A Drink With… Barry Crockett, Midleton Distillery15th February, 2013 by Becky Paskin
After 47 years at the Midleton distillery, master distiller Barry Crockett is set to retire next month. He tells Becky Paskin how far the Irish whiskey category has come in that time, and what he expects from successor Brian Nation.
You’ve had several successful years at Midleton Distillery, why retire now?
I am retiring now because I will be 65 in March. This of course is the standard retirement age.
How has the Irish whiskey industry changed since you first started out?
I started work when I was just over 17 back in 1965. The Irish whiskey industry was still then owned by prominent distilling families. The Jameson, Murphy, Ryan, and O’Reilly families continued to run their distilleries with a strong aim of maintaining their unique traditions with regard to distillation. However, the Irish economy was still then rather depressed and there was little opportunity to invest. There was little change in technology and very little exports of Irish whiskey. All that changed with the formation of Irish Distillers Ltd as a cohesive group; the decision to invest in building the present Midleton distillery began the transformation of Irish Distillers Ltd. Becoming part of Pernod Ricard in 1989 was another transforming event in the story of Irish whiskey. From then on the possibility of access to world markets really opened up and with these opportunities it became necessary to commence laying down ever greater volumes of whiskey for future sales. Indeed this process still continues.
How do you feel knowing you’ve taken Jameson from a fledgling brand to the leading Irish whiskey in the world, and part of one of the fastest growing categories in the world?
Firstly, I know I am extremely fortunate to have been part of such a dramatic success story. It is very rewarding to see that all the numerous decisions which had to be made to constantly improve efficiency and to enhance quality have proved correct. At the same time, maintaining the unique traditions of the individual brands remained a vital requirement. Secondly, I am fully conscious that none of the progress made could happen without the deep commitment of so many within Irish Distillers Ltd and I am proud to have been able to contribute to that community spirit. This in any event is a particularly Irish trait and is of great advantage in seeking ongoing business opportunities.
What’s been the highlight of your career?
It is difficult to point to one particular highlight. One of the most exciting things was the commissioning of the Midleton Distillery in 1975. I have always believed that innovation and improvement are vital and some of the most rewarding experiences have been seeing how ideas can be introduced to improve performance. I think a highlight in terms of whiskey brands was the introduction of the Single Pot Still Irish whiskey styles. These have added significantly to the whole image of Irish whiskey.
What’s the secret to your success as a master distiller?
I commenced work when the distilleries were still operated in a very traditional manner. I gained an enormous amount of information on traditional techniques. I was able to add considerably to this skill base as the present distillery was commissioned. The openness to innovation and different approaches enabled the distillation of spirits of different flavour characteristics. As time progressed a wide range of whiskey styles became available. These ultimately form the background to the success of Irish whiskey.
What’s been the most important piece of advice you’ve given your successor Brian Nation?
The most important piece of advice given to me was to “do the most difficult thing first” and also not to hold back but to see the task out to completion. I would strongly advise Brian to follow this motto. However, always be aware to have regards for those with whom you work, without their ideas and co-operation little real progress can be made in any endeavor.
What do you see in the future for Jameson and Irish Distillers?
Currently the distillery is going through further transforming change. The present expansion is a sign of great confidence in the future. I am certain that the future for Irish Distillers Ltd is truly bright, the growth of Jameson testifies to the fact that consumers everywhere see this brand as one they can relate to due to its unique flavour, quality and heritage.