‘Starting the rock concerts put Slane on the map, but now we’re going in a new direction’

With a new distillery, Alex Conyngham is aiming to turn Slane Castle into a destination for whiskey.

By Sarah Harford

ONE YEAR AFTER the Slane Irish Whiskey distillery opened, the ‘water of life’ is finally making its way to the barrel.

Earlier this week, Alex Conyngham – the son of Anglo-Irish nobleman Lord Henry Mountcharles – casked the inaugural batch of the whiskey distilled at the historic castle.

However, the idea behind the business wasn’t just to launch a new beverage, but to add a new element to the Slane estate.

Mountcharles is perhaps best-known for bringing acts such as the Rolling Stones and U2 to perform at the castle.

“Dad’s innovation – starting the rock concerts in 1981 – put Slane on the map and effectively saved our business,” Conyngham tells Fora.

“Then he made the maverick decision to take things in a new direction and start a whiskey project.”

Located in the restored stables in the grounds of the castle, Conyngham says that one of the main aims of the distillery – which took two years of renovation and preparation to get to the production stage – is to bring more people to the estate.

“You can come here and spend a few hours seeing a castle, seeing a distillery, trying Irish whiskey and have lunch in the middle. It’s not just a distillery – it’s a destination.”

Between the castle, the distillery and a glamping business run by Conyngham’s wife, the family now employs around 70 people in Slane, and they have plans to keep growing the site as a business.

Source: Marc O'Sullivan

Business backing

Although it was his father’s idea to start a whiskey business, Conyngham got his first taste of the industry when he worked as a graduate brand ambassador for a whiskey company nearly 20 years ago.

He went on to pursue a career outside the industry, including a stint in the biomass energy sector, but the whiskey experience came in handy in 2009 when he and his father decided launched their Slane Castle Whiskey drinks brand in the UK and Ireland.

At the start, the pair used a blend made up of whiskey distilled from John Teeling’s Cooley Distillery. However the sale of the distillery to US drinks giant Beam in 2012 killed that agreement.

Conyngham realised that the family needed to take a different tack and start distilling its own product to keep the venture going.

“We had no choice – it was either knuckle down and build our own facility or check out of the business. We decided to go all in and try to get a distillery off the ground,” he says.

In 2015, the brand was bought by another major US firm, Brown-Forman, which owns Jack Daniel’s.

As part of the deal, the buyer invested €44 million in the construction of a new distillery on the grounds of Slane Castle. The facility has capacity to produce around 600,000 cases of whiskey a year.

“What they brought to the table was obviously the financial strength to get the distillery built and get the brand up and running,” Conyngham says.

“But they also know how to make whiskey, how to sell whiskey – their distribution network for Jack Daniels is very extensive and hopefully in time the same thing will happen to Slane.”

To continue sales before production started, they first used whiskey stock from other distilleries and brought it to Slane to mature and blend.

This week marks the first time that distillate produced on-site has begun the maturation process – although it will be another three years before it can legally be sold as Irish whiskey.

Since launching in May 2017, Conyngham says that Slane Irish Whiskey has done well domestically, with a growing presence in both shops and bars across the country.

Meanwhile, distribution is “growing fairly rapidly” in the US, which is the top global market for Irish whiskey, and the spirit is also exported to the UK and Australia.

Growing market

The Irish whiskey industry has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. The value of Irish whiskey exports grew to around €600 million last year and there are plans to more than double that figure by 2030.

The rise is sales has led to a spike in the number of producers setting up shop here. While Ireland had only four distilleries in 2014, there are currently 18 working distilleries in the country, with plans to have more than 30 in operation by 2020.

Although some new distillers have expressed concern that not all of these new whiskey ventures will be successful, Conyngham is bullish about the potential growth for the industry.

“If you go back to the height of the Irish whiskey industry previously – in the mid-19th century – there were 88 licensed distilleries in Ireland. Now we have 18 so there’s still plenty of room for growth.

“I think what consumers want now is more choice and we can be a part of that.”

NO FEE SLANE WHISKEY Conyngham and his father
Source: Marc O'Sullivan

He says that Slane Irish Whiskey is unique because it’s a blended whiskey made using three different barrels that have been customised by Brown-Forman.

“We mature separately and blend together to get a much fuller flavour. It’s smooth and accessible, but with quite a full and robust flavour,” he adds.

Another thing that sets the whiskey apart from competitors is that it’s produced with malt made from barley grown in family’s own fields on the grounds of the castle.

Although it was a “challenging year” for growing barley with the unusually dry Irish summer, Conyngham says that there should still be enough to use in the whiskey production process.

Whiskey tourism

In its annual results this week, market leader Jameson said that the growth of whiskey in Ireland is in part due to the “increased interest in Irish whiskey tourism”. 

Last year more than 800,000 people visited Ireland’s whiskey distilleries – up by 11% compared to 2016’s tally – with nearly half a million heading to Jameson’s two attractions in Dublin and Cork.

Conyngham says that bringing people to the distillery in Slane is a key part of the business plan, and he is aiming to attract between 60,000 and 70,000 visitors each year.

“We designed the distillery very much with visitors in mind. It’s a production facility but it’s also an immersive way to learn about whiskey – from turning barley into malt, up to the spirit stage where you can see the liquid coming out.

“Obviously we also have the castle on the doorstep, which means we have something to offer that others don’t.”

Source: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Although he says that the location puts the Slane Irish Whiskey distillery at an advantage compared to other producers, he thinks that having more distilleries that are open to the public will benefit everyone in the industry.

“Look at what the Kentucky bourbon trail has managed to achieve in the US. I think the development of an Irish whiskey trail, with urban and rural distilleries together, presents a considerable opportunity for tourism in this country.

“I expect that to grow considerably over the coming decade. People are now visiting places deliberately to see multiples distilleries, so I think we need to have a more extensive offering in Ireland.”

For now, Conyngham says the family is focused on making its next type of whiskey and trying to export to a few more markets.

“We’re growing with focus and not taking a shotgun approach. In the whiskey business you always need to think ahead – it’s a long-term game.

“We’ve now built the distillery, which will hopefully secure the future of my family, but more importantly protect the castle, the farm and the estate for generations to come.”

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