Independent bottlers are an important part of the whiskey industry. But in Ireland, they nearly died out because of a lack of distilleries. Now reviving this great tradition W.D. O’Connell Whiskey Merchants with a range of distinctive single cask bottlings.
I’m sure most of you have enjoyed some independently-bottled whiskey in your time. The appeal is clear. Bottlers have the freedom to procure new make spirit and aged stock from various distilleries and apply personal preferences to maturation, finishes, bottling strength, as well as additional colouring and chill-filtration. Indies can showcase lesser-known or lost distilleries, or offer a different side of a producer.
Independent bottling is most associated with Scotch whisky. But it was once common practice in Ireland during the era when it was the world’s leading whiskey nation. Before the 20th century, the majority of whiskey sold by distilleries was by the cask rather than the bottle. Famous brands like Redbreast and Green Spot et al were created by wine merchants, W.A. Gilbeys and Mitchell & Son respectively.
The process died out in Ireland because the distilleries did. But now, stock from the likes of Bushmills, Cooley, Midleton and the Great Northern Distillery is increasingly being sold to third parties. Collaborative bottlings between bars, specialist retailers and premium hotels are becoming more commonplace. Then there are bonders, like J.J. Corry and brands like The Sexton or The Quiet Man which are made with bought-in booze.
W.D. O’Connell: The Irish independent bottler
But bottling someone else’s booze under a brand name can mean transparency is a casualty. So it’s refreshing to see the approach of W.D. O’Connell Whiskey Merchants. It’s a classic independent bottler with a range that includes the PX series, whiskies distilled in Cooley and matured in Pedro Ximinez sherry casks and the Sherry Series, which has kicked off with an expression distilled at Bushmills in December 2008 and aged exclusively in a second-fill European oak Oloroso sherry butt for 12 years. The Bill Phil range is O’Connell’s most notable release, however. The Great Northern Distillery in Dundalk triple distils the peaty single malts, which are bottled like every W.D. O’Connell expression: without chill-filtration, often at cask strength.
The name comes from the town of Mountcollins in West Limerick where his family is from. There were so many O’Connell families that nicknames were needed to avoid confusion. His family became known as the Bill Phils, after his great-grandfather William Philip O’Connell. The Bill Phil series is a tribute and a means to keep his own story alive as the village he grew up in is all but gone. It’s peated too, and Bill Phil was known for making a great sleán (a tool for footing turf), so he felt it was a good fit.
He’s not trying to build a volume brand. He’s not relying on paddywhackery. He’s attempting to create something “a bit more special,” he says. “I’m looking for unique casks. I’m looking for something different. Our labels are straightforward. There’s every bit of information you need. Everything we do makes no sense to an accountant. It’s all about quality. There’s no smoke and mirrors with us”.
O’Connell has spent his life in hospitality, starting off in hotels at 15 and travelling across the world filling various roles. His awakening into the potential of whiskey took place in a small local he ran with friends called Kila in Hong Kong. “That was a whole other scene. Top shelf cocktails. Premium quality spirit. People there had the spending power and wanted experiences. I would recommend different whiskeys, like Redbreast 12, and it was easy to convert them. Because the quality of the product is there, they just hadn’t been aware of it”.
But O’Connell frustrations with Irish whiskey were also seeded in this era. He recalls noting how far behind the category was from where he thought it should be. His first solution was to open a distillery but the plan fell through. At the time, there wasn’t the option to be an independent bottler, because there wasn’t a variety of whiskey available. Then the landscape changed. As the Irish whiskey boom was taking place O’Connell realised that he needed to establish a brand now so that when all the new stock was available he would be in a pole position to take advantage. “There are 38 distilleries today. My ambition is to at least get a cask from all of them. While we’re still using stocks from limited distilleries now, it’s going to change”.
O’Connell says he avoided the term bonder initially because of the respect he has for it. “In Ireland it means something. There’s a lot of heritage and tradition there. It shouldn’t be thrown around loosely as a term”. Instead, he chose the term independent bottler, noting how it reverberates around the world. The theory is it makes introducing Irish whiskey in markets where people only know Jameson or Tullamore D.E.W a little easier. O’Connell is also a huge fan of independent bottlers and recognises their importance. “We have a quote on our website from the late, great whisky writer Michael Jackson, who said that without Gordon & MacPhail, single malts as we know them would not exist today”.
Forging an independent path
The process is not without its hardships, however. The logistics are no picnic for somebody who’s running a one-man-show. “Once I spelt ‘palate’ as ‘pallet’, which nobody ever picked up on,” O’Connell laughs. “There are no employees. I have brand designers I’ve worked with from day one and an accountant, but they’re not in-house”. Friends pitching in and allies like Chris Hennessy, a bartender at the Dylan Whiskey Bar in Kilkenny, are proving invaluable to O’Connell, whose biggest challenge is the continuation of a product and continually sourcing casks. “Those are my sleepless nights! Bill Phil is a peated single malt which is hard to get. But people want this product now. Are you going to be getting the same thing every time if you buy a batch three Bill Phil versus a batch ten Bill Phil? No. But you want to maintain a DNA across your batches”.
The firm will soon have a dedicated brand home as O’Connell has signed a lease for a site in County Waterford, where he’s based. The plan is to set a bottling line and office, as well as a small maturation facility. The next phase will entail creating visitor experiences that will tell guests the history of whiskey and appeal to them on a sensory level, in particular, the sights and smells of the maturation room. “We don’t have shiny copper stills or we don’t have hundreds of years of heritage. But we have a story to tell and a fantastic location in a heritage building”, O’Connell says.
