Louise McGuane

26th April 2018

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

26th April 2018

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

Part of an ongoing collaboration with Fáilte Ireland

When you take a quick glance over Louise McGuane’s career – working for glitzy drinks brands including Veuve Cliquot and Stolichnaya in places like London, Paris, New York and Singapore – it’s with a slight jolt that you realise she grew up in a particularly remote part of County Clare, in the west of Ireland, and has recently returned there to set up a drinks business of her own.

To get to the Chapel Gate whiskey company in Cooraclare, we drive west from Shannon airport down progressively narrower, windier roads until we find ourselves amid a hilly patchwork of small farms, one of which has been managed by her father for the past five decades. Louise now lives in her grandmother’s old stone cottage, which she has extended into an elegant modernist pad with poured concrete floors and a huge floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the fields. “The wildlife goes right by the window,” she says. “Hares and foxes and pheasants tootle along, it’s really cool.”

It’s quite a change from Singapore, where Louise was working in the business division at Diageo. She returned to Clare with the idea of setting up a distillery on the farm but, after some careful consideration, she decided to become a whiskey bonder instead, reviving a craft that hasn’t been practiced in Ireland for half a century. She explains bonding to us at length when we head out to the custom-built rackhouse across the garden, where some 24,000 litres of whiskey are stored in bourbon and sherry casks carefully sourced by Louise through contacts in Kentucky and Jerez.

First, though, she fixes us some lunch. A hock of bacon has been in the slow-cooker since early morning and she’s picked up some floury potatoes and cabbage from the farmers’ market in Kilrush. The twist on this ultra-traditional Irish meal is the red chilli she’s putting in with the cabbage – and the fact that the veg hasn’t been boiled to within an inch of its life, as is customary. All the produce, including the beer we’re drinking and the smoked salmon and seaweed bread we have to start, is from the local area.

Add to that the whiskey: Louise bottled her very first blend just yesterday and she has a couple of miniatures for us to take home with us. “It was an enormous day,” she tells us, shaking her head. “There were tears.”

Continued below...

What was the food like when you were growing up here?

It was very seasonal. There was no apples between October and July. Lettuce was a summer thing and in the autumn you’d go out and pick blackberries. It was very functional as well. When we wanted milk, I was given the jug and sent out to the milk tank to scoop it up. Bread was made at home. There were no supermarkets.

I see we’re having bacon and cabbage for lunch. Was that something you ate a lot at home?

Yeah, but when I was a kid, bacon and cabbage was a bland affair. The cabbage would be on for hours. The old way of Irish cookery was just to boil the shit out of everything.

A decade on the hob.

We used to kill our own pigs when I was a kid. You’d hear a gunshot, and then half an hour later the pig would come down, deceased. My neighbour would do the butchering right in front of us. He’d pull everything out – “There’s the spleen, there’s the kidney” – and we’d put the good bits into a whiskey barrel to eat over the winter. And then my mother would take it and boil it for five hours, take all the nutrients out of it and the flavour, and serve it with a tasteless white sauce: blandness on blandness. But I do love bacon and cabbage, it’s a very homely kind of thing.

He’d pull everything out – “There’s the spleen, there’s the kidney” – and we’d put the good bits into a whiskey barrel to eat over the winter

So this is you recapturing your youth, but with actual flavour.

Yeah. I’ll put a chilli in with the cabbage.

That’s the Singaporean influence?

I suppose it is.

How long were you living in Singapore?

A couple of years. I thought I was going to live in Southeast Asia for ever and ever, because it’s really nice out there. The quality of life is excellent and Singapore is the best food place I’ve ever lived. When I left my high-rise apartment after two years, I opened the oven and the trays were still wrapped in plastic, because I was eating out at the hawker markets every day. There’s a chicken-rice stand [Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle] that I used to go to all the time, he [owner Chan Hong Meng] now has a Michelin star.

I heard about him. He’s coming over to Dublin and London.

He’s incredible. The level of quality of street food you can get there is amazing. In Singapore, though, there’s nothing really there except food and mall shopping.

From a culinary point of view, was it hard returning home?

