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Distilling a dream in Ballina

The making of fine whiskey is a craft as ancient as civilization itself. The skill and knowledge needed to distill something as common as barley and water into an elixir to be savoured by many, and truly appreciated by the connoisseur, is in many ways a magical process that owes as much the alchemy of the master distiller as it does to the chemistry involved in the process of distillation.

Such a process is underway in Ballina today where craftsmen are literally distilling the dream of an Irishman and three Americans to bring traditional style Irish whiskey back to the West of Ireland after an absence of over a century.

Known as Connacht Whiskey, the spirit is a pure pot-distilled Irish whiskey and it is being handcrafted by The Connacht Whiskey Company in their new distillery in Belleek, Ballina, on the banks of the River Moy.

The Connacht Whiskey Company’s goal is to introduce US consumers to the finest hand-crafted, pot-distilled Irish whiskey from the West of Ireland.

Irish-American Dream

Lyndsey Harkins who is The Connacht Whiskey Company's retail manager and tour guide. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Lyndsey Harkins who is The Connacht Whiskey Company’s retail manager and tour guide. Photo: Anthony Hickey

The principals involved in The Connacht Whiskey Company are David Stapleton from Galway, an engineer living in Castlebar, and his cousin, PJ Stapleton, a lawyer from Pennsylvania.

Tom Jensen has strong ties to the area as his mother was born and raised on a small farm in nearby Cloonacool, Co Sligo. The Connacht Whiskey Company’s master distiller is Robert Cassell from Philadelphia who also has strong family connections with Ireland. The Head Distiller is John Park from Scotland.

The distillery was opened in the summer of 2015 and as I found out on a recent guided tour The Connacht Whiskey Company is already producing some fine local spirits, including Strawboys Poitín, Strawboys Irish Vodka and Conncullin Irish Gin, the latter named in honour of the two lakes that supply water to the distillery.

Ballina-woman Lyndsey Harkins, who is The Connacht Whiskey Company’s retail manager and tour guide, was our most informative host. Lyndsey, who is a wonderful ambassador for The Connacht Whiskey Company, had a cask full of information to impart about traditional Irish whiskey making as we toured the distillery finding out about the process that is producing an eagerly-awaited new addition to the world of fine Irish whiskey.

In Big Demand

The Connacht Whiskey Company welcomes visitors to its retail store where you can buy its Strawboys Poitín, Strawboys Irish Vodka and Conncullin Irish Gin along with many locally produced gifts, books and craft produce. Photo: Anthony Hickey
The Connacht Whiskey Company welcomes visitors to its retail store where you can buy its Strawboys Poitín, Strawboys Irish Vodka, and Conncullin Irish Gin along with many locally produced gifts, books and craft produce. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Explaining the difference between Irish and Scotch, Lyndsey told us that Connacht Whiskey, in common with most Irish pot-still whiskey, is trebled distilled while most Scottish whisky is distilled twice.

“Peat is rarely used in the malting process so that Irish whiskey has a smoother finish as opposed to the smoky, earthy overtones common to some Scotches,” she revealed.

Lyndsey said that there is an ever-growing demand for Irish whiskey – 20% increase year on year.

“Americans used to only drink Scotch, but now Irish whiskey is popular again as it was in the 19th century due to the fact that there is more Irish whiskey available from independent distillers.”

Over the course of our enjoyable tour, Lyndsey showed us the various stages of the distilling process from its start in the grain room to the brewhouse where a creamy looking substance comes out tasting just like everyone’s favourite sweet, Maltesers!

The treble distillation takes place in the distillery’s bespoke three copper pot stills and, finally, we saw where the whiskey is stored for three years. The whiskey is maturing in ex-Bourbon whiskey barrels imported from the US. It is these individually charred barrels that will give Connacht Whiskey is unique caramel colour and taste when it has matured in three years.

Gold Medals

The Connacht Whiskey Company’s spirits are already attracting lots of attention and success.

The Straw Boys Irish Vodka was awarded a gold medal as well as being named best Irish Vodka at the 2016 Irish Whiskey Awards where the company’s Spade and Bushel Cask Strength Irish Whiskey also received a gold medal.

There is also huge interest in the company’s first gin, Concullin, by Master Distiller, Robert Cassell. Concullin is big and bold with strong juniper notes and hints of berry on the nose. It is bottled in the distillery at a traditional full 94 proof ( 47 percent ABV), unlike other Irish gins in the marketplace.

The botanicals were hand-mixed and stirred by Robert Cassell as he distilled the gin on site in the distillery’s pot stills. The gin is available at the distillery and at off-licences.

Our tour finished in the distillery’s hospitality bar where we tasted the Connacht Whiskey Company’s range of craft Irish spirits and toasted the success of this new and exciting Ballina business venture that will truly come of age in March 2019 when the first bottles of Connacht Whiskey will be matured and ready for tasting.

Guided Tours of The Connacht Whiskey Company finish in the distillery's tasting bar where you can sample its fine spirits. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Guided Tours of The Connacht Whiskey Company finish in the distillery’s tasting bar where you can sample its fine spirits. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Guided Tours of The Connacht Whiskey Company take place at these times:
Thursday, Friday: 15.30
Saturday: 12.30 and 15.30
For further details and updates on times and cost visit the distillery’s website or call +353 (0)96 74902

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.

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