Interview with Brendan Carty, Killowen Distillery

Treachery, gin-infused new-make and the relationship between architecture and distilling; no this isn’t a cacophony of misaligned gibberish, this was the Water of Life’s latest interview with the Master Distiller of Killowen Distillery, Brendan Carty. Christmas can be a busy time for anyone, but fortunately, the WOL team were able to secure time to talk prospects, poitín, peat and potential.

I’ve reviewed Killowen twice before on the WOL, so I’ll skip the formalities and cut straight to Brendan’s journey to becoming one of the most amiable distillers on the island and Killowen becoming as prominent and renowned as they are.

As an architect, Brendan had just become chartered in 2009 during the United Kingdom’s (UK) recession, which unfortunately led to his untimely ‘laying off.’ Deciding to travel to Australia and work within some “really nice architecture circles,” Brendan subsequently became a member of the Oak Barrell Whiskey Club in Sydney, where he recalls “tasting a two-year-old whiskey that tasted better than a 24-year-old Redbreast.” That whiskey was from Belgrove Distillery in Tasmania, run by whiskey guru and legend Peter Bignell. Brendan describes Peter as “an interesting man,” whose whisky “speaks a language of its own.” This introduction led Brendan to commence his own whiskey journey and start Killowen Distillery alongside co-founders Shane McCarthy and Liam Brogan, childhood friends of his. Brendan admitted that his training as an architect was inter-relatable with his career as a whiskey distiller; “it provides me with an artistic outlet and allows me to be creative.” Significantly, his training allowed him to create the distillery without outsourcing, saving money and allowing him to combine both trades.

Brendan could almost be described as ‘unconventional’. When asked where he gets the inspiration for some of his whiskies from, he says, “Something comes up in the background, but typically we create whiskey that we would want to taste.” Killowen’s first releases, the experimental series, were described as “challenging,” and for it to represent something they wanted to taste, alongside the Cooley components of the whiskey, “there was a requirement for 20% of Bushmills too.” What’s refreshing is Brendan’s honesty. He admitted that making whiskey they want to taste doesn’t always work out and commented, “the pinot noir cask was a nightmare and had to spend a long time in a fresh bourbon cask to counteract the European wood spice aggressiveness from the cask.” Additionally, Brendan declares that the most impressive new-make they’ve produced is Irish peated rye. Although was an excruciating mash bill to use, and with a low yield, it was ruined by maturation in a burgundy pinot noir cask; it is sitting in a bourbon cask to this day!

Killowen has been influenced by Fionnán O’Connor’s PhD, as well as Peter Bignell, and was generally founded on the ethos of producing what they couldn’t already taste on the island; ‘pot still’ whiskey with broader mash bills that are “more in line with historical accuracy.’ One of the broader issues surrounding Irish whiskey and the ambiguity is involving pot still whiskey having a mash bill of up to 5% oat, rye and wheat. Whiskey historian Fionnán O’Connor, along with Brian Greene and Jack O’Shea, are currently scrutinising history books and mash bills and allowing Brendan to “produce whiskey that we wanted to taste.” This leads to the concern that Killowen’s own maturing whiskey will have to be lawfully named as ‘whiskey’ as opposed to ‘pot still’, due to its historically accurate higher content of up to 30% oat, rye and wheat. This is something Brendan is championing for change and has successfully changed as part of the Irish Whiskey Guild.

The Irish Whiskey Guild was set up in January 2021 by Louise McGuane of JJ Corry, Dathai O Connell of O’Connell’s whiskey, Peter Mulryan of Blackwater Distillery and Brendan from Killowen. The aim was to provide support and advice to independent distillers across the sector. Brendan alluded to a list, “as long as his arm,” of issues and gripes that the Guild is trying to resolve, with transparency being key, particularly when relating to E150A colouring and mash bills. “There aren’t enough integrity bottlings with the Irish Whiskey industry…we’re very aware that whiskey from the North of Ireland has components from the South of Ireland; there’s no real transparency and too much ambiguity.” Brendan himself has been an outspoken champion regarding transparency, having been a victim himself of the long arm of the Irish Whiskey law itself. The ambiguity doesn’t stop within Ireland either; Brendan confirms that putting Irish whiskey in a cask that housed Islay whisky also attracted the unwanted attention of the Scottish Whiskey Association (SWA).

2022 is poised to be a big year for Killowen. Brendan is almost beaming with pride when he talks about releasing his own whiskey made in his own stills.  He describes it as “a big deal for us” and his “biggest high as a whiskey distiller.” The whiskey is currently sitting in a 120-litre Pedro-Ximenez cask, although Brendan suspects there will only be “a couple of hundred bottles to go around.” Killowen fans should expect serious competition for bottles and be prepared for there to be some measures to prevent ‘flippers’ from profiting.

Killowen also recently took receipt of two casks of Belgrove whiskey for an independent bottling series for release. This, along with ‘stone-soup’ poitín, the Dalraidan part 2 and the Bulcán, will ensure a big, if not a busy year is on the cards for Brendan. The Bulcán, an abbreviated Irish term for ‘blow to the head’ is based on an Irish satirical comedy where an Irish man goes drinking for two days and gets chased by an ogre and two demons. Brendan had to upscale his smoking shed to accommodate the malted oats he wanted for it. The Bulcán is a mash of 50% malted oats and 50% malted barley, both 100% smoked; a concoction sure to get the Kult (Killowen’s loyal followers) hot and steamy. “Because it’s so oily and viscous because of the oat content, we are putting it out at still strength at 68%,” a strength true to the term of ‘knock to the head.’ Let’s hope there’s enough to go around as Brendan indicated that he accidentally put about 200 litres of it into a tub that housed gin, possibly ruining the batch. As a result, he had to  “put it in a cask together and see what happens.” This was described as Brendan’s biggest disappointment as a distiller due to the time and cost of making Bulcán.

It’s not all excitement though, as Brendan approaches the following year with mild trepidation. “Aged stock won’t be available anymore; even five-year-old will become much more highly-priced.” As a whole, the stock is diminishing within the Irish whiskey industry, and the subsequent high pricing is a result of that, “Even the price of grain being imported from overseas is jumping astronomically.” Unless there is a ‘mate’s rates’ amicable agreement, the costs will ultimately be passed on to the consumer. Although it’s not all doom and gloom: 2022 will be a year when many distilleries’ own stock will come of age and surpass that magical three year legal requirement, Killowen included.

As Brendan and Killowen distillery try to navigate the ambiguous minefield of legislation and procedures, it’s clear that nothing is big enough to stop them. The passion and determination are clear to see; during the interview, Brendan’s desire to keep referring to his membership of the Guild and accuracy of how pot still and poitín should be made according to history was noted and comforting for the true Irish whiskey fans. I, for one, am certainly excited to try their pot-still whiskey when released, the naming conformity unimportant to me given the suspected quality of the liquid inside. Mike and I would like to thank Brendan for giving up his time for us and shedding some real light on the whiskey

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