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Ask any Irish person (and many overseas visitors) what names resonate when they hear the words ‘Slane Castle’, and a who’s who of the rock and roll world trips off the tongue. Thin Lizzy, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Queen, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and many others have played the magnificent amphitheatre nestled by the River Boyne in County Meath, less than an hour from Dublin. In a few short weeks, a proud tradition that began in 1981 continues when Guns ‘n’ Roses play their second gig at the venue – they played here last in 1992.
In years to come though, Slane Castle may resonate in Ireland and worldwide for another reason too: Slane Irish Whiskey. The blend went on sale for the first time last week through Aer Rianta International (ARI) at Dublin and Cork airports.
The exclusivity runs until 30 April, after which the triple-casked whiskey will become available in the on-trade and specialist whisk(e)y stores across Ireland and then elsewhere.
Slane Irish Whiskey comes to the market nearly two years after Brown-Forman announced the purchase of Slane Castle Irish Whiskey Limited. The company broke ground for its distillery on 29 September 2015, in partnership with Henry and Alex Conyngham of the Slane estate, whose family have been on the land since 1703. Whiskey production at the distillery is set to commence upon the completion of construction later this summer.
I had the pleasure of spending a day last week in the company of Alex Conyngham, some of the Brown-Forman Travel Retail team and ARI’s liquor buying team to discover more about this emerging story.
The Conyngham family story and their connections to the land at Slane Castle lend a note of authenticity to the project – and link neatly to the Brown family story through Brown-Forman. But there’s much more to it, not least the scale of the ambition here. A walk through the facility – part of a US$50 million investment – underline just how the partners plan to make a mark on the Irish whiskey category. The footprint of the new distillery and visitor centre, which will open in coming months, tell of a long-term plan, one with eventual capacity for 600,000 cases per year.
Three copper pot stills and six column stills, recently put in place, will allow a blend of products to be made, from malt to grain to pot still whiskey. Intriguing too will be how Brown-Forman’s barrel-making expertise and tradition plays a part in developing new styles and tastes as Slane production grows.
What we liked especially was the story of sustainability and the connection to the land. The Slane Castle farm already produces around 2,000 tons of barley. That will be put to use in the whiskey-making process, as will the plentiful water supply from the Boyne, allowing Slane to control production from ‘grain to glass’.
Many old farm buildings are also being fully restored and put to use in the facility. The old stables for example, will house a visitors’ bar, but will use some of the old fixtures that have lain unused for many years. Crucially too, waste from the production process will be used to heat the facility and the house, ensuring that no element is cast aside. Renewable energy will be a key part of this story; even rainwater will be collected and used as boilerfeed.
It’s just the beginning. The Irish whiskey category, although growing, remains a small sales proportion of the spirits business worldwide. But awareness is growing, and production is returning to the country. Four years ago there were only four distilleries operating in Ireland. Today, there are 16 with a further 11 planned according to the Irish Whiskey Association (IWA). The IWA expects the 2015 worldwide sales figure of 7.7 million 9-litre cases to hit 12 million by 2020, supported by over US$1 billion of investment.
Given the huge advance investment required, the time it takes to produce the spirit and crucially, the importance of maintaining quality, it’s not easy to pick winners among these new distilleries.
But Slane looks to have every chance. It has the backing of the Brown-Forman powerhouse, a facility under construction on a hugely impressive scale, the great back story of Slane Castle itself and – as we witnessed on a visit to the promotion at Dublin Airport on Friday – resonance among travelling consumers. With these elements in place, the Conyngham family and Brown-Forman aim to strike a new chord in the Irish whiskey market.
*Watch out for interviews and a full on location report soon.