You don’t have to be big to be brilliant, often it is the very opposite that holds true. Being small means, you are nimbler and more flexible, giving more options and scope. Well it doesn’t get much smaller than the Killowen distillery, likely the smallest distillery in the British Isles and nestled into the beautiful Kingdom of Mourne. It would be hard to find the distillery without the use of Google maps but it is a wonderful drive along the shores of Carlingford lough, smell of ozone and the water sparkling back at you. Seems a great place to build a distillery. Ascending up the hill, via a single-track road, which looks very very much like the lane to a house, you happen upon the little white building. Now this place is not designed for mass tourism “Anyone who is interested in Whiskey is more than welcome” says the Master distiller Brendan.
Now a quick introduction to Brendan Carty is an architect by trade but has the infectious love of Whiskey that has driven him to create this distillery. Spirit is in his blood and a family hand me down as they owned a bar near the distillery and it was from there that they sold plenty of it. The inspiration behind the distillery, he is not a one-man band but very much the driving force of the place. Bubbling with ideas you get the sense that there is something akin to Adam Smith’s invisible hand to keep him in check at times, otherwise one wonders where he would end up. Stepping inside the place looks more like the work of a madcap alchemist than part of the fastest growing drinks market in the world, and you don’t have to be Miss Marple to figure out who come up with it.
The still are, Alembic, which means two still connected via a tube, they are so small they could be used for making the tea at a scout meeting, a lively scout meeting to be sure and they are gas heated, not electric or steam, which is not done anywhere else in Ireland. The reason that they went for the direct gas heating is the “Maillard reaction” this is the reaction sugars have when exposed to heat, what browns your food and makes it tasty, think seared steak. Brendan explains why he thinks it is important to add to the complexity of the spirit, “It smells so much nicer and that is how we make our cuts in the distillate, really by smell.” Now think about the difference in taste between boiled chicken and pan seared fowl, this is what Brendan is aiming for. Going by the smell I think he is on to something, one of my very favourite distilleries is Springbank and they gas fire the stills, if they do it then it cant be bad.
The fermenters? Plastic cubes which the guys leave the top open on, to allow the local yeasts to get in on the action of turning the sugar water into wort. This place is trying very hard to be of its area, and that is really a rather a pleasant thing. The spirit is going to be sold in various places but always in local off licenses, no matter how small the quantity to spread around. The grains used in the production are local, some even used from the annual threshing festival that happens nearby. Probably the key part of the process is the mash bill, traditionally various grains and ratios were used in the making of Pot still whiskey but these days the PGI protection mean it is rather more limiting. Oats, Rye, Barley can all be found in the produce at Killowen, giving a much more interesting variety, exactly what the Irish whiskey industry is needing. For too long Irish whiskey has been limited to the same three producers and thus a very narrow flavour profile, which currently dominates the Irish whiskey market.
To get an insight into where this little distillery is going try their Poitin, it is made with a variety of grains and comes off their own stills, layers of flavour, a real triumph. The future for this place is going to be probably quite tough, with all the new distilleries and the free flowing of spirit, experimental needs to have traction to get the sales but they will have a loyal fanbase who want to try the wares on offer and they can count me as one for certain. Passion and play are the two key aspects of Killowen and a fun, interesting artisan distillery that is producing tiny volumes (each still run makes 70 litres) could be massively influential to the bigger players, if they get to see some new ideas. Irish distillers have the new Method and Madness range to experiment and Brendan, and his team, could possibly do the same but with a wider range of base spirit and be even more experimental. It is hard to not really admire this place and its unusual quirky style. Killowen had a former famous resident, Patrick Murphy, the “Irish giant” who travelled around exhibiting himself and was reckoned to be the tallest man in the world at a reported 8 feet 1 inch. There is a chance that this tiny little distillery will become a giant in its own right, with a bit of luck, and continuing the passion that is obviously here. The guys down there deserve to succeed as they are trying to be as open and honest as possible. More power to them.
Got to try a few samples but to be honest none of them were ready, some nowhere near, but you can get an idea of what this spirit is going to be. Punchy, different, spices zinging about when it gets to work in the cask it will be really something to behold. Some of these, in future, will not work, they will be awful but you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs but for everything that doesn’t work there will be many more that will and that new, that exciting, that quirky and different will set this place apart. Their first whiskey on sale, not their own base spirit, is a wonderful Rum cask finished 10year old. Well actually it is 75% 10yo and 25% 11yo. It comes from Co. Louth and Co. Antrim. It has sat in Bourbon casks, Sherry casks and finally rum casks. Bottle I have opened is #156. Reason I know all this? It is there on the label. Full disclosure. Superb. It is non-chill filtered, in fact it is non-filtered, seriously there are bits of charred wood floating in it, in someways like a demonic Snowglobe.
My advice is to keep an eye on this place as it is exciting and fun. There is something of the alchemist’s lair about the place, and they are actually creating gold down there. If Harry Potter was going to become a distiller then this is the sort of place Hagrid would have brought him. The scenery is to die for and the distillery seems perfectly located. The future of this place looks as bright as the sun bouncing off the lough.
As someone new to the delightful world of whiskey, UlsterWhiskey is a wonderful site to review and learn, with great humor I might add, about whiskeys along with some of the complexities of this subject matter. The Killowen Distillery review has set my imagination on high, visualizing what a unique, beautiful, and magical place this would be to see. Whiskey that is gas fired with floaty bits of wood sounds like something I’d definitely want to try and most probably would really enjoy. Hope someday to visit the distillery in lovely Northern Ireland. Look forward to the next review.