Master Distiller, Environmental Engineer and a down to earth and welcoming host!
Have you always loved whisk(e)y?
I always enjoyed whisk(e)y and often I’d happily order a dram on a night out. I didn’t have any real appreciation for it at the time though, I didn’t pay that much attention to the flavours and style of the whisk(e)y.
Do you remember your first whisk(e)y?
I don’t remember my first pub whisk(e)y, but I do remember the first whiskey that really changed everything for me, and switched me on to just how good whiskey could be. It was 1994 and I knew I wanted a whiskey but I was looking for something different to anything I had before, and so I had a Powers, it wasn’t like anything I had ever had before, it showcased just how the flavours could be carried through and that really made me think.
How did you come to work in the whisk(e)y industry?
I studied and achieved a degree in Chemical & Process Engineering and to be honest I thought I would probably end up working for a large pharmaceutical company working on the next Viagra. Or maybe working on an oil refinery, then out of the blue I got a phone call from Jameson, asking me if I wanted to apply for a job at Middleton Distillery as an environmental engineer. I don’t even remember applying but like all graduates I sent out my CV to many places, I thought it sounded interesting and joined the company in December 1997.
From Environmental Engineer to Master Distiller, how did you achieve this?
I found myself working more and more with Barry Crockett and without really giving it a second thought we became closer and more involved in each other’s projects. I realised that there was a lot of trust there, and that Barry was teaching me so much, we seemed to get how each other worked. There wasn’t a time that I was told “you are being trained to take over from me”, one day as we were getting closer to the time Barry was thinking of stepping down, I just “got it”. There wasn’t time to really spend too long thinking about just how big a role this was, it was just a case of moving forward.
How did it feel to take over from such a legend of Irish Whiskey?
It was a big deal, Barry was an apprentice to his dad Max at the age of 17 and took over from his father in 1981, Barry then spent 37 years as Master Distiller. Without Max and Barry the landscape of Irish Distilling would be very different, it was a lot to live up to. They upheld the tradition of Irish single-pot still distilling and kept it alive.
Not long before Barry stepped down he said to me “that he was just passing over the baton and it was my job to keep it safe, to maintain the quality so I could pass it on to the next generation”. I’ve always remembered that.
I am the first Master Distiller for over 70 years that hasn’t been a family member, although I’ve always been treated like a member of the family. It’s great that Barry is still around and on hand to help out. At the moment Barry is working in the archive at Middleton, he is a true icon of whiskey!
How important is the family connection?
It’s very important, people love to know the history of the distillery and love to talk about the family connection, you can feel the passion and that runs through everyone that works her, be it as a tour guide, in the shop, or working with the spirit itself. Family isn’t always blood, family can be whisk(e)y too.
What do you enjoy the most about your role?
I love the way you can play about with flavours, for me that is key! Experimenting with the run, or casks, or the timings and seeing how that changes the spirit. It’s understanding the differences between our brands and staying true to those nuances whilst still trying to evolve them, and, where possible improve them. We need to show the power and the quality that each of our whiskies bring.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
One of the hardest challenges is trying to predict how the markets will grow. We were very lucky that when the whisk(e)y industry as a whole faced some of its toughest times in the 80’s, Barry was still laying down stock and still experimenting. You need the support and the knowledge to keep going, even if times do get tough. It’s really thanks to Barry that there is still Single Pot Still, he was a real visionary.
What do you think about the recent rise in Irish whiskey?
I think it’s brilliant, it’s great to see Irish whiskey being showcased in all its forms. We have great relationships with other distilleries and often they will come down to the Academy or ask for help and advice. We all want to see Irish whiskey succeed and have market success and are all working together to ensure that happens.
What next for Jameson then?
We have lots of ideas that we are working on at the moment, they are too top secret to give away but watch this space closely.
How excited are you about the Bottle Your Own launched today?
Really excited, even if I didn’t get to be bottle number one. We really wanted to add something to the experience here in Dublin, something that would be special and connect people with Jameson. There is already a great tour and the surroundings with original features allow visitors to really get a feel for the Distillery, but a bottle your own allows them to become part of the distillery and the history of Jameson itself forever.
What is your proudest whisky moment so far?
It had to be the release of the Middleton Very Rare 2014, it’s the first bottle with my name on it and marked history for me. I immediately bought a case and drank a bottle with family. It’s something I will never forget.
Which of the expression is your favourite?
That’s like asking me to choose a favourite child! I have a different favourite for how I am feeling at the time. Powers John’s Lane is special, as is Middleton Very Rare and the Redbreast 21 year old is so complex.
Which whiskey would you recommend to someone that maybe hadn’t tried Irish whiskey before?
I’d try and find out what other whisky they had tried and what they would normally go for. If it’s somebody that is experienced with whisky then I would suggest the Redbreast 12 year old as it has a good balance, or steer them towards the Powers John’s Lane as this has very robust flavours.
If it was someone that hadn’t tried whisk(e)y at all, then I would offer them Jameson Original, either as it is, or in a cocktail to introduce the flavours to them.
With that Brian had to leave to make his train, thanks for your time Brian and I am really looking forward to the next time!