Ep. 37 - McConnell's Whisky Ambassador Sarah Kennedy

IRISH WHISKEY HISTORY // We dive into the history of Belfast's McConnells, a brand established in 1776.

Listen to the Episode

Show Notes

Why does Ireland spell whiskey with an "e?" What is the oldest brand of whisky in Ireland? And how many distilleries are there in Belfast?

Just some of the questions I'll explore with McConnell's very passionate brand ambassador Sarah Kennedy. We'll also take our first dive into Irish whiskey history. I'll do a tasting of McConnell's age stated blended whisky and we'll talk about a planned revival of distilling in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Here is some of the information we'll cover:

  • Belfast's renaissance
  • Discovering McConnells
  • The 1776 date and inception of the brand
  • The oldest brand claim vs Bushmills
  • What type of still would they have been distilling with
  • Whisky or whiskey, do we really know?
  • Remnants of the old history of Belfast distilling
  • Reasons the Irish whisky industry died down
  • Irish whisky on American shelves
  • Sipping the whisky
  • An age stated blend
  • Expanding the selection
  • Distilling style of the blend
  • Some of the freedoms of Irish whisky
  • The bottle design and label
  • Learning through distillery travel
  • A future distillery
  • Best place to interact with McConnells in Belfast
  • Finding McConnells

And if you want to learn more about McConnells or to find their directory of retailers, head to McConnellsIrishWhisky.com and here is Sarah's IG 


Drew (00:14):
Welcome to Whiskey Lore, the interviews. I'm your host, drew Hamish, the Amazon bestselling author of Whiskey Lores Travel Guide to Experience in Kentucky Bourbon. And today we're going to head across the sea to the Emerald aisle of Ireland and talk a little Irish whiskey with Sarah Kennedy, who's the brand ambassador for a brand that might look new to you on the shelf, but in reality it has roots all the way back to 1776. In fact, the McConnell's Irish whiskey bottle states that it is Northern Ireland's oldest whiskey brand. And of course, I'm always skeptical of oldest claims. So we're going to go into a discussion about that as well as getting a sense of how big McConnell's was during its heyday. And we'll find out some of the tragedies that surrounded it the years before it disappeared as a brand. And we'll talk about its reemergence.

Drew (01:11):
And since this is my first time interviewing somebody about Irish whiskey, we're going to dive into, its fascinating history. At one time it was the world's most popular whiskey. It contracted during the 20th century, just about disappeared. And then well, it came back and it is really growing at a breakneck speed right now. So we'll talk all about that as well. I'll have a taste of the whiskey, we'll chat about Belfast and we'll talk about some travel tips if you decide to go to Belfast and some of the future plans for the distillery as well. So enjoy my interview with Sarah Kennedy of McConnell's Irish whiskey. Welcome, Sarah.

Sarah (01:58):
Thanks for having me here.

Drew (01:59):
Yes, this is great because this is my first opportunity to chat with someone in Ireland other than in person when I got to the one distillery that I've been to in Ireland so far, so Oh wow.

Sarah (02:12):
That's brilliant.

Drew (02:13):
Yeah, so this is great an honor, and this'll be the first time we really get to chat a little bit about Ireland's whiskey history as well as this historic brand that you guys have brought back to Ireland. So you're in Northern Ireland, you're in, yeah, in Belfast,

Sarah (02:31):
Yes. So I'm in Belfast today. Yeah, our offices are based here in Belfast, and that's really where our brand history and our brand future is. So it's in the city of Belfast, in Northern Ireland. Yeah.

Drew (02:44):
Okay. And you grew up there?

Sarah (02:46):
I did, yeah. I was born in Belfast and I've only ever lived here. So I mean, I've traveled and I've been lots of lovely places around the world, but I've, it's always been my home and it will always be my home because I'm a home bird after all. And as well, our distillery will be here, our brands here, this is where I'll always be based.

Drew (03:09):
How have you seen it change over the years that you've been there? Does it feel like it's kind of going through a change and because there was some time when Belfast was like, I come from Detroit in Michigan, it sort of got a reputation as being kind of a rough place to be Glasgow. I love it when I go there because it kind of has that same personality, that it has that rougher mystique from the past. And then you're seeing a rebirth of those kinds of cities. Is that kind of what Belfast is going through?

Sarah (03:42):
Exactly. I mean, Belfast, in such a short period of time, I mean only just one generation away. I was born in the nineties, but my mom was born in the sixties and she's seen and grew up in a very different Belfast than I've grown up and seen. I mean, I luckily have grown up through progression and peace and moving forward in Belfast, but that really isn't what everybody in this city has grew up around. But you definitely see the shift towards the culture is changing. It's focusing more towards the industry in hospitality and tourism, and also the shift towards progression. Politics is changing. It's completely different than what the city that my mother grew up in, but also on the same breath as me saying that Belfast as a city has a incredibly rich industrial past. We built that Titanic here. We had the mills, the whiskey past in Belfast, huge amounts of whiskey were produced in Belfast City and sent across to America and across the world in the 18 hundreds. So it did have before that troubled period, and before the history of conflict in Belfast, it did have a real industrial past. And you're seeing that coming back again, as you said about Detroit, the people in Belfast still, we still remember it and we still honor it. And we are about working class heroes really. And rolling your sleeves up and getting work done and getting dirt under your fingernails and really putting the graft in is what Belfast City's all about. Yeah,

Drew (05:27):
I think the fun part is that growing up in those conditions and then you move away and you hear other people talk about your town, you get into this, pride comes out, and you want people to know, not like what you have heard. It's like, here's what I love about my town. Yeah,

Sarah (05:48):
Exactly. And it's one of those things people, whenever I meet them in person, they say to me, you're as much an for Belfast as you are for McConnell's. And it's true. I do love my city, and it's one of the reasons why I work for McConnell's whiskey as well.

