When distillation becomes a vocation
Jack Teeling used to move numbers around a screen - now he's distilling Irish whiskey, and enjoying a boom. He spoke with Sean Gallagher
Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30
Whiskey, which takes its name from the Gaelic uisce beatha - or 'water of life' - has been produced in Ireland since at least the sixth century.
Some suggest its origins date back to when Irish monks, returning from their travels to Mediterranean countries, brought back with them a technique they had learned relating to the distilling of perfumes. This technique, many believe, was then modified to give rise to the distillation of what is now called Irish whiskey.
Whiskey has been the fastest growing spirit in the world for the past 20 years - and with an average annual growth rate of 20pc, it's a trend that looks set to continue for some time.
The continuing demand for Irish whiskey has in recent years given rise to the expansion of a number of existing distilleries, as well as the construction of a number of new ones - among them, the Teeling Whiskey Company. And last week founder and CEO Jack Teeling welcomed me to his distillery and visitor centre in the Newmarket Square area of Dublin's city centre.
Set up in 2012, the Teeling Whiskey Company employs 55 staff and already has an annual turnover of more than €10m.
"To be officially called Irish whiskey, it must firstly be distilled and then aged on the island of Ireland for at least three years," explains Jack.
And he should know - because his family have been making whiskey since 1782 when Walter Teeling set up a craft distillery on Marrowbone Lane, in the Liberties area, only a stone's throw from where Jack's new distillery is now situated.
"Back then, there were over 37 different distilleries in Dublin and this area - between the Liberties, the Coombe, Smithfield and Newmarket - became known as the 'Golden Triangle' or epicentre due to the number of distilleries clustered within a one-mile radius," he adds.
Inside the visitor centre, The Phoenix Café is already buzzing with visitors waiting to start their tour. Just ahead of them, in the auditorium, an earlier group are being treated to an audio visual presentation on how Irish whiskey is produced.
"Our target market is typically people who already drink Irish whiskey, but are looking to discover something new and unique within the category," explains Jack. "While we are respectful of the long past that Irish whiskey enjoys, we are confident enough in our ability to create something modern and contemporary for the current and future generations of whiskey drinkers in terms of tastes and flavours."
He is obviously doing something right because his independent whiskey company has, over the last three years, won more than 70 international accolades including four 'World Best' awards at the recent 2016 World Whiskies Awards.
While sales continue to grow in Ireland, Teeling also exports to over 40 international markets, the largest of which include the US, France, Germany and Australia. And in the last few weeks, he has begun shipping to a number of new regions, among them Cambodia and Bulgaria.
My real education begins in earnest when we enter the distillery proper. Here is where the four important stages in the production process for Irish whiskey takes place - milling, mashing, fermentation and distillation.
To start, the barley grain, which has been delivered into large silo bins at the rear of the distillery, is brought by way of a screw conveyor system to the mill area, where it is ground into powder as part of the milling process.
Water is added and this mixture moves on to the mashing process which takes place in a large vessel called a lauter tun. Here, a large rake moves over and back across the mix, for the next four hours, to separate out the water and sugars into a liquid which is known in the industry as 'wort'. Even the spent grain left behind in the tun will be removed and sold on to farmers as animal feed.
"There is no waste in the process. Everything can be recycled back into the food chain," says Jack.
Next we move to fermentation where the liquid - the wort - from the brewing processes is pumped into a combination of stainless steel and traditional wood fermenters. Here, yeast is added to break down sugars in the wort into alcohol and CO2, giving rise to a fermented liquid traditionally known as 'wash'.
This process usually takes between two to three days to fully complete.
As we make our way to where three large copper kettle-like vessels are located, Jack explains that this is where the important part of the process take places - the distillation.
"Here, the wash is piped into three large copper pot stills where it is heated up to between 85-95 degrees to separate the water from the remaining alcohol.
"The first distillation will yield up a spirit which is up to 25pc alcohol," explains Jack pointing to a clear liquid pumping from one of the three stills. "The second distillation involves the very same process, but produces a spirit which has an alcohol content of approximately 55pc, while the third or 'triple distillation' process yields up a spirit with 82pc alcohol content.
