Chat with Michael O’Boyle of Baoilleach Distillery, Donegal

Last week, Mike and I got the opportunity to interview Michael O’Boyle of Baoilleach distillery for the Water of Life. The interview comes after the success of their poitíns and most recent First Cut and Mountain Dew trio. Baoilleach is undoubtedly one of the smallest distilleries on the island of Ireland but has some of the biggest flavours and most exciting prospects.

Before we delved into questions, Michael was kind enough to give us an impromptu virtual tour of the distillery. The new still and, generally, the whole set-up was stunning and epitomised the feeling and meaning of ‘craft distillery.’ It’s not an authentic distillery with parts from a made-up catalogue; he’s repurposed dairy tanks and has an interchangeable head for his still, which strikes me as mad-engineer-esque. “Once you’re in the game, things just become a lot easier,” Michael jokes as he reflects on upscaling his production with the addition of his new still back in March. In addition, those who follow Baoilleach on Instagram will be aware of the picturesque views across Mulroy Bay outside the distillery. “The views are great, but you can’t eat them,” Michael says humorously.

Michael started the distillery, having taken up an interest in home brewing. With time spent at university qualifying as a construction engineer, his career as a home brewer developed alongside his work, especially once he travelled to New Zealand to assist in the rebuilding efforts after the earthquake in Christchurch in 2011. He quickly began to appreciate New Zealand’s permissive regulation on home brewed beer and home distilled spirits, which allowed him to experiment with his own distillates. His subsequent return home allowed him to concentrate his efforts more, especially with friends asking him to make them some famous white spirit.

We talk about the mantra of Baoilleach and the mission statement of ‘Small Pot, Big Flavours’ and how this has influenced his work. “I’ve only visited three distilleries (two in Scotland and one in Brazil), so there is no real influence!” Michael comes from a family where the staple was always one of the big four of Bush, Paddy, Jameson or Power’s; therefore, there’s no influence on his liquids. Michael has taken his own path, and this has led to big, bold flavours. “You have to be all in,” he states, and with everything I’ve seen from Baoilleach so far, that certainly appears to be the case.

I can’t help but experience the evident shrewdness of character here. Since Baoilleach distillery started just before the pandemic, Michael has wisely taken on a lot of work. Perhaps this ingenuity has come from his construction days, but it can’t be disregarded. I commented at one point that this wasn’t far off how poitín distillers in years gone by may have operated, to which Michael replied, “It’s the same principles….when you see something cheap, you have to buy it, that’s just the carry-on, you have to be thrifty!” He argues that the likes of Forsyths clearly know about whiskey, but “you don’t need lots of technology, it’s a simple process, that you mustn’t overcomplicate. Simple works well here, and that’s the principle.” Indeed, this is a great way to run your business.

However, not everything is plain sailing. Michael’s response to the question of if fermentations have ever gone wrong was, “Yes, quite a few! You learn to accept the losses of batches and learn from your mistakes quite quickly.” I quickly realised that Michael’s knowledge and wisdom of the process and yeast’s role in fermentation is formidable. He knows the limits, strengths and confines of how far he can push it and how he can rescue it too. “You need to know how to do it wrong before you do it right,” Michael jokingly remarks after his first experience of making peated whiskey after a botched fermentation. I teasingly offer to be Baoilleach’s quality control after this comment, which Michael laughs off.

He passionately talks about the process of distilling also and reaching the ‘sweet spot.’ “There are all these tell-tale signs, and you can tell with the first few drops that you’ve got a good one.” He jokingly says that you learn from experience, not what “consultants in Scotland or what yeast companies instruct. Sometimes you want those ‘super-sour’ fermentations. If you catch it just at the right stage, you can get a super, super nice spirit.” I can’t help but feel there’s clearly a science to the art, but there’s also art in the science. It’s an art that comes from years of experience and plenty of mistakes along the way. The chat continued to be technical too. We chat about poitín and its resurgence. Michael says, “Poitín is difficult to work with, and you need to know what you are doing. You need more surface area with the barrel to achieve the right flavours.” We will come back to poitín shortly!

Initially, I had the feeling that Michael can be quite nonchalant with how he makes poitín, but I quickly realise it’s quite the opposite. We delve into the likes of yeast and fermentation technicalities. “The yeast have their own little ecosystems. I haven’t figured out how to make it last forever, but it’s certainly the hardest part of the operation and requires the most attention.” For someone who has tried “10-15 different yeasts to ascertain their flavour profile,” it certainly shows the man’s diligence and strive for excellence. “Yeast is the big one that really makes a difference, it’s crucial.”  

This year has been huge for poitín, and Michael has also been basking in its limelight. I ask, what will Baoilleach’s followers be getting excited about in the future? He talks about his previous experience making fruit brandies, such as apple but alludes to his own whiskey, “We grew 6 acres [of barley] just behind the hill a few months ago. It was close to 10 tonnes, which may make ten or so barrels, but that’s the road we are starting on.” Michael has quite the relationship with local farmers; they plough, sow and harvest Michael’s barley, and he gives a rate plus the waste from the distillery to feed his cattle; it’s a win-win sustainable operation. There’s also an aspiration for a floor malting stage to be added to the process, allowing for all the grain used to be from Donegal. Furthermore, I point to the newest release of Marsala and Peat, to which Michael exclaims, “Peated whiskey is going to be far more common.” He also jokes that he may return to his home-brewing days and start beer production soon too.

We turn our attention to influences outside of Baoilleach, and Mike asks what he is drinking besides his own liquid. “I have a bottle of Bruichladdich, a blended scotch from the seventies, Balvenie, Glendronach and Green Spot.” I wonder why Green Spot, as the only Irish Whiskey in this list, is the anomaly, and Michael echoes the nostalgic times of growing up drinking Bush and Paddy. This followed a stay in the UK and a subsequent palate change to more readily available scotch. “There’s just a better selection. There’s an issue with Irish whiskey now, the majority is sourced, and there’s no individual identity. My fascination is both with the distillery and the spirit.” He points to a fondness for Writer’s Tears and Kilbeggan blends but is reasonably ambivalent towards other poitíns currently being produced. Whilst he respects the current resurgence of poitín, he gets particularly excited about the next five years regarding whiskey production. “You’ll find your own little diamonds in the rough; everyone has their own palate, and that is what’s great and is ‘coming down the road’ for Irish whiskey. I think it could be far more exciting than Scotch. The real excitement is yet to come!” He argues that “it hasn’t even begun to pick up pace, but the progress is there, the whiskey journey has just started, and it will snowball.” I get the feeling that Michael is entirely unfazed by everyone else and is completely focused on his operation.

At this point, Michael’s barley farmer visits him to collect the spent mash, after which, having spent two hours chatting about whiskey, we call it an evening, and a delightful one at that. Before he goes, he cheekily offers to “put me to work for a day in his distillery when I get the opportunity to visit,” it’s fair to say I will definitely be taking him up on that offer! Thanks to Michael for giving up valuable time to speak to the WOL, and we certainly look forward to future releases.

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