Fishing for a future

From working as deep sea trawlermen to founding Ireland’s first distillery in 14 years back in 2003, it’s been quite a journey for cousins Denis and Ger McCarthy, along with their friend and food scientist John O’Connell. The Society’s Lee ‘Connas’ Connor found out more about the team from West Cork as the SMWS release our first bottling from this Skibbereen success story

PICTURED: the founders of West Cork Distillers

Given the huge advancements in industry and technology in the last century, we could easily be forgiven for forgetting that the roots of human endeavour can often come from a base necessity, and not simply from a desire to capture a share of a developing market. Especially in an industry like ours, experiencing a renaissance on a global scale the likes of which have not been seen before. However, in the case of West Cork Distillers, it was this innate requirement for a community to survive and thrive that drove its very inception.

Back in the early 2000s, quotas and rules in the fishing industry were making it more and more difficult for traditional rural launches to survive. Denis and Ger McCarthy, cousins and deep sea trawlermen, were unfortunate enough to find themselves in this position in the small fishing town of Union Hall in West Cork on the southern coast of Ireland.

It was their passion for Irish whiskey, engineering know-how and invaluable partnership with their lifelong friend and food scientist John O’Connell that set them on the road to founding Ireland’s first distillery in 14 years in 2003.

West Cork has come a long way since it started out


It’s been quite a journey. The team started operations from a room at the back of Denis’s house, with two small stills bought from a schnapps producer in Switzerland. Now, home is a 12.5-acre site in Skibbereen with an annual distillation capacity of seven million litres of pure alcohol (LPA), and a mostly local workforce of 120 people. West Cork is now the largest Irish-owned distillery in Ireland. Iven Kelleher, master blender and himself a graduate of University College Cork, gave us an insight into the culture at the distillery.

“We’re all about the community here,” he says, “Denis, Ger and John are all local guys and very proud of it. You can see that in their actions, I’ve not met anyone they’ve not got time for. “It’s great to think that the technical room, where I’m talking to you from next to distillery, used to be a fish processing plant where the three of them worked years ago. And now they’re repurposing it once more for the good of the local economy. I’ve yet to have it confirmed, but rumour has it that John was the best fish processer in town back in the day!”

The whiskey they are making is also being produced with locality in mind.

“All of our raw materials and processing come from and take place comfortably within the borders of the Province of Munster,” says Iven. “Our barley is from local farms; we use a local maltings and the spirit itself is in keeping with the triple distilled Irish tradition.”
“What we’re doing is producing a traditional Irish whiskey with a weightier inflection and fruitier – with pineapple, grapefruit, melon – and ‘brown’ notes of cereal, biscuits and caramel that we’re perhaps not used to from the category”


So, given that the slumbering giant has since awakened, and the landscape of Irish whiskey is far from the comparatively muted state of play back in 2003, what exactly does West Cork offer in the way of its whiskey and what makes it stand out? Iven has high hopes… “Irish whiskey has exploded in recent years, and some of the characteristics associated with the ‘Irish style’ of whiskey are being challenged,” he says. “What we’re doing is producing a traditional Irish whiskey with a weightier inflection and fruitier – with pineapple, grapefruit, melon – and ‘brown’ notes of cereal, biscuits and caramel that we’re perhaps not used to from the category.

“We brew to a high gravity, 12.5% abv, with a view to stressing the yeast and creating heavier fruity notes with a broader complexity, to give us a cloudy fatty wash. Our stills have wide necks and a slightly upward angle on their lyne arms so there’s plenty of opportunity for esterification.”

And that’s not the only trick that West Cork have up their sleeve. “We have two sets of distillation options, our regular stills and another set which start in our ‘Rocket’ wash still,” says Iven. “In short, it’s a much smaller still, but we can extract a higher percentage of alcohol and flavours from it. This results in a much heavier new make, which is usually vatted with the spirit from our regular run before being put into cask.

“We fill all our spirit into oak from Kelvin Cooperage in Kentucky. We like to balance between casks that have been wood treated and give us more peppery, spicy notes with peaks, and casks treated with a gas flame which are more mellow and contribute a smoothness to the whiskey.

“Add to that, we finish in a range of casks from Blacks Brewery in Kinsale and even in Irish bog oak, it’s fair to say that are focused on keeping it local all the way through the process.

“All in all, there’s an individual robustness in our whiskey that I feel reflects the tenacity and character of West Cork and its people. Going from Denis’s back room, to competing with the likes of Bushmills, Redbreast and Jameson is no mean feat, and we’re very proud of it.”


Now West Cork find themselves at somewhat of a milestone in partnership with the SMWS, with the official release of Society Cask 150.1 containing spirit from their distillery.

“We have a saying down here in West Cork,” says Iven. “Ní oibríonn sé mura n-oibrímid go léir le chéile, which translates as: ‘It doesn’t work unless we all work together’. The community-driven philosophy at SMWS is something that we share, admire and value. There’s a profound link at the very core of what we’re both about, creating and sharing whiskey for the benefit of everyone involved. And the liquid that you have is very special, it comes solely from our ‘Rocket’ run, and trust me, not a lot of that exists. Your members will be tasting something uniquely West Cork and uniquely SMWS.”

No doubt, West Cork have intentions of establishing and maintaining themselves as mainstays in the world of Irish whiskey, their foundations in traditional trades and cultures and intentions of competing with already established and world-renowned brands can be summed up most effectively by an old fishing mantra that Ger has heard shared around Union Hall: “The day you go fishing, and don’t assume that every fish in the sea is yours, is the day you turn around and go home.”

Find out more about West Cork Distillers at www.westcorkdistillers.com