Drew (06:08):
So how did you discover McConnell's? Because McConnell's has only been around for a couple years now, is that correct?

Sarah (06:16):
Yeah, well, McConnell's in its current current guys, it is an old historic brand that was born in Belfast in 1776. And it had a huge history, and we'll talk about that very soon. But the brand was relaunched in Belfast in February of 2020, which was a pretty tough time for any brand to launch. Just within a month later, the world shutting its doors. So I actually used to work in finance and in insurance, in corporate insurance, and the firm that I worked for did they specialized in insuring distilleries in the north. And I actually just got the chance, well, I actually went to Whiskey Live, and that's where I first ran into McConnell's. Okay. And then I got a chance to go to the launch night, which was a very relaxed sort of bar crawl around Belfast City. And a lot of the guys who are investors, you know, have guys from the states and you've got people from Belfast, the architects involved in building the distillery, just really everyone that has been involved in the project from day one. And I just spoke about Belfast, about my love for whiskey, about the fact that I have a predominantly marketing major in my degree, and it's always been something I've wanted to do. And I was offered the opportunity to completely change my career in about 16 months ago. And I, I did have to think about it because it was a change of a career, but I didn't have to think about it for very long. So

Drew (08:00):

Sarah (08:01):
Insurance over a whiskey. So I changed my career and I've definitely not looked back. I've enjoyed every minute of it.

Drew (08:07):
You get to talk about whiskey all the time now.

Sarah (08:10):

Drew (08:12):
And you get to sip on whiskey. Yep. This is the fun part about doing a podcast overseas is that I basically have to teach myself to become a morning drinker when I do my samples because you guys are five hours off from here. It's much easier when I go over to Europe and then have to try to work back to this schedule than it is to work in the opposite schedule. Got to be a morning person. So let's talk a little bit about that history, because you mentioned 7 17 76 is when the distillery was started, and it was started by brothers.

Sarah (08:55):
So to take it back, a step really is that in old Ireland there would've been Spirit grocers and people who would've bond bottles or in bonders of whiskey and not necessarily distilleries. And there would be, there'd be a lot of micro distilleries around the Ireland of Ireland. So the trademark of 1776 is where it dates back to the McConnell's family. So they started McConnell's Irish whiskey, and then the John and Gs are actually the two McConnells who built the distillery, and they didn't build the distillery until the 18 hundreds. But before that, their father, he had the brand and the family before his father also had the McConnell's brand, and it was a family company. And then once when the father died, he actually died when the boys were quite young. And the mother who's Eleanor McConnell, she actually became a rectifying distiller, and she was the owner of the company until up until the McConnell's brothers were old enough then to take over the company.

Sarah (10:07):
So I think that's incredibly important in the history of McConnell's as the role of a female in that sort of environment where it was very, very difficult time and you were bringing up two young sons and also holding the company together, which is something that I find really fascinating about the brand. And then whenever John and James were old enough, they then built the distillery, which was in the early 18 hundreds. So that was a little bit later than the 1776, but the 1776 that we speak about, it's not the same. You have Bush Mills, which is the oldest distillery, but McConnell's Distillery had a, wasn't built until the 18 hundreds, but the brand existed before then. And McConnell's as a brand was very much, it was a family brand. They loved it. They loved their brand as well as their distillery. So when their distillery was built, they were an industrial producer of Irish whiskey, but they were also very proud of their brand as well. And you can see that, and it comes through in all of the old memorabilia and the old Brandon of McConnell's, because they took that very seriously and they did have posters, and they carried that on right up until the 19 hundreds, until they prohibition basically was the end of a lot of Irish distillers at the time.

Drew (11:28):
And it stayed in the family that whole time.

Sarah (11:31):
It actually went on to new owners, I think around the early 19 hundreds. There's a lot of history around that time as well, because McConnell's did see a lot of disaster because there was things like wars. They had one small fire, and then they had a very large fire in 1909, and that fire happened in one of their bonded warehouses in Belfast. And in that warehouse was half a million gallons of whiskey. And that fire completely destroyed all of that whiskey. I mean, that distillery that, not the distillery itself, the warehouse, the bonded warehouse where they had all of their stock burnt to the grind, and they lost half a million gallons of Irish whiskey, which was incredible, which would've been an incredible shock and devastation to any distillery in that time. But they did show a lot of resilience in 1909, and they did rebuild, and they had other warehouses, and they also had their distillery, which was still up and running. So they did show a lot of res resilience, both by rebuilding and also in the media. So it was great. They were very proud. But at that stage, I think the McConnells had passed because one of the brothers actually died quite young, and then one of the other brothers then had passed on to new ownership once it became more of an industrial type producer of Irish whiskey. But for many years, yes, it did stay in the McConnell's family. When you think about the length of time that it was in that the brand was around,

Drew (13:07):
Was there any talk that there was illicit distilling going on in the McConnell family before 1776?