Not at all. I’m very bullish about County Clare as a food destination. The farms are really small and the animals are happy. We’ve never gone intensive here, in any kind of food production. I still drink the milk that my dad makes, it has 70% butter fat or something outrageous. Grass-raised beef is another thing. You pay a premium on it everywhere else, but not here. Then there are amazing local cheesemakers, coffee roasters, chocolatiers, salmon smokers, brewers [see Kitchen]. Clare is really coming into its own as a food-producing county.

I’m very bullish about County Clare as a food destination. There are amazing local cheesemakers, coffee roasters, chocolatiers, salmon smokers, brewers…

How did you get into the drinks world? And how you end up back here making whiskey?

What’s the character arc? I went off to college in the UK. Afterwards I was going to do a journalism post-grad in the US, but I ended up working a content developer for an internet company instead. That moved on into a bit of PR, and within two years of being in the US I was with Moet-Hennessy in New York. Later I ended up in London with Pernod-Ricard, working with Stoli vodka. Then I went to Diageo and worked on the high end of their portfolio – that’s €60-70 bottles and above.

Were you in marketing?

Yeah, but then I wanted to do a commercial role, to be more rounded, so I did a hardcore commercial manager role there for a while.

But in all these roles, were you getting to know the drinks and how they were made?

Oh god, you have to. When I was in Champagne I did a lot of harvests, I did classes in wine, I knew every intimate bit of the process. When I worked for Stoli, I went to Tambov in Russia to see the wheat fields and meet all the wheat farmers, visit the distillery. I really got into the nuts and bolts: how do you make this? Where does it come from? That process for me has always been the most captivating bit. Alcohol is an agricultural product at its core. I’ve always been invested in that.

What made you switch to becoming a producer?

I worked with a lot of Scotch whiskies in Diageo. At the time, from a business perspective, Irish whiskey was on the up. My dad has this property. He’s not long for this world. What’s going to become of the farm? That’s a very good question in rural Ireland. I don’t farm, my brother doesn’t farm, so what’s the future? The future is whiskey. Very simply, that’s what the future is. So that’s how I ended up back here doing this.

We’ll go bananas on the Big Green Egg, do big parties on it – briskets and randomly smoking vegetables, even pizza
Louise on her favourite kitchen items

So you factored the family and farm into your decision to start a whiskey company.

Very much so. I can’t sell this farm, ever. It’s like The Field, it’s in your DNA and your blood, it will never be sold. So what the hell am I going to do with it? I’m going to build a load of whiskey warehouses and mature a lot of whiskey, that’s what. Not everybody has 60 acres to throw a lot of warehouses up on, it’s a goddamn gift. First of all I was going to build a distillery, but everyone else was doing that. Then I found JJ Corry.

Who’s that?

So my brand is named after JJ Corry, who used to be a whisky maker in Kilrush. One day I was Googling, “What’s the history of distilling in this area?” The JJ Corry label came up on eBay and I contacted the guy selling it. When he was dismantling JJ Corry’s shop in 1983, he went up into the attic and all the paper ephemera was sitting there: all the telegraphs and receipts and advertisements and wrapping paper and bags. He kept it all.
That led me to the history of Kilrush which is the biggest deep-water port in Ireland. Back in the 1890s, it was very connected to the Commonwealth. Ships coming from the Caribbean, from Spain and Portugal, all stopped there. JJ would be buying rum, gin, port, sherry, Bordeaux, you name it, down at the port. He was buying tea from Assam and blending that and selling it on. When I found JJ, I was like, “Alright, I don’t need to make anything up, I don’t need to invent a brand, I’m just going to do what this guy did” – and nobody had done this whiskey bonding thing since the late 1960s.

What is whiskey bonding?

It used to be the only way that whiskey was sold in Ireland. There were hundreds of distilleries at one point, but they didn’t bottle and they didn’t blend for consumers. That wasn’t their job, they were wholesalers. So they fired out the stuff, put it in barrels, and then sold it on to bonders. And the bonders then would mature, blend, bottle and sell on. In Dublin that meant huge big operations exporting globally. On this side of the country, it meant JJ Corry in Kilrush buying 10 casks and custom blending for his customers.

READ MORE ABOUT LOUISE'S ADVENTURES IN WHISKEY BONDING

You’ll notice if you’re going around Ireland, every small-to-medium town will have a building that says “whiskey bonder” on the side of it.

Yes, I’ve always wondered about that.

