Teeling Irish Whiskey's Pots O' Gold
A group of bearded, vested New York City bartenders sits in the Dead Rabbit bar in downtown Manhattan on a Wednesday afternoon in February. They’re waiting for Jack Teeling, who, along with his brother, Stephen, owns a small distillery in Dublin called Teeling Whiskey. Jack is here to pitch his product to America’s trendy mixologists. He’s hoping to get in on the growing craft liquor movement, which, among other oddities, has brought bourbons made in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the resurgence of old-timey spirits such as aquavit and vermouth.
Scotch whisky still outsells Irish whiskey in the U.S. by almost 4 to 1, but the Irish are catching up. In the past 10 years, the amount of Irish whiskey consumed in America has jumped 400 percent, from 500,000 cases to 2.5 million, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. This comes in part from a simple generational shift: Drinkers in their 20s are pouring less vodka and more of what the industry calls “brown juice.” Over the same period, sales of Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey have grown by 20 percent, to 18 million cases. Spirit giant Pernod Ricard, which owns Jameson Irish Whiskey, is running an ad campaign in the U.S. around John Jameson, a real Irishman, playing up his mythical strength and will. Jameson sales are up 13 percent in the past nine months.
A bottle of Jameson costs about $30, and Jacob Tschetter, the barkeep sitting next to me, explains that it’s “an easy-shooting drink”—it’s sweet. Bartenders have started using Jameson as a buyback, he says, an on-the-house thank-you quaff for considerate tippers. Tschetter would support a smaller distillery if he could. “Just yesterday,” he says, “I was thinking we’ve gotta get a better replacement for Jameson.” That’s what Teeling’s banking on.
A little over an hour north of Dublin, Teeling’s whiskey warehouse, also called a maturation facility, sits among the fields of the Cooley Peninsula, just south of the Republic of Ireland’s border with Northern Ireland. The air smells of turf, with top notes of manure. Inside the warehouse is an acre of whiskey casks, stacked six high on pallets, oldest to the front. Whiskey is made in distilleries and emerges as a harsh white alcohol, little different from moonshine. It doesn’t become the real thing until it sits in a charred oak barrel for a couple of years, turns brown, and takes on flavor from the wood.
The Teeling brothers started their company in 2011, but their history with the spirit goes back much further. Jack likes to say that his family has been crafting whiskey since 1782. This is not exactly true. A Teeling ancestor did open a distillery in Dublin in 1782, but at the start of the 20th century, that place sold to a Jameson family member. But it’s a small fib, and there’s at least one of those in every glass of whiskey you’ve ever drunk.
The more recent story dates back to the mid-1970s, when their father, John, wrote his Harvard Ph.D. thesis on the decline of Irish whiskey and decided he could do better. John, a teetotaler who had made his money in minerals extraction, bought a state-owned industrial distiller on the Cooley Peninsula in 1987. He then purchased the rights to some old Irish brands, including Tyrconnell, which sold well in the U.S. in the 19th century, and started making whiskey. For the 25 years it was in business, Teeling’s Cooley Distillery made most of its revenue on inferior, private-label Irish whiskey for supermarkets abroad, including Trader Joe’s and Albertsons in the U.S.
As a young man, Jack trained in finance and worked on a trading floor before getting into the family business. On a trip to San Francisco in 2009, Jack noticed people at a craft beer fair drinking Jameson. Men in suits were sipping it in bars. His father’s company, he says, had just been “selling a lake of whiskey.” Jack thought it was time to market the good stuff.
Three years later, Jim Beam came looking for an Irish brand and bought the Cooley Distillery for $95 million. Jack extracted an agreement from Beam to sell him and his brother enough aged Cooley whiskey—16,000 barrels—to get started with a new company. Jack’s a charming salesman: A barman in Dublin told me that when you walk into a meeting with him, you suddenly find yourself signing things. He explains the importance of his agreement with Jim Beam to buy his own father’s whiskey. “If you don’t have whiskey,” Jack says, “you’re not in the whiskey business.” (Suntory acquired Jim Beam earlier this month for $16 billion.)
In 2000 there were three whiskey distilleries in Ireland. There are now seven, and this year five more will start production. (The Teelings are building one in an underdeveloped part of Dublin called the Liberties.) But whiskey takes years to age, so having a premade stash like Teeling allows it a head start on the competition.
Teeling also has the creative nose of an American named Alex Chasko, the company’s master blender, an Oregonian who fell in love with a woman from Dublin. On a tour of the warehouse, he walks back to a cask of 1988 single malt and pulls out a measure of it with a stainless steel column called a filch. It tastes peppery. Chasko leads me back by the door to some casks of the same single malt, left for 15 months in a white burgundy cask. More filching, another snifter. The burgundy has added sweetness that mutes the pepper. In early May, Teeling released a 1,000-bottle run of it that’s going for $600 a bottle in Ireland.
Teeling’s first run was 1,800 bottles of a blend it called Hybrid Malt, which came out in 2012 and sold for $75 a bottle. It contained peated malts from Cooley and Bruichladdich, a new distillery on an island in Scotland’s north. The Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine protested that blending Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky was an unacceptable form of mingling. One lonely bottle of Hybrid sits in Teeling’s offices in Dublin. There will be no more runs. “We’re trying to be as interesting as we can,” Jack says. “And that was to put us on the map.”
The Teelings’ plan in the U.S. is to appeal to drinkers age 25 to 35 who can now tell the difference between American bourbons and are experimenting with international whiskey from Japan and even India. Other Irish brands have opted to play to the industry’s nostalgia—Wild Geese, named for the Irish who left and never came home, and Writers Tears, an elegant summation of every Irish cliché—but the Teelings are betting on the appeal of a family name. The Irish use the word “paddywhackery” as a catchall for the leprechauny things they sell to Americans. The problem with nostalgia, Chasko says, is that “someone can always out-paddy you.”
In Manhattan, Tschetter takes a sip of a Teeling blend aged in rum casks, which Jack plans to sell in America for $39.95. Tschetter closes his eyes with pleasure and rubs his thumb and forefinger together. He produces an iPad and begins writing: “Caramel, honey, malts, prune, hint of molasses.” In a cocktail, he would pair Teeling with bitter orange. Will he carry it in his bar? “Oh, for sure,” he says. “Everyone’s talking about craft Irish whiskey. I’ve been wondering when I’ll see one.”