Sarah (13:15):
I mean, I actually don't know that. Yeah, the answer to that, yeah, but you never know with Ireland, there was many distilleries, whether they were very, very small micro distilleries, but they talk of maybe 2000 distilleries in Ireland back in the 18 hundreds. So it could have happened. But I do think that the McConnell's family from 18, the hundreds, they were very industrial. They produced a lot of whiskey, and they exported a lot of whiskey too. So it wouldn't have been in the illicit type of distillery, would've been more a very, a lot of production of Irish whiskey.

Drew (13:53):
And so I think about the time periods, because Innes Coffee didn't invent the column still, or the coffee still until 1822. So before then, they would've been distilling their whiskeys. And there was also laws in place where you weren't, at least in Scotland, and I'm not sure on this because I haven't researched it in Ireland, but the Spirits Act of 1860 was when they first allowed blending. So what you have back here actually would've been illegal to make in Scotland. I don't know if that's the same if that law also was over Ireland at the same time, but it just plays into this idea of what were they distilling back then in the days before they built that larger distillery, which probably went to a column still at some point. But again, I would think that if that Spirits act was in place, it wouldn't have been till probably the 1860s before they would gone full in on grain distilling.

Sarah (14:58):
I mean, with a lot of brands and a lot of Irish whiskey brands, even now, they evolved over the years, depending on what the laws were, high efficient, they could be. I mean, in Ireland, a lot of the distilleries didn't even adopt a coffee continue still. Yeah, it was pots stills only and Potstills only, not meaning pots stilled Irish whiskey, right. Pots stilled. I mean, you can make malt whiskey in a pot still, and a lot of distilleries would've maybe put on their marketing material of the day and their posters, pots stills only, not meaning a pot still whiskey in the category of pots still whiskey more meaning that they only used pots stills, and it was their way of sort of differentiating themselves to scotch, which really did have heavily adopt the continuous. Still, another way as well, I don't know if it's relevant, but I find it a fun story anyway to tell, is that in Scotland, they spell Irish whiskey.

Sarah (16:00):
They spell whiskey, sorry, without an E. And in Ireland, traditionally they spell whiskey with an E. Yeah, our whiskey product does not have an E. And the reason for that is whiskey was always spelt without an E. It was always spelt without an E, even in Ireland. And then whenever, one of the stories, now there's different stories about why there was the introduction of the E, but one of the stories that is widely accepted or widely believed is that the E was added by a number of distilleries in Ireland to highlight that they don't use continuous stills and that they use pot stills. And they wanted to differentiate their product from scotch whiskey because they seen it as more premium because they didn't use the continuous still. And so as time went on, Irish whiskey just became whiskey spelt with an E. And so that is a lot of the export market for Irish whiskey would've been in America.

Sarah (17:09):
And then you see in the American brands, a lot of whiskey is spelt with an E, so it's almost as if they adopted the Irish way of spelling whiskey. But the reason why McConnells add an E to Irish whiskey is because it is an older brand. And McConnells never actually in introduced an in their Irish whiskey. If you look at all of their old memorabilia and their old bottles, which there is old bottles around the city of Belfast, and they spelled it without the E. So we just didn't want to mess with the history of McConnell's and introduce it.

Drew (17:45):
So it's interesting because I did some research and actually did the whole podcast episode around the E and researched as much as I could find on it. Now, most of the Irish whiskey history that I found was coming out of Dublin rather than out of Belfast. But what I had come across was that they said country distilleries tended to not use the E in Ireland, but city distilleries did. Yeah. So that brings the question of McConnell's. Was it always in Belfast or did it start outside of Belfast?

Sarah (18:21):
It was a Belfast. They're a Belfast family. They have always been in Belfast. I mean, they are a city distillery. And it would've been maybe around the time before whenever things were introducing the E and in and around that time period. And I would've said that a lot of it, as you said, it kind of came from Dublin, is that this introduction of the in Irish whiskey and that filtered through. And also because a lot of the brands did disappear in the early 19 hundreds whenever prohibition happened, is that those distilleries, they went into administration or they wrapped up, or they just went into Dormy for a long time. And the distilleries that still stood would've had an E in the Irish whiskey. And that's sort of filtered through, there's no law in Irish whiskey to say that you need to have an E in Irish whiskey. You can have either or, but it just so happens that I think it's only ourselves and one other whiskey brand that don't put an A in Irish whiskey.

Drew (19:27):

Sarah (19:28):
Really the short answer is that I don't know for sure.

Drew (19:32):
Well, and that's question, and that's the hard part because, well, I get into discussions with people, especially when I'm in Scotland between Scotts Gallic and Irish Gaelic, which are very similar languages, but they have pronunciation differences. And so I get sometimes people who will argue with me over the pronunciation of a particular brand name, and I'll say, well, I went to the distillery and they pronounced it that particular way. And then they'll say, well, I heard it in this area one way or another. And if you go back and you really look at the way that whiskey was spelled, I mean, people's spelling was atrocious at that time period in the 17th century when it really was starting to get established, even in the legal records in England, they had all sorts of different spellings, and then they finally said, no E. And so Scotland being one of only two countries that say it has to be spelled this way. And so it's really funny to see because it's discovering where the name bourbon came from. It's something that evolved. And so it's hard to, and since there's no law, you had the right to do it with or without an E.

