A drink with… Carol Quinn, Irish Distillers

25th September, 2020 by Melita Kiely

Carol Quinn, archivist at Jameson producer Irish Distillers, divulges secrets from the whiskey giant’s past and outlines how they are used to build a bold future.

Carol Quinn joined Irish Distillers in 2013

*This feature was originally published in the May 2020 issue of The Spirits Business

How did you start working in the industry? 

I started working with Irish Distillers just over seven years ago. I was the first archivist the company had employed. Not only are you dealing with a fantastic collection, but we got to build the archive as well. It’s located in Midleton and we have five rooms, all humidity‐controlled, temperature‐controlled and with UV lights – it is a fantastic place to work. I was able to have a lot of input into the design.

How did you start to sort out the archive materials?

Records for Irish Distillers were preserved but nobody could have access to them. So the first part of my job was unpacking 40 pallets of material and just going through each one. Sometimes you open them up and find lovely looking letters, others would produce clouds of dust. That took about four years.

How big is the archive team?

It’s just me. But I’ve been very lucky in that my coming to Irish Distillers coincided with the retirement of Barry Crockett. He has always had a huge interest in the history of Irish Distillers and he kindly volunteered in the archives. Having Barry was such a great help for me; I’d look at a record and think ‘why are they keeping that information?’. He could explain it to me.

What does an archivist do? 

At first it was to physically preserve and sort the material, then my role evolved to sharing the material – and that’s the most important part of my role now. It’s about informing marketing teams who might be looking at repackaging, for example.

In the US, we just launched new packaging for Powers, highlighting a diamond‐shaped label and the letter ‘P’, which had been the original trademark of Powers. So I interact a lot with colleagues in marketing, but also in the legal department, because 100 years ago Irish whiskey was being sold all over the world. We have records from 1905 in Cairo when they were selling Powers. Jameson had a specific label for Honolulu. When you are selling in a particular territory, you need copyright. If you have records, you can shut down counterfeiters.

What’s the most fascinating fact you’ve discovered about Irish Distillers?

The most interesting thing was the foundation of Irish Distillers in 1966. But it was nearly dead in the water in the 1950s/60s. Distilleries were forced to close until only three working distilleries remained. At the time, they were all family‐owned and run, and continued to be run by descendants of their founders. And they had such passion and belief in Irish whiskey that they realised if they stayed in competition they would destroy the category.

So they decided they would merge to save Irish whiskey. It wasn’t easy; it took two years of negotiations before Irish Distillers was formed. They also took the very radical decision in the 1980s to put all promotion behind one brand: Jameson. They just didn’t have the resources to market more than one brand. The idea was that if Jameson could pave the way then these other brands would get their time to shine, and that’s what you see at the moment.

Will the archives open to the public?

All material in the archives is completely unique and irreplaceable – there’s only one set of wage books from Bow St, for example. They weren’t created with the idea that in 100 years people might want to know their ancestors worked in Bow St. Every time they’re touched and handled, you’re putting them in danger of decay. I provide facsimiles for our brand teams and we have a reading room where people can access material, but under my supervision.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, how does Irish Distillers’ past make it equipped to survive? 

Looking at the past, nothing has been handed to us. But if you stick to your priority of making high‐quality drink, consumers will still be there for you.

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