Green Construction Series: Irish Architect turned Whiskey Distiller

This is the first in a series of Interviews looking at unique, interesting & sustainable construction projects throughout Northern Ireland.

For the first blog, I’ve combined three of my main interests; Whiskey, sustainability & construction.

On a misty April day, Alex Devenney and I travelled down to a picturesque Killowen, near Warrenpoint to meet Brendan Carty, an Architect turned distiller who within 3 years of putting pen to paper, developed an idea into Ireland’s 22nd fully operational distillery, Killowen Distillery. We find out how he did it, where his interest comes from and what drives him.

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The Project:

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So, you’re a qualified architect. One thing I know about architects it takes a long time to become qualified. Some people would describe it as a vocation rather than a job. Have you spotted any similarities between architecture and distilling?

I suppose, architecture is a mix between art and science, and so is making whiskey. It’s about getting right balance and knowing when to draw the line. Also, running a distillery went way over budget. Both, your budget led a lot of the time.

Where did your interest in Whiskey come from?

I think I had my first taste of Whiskey when I was 7 years old when my daddy allowed me to taste his powers from his stacker glass, he came from publican stock as grandfather owned 2 pubs, Ned Carty & Sons on Grosvenor St Belfast and by the Maypole (Neds) in Holywood, which my uncle Brian still runs, it’s safe to say that my interest in Whiskey started at a young age. I then worked in Australia for two years where I spent some time with Peter Bignall of Belgrove distillery. Once I got home, I started on my business plan, spoke to a few friends about my ideas and within 18 months and some time working in Strathearn Distillery, Scotland, the build process started and 3 years later, we’re standing here today.

What was more difficult than you expected?

Managing the building services, the electricity was more expensive than we anticipated as well. We had to dig a trench from the nearest electricity pole and pay for transformers on the pole. The ground around here is very mountainous & rocky. We had to dig underneath ancient drystone walls. We didn’t want to damage them so we had to go underneath at a depth of 1 metre to put the electricity cabling underneath it. We had to build the correct depth of a trench in order to carry the line. It also took a lot longer than we anticipated with regards to getting it installed. They had to go through their own admin channels, and the work always seemed to correspond with holidays. They have a huge waiting list which also delayed our progress.

What was easier than you expected?

We had a very good HMRC consultant: Anita Farmer. We understood that the previous record in the UK for getting all the licences for a distillery was 13 months before us. We smashed it, we ended up getting it in about previous record for gaining approval from HMRC was 13 months. We achieved it in 2 months due to careful research & planning along with helpful advice from our HMRC consultant.

What were you like as a client?

Aw, I can be demanding you know. Demanding, long hours. Sometimes I wasn’t meeting my own deadlines. I think architects are infamous for that.

I think they might be known for going over budget sometimes.

Exactly, we went way over budget. You just keep adding to it. I did a lot of the work myself, even the corrugated tin along the walls, and the timber runner above it was just scrap timber which we cut up and painted it. It looks pretty rough, but I think it’s in keeping with the design of the distillery

Do you still practice architecture?

It’s also a bit of fun. It’s nice to be an architect for leisure rather than living. It means I can choose my jobs and my clients which is a good thing.

What did the local community think about the distillery opening up?

Initially, the local people from the townland were a little apprehensive, One neighbour told me he thought I was crazy when I was digging the old tree roots out of the building by myself, most of the last generation are quite religious and actually abstain from drinking alcohol so it was a bit awkward to start with but once we explained what we were trying to do, they came on board are very supportive.

They have helped me out with so much including: digging trenches, carrying up deliveries that lorry drivers refuse to take up the narrow mountain road and most of all provide good humour and craic. With regards planning applications, we got letters of support from them to explain that the distillery won’t have a negative impact on the community but in fact it will have a positive impact. One of the by-products of running a distillery is about 1 tonne of spent grain per day, we give this away for free to local farmers for animal feed. It’s high in protein and better for cattle than dry feed & easier on their stomachs.

Sustainability seems to be very important to you. Can you tell me about the sustainable aspects of the build?

The building is an old Farm Outhouse & we tried to salvage as much as possible.

When we were making this building, we tried to reuse as much as possible. A lot of the brick we used was reclaimed Belfast brick which we tied in with other brick that we bought second hand from a building sites.

Our mash tun was an old dairy tank which we got a false bottom installed.

The bar came from an old airfield outside Castlewellan, County Down. I didn’t have to go to far, we took half the bar before they dismantled it and recycled it.

Above the bar there are recycled pieces of timber and plywood. Our chandelier is made from driftwood, the shelving on the wall are recycled from pallets which are quite functional.

The steel doors around the building are reclaimed, one was two old steel doors which were welded together and the other was just an old steel door which we put on the front of the building. HMRC required extra security as they see this as a bond, like a bank, so you’re storing their money, which is how they see it.

HMRC require security on all the windows. We cut up old Victorian gates and placed them around the windows for security bars. The storage container doesn’t look like a shipping container because it’s clad in timber to help a sustainable countryside. It was going to be scrapped for £450 by a famer nearby, we got him to drop it up and he put it in place for us. We just cladded around it and painted it. We tried to use that same ethos the whole way throughout the building.

Had to replace the roof as it was asbestos, so we had Licenced disposal of asbestos. Less than quarter of the building is heated so we have no need for central heating. The only room that is heated is very well insulated, so it doesn’t take much energy to heat by the one small electric heater. We re-use the hot water from the distillation process. We’ve built a heat exchange for cooling down our wort, it’s cooled with water and the water that comes out of it is warm so it’s then transferred to hot water tanks for the next day’s brew which saves water & energy. The same happens to water from the Still condensers.

