Set in the beautiful setting you are, up in the Mourne Mountains with Carlingford Lough below you, it might seem obvious why you would set up a Killowen Distillery – but what else factored in your decision to start distilling?
We wanted to create spirits that we wanted to drink ourselves; native botanical pot still spirits using ancient techniques such as worm tubs and flame to create superior spirits.
You opened the distillery with a music session in the distillery – how many people did you manage to squeeze in?
60 people but luckily the weather was good so people could spill outdoors. Nowadays we have cases of gin and barrels of whiskey so the groups will be smaller in future.
As an Irishman living in Scotland, I am fond of reminding my new home that the Irish have been distilling longer than the Scots (but as we all know they’ve now taken the lead), so what’s it like to be part of the distilling revolution in Ireland? And how do you feel about the challenge of reclaiming the distilling crown off the Scots?
I think Scotland and Ireland were part of the same distilling culture for centuries; one mastered the single pot still and the other mastered the single malt. In our hour of need, we were able to work with the Scottish cooperages while distillers even moved between the two shores. Catching up with the Scottish production capacity is still a long way off so in the meantime we can still benefit from each other’s creativity and share in each other’s successes. I myself done a distilling course in a small Scottish Distillery with a similar ethos to my own. Haha, a very diplomatic answer you might say!
You’re not too far from the border in Ireland and, with all this chat in the news about smuggling, what’s it like to be (legally) producing poitin up some mountains, in an off the grid distillery, so close to a border with a bit of history for smuggling?
I think smuggling is a crucial part of local folklore and heritage. Even during the Napoleonic wars, French brandy was smuggled along the very lane our distillery sits on and, more recently, Poitin was made on the same location too – so there is something exciting about creating a legal spirit with a mash-bill from a once illicit recipe. Despite the local reputation, Killowen will keep on the right side of the law for the sake of our fans.
Poitin is seeing a major revival right now isn’t it? What’s the reception you are getting to your bottling?
We thought a small batch of quality poitin would be a welcome breath of fresh air to the whiskey industry and its flavour would be a slow burning reputation builder for our fans. In fact, the opposite happened; Killowen Poitin was an immediate success and our first batch sold out in the first month. We had to quickly get mashing and distilling a batch #2. It seems we have now created an amazing brand with a returning fanbase. Although we drink it neat, we honestly believe its versatility in cocktails makes for the best Old Fashioned and Irish Coffee (Killowen Coffee) out there.
Obviously, we are featuring your gin this month – you’re keen to express a sense of place with the botanicals your using here. Can you tell us a bit more about what you have been working with? How difficult is it to get a product you are happy with when you are working to a vision like yours?
Using flame fed pot stills requires a greater degree of care for a start and working with worm tub condensers make our process twice as long. That aside, harvesting native botanicals is a seasonal thing so we need to keep wild angelica root, mint, meadowsweet, fuchsia, elderflower, elderberry in frozen storage year-round to ensure consistency for our Native Botanical Gin.
Every distillery I chat to has something that they are proud of their spirit for. What aspect of your gin are you most happy with and proud of? What is the essence of Killowen?
To nose, our gin is like walking in an Irish highland meadow so there really is a sense of place. Our distillery is in a highland semi-maritime environment, so the nose and palate really define this. I find that when I put recommended garnish into most gins, they all taste the same. Instead, Killowen only requires on half leaf of mint, the mint is to be folded and pressed lightly between the fingers and dropped into the gin; after a gentle swirl in the glass, one should then nose the gin and notice all the other native botanicals jump out. We recommend adding some ice after and a plain tonic of choice. The essence of Killowen is her provenance.
I have one last question for you, and I’ve been told our editor here will kill me if I don’t ask it – who is your beautiful distillery cat? And how important are they to the production of Killowen Spirits?
Cassy is a rescue cat who has come back to life six times in the past; he is named after the ancient Cassy water that runs past our distillery. Cassy keeps us company in late evenings when we need to finish off the still runs but also scares away any potential vermin. Sadly, he was born without any claws so if he ever caught mice he would only be able to pet them.