Sarah (20:54):
Exactly. And that's the beauty of it all, is that it can't be factually correct because it's not documented well enough to be correct. Yeah. So it's part of the fun of Irish whiskey is the myths that you have. And that's why it's fun to be a myth buster. Yeah. Yeah. Cause you can't always bus bust all of the myths though. Cause as you said, things evolved. I mean the word [inaudible] which is actually the water of life that was whiskey. So it has evolved over time. Languages have changed. But from what I know and the research that I've done, this is just sort of a way to explain to the masses about the differentiation between the way McConnell spelled whiskey and the way the rest of the industry spells whiskey.

Drew (21:40):
Well, and I think the other thing that really affected the spelling and people's perception of the spelling is that the Irish whiskey industry basically went down to just a couple of distillers through the 20th century. And when you have Jameson and Bush mills both spelling it with an E, all of a sudden you go, oh, wait a second. All Irish whiskey must be spelled with an E. And it's always been that way. And that's just, again, we, it's fun to dig into those things. And I think the casual whiskey drinker probably it's lost on them. They, they're just, yeah, I like my whiskey. I don't like my whiskey. I don't care how you spell it, but

Sarah (22:22):
For us. But I do get asked that question very frequently, drew, yeah, I would be quite active on social media and I got a lot of little dms saying, you've spelled your name wrong, or you've spelled McConnell's whiskey Sarah wrong. And I'm, it's good. It's a nice little prompt for me to start a conversation and start, not teach them a little bit, but talk to them about the brand and try to make them understand why we don't use a in Irish whiskey. So yeah.

Drew (22:50):
How big was McConnell's? Because in the mid 18 hundreds Irish whiskey was it mean? It was probably like 70%, I think is the number I've seen of the world's whiskey came from Ireland. It was just dominant. And then

Sarah (23:08):
Nice, I think as well with Belfast would surprise you on the volumes of whiskey that came from Belfast. I don't have the source here, but I have read once that during a time period of, I think there was maybe two years or longer than two years maybe that Belfast was a bigger producer of Irish whiskey than Dublin. And I don't have that source in front of me, but I have come across it since joining the company. And that speaks volumes really. Pardon the pun. Yeah, because Belfast night doesn't even have a distillery. I mean, it's one of the only cities in Ireland that don't have their own distillery. And that's really what we are doing as a brand, is that we are planning to have to bring our distillery back to sit to the city.

Drew (23:59):
Yeah. It's amazing to see, again, a place that would've been a sensor for the whiskey industry at that time. Are there remnants of it around town? Are there any skeletons of old warehouses or old warehouses that are still in existence or anything like that? Of course,

Sarah (24:17):
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, in Belfast Cathedral quarter, if you ever do come over, Dre, I'll show you. It's actually a little whiskey museum on the side of one of the bars called the Friend at Hand. And it has tons and tons, like countless amounts of whiskey memorabilia from mirrors to little ash trays, little pocket watches, whiskey jars. But that literally is facing, the owner of that whiskey museum also owns a few of the bars in the area. And the one that is facing the friend at hand is the old Bush Mill's warehouse. And it still stands, it's the Hart Bar, and it is in the old Bush Mills warehouse. And literally around the corner from that is Dunbar Street. And Dunbar Street is where McConnell's Warehouse was. And it's where the massive fire in 1909 happened. Okay. Now it did burn to the ground. That is a true story.

Sarah (25:16):
There is newspaper articles about it, and it is completely flat. Nothing has ever been built on it. And now it's just a car park. But it is interesting. Still the same city, the same street, and that's where the warehouse was. But there is a number of places in Belfast, like what I'm telling you, there's actually a few guys in Belfast who are doing a whiskey tour. And when you come here, they will go into depth about some of the old bonded warehouses and Oh, cool. And they still stand. And there's definitely still, it's written on the walls basically of Belfast City, all of the old mirrors and the old posters. Wow.

Drew (25:54):
Yeah, that'd be fun. Definitely when you're starting to plan out. And initially when I started my planning of a trip around Ireland to go to distilleries, there were like 12. And now so many, the industry is really blown up. And it's hard to believe that at one point there were only a couple of distilleries in Ireland at the time. So why did Irish whiskey disappear?

Sarah (26:23):
Well, there's a number of reasons for that, of course is as we already discussed, the invention of the continuous still or the coffee still. And the fact that our Ireland were reluctant to adopt that process of, and now we do use it, but we didn't back then. And we were very slow on taking the opportunity of working with the coffee still because they very much believed that the whiskey was not as superior as a pot still whiskey. But also on top of that was the biggest kick in the teeth really that they had, was the fact that ar the Irish market, the Irish distilleries, exported serious amounts of whiskey to America. And during prohibition, it just killed that whole market. And so there they had produced, as with Irish whiskey, because it has to be aged for three years, they would've had to produce all of this whiskey and they would've produced bulk, bulk whiskey.

Sarah (27:21):
And then they had no demand for it. So then the income wasn't coming in and in many of the distilleries either went in the administration or just decided to go to wrap up their company and try to invest in something else. And so that was a big reason why Irish whiskey, the market just changed. And then after that, I think scotch whiskey, because they were able to do it in, they were using the coffee still, they were able to do it in a more efficient manner. And it wasn't as expensive for them to run their distillery. So they were able to produce more. And then of course, I'm sure it affected the scotch industry. Yeah, prohibition. Yeah, I don't know much about that. I just know that it was the end of a chapter for Irish whiskey and many of this distilleries may be ticked on, but not in the same way. And after a while it was that there was the only, the two distillers left standing that really did hold up the in industry for many years.

