At Cooley Distillery

The surge in Irish whiskey sales all over the world, but especially in North America, have brought many big players into the arena.

The latest are Jim Beam, who took a controlling stake in Cooley Whiskey for $100 million or so in December and will put the marketing arm of one of America’s best-known liquor companies behind the fabled Irish brand.

In fact the Kilbeggan brand owned by Cooley is the oldest licensed whiskey in the world, first created in 1757. A lot has happened in that 250 years but it is fair to see that there have been few more exciting times than now.

Cooley’s founder is a genius called John Teeling who saw that Irish whiskey was one of the great native brands unique to the country and it needed to be nurtured and saved.

He created Cooley in 1987 from an old potato alcohol distillery used by the Irish government (don’t ask) in the Cooley Mountains in Louth near the border. It has been an outstanding success.

He also took over the venerable Kilbeggan brand which had fallen on hard times and rejuvenated it.

The other reason for my visit was the chance to meet up again with big, bluff Willie McCarter, one of Ireland’s great unofficial ambassadors in America who has done sterling work on the peace process, the International Fund for Ireland and many other projects.

In addition to his philanthropy, Willie has one of the sharpest business brains in Ireland and had been telling me for several years that Cooley was a company to watch out for.

When Jim Beam saw that too and paid $100 million I decided I’d take a look and it was a wonderful afternoon, weather aside.

Besides, Big Willie had threatened to beat me up if I didn’t pay a visit with him to Kilbeggan in Westmeath an hour west of Dublin on my next trip over, so what choice did I have?

Still, taking a visit to a grand old distillery  is not exactly the greatest burden put upon me as a writer.

Readers, if you have never been in a distillery I strongly suggest a visit. It is a fascinating opportunity to study the whiskey lore.

It far more complex task than just pouring in the barley on one end, mashing it all up with yeast and water and whiskey coming out the other.

It is an infinitely complex process and  Stephen Teeling, son of the founder, escorted me on his rounds showing exactly how the stuff is made.

The word authentic came to mind during my visit. The history, the old landmark building, the sense of the past and now a bright future.

First we sat in the snug of the visitors' center with a grand fire roaring and a fine lunch served – with of course, a snifter or two courtesy of the establishment. Tour buses are frequent.

The visitors' center traces the history of the brand and parallels the Irish history that was happening at the time both nationally and locally. It is a unique insight into the making of a brand that stretches back to 1757.

The distillery itself is in the center of town, with a huge water wheel which makes one take a step back to a different century and a gentler time.

The canal, the water from which fuels the distillery, unfurls lazily around the town and  the entire scene is pastoral rather than industrial.

Unlike sausages, which they say you should never watch being made, whiskey is an entirely different barrel of mash as they might say.

Each process is painstaking, each step to mature and nurture the barley is a delicate one. Like wine, whiskey gets better with age but so many elements can militate against the perfect sip.

By the end of the tour I had tasted the latest shot just off the pipeline and the ten-year and twenty-year old stuff they keep in the casks out back they usually keep away from the likes of me.

I even got to taste the Kilbeggan 15 year-old which was selected as the Best Whiskey in the World in 2009.
Connemara, Greenore and Tyrconnell are two others major brands they ship.

Still sober (Yea, right says wife) but happy, I climbed into the back of Willie’s car for the return trip to Dublin, about an hour away.

I can now see why there are so many whiskey writers out there and so many aficionados. Friends, there are a lot worse things to be in life.

Willie is threatening to take me to Cooley Distillery in the Cooley Mountains in Louth next time I’m home to show me the other brand distilled there.

But he won’t have to threaten me this time.

In fact I’ll be waiting for the call.