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A drink with… Louise McGuane, Chapel Gate Irish Whiskey Company

The founder of the first modern whiskey bonder in Ireland talks about the history of bonding and honouring her company’s namesake.

Louise McGuane, founder of The Chapel Gate Irish Whiskey Company

How did you start out in the industry?

I’ve been working for 20 years with a range of multinational drinks companies; I worked with Moët Hennessy, Pernod Ricard and Diageo in everything from strategic marketing to commercialisation.

But I always worked abroad; I was based in New York and Singapore. I was always away, I never worked a day of my life in Ireland.

Where did the idea for the Chapel Gate Whiskey Company come from?

I had just got married and my husband was based in London, while I was living in Singapore. I had figured that if I grounded myself in one place then a lot of opportunities with these multinationals would begin to close off. I looked around and decided it was time to do something on my own, so in 2012 I looked back to Ireland.

Irish whiskey was on the way up as a category, and we were starting to see some movement on the craft side, with independent distilleries popping up.

Originally my idea was to create a craft grain-­to-­glass distillery on my family farm. But while I was researching I discovered this label that said ‘J.J. Corry special malt whiskey bonder in Kilrush’, which is where I’m from.

I looked at the term ‘bonder’ and I discovered that Irish whiskey bonding was a huge part of the industry up until the 1930s, when it all but died out.

Why did whiskey bonding die out?

First, the very big bonders in Dublin were blending their spirits with batch whiskey, which the distillers didn’t like – they considered this adultery of the spirit. The second, and most important, reason is that we went from having hundreds of distilleries in the 1800s to having only three or four by 1930.

The industry had completely collapsed because of everything from Prohibition to civil war. So the few distilleries that were left cut off the supply to the bonders and wanted to have complete control themselves.

As a bonder, do you buy matured or new-make spirit?

To get to market I have a source of both mature stock and new­-make spirit. My product that’s on the market right now, J.J. Corry The Gael, is from mature stock that I’ve sourced and it’s made from 26­-year-­old, 15­-year-­old and 11­-year­-old malt. So for the first few years, I’ll be blending that stock to create our house style.

Do you have a ‘wish list’ of Irish distilleries you’d like to work with?

Of course I do. I want to buy my spirit from any small, craft distillery that is doing something unique. Currently, my spirit comes from Great Northern Distillery and two smaller ones, but I mix it up between these big names and smaller producers.

What casks are you using for maturation?

I don’t control the distillation process and I don’t distil. At the end of the day, I take responsibility for that spirit the second it comes off the still and that’s why, for me, sourcing casks and maturation is the focus of the business.

I have started working with a couple of distilleries in the US to find the flavour profiles I like, and I’ve just started looking to Japan and Sweden for casks as there are interesting things going on there. But I found out that the original J.J. Corry used to sell wine from Bordeaux, so I’ve tracked down that same vineyard and I’m sourcing casks from them to do a special project.

Was Chapel Gate started in honour of J.J. Corry?

I’m not trying to re­launch or bring back a heritage brand; J.J. Corry was a real guy, and his great-­grandnephew lives in my parish. He was a really interesting character: he chaired the local cycling club, he invented his own bicycle, and he was the only person in town who had a telegraph system.

As an entrepreneur, in all the trials and tribulations I’ve faced, I always think: “Well, Jesus Christ, if J.J. Corry could have done this in the 1890s then I can do it now.”

What will 2018 hold for Chapel Gate?

It’s going to be really exciting. We’ve pre-sold most of our first batch so the challenge is to follow that up with a great second batch.

We’ll also begin expanding into Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as getting our teeth into the US.

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