Drew (28:26):
So the thing that I've heard is, and of course it's reconstructing history again, but when you had people like Al Capone who was selling prohibition whiskey to people and he would sell it, he would pawn it off as Irish whiskey, and you would have Irish whiskey with such a great reputation, but they're still shipping it over in barrels. Whereas Scotland was shipping it over in bottles. And so you could doctor that barrel of whiskey coming over from Ireland. And I think in the US at least, anyway, that was probably a hit to Irish whiskey's reputation as well. And that didn't help

Sarah (29:09):

Drew (29:11):
Get people interested in going back to Irish whiskey, especially you're talking about after prohibition, there was probably a period of about 10 to 15 years where whiskey was still popular, but it didn't matter if it was bourbon, scotch, Irish, whatever, American pallets in the sixties, seventies and eighties just was not attuned to drinking whiskey.

Sarah (29:34):
And it's not just in America. You can see it even now when you go to Europe, the scotch market is very dominant. It's only nice starting to grow. And I find myself continuously not being defensive of Irish whiskey cause that's not right. I don't need to be defensive of Irish whiskey, but just being so ultra pride of it that when someone says to me, it's scotch and nothing else, it's almost my mission that changed their mind. Yeah. And it, for example, we were exhibiting in Berlin and we were one of the very few Irish brands at the show, and there was a number of people who came over and were just like, I'm a scotch drinker. Change my mind. It was almost like, give me your elevator pitch. And the best way to do that really was to pour a little bit of whiskey and then chat to them while we were drinking whiskey. So I think maybe we, do you want to maybe pour whiskey and we can chat over the whiskey? I've let it

Drew (30:37):
Settle. Well settled now.

Sarah (30:40):
Breathing away there. Yes,

Drew (30:41):
Absolutely. Yeah. And this is the hard part for me too with Irish whiskey, because I understand why people get hooked into scotch whiskey because it's available everywhere and easily accessible except in Ireland I found, I walk into a pub in Ireland, I look on the back shelf and I'm like, wow, they don't have any scotch. And then I asked and they said, oh, it's, we have it back here. If you want something, just let us know. So that's one of those things I noticed you always found Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, and then you found tons of Irish whiskey. Yeah. And

Sarah (31:17):
Did you get Johnny Walker maybe there? Yeah, yeah, maybe some. But that's just about as far as it stretches.

Drew (31:24):
But I think also because all these tariffs and the rest that has kind of hamstrung the bourbon industry in infiltrating Europe, and the same coming back that we have certain brands that you're always going to find Jameson and Bush Mills on the shelf, and now you're starting to see Writer's Tears is starting to show up and you're seeing slain and some of these other brands come in. And so it's like we're just having this door open to us. And so you probably have the best opportunity right now to promote Irish whiskey as being something that is worth seeking out.

Sarah (32:06):
I mean, I have a lot of people from America that I would speak to on social media or reach out on the whiskey groups. And a lot of people would either be have roots in Ireland, maybe their grandparents are maybe Irish, and they would've drank Irish brands. And also they're still, they're as excited as we are about the change in the industry and about how they're seeing new brands over here. And they also really appreciate it whenever you bring out a release and it's available to them in America as well as being available to the Irish market of the European market. And the way to do that is to really work really well with your distributing partners in America and make sure that the sales teams and the availability and that everyone knows your product as much as you do. And we do a lot of work in doing that.

Sarah (32:59):
And I do think that mean the brand company we work with in America, Connecta brands are incredible as a distributor and also as a sister company of ours. So we work hands in hand in trying to make sure we get the message of McConnell's across as well as we do at home. So, and you said yourself, you were able to find it. And we are available in America with our blend. And whenever we bring out new releases, we'll also be given the same treatment to America. I mean, we will have smaller releases and when the distiller is built and they'll be for different markets. But I mean our core products should be available worldwide because the export market is really important as well as the home market. So with McConnell's Blend, I mean the bottle itself, a lot of effort, a lot of time went into the design of the bottle. It was designed by Stranger and Stranger in New York, so there was a lot of effort put in and it has a lot of stories and history on the bottle. But before I go into that, yeah, I will maybe talk through the whiskey. Okay,

Drew (34:07):
Yep. Oh, it's good to get a little sip in. Yeah. I'll tell you the first thing that hits you on this is how much apple and pear you get off of it right off the bat. Yeah, I mean it's not, sometimes you get a whiskey and you just have to bury your nose in it to pull anything out. But this one is really, really nice and fruity on the nose, which I think would appeal to the highland scotch drinker who probably likes those more apple lighter citrus, those kinds of characters that you get out of it. And part of me would think that this has a very high malt, has a lot of malt in the mash bill because a lot of those fruits might be coming from that.