Well, it died out. All completely lost in the 1930s – a really sad history for Irish whiskey. First there was a piece of technology invented by an Irishman called the Coffey still. The Irish refused to adopt it because there was a bit of Ludditism going on. But the Scots adopted it, so they could make spirit faster than distillers in Ireland and were able to feed the massive trade demand that had opened up. The Scots then started to mix their own spirit with Irish spirit. The Irish had a terrible issue with that, but they were shouted down by the English. And then there was the famine and a load of distilleries shut down, then you had a war of independence and a load of distilleries shut down, then you had Prohibition in the US, which cut off our market, then you had a trade war with the UK, which cut off the Commonwealth. So you went from having a few hundred distilleries in Ireland in the 1800s to only four by 1930. And [Irish Taoiseach Éamon] De Valera, as you could imagine, wasn’t Mr Distillation.

No.

So all those distilleries were like, shit, we’ve got to control our route to market, so they cut off the bonders, and that was the end of the bonders. A few held out: Mitchell and Sons in Dublin used to make Green Spot and Red Spot, but that was taken away from them in about 1968, down to Midleton. They were the last hold-out, until December 2016 when we became the first licensed whiskey bonder in Ireland1.

So it disappeared for nearly 50 years.

Fifty years, yeah. Nobody knew how to license us, nobody knew how to deal with us, there was no living memory in the Revenue Commissioners how to do it. We had to go back through all of the drinks legislation in the 1840s and go, okay this is what I’m doing, this is how I’m doing it. I was the first one to do it. It was literally that label that said “Carefully bonded and bottled by JJ Corry of Kilrush” and I said, “What the fuck is bonding?”

There’s a real art to blending. Start with excellent quality grain, make that into excellent quality spirit, put it in excellent quality cask, in excellent quality maturation conditions, and then you blend it and make something amazing

Oh, so you didn’t know about bonding at that point?

Nobody knew, because it’s always been written out of history. I spent a lot of time in the British Library looking at old parliamentary archives (all the bonding terms were administered by the British government, so all the records are in the UK). I spent a huge amount of time researching all of that, learning about what was going on. I was like, shit, I’m not opening a distillery, screw that, I’m going to be a whiskey bonder because that’s a valid part of whiskey heritage that’s been completely lost.

What’s the argument for bonding from the point of view of flavour?

The art for me is in the blend. I’m currently sourcing whiskey from three places at the moment. By the end of next year I’ll have six, and by the year after that I’ll have 10 or 15, because all these distilleries are opening up [around Ireland]. So I’m buying buying buying whiskies, and in five to six years that will come good. I will have ultimately an archive here of whiskey from all over Ireland, and I’ll be blending with that. It’ll all be matured here. I’m meticulous about sourcing casks, I do it personally. I have a clay floor in that rack-house, it helps me regulate the humidity in there. I’m racking all of my casks on their side, so they get more surface-area contact with the wood. So I’m betting on the idea that the maturation conditions here are going to give me an edge, or a difference.

A very narrow view (such as mine) might assume purity is a good thing – if it comes from one place, it’s better than something coming from three places. Is that nonsense?

My philosophy on that would be, yeah, it’s all about the blend. There’s a real art to blending. Start with excellent quality grain, make that into excellent quality spirit, put it in excellent quality cask, in excellent quality maturation conditions, and then you blend it and make something amazing. You have purists who say it’s all about grain to glass. And god bless them, it is a brilliant thing, it’s wonderful. But mine is a different thing. It’s equally wonderful, but just different.

Plus you’re bringing back a piece of lost heritage.

I’ve never been prouder of anything ever. My legacy, even if this business fails, is bringing that back. I have no children. I have dogs, great, but this is my legacy.

Are you doing the bonding yourself?

No. I’m a very good believer in surrounding yourself with people who are better at stuff than you are. I have a master blender who I work with, I have a number of different noses I work with. I’m quite good, but I’m telling you now I’ll never be that good. It’s a lifelong thing. I’ve known people over the years who I trust. I give them a brief, I say, I want a juicy-fruit Irish whiskey that’s similar to a pot still, that’s the vague kind of direction. And then off they go.

So the difference between you and a distiller starting up from scratch is that they’ve got to wait at least three years.

Minimum.

And then they’ve got to hit the 12-year mark which everyone thinks is a magic number.

