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Slane: a brand history

The owners of Ireland’s Slane Castle capitalised on their rock-venue fame by moving into whiskey production. The Spirits Business traces the history of the brand.

*This feature was originally published in the June 2018 issue of The Spirits Business

“The Conynghams have survived at Slane for so long by diversifying and looking at the resources we had,” says Alex Conyngham, whose ancestors built Slane Castle after settling on the banks of the River Boyne, in County Meath, in 1703. Perhaps the most innovative has been his father, Henry, 8th Marquess of Conyngham, who became Ireland’s equivalent of Glastonbury’s Michael Eavis. Since 1981, Slane has played host to everyone from Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie, to U2 and Bob Dylan.

“Dad used the front garden to put on rock concerts, and effectively saved the estate,” says Conyngham, “but we don’t have a gig every year, and we needed something more consistent that would capitalise on the awareness of Slane.” The concerts had turned the ancestral home into a brand that, in around 2009, father and son decided they could bottle as an Irish whiskey.

Ten years earlier, the younger Conyngham had his “first flirtation with the industry” while working as a brand ambassador for Jameson in Australia. He says: “Even then I realised Irish whiskey had a bright future.” Back home, the estate was producing 2,000 tonnes of spring barley. “We’d been growing it mainly for the feed market, where, effectively, you’re a price-taker,” he explains. “Here was a chance to add value by turning it into whiskey.” Going from that point to the opening of Slane Distillery and its visitor centre in August 2017 was “a long, complex journey”, says Conyngham. “We had the barley, and water from the Boyne, which is why there were distilleries in the valley, which over time all closed down. We also had a collection of 18th-­century stableyards and grain stores that were historically linked to the land, taking produce from the estate, adding value and selling it on. That’s what we’re doing with the whiskey.”

Slane distillery

It is an obvious synergy, perhaps, but by no means an easy conversion job, given that the buildings were all strictly listed. Having commissioned three “tall, skinny pot stills” from McMillan’s in Prestonpans, Scotland, and a set of continuous stills that were split into three columns, everything had to be squeezed into the framework of a narrow, 18th­-century stableyard. The roof had to be removed, the stills lowered in, then the roof put back with a hole for the vertical condensers. For Conyngham: “It was a bit like whiskey Tetris.”

And it sounds expensive, which is where Brown-­Forman comes in. In June 2015, the American whiskey giant announced it had acquired all the shares in Slane Castle Irish Whiskey, and would invest around US$50 million in building the distillery. But more than a year earlier, casks were already being laid down for Slane whiskey, as Conyngham explains: “If there’s one thing you need in the whiskey business it’s patience, but we needed to get the brand up and running before that, so we procured some malt and grain whiskey from other Irish distillers. But we wanted to put our stamp on it, and the only way we could improve the quality of the whiskey was through additional maturation in barrels of our own choosing.”

This is where the words ‘triple­-casked’ on the label come from. However, an easier route, and one favoured by many Scottish boutique distillers, might have been to launch a gin and build the brand that way. Conyngham shakes his head, and says: “Because we were able to procure some liquid to get us started, it became less of an issue. We’re a whiskey project, and it’s important to stay clear on your messaging and funnel your resources.” So gin would have been one big, botanical distraction.

Once the whiskey distilled on site is mature in three or four years’ time, the aim is to gradually transform it into the Slane blend, and “we’ll do our level best to ensure the product stays consistent”, insists Conyngham. “The core product will remain our triple-casked blend, and for premium expressions we’ll probably focus on single pot still whiskey and single grain.”

Installing the stills: like ‘whiskey Tetris’


He is certainly bullish about the category’s prospects, and says: “If you take the US as an example, five years ago you’d have been hard pushed to find a separate Irish whiskey section in a store. We’d often be sandwiched between Canadian whisky and Scotch. Now you’ll find a dedicated Irish section with a wide range of brands. We’re up to 18 distilleries now, and will probably hit 25 in the next five years. The Irish Whiskey Association is forecasting that sales will double by 2020, and double again by 2030. That’s ambitious, but it is realistic.”

The new distillery has created around 30 jobs in addition to the 50 already employed at the castle’s bar and restaurant, while the visitor centre is tipped to attract 25,000 people this year. There will be no concert in 2018, but there are plans for one next year, in which case hopefully some badass rock star will take to the stage clutching a bottle of Slane whiskey, and not the go-­to prop of ageing rockers – Jack Daniel’s.

Some of Slane whiskey’s rivals may envy its distribution muscle through Brown-­Forman, but they perhaps feel content outside of the corporate drinks world and the compromises this entails. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Conyngham sees it differently: “The partnership came about through discussions between me and Garvin Brown, chairman of Brown­-Forman. The reason we got the deal is because dad and I are a family business and, although they’re a large player, at heart you’ve got the Brown family, and we felt we could trust them on that basis.

“The Conynghams intend staying involved for the long term, and I guess I’m the global ambassador for Slane. I hope the two families will continue to work together for many generations.”

Click through the following pages to see the timeline of Slane’s brand history.

1703 – Major General Henry Conyngham buys the land that Slane Castle – and Slane Distillery – now sit on

1968 – Preston’s Distillery, the last surviving distillery in the Boyne Valley, closes

1981 – Slane Castle hosts its first rock concert, headlined by Thin Lizzy

2009 – Plans are drawn up for Slane Distillery

2015 – Brown-Forman acquires the brand and pledges US$50m for the new distillery

2017 – Slane whiskey is launched in May, and the distillery opened to the public in August

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