With six different brands – and 1.7 million whiskey casks in storage, biding their time to shine – figuring out which whiskey goes into each of Irish Distillers’ brands isn’t what you’d call easy.
“It’s tough. It’s a balancing act,” says Dave McCabe, Irish Distillers Blender.
Historically an amalgamation of three different distillers (Jameson, Powers and Cork Distillery Company), Irish Distillers merged the three in the 1960s when the decision was made to create a functioning distillery. In total, the company produces six brands: Jameson, Powers, Redbreast, Midleton Very Rare, The Spot Range, and Method and Madness – each of which has multiple expressions.
According to McCabe, several factors go into determining which whiskey goes where. First, there is the historical context of the brand. Throughout the history of the different brands, they have produced spirits using different distillation techniques, age groups or barrels. For Irish Distillers, it was important to maintain these practices.
Two of the brands currently available, Redbreast and the Spot line, originally started at the Jameson Distillery. They weren’t marketed under the Jameson name, but rather the spirits were distilled and sold to wine merchants, who aged the whiskey in their own barrels. The merchant was then highlighting the origin of the whiskey, so in the case of Redbreast, a cask could be marked with JJ&S, to signify that the alcohol came from Jameson.
When that practice died down, McCabe said, Jameson embarked on the project of maintaining the brands and manufacturing them in-house, working closely with the brand owners to ensure the same quality of whiskey.
“We don’t want to emulate, but rather pay homage and create a modern version of these old brands,” he said.
For Blue Spot and Red Spot, for example, said McCabe, they searched for old menus in addition to old barrels to find the right combination, while still working with the Mitchell family, who started the brand.
Once the phrase is chosen, it’s up to McCabe and his team to make each one as cohesive as possible while also working on innovations, including those that have no historical connection, such as Method and Madness, McCabe said. .
When it comes to innovations as well, McCabe says they need to take into account both the history and current trends of each specific brand. With some brands you have a little more freedom to experiment, he said, which then allows McCabe and his team to play with different drums, age ranges, finishes, etc.
“When you have an older brand like Jameson that permeates different companies, cultures, and ages, you get a little more flexibility to accommodate the tastes of different fields,” McCabe said. An example of this would be Jameson Stout or IPA Editions, which catered to craft beer enthusiasts.
Other brands, like Redbreast, require a more conservative approach when creating new expressions. Less well known than Jameson, McCabe said you have to be careful. You don’t want to alienate yourself from current fans of the brand, but at the same time you want to attract new drinkers. While some may opt for a Redbreast finished in cherry wood, for example, there may be a larger sect who wouldn’t understand why, of all the brands, this specific whiskey was chosen to showcase the Redbreast name.
“It depends on how far you can expand the possibilities,” he said.
Whatever the innovation, McCabe says it’s a collaborative effort between the mix team and the marketing team.
“They come to us with a brief saying that the feedback for X, Y or Z is great and that they are looking more for a certain type of barrel or finish. From there, we tell them what we have, ”he said. On the other hand, they also go to the marketing team and do the reverse, saying what they’ve been working on and trying to figure out the best way to use it.
Sometimes, however, innovation requires a completely new brand, like Method and Madness, which was unveiled in 2017. With new brands, however, you have to walk a line as well.
“The more brands you create, the more you potentially get out of existing brands,” McCabe said. “If you create a new brand, new labels, naming conventions, you may be diluting the stock possibilities. “
McCabe added that building a brand from scratch takes time, time that could also be used to continue to develop already established brands for new and old fans (especially given the growth in popularity. Irish whiskey over the past decade).
Either way, innovation will remain a small part of the whiskey that Irish Distillers has matured. According to McCabe, about 90% of what is produced for Jameson goes into the flagship, just under 10% goes into older bespoke offerings, the last percentage going to innovations. For Method and Madness, for example, it’s not uncommon for projects to see between 12 and 24 drums in total.
Now that there has also been an explosion of Irish distillers, McCabe says they see innovation – and what they do with their whiskey – in a different light. With so many new products on the market or to come, it’s important to value innovation – because it shows that you are focusing on different things while working on improvement – but also not to forget the history of the mind.
“You can’t forget where the brands came from and what made them popular initially,” McCabe said. “It wasn’t necessarily innovation all these years and they’ve survived very well.