Musings: KISS THE TOAD - IRISH WHISKEY DONE DIFFERENTLY
The Irish spirit market is cranking. We are enjoying a golden age of young distillers marrying old techniques and new; traditional recipes with sharp branding and smart market positioning. Laura Bonner’s ‘Muff Liquor Company’ from Muff has made waves with its potato-led vodka and gin. London-based Irishman Dave Mulligan has waged a several-year-long war against people’s misconceptions of Poitin, a war he is winning not least because of his deeply authentic and complex brand ‘Ban Poitin’. In today’s competitive market, making a great drink is only the bedrock; big ideas and big thinking are needed to achieve success.
On Thursday 21st February, Charlotte Quay was the site of the launch of Ireland newest boutique spirit; Natterjack Irish Whiskey, by Gortinore and Co Distillers. Accompanying this roll-out is an incredibly impressive and coherent marketing strategy and sense of brand self-awareness that suggests this will be a successful and sustained product. Already with distribution agreements in place for the US, Asia and the UK, the sense of energy and momentum early in the piece is palpable.
The vision is bold. Founder Aidan Mehigan has lined up substantial funding and investment. Gortinore and Co Distillers have acquired The Old Mill in Kilmacthomas, Co Waterford, the original home to Flahavans Irish porridge oats 100 years ago. The site is being developed to house three copper pot stills and the accompanying casks. A full visitors centre is to follow, and the Old Mill will eventually employ 15 people. The team hope that it will become a vessel for enthusiasts (and novices) to “experience first hand the methods through which real Irish whiskey has been created for generations”. Throughout the generations of real Irish Whiskey production though, no whiskey like this has ever been produced.
The days of Mehigan’s former life as a successful hedge fund manager in London and New York were numbered as soon as he stepped foot in a distillery in Detroit. Fascinated by the alchemy and process, he trained in distilling and gained hands-on experience at Breckenridge Distillery Colorado, the world’s highest distillery (no pun intended – I mean height). A chance encounter with award-winning master distiller Jordan Via delivered the vision. Sharing Mehigan’s edgy ambition to work outside the system, he provided yin to the yan. Philosophy and vision established, Mehigan packed up his life and moved back to Ireland, establishing Gortinore and Co Distillers with his sister Lisa and two others.
Via’s excitement as he describes the water and terroir of Ireland is infectious. He has long been bewitched by Irish Whiskey and it truly feels as though the mother ship is calling him home when he speaks. On the surface Mehigan’s past life in financial services might betray his innate and unruly objection to conformity and together these mavericks have captured their vision and philosophy in this, their first expression; Natterjack Irish Whiskey. Triple distilled, it is raised first in ex-bourbon barrels before finishing in virgin American oak. “A whiskey company doing things differently” indeed. The result is astonishing. Displaying beautiful colour and clarity, as soon as you dig your nose in you are transported to a completely new place. The tight grain Kentucky oak offers a smorgasbord of new age oak characteristics such as vanilla and cinnamon, baking spice and coconut but also with some mandarin, apples and even some cigar box and a hint of white chocolate. The palate develops these nuances with orange fruits, tobacco and spicy oak coming to the fore, underpinned by a creamy intensity and it demonstrates prompt evolution in the glass. The finish surprises you once more as it becomes more focused and linear, ending very cleanly. To die for neat, it also lends itself beautifully to cocktails, a market niche that they intend to exploit.
The Natterjack toad is Ireland’s only indigenous toad. Whilst his Bufonidae counter-parts hop around and croak madly, the Natterjack toad is considered and deliberate. It walks. It adventures. And as a result it can turn up in the darndest of places. Really it is just like the Irish and just like its namesake drink. There is a wonderful synergy throughout the whole project between old and new, tradition and innovation. Gortinore is a nod to an old family property that is heritage listed. The Old Mill project is another sincere nod to tradition that will also help re-invigorate a town. On the other hand, the beautiful and edgy label art and design by Kelvin Mann is enhanced by a very sharp and modern on-trend media blitz. They know their way around their own concept very well and this coherence can probably be attributed to co-founder Lisa Mehigan’s extensive experience in health communications.
At the launch I had the Irish handcuffs on all night. In one hand I had a neat Natterjack that I was constantly re-examining, in the other I had one of several expertly prepared cocktails. They don’t try to re-invent the wheel (sour, dark and stormy etc) with their cocktails because they don’t need to. The natural sweetness of the Kentucky oak manifests itself as a presence more than an imposition on the drink, and each of the cocktails I had was finely judged and balanced. It was a very hard night’s work altogether. This is a mixologist’s dream and one does suspect that the bar capitals of the world such as Manhattan and Melbourne will lap this up. It.Just.Works. There is a lot done and a lot left to do. Waterford represents a mammoth task. A pitfall of such a dynamic approach to distilling is that it may lead to volatility, but one suspects that this outfit is too cute to venture off-piste for the sake of off-piste. This first expression has demonstrated that they know their brand, they know their market and they know their booze. Sky’s the limit.