Sarah (34:55):
Whenever you are nosing the whiskey as well, it you're nosing it in the morning, I'm nosing it here in the afternoon. You do get a different, depending on what you've eaten that day, how tired you are, whether you're thirsty, you know, do get notes that appeal to you. And I know I've said that, I've said this before to so many people is that it, there's no right or wrong answer. I find that with McConnell's on the nose, I get a lot of memories and what you're getting is not going to be the same as me, just depending on circumstance. But I get a lot of ripe fruits from there. And I would get when you cut melon and you leave it out and you get that, nope, freshly caught melon is one of the notes that really comes through to me. And also you get the vanilla note that you're getting from the bourbon casks of course, too. Yeah.

Drew (35:47):
It's amazing how the power of suggestion works because as soon as you said melon, I went, wow. Yeah, that's exactly what I'm tasting there on the finish.

Sarah (35:54):
Which is why I try not to say that too much whenever I'm doing a long tasting and it's all very focused on the whiskey and the liquid, but it's the first thing I get. It's instantly and my nose would be quite good. And it's getting better. Yeah. But it's one of the distinctive notes about it. It's

Drew (36:14):
Funny, after tasting it and then coming back to it, I get more of the grain on the nose the second time.

Sarah (36:20):
The sweetness, the sweet notes that you're getting there, the butterscotch notes and the sort of apple pie and the crust of an apple pie, what you're getting from the grain, grain component too. There's

Drew (36:32):
Almost a, I want to say there's a banana note to it.

Sarah (36:36):
Yeah, I've heard that too. I don't get it as much, but I've heard people say the little dried banana sweetss that you get. Yeah. And well they're not sweets, but I

Drew (36:44):
Mean just dried banana growning up

Sarah (36:46):
In, grown up in Belfast, my mom would've pretended to me there were sweetss anyway, but the little dried banana crisps that you get. Yep.

Drew (36:53):
Yeah, absolutely. He's there

Sarah (36:54):
To get that.

Drew (36:56):
Yeah, it's really nice. It's a nice drinking whiskey and was surprised to see that it's in the 25 to $30 range, especially once we start talking about this bottle and the cost of that bottle on top of it. It's a really nice whiskey. So it's five years,

Sarah (37:15):
It's a five year old, so the liquid in the bottle is at least five years old and it's not usual in Ireland to put an edge statement on a bland, but it does give you that consistency and that when people are purchasing it, they know that they're getting a liquid that's at least five years old, so just a little bit longer in the bourbon casks. But on the pallet as well, you do get the bourbon influence there because you are getting, there is the vanilla notes and the butterscotch, but you also get that little bit of spiciness to it. And the spiciness is almost a savory type spice, not like chill, it's not like a clove spice that you would get on some whiskeys. It's more of a pepper, like a peppery spice, it's

Drew (38:09):
Like a white pepper kind of thing. And it kind of just lays there on the pallet really nice. And there's no real tannins to this, it's just a nice clean whiskey with little heat on the finish, which is fun. And

Sarah (38:27):
Also a little bit of texture, which is always good when you're trying a blend. It would be a premium product, but it's also very affordable. As you said, the price point is very affordable. So if you're wanting to try something that's got something that's slightly different with the content of moth that we have in there as a high content, we also have the five year old, which is just a li in the cask a little bit longer. And then also traditionally with an Irish blend, a lot of them on the entry, their first product, their core product is 40%, but we've went for 42%. So the ABVs a little bit higher and that will continue with other releases that will be bringing out. We have an exciting project that's coming up now and I've already tasted and sampled some of the product as it is nai, is that we are bringing out a sherry finish that will be a five year old blend in a sherry finish cask. So that will be a bourbon cask and then rested in cherry finish. That in itself brings out whole new characteristics to the whiskey, different notes. And it's something that is just really interesting as you are going through your whiskey journey to be able to pinpoint the differences between the whiskeys and follow a brand and be able to see, to physically taste them side by side and taste the difference between the two whiskeys.

Drew (39:57):
Yeah, I'm wondering, because another thing that's associated with Irish whiskey, in fact they call it the Irish technique of triple distilling. Is this something that is all run through column stills or does some the malt actually get done in pot stills and is it triple distilled?

Sarah (40:20):
So the malt would be in a pot still and then the grain would be in a continuous still now was, it wouldn't be all triple distilled because the continuous still is different than the pot still that would be triple distilled. But whenever we build our distillery in Belfast, it will be a three pot stills, triple distilled whiskey, you know, can do runs on a double distill, but predominantly will be a triple distill malt whiskey. Yeah.

Drew (40:49):
Because the mouth feel of this and the rest, it makes me feel like it's, and the way the flavor punches through, sometimes with the Irish whiskeys, I tend to find them muted, what people will say is smooth. But because it goes through that extra distillation, sometimes it takes away some of the character of the whiskey that I'm looking for. And that's why I end up with a Jameson to me being something that you, you're going to use in cocktails or Irish coffee or something like that because it doesn't have as much personality on its own without adding something to it to make it more interesting.

Sarah (41:28):
Well I genuinely think sometimes the blended category can, from some whiskey enthusiasts who would be very heavy, they malt only whiskey and they love their mots, which is, I loved mots. I don't think any whiskey drinker doesn't love their mots. But I think the blended category is very exciting because of what you can do with the blend is endless really. It's all the blend is unique to each product and also the add sum of the grain into your malt whiskey can bring out a whole new flavor profile as well as many brands are now adding in the potstill element too. And having the potstill grain and malt and that again can bring in a totally different flavor profile. So I think with blended whiskey, as you're, what you're talking about is in the smooth category is that blended whiskey can be complex as well and you can have more complex notes within a blended whiskey.

