Teeling’s touch

It’s impossible to overstate the influence that a teetotaller who had never had a dram in his life played in breaking a monopoly on the Irish whiskey industry


Today, the Irish whiskey industry is thriving and expanding, with no fewer than 33 operational distilleries at the last count and several more either under construction or at the planning stage. Yet not that long ago in terms of the overall history of distillation, the country had only two working distilleries, namely Bushmills in County Antrim and Midleton in County Cork.

Both of these facilities were in the ownership of Irish Distillers (ID), which made triple-distilled single malt at Bushmills, and triple-distilled ‘pure’ pot still and grain spirit at Midleton, giving them a monopoly on Irish whiskey production.

This was 1987, and in that year a formidable figure entered the Irish whiskey fray, intent on ending ID’s cosy control of the industry. His name was John Teeling, a mining and oil exploration entrepreneur and university lecturer.

He had come up with the idea of creating his own distillery 16 years previously, after writing two papers on the decline of Irish whiskey as part of a doctoral programme in business at Harvard Business School in the United States.

Teeling and his associates purchased the former Ceimici Teoranta potato vodka distillery at Riverstown on the Cooley peninsula, near Dundalk, and proceeded to add a pair of pot stills alongside the existing column stills. Cooley, as the new venture was christened, became the first new Irish whiskey distillery in a century.

As John Teeling recalls: “The whole purpose of Cooley was to break the ID monopoly. It was a bloated company. I’d actually thought about buying ID and bought options on 23 per cent of their shares, then I lost my nerve. “In order to break their monopoly, you needed to make grain as well as malt whiskey, because ID had a monopoly on grain supplies. Cooley already had column stills in place when we acquired it. It was critical to have grain to be able to supply blends.”

Where it all started, the Cooley distillery at Riverstown

Rather than follow the Irish tradition of triple distilling malted and unmalted barley in pot stills, Cooley adopted Scotch-style double distillation using malted barley, an innovation that has subsequently been copied by many of the more recent start-up Irish distilleries.

Arguably, John Teeling ‘invented’ this new style of Irish whiskey. He recalls talking to members of the SMWS in the earliest days of Cooley’s creation, noting that “they were shocked at the idea of an Irish single malt!”

He explains that with Cooley: “We made a conscious decision to do something different. Irish whiskey had lost the market to a lighter style of Scotch whiskey, and we wanted to make very light malt whiskey and blends that were like J&B and Ballantine’s.

“We didn’t see the need to triple distil. We got what we wanted with double distillation.”

Cooley revived the old Kilbeggan brand for a blended Irish whiskey and re-introduced the Locke’s name for its first single malt, released in 1992.

“We wanted to build brands,” recounts Teeling, “and in the 1980s they reckoned it would cost £100m to build a brand. All I lacked was the £100m! “By 1993 we were aiming at the retail and private own-label markets and we did well with those because there was no competition to supply them. We went for a high malt content blend and we bottled it at three years and one minute! We wanted fast-maturing whisky and we used first-fill bourbon casks, which gave it a good colour.” Fast forward to late 2011, and the US company Beam Inc (now Beam Suntory Inc), announced the acquisition for $95m of Cooley – along with the historic Kilbeggan distillery in County Westmeath that John Teeling and his team had revived in 2007.

John Teeling’s sons Jack and Stephen went on to make their own contribution to Irish whiskey innovation by creating a pot still distillery in the Liberties area of Dublin, returning whiskey making to the Irish capital for the first time since the closure of Power’s John’s Lane distillery in 1974. Operational in 2015, it was the first new distillery in Dublin for 125 years.

“We made a conscious decision to do something different. Irish whiskey had lost the market to a lighter style of Scotch whiskey, and we wanted to make very light malt whiskey and blends that were like J&B and Ballantine’s”

John Teeling (pictured centre with his sons)

Not a man to retire quietly and admire his bank balance, John Teeling saw the opportunity for a new whiskey venture, and in the same year as Teeling distillery started production in Dublin, Great Northern Distillery (GND) in Dundalk came on stream, based in a former Harp brewery.

It was the second largest distillery in Ireland, with a total capacity to make 16 million litres of pot still and grain whiskey per annum and economies of scale that meant it could produce them at a cost almost certainly lower than any competitor.

In a way, GND is Cooley 2.0, intended to cater principally for the third-party market, whose supply of spirit was cut when Beam bought Cooley. “We will make 12 million litres of malt and grain spirit this year, and we’re filling 1,800 casks some weeks,” says Teeling. “As with Cooley, you needed grain whiskey capacity to make it viable.

“We now sell to 180 customers and we expected about 20 when we set out. Around 150 of those 180 customers for GND spirit are for private label supplies, and Stephen and Jack have pot stills in Dublin, so they needed grain for blending. We sell our whiskey in bulk and Eastern Europe is really motoring for Irish whiskey now, while South Africa is the third largest market after the US and Eastern Europe. The opportunities out there are still big.”

John Teeling has surely made a greater mark on the Irish whiskey industry than any other single figure during the past century. He not only introduced a new style of Irish whiskey, but a business model that broke ID’s monopoly of the Irish whiskey industry, offering blends and single malts to third parties. He can reasonably be credited with starting the renaissance of Irish whiskey. And all this from a teetotaller who has never drank a drop of whiskey in his life…

Great Northern Distillery exterior: courtesy of D. Sexton