From what you’ve said so far, it’s very clear you’ve very strong transparency and sustainability values. Where has this come from?

Sustainability has always been a great interest of mine and it’s very important when you go to architectural school.  It is something you can’t ignore in this day and age. It is just the right thing to do. I can’t think of any other way that we should be doing it. There is always way to improve as we will keep figuring this out as we go.

The Whiskey:

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What makes you different from other distilleries in Ireland?

We’re the only flame fed distillery in Ireland. That is a practice that has long been forgotten. We’re trying to resurrect not only old mash bill but the methods used when Irish whiskey was the best in the world. Irish whiskey was the best in the world when Irish whiskey was being made differently; not just the recipes but also the processes.

Ireland uses straight line condensers, similar sized distilleries to us can produce 1 litre per minute. We use wormtub condensers which only produce 600ml per minute.

There is a benefit to doing it slowly, it means that the liquid is of a higher quality & it’s how Irish Whiskey used to be made.

The mash bills as well. We are fully transparent in what mash bills we use: Barley, molten barley, rye, wheat or oat.  We will tell people where we get our wheat and oat from.

We’re small so we have a lot of flexibility. If we were a larger distillery would take a massive amount of work to change production. When we could say tomorrow let’s do a different mash bill.  We have a storage container there filled with oats, rye, wheat and malt; we can do whatever we want.

 

Most distilleries have more of a focus on the maturation rather than the distillation/mash bill. You seem to be doing things differently from the beginning of the process, can you talk about that?

It seems to be something that people have rejected for a long time. A massive part is when the flavour does come from the barrel and the grain. You can taste the difference between a rye whiskey and an oat whiskey and a malt whiskey, why can’t you taste the difference if there is a handful of oats, or a handful of wheat in there. It’s something that is going to make a massive difference.

You seem to be very interested in how the distillation process & how the mash bill & process can affect the taste, I think that’s one of your differentiators. Most of the more established distilleries focus on the different cask finishes, what do you have planned for the first ones?

We have now filled our first casks with Pot Still spirit, we have some red wine casks, some sherry casks, bourbon casks that come from France and Scotland. There are also a few surprises to come once we have them agreed.

So, when you say ‘small batches’ you really do mean ‘small batches’ compared to the other producers.  

We’re aiming at producing 2 x 220L barrels per week.

How was it getting finance from the banks?

I went to Warrenpoint Credit Union at the start to get some liquidity for cash flow. I thought they were brilliant. The credit union were the most versatile especially at Warrenpoint, they really try to help people out. They gave me a very generous loan and you can pay it back whenever you wanted. I paid it back as soon as I could and there was no charge for early repayment. I’d advise anyone to use them. We have investors as well so we knew some people who were interested in the industry from the states and locally in Armagh. They were very keen from the start. All we had to do was draw up the documents, show them what we could do, and do it.

How did you learn how to distil? You didn’t go to university like a lot of the distillers.

I did spend a lot of time working in a distillery in Tasmania with Peter Bignal of Belgrove distillery. I also spent a time working for Strathearn distillery in Scotland who are a small batched distillery. They wanted to be flame feed but their local council wouldn’t allow them for health and safety reasons.

How will you generate income before your spirit is ready to be sold as Whiskey?

We want to purchase carefully selective whiskeys from third party providers and blend those. We plan to sell those as a blended whiskey before our own is matured. We’re very keen on transparency & want to be up-front with where the Whiskey is sourced, the mash bill, what it’s finished in.

We’ll also be selling Pure Pot Still Whiskey, Poitín & Gin which will soon be available via www.Irishmalts.com

Was there any difficulty in transparency with the big producers out there when it comes to getting supplies for the blends. A lot of producers don’t want their produce blended. Do you see any struggles on that part?

You are right in a way. Once we create the blend, we will be approaching those distilleries and show them what it tastes like, show them that we are interested in the quality as much as they are. If not, we will say it came from a distillery in county such and such.

What are your long-term aims?

Keep this place going as long as possible. Get another bonding storage area to store the excess barrels off site.  We are allowed to get one within 5km, again we will used existing buildings. The idea of using existing is at the core of everything we do for sustainability.

Who do you look up to in the industry?

Peter Bignal at Belgrove (Tasmania) I can get advice from him with regards to any problems that I have like difficulties working with rye. We’re able to discuss different techniques that can make things easier.

In terms of business and marketing, I look to Ireland Craft Beers, they have been my friends for most of my life; since I was 11 years old and are excellent at what they do.

Peter Mulryan in Blackwater distillery is doing a great job trying to revive proper old pot-still Irish Whiskey mash bills.

What distillery in Ireland do you look at and think ‘Their doing it right’?

At the minute, Echlinville are brilliant at the minute with Shane and Jarlath. Just their attitude and positivity towards the industry is brilliant and they’re great guys.

There is a small distillery up in Lough Mask, Co. Mayo, Lough Mask distillery. I keep meaning to call up to see them, they are outputting the same output as us; very little. They have a good ethos and a small scale, I wouldn’t mind getting over to see them sometime.

Again Peter Bignal at Belgrove (Tasmania)- I worked there while I was living in Tasmania.

If you know of any interesting projects that have shown a similar commitment to sustainability on any size, I’d be delighted to hear from you. 07950 935 686

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