Sarah (42:28):
And just by doing things like leaving 'em in the cask a little bit longer, increasing the moth content, adding having a higher A B V content, little things can be done to make a whiskey more complex. And that's so fun about the art whiskey market at the minute is that it's very innovative. There's a lot of innovation and experimentation. And it's also something that is a very exciting in the Irish whiskey market is that you can use any wood cask. So there's there the options of rest in your whiskey in a different cask and bringing out new notes and different flavors. There's lots of different opportunities there for the distilleries in Ireland. And I would say that a lot of them are taking that opportunity.

Drew (43:15):
I think the challenge for me as a scotch drinker moving over into drinking Irish whiskey is getting to know all these terms still single grain, it's very confusing upfront. And so it's going to be fun to dive into that and see all of this variation that's coming out of Ireland. Talk about the bottle then, because as anybody who's watching this on the video will see, they can't really see how thick this bottle is. I mean it's a heavy glass. No,

Sarah (43:53):
There's a lot of glass in this that there's actually more glass in the European version too because is there, yeah, there's, there's the 700 mills, whereas in America it's seven 50, so there's more liquid in your bottle and more glass in mine.

Drew (44:06):
Okay, good.

Sarah (44:07):
Yeah, just a little bit heavier. I've actually felt the two together and the European UK version is heavier, but the bottle is very in intriguing. So does

Drew (44:19):
Any of this speak back to the original bottles?

Sarah (44:23):
Well, if you go into my Instagram, or if you follow me on my Instagram, there is a post where I have shared images of the original bottle. And there is one in that whiskey shop that I was speaking to you about. The friend at hand there is one of the original McConnell's bottles unopened in their cabinet. So that's a really great reference point then it's good honest truth that it is very similar to the C. A lot of the characteristics on the label are very similar to the old bottle. So the harp of Aaron here, the McConnell's font is the same, the whiskey without the A is the same. We did try on all our efforts to put the little, there was little extracts of analysis on the bottom of the bottle. And a funny story there is that there was doctors that recommended McConnell's, a very Irish thing to do.

Sarah (45:15):
The doctors would recommend the brand and the shape of our bottle is actually a bit of a hats off to that reference because it's shipped like a pill capsule to, because we couldn't put the actual references on the bottle anymore. Cause number one, those guys don't exist anymore. And number two, you can't do, can't really put doctors recommended. So instead we put little stories on the bottom of our bottle where it describes the revival of McConnell's, the harp of Aaron and the uses of harp of Aaron in Irish history, and also the brothers, Jim, James and John, and how they would be delighted that we have brought this product to this whole brand. And it's a long game with this whole brand back to Belfast. But there's also a little hidden message on it, the bottom of the bottle. It's very similar to the little booths in Ireland where you would go into bars and they would have little cozies and they would have this oeic glass that would be a rhino.

Sarah (46:24):
It's very similar to that if you look into near the bars. Yeah. Also the badge here, the Belfast, it's sort of a bit of a hats off to the docks, the Belfast docks, which are very, very important in our history. And then we have the lid as well, which is the harp of arn. And then these are the little strings of the harp. So there's a lot of detail in there as well as our little trademark, which we've engraved on onto the Cork. But the bottle itself, there's very, there's huge similarities between the original bottle of McConnell's and the bottle that we see today. We just modernized it a bit more and put our spin on it.

Drew (47:06):
So this is the whiskey drink when you're going to throw on Titanic and start watching it?

Sarah (47:13):
Well I think it's more of a social drinker I think. And it's something that starts conversations. I find that at the start of my career with McConnells, I loved speaking about McConnell's and I loved speaking about the blend, but when you were frequently speaking about one product, people were wanting to know more about what's coming next or what's new for McConnell's. And we are taking our time with it and we're trying to do it and in conjunction with Open Artist Distillery. So what I found was crucial to me was doing my research on the history of McConnell's and be able to speak for long periods of time about the history because it's something that shouldn't be overlooked and we will have a future. And we are, I'm very looking forward to the future of McConnell's, but I, I've really enjoyed speaking about the history and honoring John and James and also the family before that came before them.

Drew (48:15):
You have been in this job for a year now. Yeah. You got a lot of history down, you're doing well.

Sarah (48:25):
I'm still learning. There's still more to learn and a lot of the, what I've find interesting is hearing about other brands too. There is a historian called Fernando O'Connor who does a lot of Irish whiskey history. He's doing his PhD in Irish whiskey. Yeah. And I remember asking him about Mashbill and the answer is that a lot of the distilleries weren't great at record keeping, so you really weren't able to find the exact mashbill. And they also, I don't know this for sure, but I would say they evolved like everybody and maybe changed it and as time went on, cause it's a long space in history, but it's been something that I've really enjoyed learning. I actually didn't know before I started my job that Potstill whiskey was unique to Ireland because I just did my ignorance thought that it was everywhere and not just in Ireland. So I'm learning new things every day.

