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SB meets… Deirdre O’Carroll, Irish Distillers

Deirdre O’Carroll has the envious task of nosing, tasting and blending some of the world’s most-loved whiskeys. We spoke to the blender to learn more about her passion for Irish whiskey.

Deirdre O'Carroll Irish Distillers
Deirdre O’Carroll has more than 10 years of experience in the whiskey industry

What is your favourite part of the job?

My favourite part of the job would definitely have to be working with the various different people. I started a little over 10 years ago in our facilities; everyone is very open to sharing their knowledge, it’s not a closed book – it’s a very family orientated environment.

But it goes without saying that blending is an incredible, incredible role, you have licence for creativity, which is always nice. And, and then there is just this scientific element; as a scientist by trade, it’s a nice balance between the science and also the magic of maturation. That’s always really compelled me.

I worked in distillation for maybe four years prior to making my way to blending and in a previous lifetime, but I did love the engineering element of that.

When it comes to creating a new whisky, where do you begin with the idea process?

We have 1.95 million casks maturing at the moment. We have seven brands across the portfolio, and you really have to stick within the DNA of that brand. You want to pay respect, we have a rich heritage with all of these brands. Jameson, for example, is a blended whiskey, we use a mixture of ex-Bourbon barrels and Sherry butts. And you’ll always want that to be the foundation, and you can build on that. Whether it will be a one-off release or whether there needs to be an ongoing release, that’s probably one of the most vital elements of creating a new whiskey.

You can be a little bit more creative with a one-off release. You don’t have to be thinking about trying to replicate and reproduce the whiskey for the years to come. We have an intimate knowledge of our casks, even though it sounds like a vast amount.

What inspires you when creating one-off releases?

It’s lovely sitting down after the formal tasting and maybe chatting with a few people, and getting their feedback and seeing their reaction. At the end of the day, you are creating a product, and you might like it, and you might represent a certain taste profile that people might enjoy. But you have to go out and see what the appetite is for certain styles. It’s very interesting to talk and gauge consumers’ insight.

But also, premiumisation seems to be a massive trend at the moment. People are drinking a little bit less but expecting really good quality. And very fortunately at Middleton that quality is always something that has been really paramount to us.

How do you ensure that the stocks that you’re laying down now will be sufficient for future demand?

I suppose that is an element of my job that people don’t often associate with being a blender. We have a huge element of sensory aspects, be the quality or innovation, but the stock element is equally as important. We have a directive, I suppose, that we know how much product we need to fill, we know how much distillate we need to fill and into which cask types for certain programmes.

We actually model our projections to 40 years in advance. If you take, for example, Jameson 18. So 18 years ago, we would have needed to have a little bit of insight into how Jameson 18 was going to perform. Fortunately, you know, we did foresee it going this great, but we always have a buffer stock. A certain cask could be a foundation for different whiskey types, or if you look at Redbreast 27, there is a seasoning element to that those casks. More often than not, it’s not just 27 years olds on the bottle, the whiskey could be up to 35 years old. And then you have to bear in mind that there could be a two-year seasoning of the Port and the Sherry casks prior to even getting involved here. And then that means that we’re constantly liaising with our cask suppliers, to keep them two years abreast as well. There’s a lot of excel!

How often do you revisit that 40 year model to make sure that your projections are on track?

Constantly; every year. We kind of start to year from July to July. So we’ll have our forecasts for that year. And within that we’re constantly updating

How much of the work you do is trends-related?

I do think we would follow the trends, premiumisation is one that definitely comes to mind at the moment. We have an archive on site, and I actually visited there a couple of weeks ago. It seems to be that the trend of constantly innovating, even within our heritage, was always there. In the late 1970s, I think we were originally a single pot still Irish whiskey Jameson. And then, we saw that the taste profile of consumers was changing. So we adjusted our sales and became a blended whiskey.

So, in terms of innovation, we’re constantly looking globally at Irish whiskey as a trend.  It’s great to see not only Irish Distillers doing great, but all of these other whiskey distilleries. It’s a great trend to see when travelling, to see other Irish whiskeys on the on the back bar, as opposed to maybe just Jameson. And to also see other brands that we have there, you know, seeing Green Spot and Red Spot, it’s a real sense of pride.

And then in terms of creativity within my role, in Ireland we’re not bound by just using oak barrels. So we can use loads of different wood types. And this is extremely exciting. If you’re familiar with Method and Madness brand, we’ve tried all these unique wood types. One that springs to mind, that was definitely very interesting to work with was Japanese cedar wood. This completely new, wonderful wood type was just eye opening. It was a lot more porous than the woods that we were used to working with, which means that it takes up the flavour components from the wood a lot more readily. You have to constantly keep an eye on it, so you’re almost taking a sample every two or three weeks to see how it’s progressing.

You’ve been in the industry now  for just over 10 years. What are the key skills to needed to be a successful blender?

One key element is just being open to everything, and just being prepared to learn. Obviously, the sensory element of the job is extremely important. But I do think everyone can smell and taste, it’s just about training your nose and your palate. Every morning, we come in, and because it’s 24-hour production, there is always distillate there to nose in the morning to see how it’s progressing.

So you really evolve and you know, sometimes I might, in my head, I might think something is like kiwi, whereas it might progress for someone else as banana. But then after time, I know if I’m getting kiwi that someone else might pick it up as banana. The master distiller, Kevin O’Gorman, might pick it up as a different note. And actually, for a fact, he always says, cherry and I actually always get almonds he when he says that, even though they seem very different. But it’s about creating your own language for the sensory aspect, that is extremely important.

You have to be quite patient as well. You could be laying down something that you might not see the light of day for, you know, a minimum of 15 years, but you have to be constantly nosing it.

With International Women’s Day this month, who do you look up to and who inspires you in the industry?

I’m really fortunate that we’ve such an incredible team of women I get to work with. Nodjame [Fouad] is our chairman and CEO [at Irish Distillers]. Jaime Jordan is head of production. For me, when I started, she was originally head of the quality lab. She just really inspires me. With [the Midleton Distillery] expansion, we’ve vowed to be carbon neutral by the end of 2026, and she’s really passionate about that and about quality. She’s a very inspiring woman, very approachable.

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