O’Connell is also planning to branch out beyond Irish whiskey. O’Connell has already bought some Scotch and is tasting Lochindaal (from Bruichladdich) at the moment. He’s hopeful we’ll see a bottle of Scotch with W.D. O’Connell on it this year. There’s also the promise of Japanese whisky – actual Japanese whisky, he’s keen to stress – and O’Connell would also like to get his hands on some rum, more Cognac casks as well as English and American whiskey. “Why should I limit myself? I’m a spirit fan. I’d love to actually have a bourbon that we bottle on-site in our own headquarters. We might not be able to call it bourbon, but so what?” A cask share programme that lets you reserve a bottle from various cask types in advance of bottling was also launched recently.
A bright future
Arguably most exciting, however, is O’Connell’s plan to create his own mash bills that distilleries will produce just for the W.D. O’Connell brand. Pot still, in particular, is an avenue he’s keen to explore. He’s working with a friend who’s going to plant barley for him. “I don’t want to just buy barley off somebody. I want it to be part of the experience, part of the brand story. Working with a few craft size distilleries in Ireland would be ideal. It could be with different mash bills in each distillery. Or the same mash bill in one cycle, but then we create new mash bills each year”. The first crop is being planted now with a spring barley variety.
O’Connell is also aiming to make the process equitable for the farmer. “I want a mutually beneficial relationship with the farmers. There’s no incentive in Ireland to grow barley. I want to run a business that gives back to the people who helped build it, whether they’re farmers, warehouse managers or whoever. We’re trying to build something sustainable with longevity that helps a community thrive,” he says. “I don’t want to be that person who’s lamenting the death of rural Ireland on one hand and then cashing in as soon as possible and moving the operation to someone else’s larger HQ. That won’t happen. Not on my watch, anyway”.
W.D. O’Connell is a brand built in the image of its founder. And he really cares about his craft. The early releases demonstrate the potential of a brand that prioritises authenticity and quality above all. As the revival of independent bottling in Ireland takes shape, it’s good to know the increasing stock of whiskey is in good hands. This is a story of a man carving unique space for himself driven by passion, not opportunity and how we can always add to the rich tapestry of whiskey. Now that we’ve finally got some of the brand’s whiskey in stock – the 12 Year Old 2008 (cask 100007985) – Sherry Series and the second batch from W.D. O’Connell’s Bill Phil range – you can see what O’Connell is building for yourself. They’re seriously good drams. Check out the tasting notes below to get an idea of what to expect and head here to pick yourself up a bottle or two…
The W.D. O’ Connell whiskies arrive!
Nose: The nose is rich and resinous, with dried and dark fruits aplenty (stewed plums, blackcurrant compote and raisins). Toffee apples, waxy orange peel and dried mango slices add more fruity depth among notes of pain au chocolat, marzipan, light leather, menthol and gingerbread. Underneath there’s some nutty, woody elements as well as slabs of dark chocolate and a little clove.
Palate: It has a thick, yet supple mouthfeel and a moreish array of flavours including more sherry-soaked dried fruits, oily walnuts, marmalade and vanilla. Hints of anise, honey, tobacco, wasabi, mocha and mint join heaps of baking spice and plenty of tropical fruits.
Finish: Some of that oily nuttiness remains with drying ginger and oak spice as well some red apples, creamy custard and linseed.
Overall: Superb. There’s enough maturation to develop deep, complex notes but not too much to drown the distillate. There’s still some of that typical Bushmills tropical fruit notes present as well as an overt, but always pleasant, sherried influence. It’s special because Bushmills this sherried and cask strength aren’t readily available. That makes this is a fascinating presentation of a side of a legendary distillery we rarely see. And the integration and intensity of it are measured beautifully.
Nose: Through wafts of ashy peat smoke there are hints of salty gammon, engine oil and charred pineapple. There’s plenty of orchard fruit in this – Granny Smith apples and pear drops – as well as lemon peel, teabags, Malted Milk biscuits and vanilla. Underneath there’s touches of red chilli heat, rosemary, dried grass and rock pools.
Palate: The palate is smoky and delicately sweet with a beautifully creamy texture. Charred oak, a little dark chocolate and more coastal salinity are at its core. The peatiness is sweeter and earthier in nature. The citrusy notes grow with smoked grapefruit and flamed orange peel, while more orchard fruits keep banana puree, white grape, Ginger Nuts, fresh herbs and hazelnut praline company.
Finish: Cooked apple with a little cinnamon sprinkled on, as well as lemon, sea spray and just a hint of clove.
Overall: Hell yes. Bill Phil is so up my alley I could almost hear Top Cat’s band playing freestyle jazz. It’s peaty, salty and slick but never becomes one-note thanks to an abundance of fresh orchard fruit loveliness and a creamy delivery. It’s a fantastic example of a young, non-age statement whiskey. The fact that a peated whiskey was one of O’Connell’s first releases should also demonstrate he isn’t messing about. Few brands embrace this style. But the misnomer that all Irish whiskey is ‘smooth, triple-distilled and not peated’ is a recent one. Peat is part of the culture. It’s great to see such a sublime peated expression (from the Great Northern Distillery) demonstrating its potential in Irish whiskey.