Drew (49:24):
Well, and again, it's down to those terms and really get getting to understand it. And it's part of the reason why I wanted to do the tour of Ireland so I could go to these distilleries. It's amazing how many myths get broken and how your understanding of whiskey evolves just by doing distillery tours and hearing that process over and over. Have you done tours of distilleries in Ireland? I

Sarah (49:46):
Have done a few of the distilleries. I haven't done as many as I wanted to do because of the restrictions, but 2022 is definitely going to be a lots of tours on the courts. Yeah, I'm really looking forward to it because all the distilleries are different. There's huge distilleries and then there's little small distilleries and they're as interesting as the other in their own, they're doing different things and they're all very enthusiastic about what they're doing. Speaking to people in the Irish whiskey industry is just intoxicating. You know, really just want to keep learning and you want to keep listening to it.

Drew (50:24):
So tell the story of how McConnell's came back then.

Sarah (50:30):
So the distillery itself is going to be located in quite a historic building in Belfast. And I can't say too much about that right now, but it's sort of a project that had been in talks for a good number of years, but it hasn't really built as much traction as it has today. And the reason why is because there was a lot of investment opportunity there. And we have, we have a large group of investors that are pushing this project forward and we got our plan and approval through in March there, which was a great landmark for us. It was very, very exciting. It was all cheers as, and everyone was very excited. But we still have a little bit to go until we get our guys on site for construction. There's loads of things that are involved in that and we are building it in a grade one listed building, which means that it's fully protected and we have to be very careful in what we're changing about it.

Sarah (51:38):
And then also we with Brexit and other coronavirus and changes in materials, so there's materials or shortages, there's increase in labor costs, everything is really just taken a little bit of time. So we hope to have construction on site at early 2022. And then we hope to be open in our distillery by early 2023. That's really our best case scenario is that we open in January, February, 2023, which really is not long away when you think about all the stuff that needs to be done from then until now, from the construction of the site to the promotion, advertising, media, everything that needs to be done in that space of time.

Drew (52:29):
So when somebody's planning a trip to Belfast, where is the best place for them to interact with McConnell's? Is there a pub that they should go to at the Whiskey History museum? Sounds like a great spot to go. I

Sarah (52:43):
Think that's almost the starting point of the journey, but really there, if you go to the cathedral corner in Belfast, it's like old Cobbles Streets. You'll really see old Belfast there and there's a lot of pubs and restaurants in that sort of little court, maybe half a mile from there to the bottom where it ends at Les Bar, which is actually a flat bar, but there's some beautiful bars in Belfast and if anyone really wants any recommendations, just send me a message on Instagram and I'll happily tell them where to go because if they want to enjoy, tell them exactly where they need to go to get a Dr. So

Drew (53:23):
Nice. Yeah, I can't wait to, maybe you'll run

Sarah (53:25):
Into me there just talking about my history.

Drew (53:27):
There you go. There you go. Well, it's got to be fun now after a year in the job and now you're getting to finally travel around a little bit and it doesn't have to be all through Zoom and you can connect with people. I just did a whiskey fair and that's actually where I bumped into your brand. I actually was following you on Instagram and then while I was down there, a guy named John Hobby was the one that got me in touch with you and I got a chance to taste it there for the first time. The hard part about doing a tasting at the whiskey fair though is that unless you're one of the first three or four whiskeys that you taste, suddenly your memory for what one whiskey was like versus another after you've gone through 25 of them gets really tough.

Drew (54:17):
So I was very happy that I got a chance to try it again. And I got to tell you, your website was fantastic because I went looking for this and I went to two large stores that I thought, well, they carry everything. And you know how your memory is sometimes you'd be like, I think I saw that there, so let me go there and check it out. So I go to these two big stores, neither of 'em had it. I went to a couple smaller stores, nobody had it. And then it was actually this morning that I was, I thought, why don't I just go look at their website? And I looked up and there's a map there and I put in my zip code, tells

Sarah (54:58):
You exactly where to go.

Drew (54:59):
It told me, yeah. And it told me there's a mile and a half from me. I didn't have to drive all the way across town to go find a bottle of it because it's right down the street from me. So

Sarah (55:10):
I think that we actually only have that up and running for the US market. So anyone who's listening are from the US that you're not going to find it on the zip code finder, but you do. It is easier to do in the States for getting that data. So we have that option and it's been a lifesaver for me because I have no clue really off the top of my head, oh, go here in such a state. So it's just very easy for me to direct them to the web zip code finder and that should be live. So every time someone places that order, that should be updated. Nice. So it's very handy. Yeah.

Drew (55:46):
Well, I appreciate you spending the time talking through the history and giving us kind of an idea of where McConnells is at and where you guys are headed to. And I look forward to a chance when I can get over there and actually see it, and I know it'll be fun for you once you have a distillery to point people to,

Sarah (56:04):
I'll finally have a home to go to

Drew (56:08):

Sarah (56:09):
Of just, and the office is lovely and it's good to have the team all together, but it will be a different situation whenever we have a distillery to go to and we can show people around.

Drew (56:21):
All right, awesome Slane sl. And if you want to learn more about McConnell's or find their directory of retailers, head to McConnells irish whiskey.com and that is Whiskey Without an E or head to the show notes page at whiskey-lord.com/interviews. You'll find a link for that website and you'll also find a link to Sarah's Instagram. And if you're enjoying whiskey, Lord the interviews, then tell a friend about the show and help us grow. Next week I'll be talking with Ian McAllister of Glenn Scotia about Campbell Town's rich history of distilling. I'm your host, drew Hennish. Have a great week, and until next time, cheers. Atlan JVA whiskey, lores of production of Travel Fuel's Life, L L C.


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