding that this will allow her to start defining the house’s style.
In years to come we hope that our climate will have a significant effect on our sleeping whiskey, we are nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Shannon Estuary and have our own little microclimate.”
Why bring bonding back? For Louise, “if there is to be a true resurgence of Irish Whiskey, there has to be bonding” as the practice “was once an integral piece of the Irish whiskey trade.”
“Your Gender in the Whiskey Industry Should Not be Relevant”
Louise has experienced her (un)fair share of mansplaining and sexism during her career but for her “life’s too short” and raising above the pettiness is the best move. “If you ever realise you are being underestimated, don’t take offence, use it to your advantage”, she suggests, not just for women but for anyone in the industry.
“You don’t need to be one of the boys and you don’t need to tolerate offensive language, jokes or behaviour” refusing to work with or limiting your exposure to toxic people is also par of her work philosophy.
Regarding positive steps towards equality within the industry, she acknowledges that a big improvement has been the “affirmative action now in drinks corporations in terms of ensuring women on executive boards”, however, women in leadership positions are still rare.
“My advice to any woman in business is very simply to be sure that you control your own destiny”, she says, pointing out that while the decision of taking time off to have children still represents a big dilemma for professionals, “fortunately the nature of work is changing” and technology allows you to work remotely at least part of the time. While some companies will be more flexible than others, anyone -female or male- who decides to spend more time at home to look after a family has now more options than ever to remain active in the workforce.
Louise hopes to reach 50,000 cases per year. Aware that it will take many years to get there, the focus now is on strengthening distribution, “building the brand and bringing in as many whiskey fans as we can to our story.”
To achieve these goals Louise has “So. Many. Plans.” She’s planning to build a blending facility on site to have complete control over the blending and “to be able to custom blend on a whim for customers, just like JJ Corry did.” She also has a “super interesting cask program on the go and I am looking to really kick our wood offering into interesting places in the next 18 months or so.”
Another front she’s looking to cover is the development of an upscale whiskey tourism experience. “We are working with select 5 star luxury hotels within striking distance to develop small scale high-end visitor experiences for their guests with an interest in Irish Whiskey.” While they don’t run a massive tourist attraction, whiskeyphiles and super enthusiastic whiskey tourists are welcome to contact them for appointment only visits.
The Whiskey: JJ Corry The Gael
The Chapel Gate Whiskey Company’s first release is JJ Corry The Gael, a small batch 60% malt, 40% grain blended Irish whiskey named after a bicycle JJ Corry invented in the 1890’s. “I spent the last 2 years sourcing rare Irish Whiskies”, says Louise adding that the casks range from seven years old to 26 years old.
The first batch is 7,500 bottles in total and Ireland will have an allocation of a few hundred cases of 500ml bottles priced at €60. “It will be distributed locally in Clare and at specialty whiskey shops in Dublin like Celtic Whiskey Shop, in Duty Free Shannon and online.”
“It was the best choice I ever made”
Looking back, Louise feels she made the right decision, something she hopes to remember with satisfaction in 20 years. “Bringing back a lost method of making whiskey to the category is an honour” that is already getting her recognition: “In April, I won an award in the USA at the biggest drinks industry trade show, called WSWA Brand Battle”, a “Dragons Den style pitch” that resulted in excellent feedback and encouragement.
I’m really proud that I have managed to make this leap from the corporate world into entrepreneurship, it has been hugely rewarding. Everyday I learn something new about myself and about my business, that is as much as I could ask and is greatly fulfilling. It was the best choice I ever made.
For anyone looking to get into the industry, she advises they’d need to be well aware “that it is not a get rich quick scheme.” She also points out that at this point “if you choose to join the industry you have a responsibility to safeguard the category along with the rest of us”, mentioning that transparency should be central to labelling and marketing as “fake provenance and fake heritage won’t be tolerated in the category.” As consumers learn more and become more discerning about what is wrapped with a beautiful label, her logic is as solid as her determination.
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.