Which is ridiculous. There was a point in the 70s when the whiskey companies were in the shitsville and they had a glut of 12-year-old, and they all started going on about the 12-year-old being the greatest thing ever. That’s what happened.

Whereas you can take things that have been patiently waiting for…

26 years. And believe me when I tell you, Irish whiskey is rare. There’s not a lot of places you can get it. It’s a very long game. Our approach is, we source all of our casks and every single cask is put into a particular flavour block or component. At the moment we have 14 different classifications of flavour component. They’re all individual: I have two 26-year-old casks that were made at the same distillery on the same day, it’s like they’re from a different planet.

When the liquor comes off the still, it’s clear. It gets 100% of its colour from the cask. And an inordinate amount of its flavour

What do casks actually impart?

There’s always a big debate in whiskey about this – people will cite percentages of what casks add to the flavour. Nobody will deny they’re hugely influential. When the liquor comes off the still, it’s clear. It gets 100% of its colour from the cask. And an inordinate amount of its flavour.

The colour ALL comes from the cask?

Oh yeah, it comes off the still like vodka.

So when people talk about brown liquids and clear liquids, and the brown giving you worse hangovers…

Yeah that’s just bollocks. It’s the same with champagne, oh champagne makes you drunk – no, you drank too much of it. All that matters is the ABV, particularly with modern well-produced alcohol. If you’re making bathtub gin made by your friend down the road, you’re going to go blind, because there’s too much methyl alcohol in it, but properly produced spirit is all the same – so how much of it do you drink?

How often would you drink whiskey? Do you taste on daily basis for work?

I’ll be very honest, I don’t. I ration myself, because I have 24,000 litres here.

Yes.

This is all cask-strength, so you have to be very careful. I nose a lot, two or three times a week, to see what’s going on. We’ll do full-on tasting sessions every couple of months. Yeah you have to be careful, that’s the thing with booze. I’ve been in the industry 20-odd years. It’s a lot better than when I went into it. A lot more awareness of wellbeing. I get extreme delight and pleasure from the product and all the rest of it, but I’m not drinking it every day.

On The Menu

Lunch with Louise McGuane
Co Clare, September 2017

To eat:

Burren Smokehouse smoked salmon with Considine’s seaweed bread
Bacon loin with chilli cabbage and boiled potatoes »

To drink:

Western Herd beers (Blue Jumper, Islander)
A good Spanish red wine
A variety of JJ Corry whiskies

What’s a normal day like for you? Do you get up early?

I’m not an early riser unfortunately. I try to get up at 7.30 but usually it’s 8. I have to have a coffee, that’s imperative, otherwise I can’t function. Then I go to the office, light a scented candle – one of the luxuries of not working in a corporation. I try to ride the horse at lunchtime, to get some exercise, then I just crank on till whenever.

Is it hard to switch off?

I don’t really care about switch-off at the moment, it’s not really in my DNA right now. I don’t mind, it doesn’t feel like work. But I haven’t been very good at making time for myself and riding the horse this summer. That’s a mistake. I become less productive as a result. Even though I’m doing really long hours, I’m doing jack shit. I always notice the difference if I say, I’m stopping now, going to ride the horse. If I don’t build that into my day, I’m not as productive.

What will you eat on an average day?

I don’t eat breakfast, I’m terrible. My digestive system doesn’t get going till 11. I have very good coffee from local roasters and I’ll grind my own beans and use my dad’s milk – I’ll do a cafetiere. By 11 I’m famished, so I’ll have a piece of brown bread and a fried egg with some Sriracha.

Do you stop for lunch?

I generally skip lunch, work through it, I’m bad like that. Then in the evenings I’ll have a carb-protein-vegetable kind of scenario. I’m really into bowls at the moment. I’ll do sushi rice with some grilled teriyaki chicken, and almonds, and a green vegetable. When my husband isn’t here I’ll do a lot of chicken rice, it’s a Singaporean thing and I love it.

This is part of an ongoing collaboration with Fáilte Ireland.

For more about Louise’s whiskey, go to www.chapelgatewhiskey.com

Follow Louise: Instagram | Twitter | Facebook

 

  1. Louise adds: “It’s very common in Scotland – Compass Box would be a bottler. They’re called independent bottlers in Scotland.”

Posted 26th April 2018

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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