How the Blenders Of Irish Distillers Manage 1.7+ Million Irish Whiskey Barrels

By Sam Slaughter / July 20, 2021

With six different brands – and 1.7 million casks of whiskey sitting in storage, waiting for their time to shine – determining what whiskey goes into each of Irish Distillers’ brands is not what you would call easy.

“It’s tough. It’s a balancing act,” says Irish Distillers’ Blender Dave McCabe.

Historically an amalgamation of three different distillers (Jameson, Powers, and Cork Distillery Company), Irish Distillers merged the three together in the 1960s when the decision was made to establish one functioning distillery. In total, the company produces six brands: Jameson, Powers, Redbreast, Midleton Very Rare, The Spot Range and Method and Madness – all of which have multiple expressions each.

According to McCabe, there are multiple factors that go into determining what whiskey goes where. First, there is the historical context of the brand. Throughout the various brands’ histories, they produced spirits using different distillation techniques, age ranges, or barrels. For Irish Distillers, it was important to maintain those practices.

Two of the brands currently available, Redbreast and the Spot range, originally started at the Jameson distillery. They weren’t put out under the Jameson name, but rather the spirits were distilled and sold to wine merchants, who aged the whiskey in their own casks. The merchant would then highlight where the whiskey came from, so in the case of Redbreast, a cask might be marked with JJ&S, to signify that the spirit had come from Jameson.

Irish distillers warehouse

Inside an Irish Distillers warehouse full of barrels of whiskey (image via Irish Distillers)

When that practice died out, McCabe said, Jameson took on the project of maintaining the brands and making them in-house, working closely with the people who owned the brands to ensure the same quality of whiskey was being produced.

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“We don’t want to mimic, but rather pay tribute to and create a modern-day version of those old brands,” he said.

For Blue Spot and Red Spot, for example, McCabe said, they researched old menus in addition to old barrels to find the right combination, while still working with the Mitchell Family, who started the brand.

Once the expression has been decided upon, then it’s up to McCabe and his team to make each as consistent as possible while also working on innovations, including those with no historic connections, such as Method and Madness, McCabe said.

When it comes to innovations, too, McCabe says they have to consider both the history as well as the current trends for each specific brand. With certain brands, you have a little more freedom to experiment, he said, which then allows McCabe and his team to play with different casks, age ranges, finishes, et cetera.

“When you have an older brand like Jameson that pervades through different societies, cultures and ages, you get a bit more flexibility to adapt to the tastes of different areas,” McCabe said. An example of this would be Jameson Stout or IPA Editions, which catered to craft beer lovers.

Spot Irish whiskeys

The complete Spot Irish whiskey line up (image via Irish Distillers/Pernod Ricard)

Other brands, like Redbreast, require a more conservative approach when creating new expressions. Less-known than Jameson, McCabe said you have to be careful. You do not want to alienate current fans of the brand, but you are at the same time still wanting to attract new drinkers. While some may go for a cherry wood-finished Redbreast, for example, there may be a larger sect that would not understand why, of all the brands, that specific whiskey was chosen to showcase the Redbreast name.

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“It comes down to how far you can stretch possibilities,” he said.

Whatever the innovation is, McCabe says it’s a collaborative effort between the blending team and the marketing team.

“They come to us with a brief saying the feedback for X,Y, or Z is excellent and they’re looking for more for a certain type of casks or finish. From there, we tell them what we have,” he said. On the other hand, they also go to the marketing team and do the reverse, saying what they’ve been working on and trying to figure out how best to utilize it.

Redbreast 27 Year Old

Redbreast 27 Year Old (image via Pernod Ricard)

Sometimes, though, innovation calls for a completely new brand, such as Method and Madness, which was unveiled in 2017. With new brands, though, you also have to walk a line.

“The more brands you create, the more you potentially take away from existing brands,” McCabe said. “If you create a new brand, new labels, naming conventions, you’re maybe diluting stock possibilities.”

McCabe added that building a brand from the ground up takes time, time which could also be used to continue growing the already-established brands for fans new and old (especially considering the growth in popularity of Irish whiskey over the last decade).

Regardless, innovation will still remain a small part of the whiskey Irish Distillers has maturing. According to McCabe, around 90% of what is produced for Jameson goes into the flagship, a little under 10 percent goes into bespoke older offerings, with the last, tiniest percentage being dedicated to innovations. For Method and Madness, for example, it’s not uncommon for projects to see somewhere between 12 and 24 casks in total.

Jameson Irish Whiskey

Jameson Irish Whiskey (image via Irish Distillers)

Now that there has been an explosion of Irish distillers, too, McCabe says they are looking at innovation – and what they are doing with their whiskey – in a different light. With so many new products on or coming to the market, it’s important to value innovation – because it shows that you are focusing on different things while also working on improving – but also not forgetting the history of the spirit.

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“You can’t forget where brands came from and what made the brands popular to begin with,” McCabe said. “It wasn’t necessarily innovation all those years and they’ve survived just fine.”