"For maturation to take place, water is added to reduce the alcohol content to around 67pc before being poured into wooden barrels or casks. It will remain in these barrels for a minimum period of three years in order to officially qualify to be called Irish whiskey.
"At Teelings, we get our unique flavours by using a variety of different types of casks which would have previously been used to store sherry, port, bourbon or rum," he explains.
Jack Teeling grew up in Clontarf. No stranger to business and the world of whiskey making, his father - John Teeling, a lecturer in Commerce in UCD - was the founder of Cooley Distillery in Co Louth. After school, Jack studied Commerce in UCD and took a Master's degree in Finance in the Smurfit Business School. His first job was in private banking in Dublin before heading off to Australia where he continued to work in financial services until his return home in 2001.
"I got a job in Cooley Distillery where I started as a general dogsbody. I enjoyed making something for a change, instead of just moving numbers around on a screen," admits Jack. "I was immediately hooked."
He decided then to return to university and this time signed up for a two-year part-time MSc in International Business run at Trinity College in partnership with Enterprise Ireland. The course was aimed at helping export-orientated indigenous companies - something that would later turn out to be invaluable when it came to starting his own venture.
Over time too, he worked his way up in Cooley to become sales and marketing manager and later, in 2010, managing director, two years before it was bought by US firm Beam Inc.
"During my time there, I noticed the growing trend for craft beer and spirits, as well as the trend towards urban breweries and distilleries," explains Jack. "I decided then that I wanted to start my own Irish whiskey company - but one that would have a look and feel similar to these premium craft spirits rather than a traditional whiskey. More importantly, I wanted to bring whiskey distilling back to Dublin city," he adds.
The search for a site to locate a distillery in Dublin city was challenging. However, when he came across the premises in Newmarket (even though it needed considerable investment), he knew instinctively it was perfect - both in terms of size and more importantly, location.
Not being able to sell his produce for three years also posed a challenge in terms of cash-flow for the new entrepreneur.
"Through selling my shares in Cooley, I was fortunate to have enough money to invest in buying some whiskey stock to start off," explains Jack. "The following year, when this had increased in value, I was then able to release enough equity to fund the growth of the business without the need for external investor funding," he adds.
That year too, his brother, Stephen, joined the business and is now sales and marketing director as well as a co-owner of the business.
"The Irish whiskey market is dominated by multinational players," explains Jack, "and for us to try to compete directly against these large brands would be setting ourselves up to fail. Instead, we differentiate ourselves by creating unique tastes and flavours."
As we finish our tour, Jack takes me to the Bang Bang Bar - named after the infamous Liberties character Bang Bang - where a team of experienced bartenders take us through tastings of each of the distillery's whiskeys.
"Building the new distillery is only the start of the journey," insists Jack. "This industry is a marathon rather than a sprint," he says, smiling.
It is not a small task to start any business, let alone a distillery where the competition is intense and regulations mean you cannot take your product to the market for at least three years.
However, with forecasts for Irish whiskey sales set to continue to grow over the next 10 to 15 years, I am confident the Teeling Whiskey Company is set to have a very long and very successful future. Like the whiskey he makes, he and his brother Stephen seem to have all the necessary ingredients to make that happen.
For further information: www.teelingwhiskey.com
Jack's advice for other businesses
1 The power of a brand
"Don't underestimate the power of a brand. While it's important to get your product right, don't forget the importance of building a strong and recognisable brand. A good product will get you into the game - but it takes a strong brand to help you succeed in the longer term."
2 Know your customer
"It's important to know your customer, to have insights into what they are looking for in a product and what it is that makes them tick. This info will help you shape your product, your positioning in the market, your price - and above all, your value proposition."
3 Action is more valuable than a good business plan
"Action is what really counts in business, particularly in the early days. Sure, have a good business plan - but spending months perfecting a set of spreadsheets can be a waste of time. Things develop and evolve as soon as you get started. Get going, act quickly, seize your opportunity."
Sunday Indo Business