If you’ve been tallying up the awards received by distilleries in the past couple of years, you’ll have noticed a bit of a pattern emerging from Ireland: the Midleton Distillery often finds itself on top.
In March, the man behind the creation of award-winning drams such as Redbreast 12 and Jameson whiskey – Barry Crockett – decided it was time to step back from his role in making those whiskeys and focus on a new area of the business. After 31 years as master distiller – and 47 with the company – it was a major change and it is now up to his protégé of 10 years, Brian Nation, to take the lead.
I spoke with the man who has been putting Irish whiskey on the map to find out what plans he has for the future, what his new role will be, the challenges he faced during his time at the distillery and why he believes investment in ideas is key to the future success of Irish whiskey making.
You were born on the distillery grounds and succeeded your father as master distiller in 1981 so this industry is very much in your blood. How did it feel to retire from your role in March? Is parting ‘such sweet sorrow’ as they say?
I retired as master distiller at the Midleton distillery in March and of course that was a big change. I am no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the distillery, which is especially exciting at the moment as it goes through another phase of expansion, but thankfully I am now involved with the archival research centre based in the old distillery, so to some degree I am back where I first started. I really regard this as a great opportunity to begin another career so the parting is not final in the sense that I now have an opportunity to look at distilling and its contribution to the industrial life of the Cork region in particular.
You’ve had a major impact on distilling over your career. What are two things you are most proud of?
Because of my background I have always been particularly interested in the Midleton distillery and the manner in which production methods were framed to best meet the requirements of quality and efficiency. As master distiller I had a responsibility to ensure that the present distillery could be operated in the best manner to ensure that the quality requirements of Jameson, Powers and Paddy were reached. This was quite a task in the early years as originally each of these brands and others were distilled in quite separate distilleries. The ability to achieve this outcome so successfully must be regarded as the greatest achievement of the Midleton team and the part I played.
The second most important personal achievement was to ensure on-going innovation, in particular laying down different distillate types but also innovation to improve environmental factors such as energy reduction, water utilisation, and brewing efficiency.
The Barry Crockett Midleton Legacy has been named after you – how happy were you to see your ‘legacy’ imprinted on a bottle of your work?
I have been deeply honoured in having the Barry Crockett Midleton Legacy named after me. Not only is this a matter of great personal satisfaction, but I like to think that it is a recognition of the Midleton distillery, which really is unique in so many ways.
We’re seeing a surge in respect for Irish whiskey and especially seeing the Midleton drams getting the recognition they deserve. What do you think of that?
It is certainly the case that whiskey distilled at Midleton is achieving great recognition worldwide; Jameson is a clear testament to that fact.
However for me the successes that followed the reintroduction of the Single Irish Pot Still category with brands like Redbreast, Powers John’s Lane and Green Spot is a further testament to the importance of laying down stocks of particular Irish pot still whiskey styles. These brands have added greatly to the recognition not only of whiskey from Midleton but the entire Irish Whiskey category. It is important that this work continues.
How important is investment in the distillery?
Investment in ‘ideas’ and openness to improvement is always essential. It is also key to invest in production capacity and to do so in such manner that opportunities are taken to build in extra flexibility which undoubtedly arises from improved technology. The guideline behind all this is to guarantee the quality standards of the brands currently produced and open the possibility for laying down stock of new whiskey styles.
What is your biggest hope for the future of Irish whiskey and the Midleton brands?
Particularly in recent years there has been a much greater recognition of Irish whiskey. I would like to see Powers Gold Label and Paddy follow in the successful footsteps of Jameson. Also, because of my early experience of pot still whiskey styles, I would like to see the Irish single pot still category gain more and more recognition since this style really represents a whole new possibility among the world of whiskey flavours.
What are you most looking forward to about partial retirement?
I really view the leaving of one position as an opportunity to commence another career. For the immediate future I am very pleased to be involved in archival and historical research. Of course having more time available will enable me to take up yet more interests – one hobby I’ve always been interested in is painting in watercolours, so I intend to study this as time permits.