Irish whiskey is in the midst of a renaissance. Not long ago, giants like Jameson and Bushmills dominated the category, but now–thanks to the efforts and creativity of a few small producers–whiskey from the Emerald Isle has grabbed the global spirits spotlight. One of the brands behind this revolution has been Walsh Whiskey, and its Co-Founder & Managing Director Bernard Walsh.
Bernard and his wife Rosemary founded Walsh Whiskey in 1999 and have managed to release two successful Irish whiskey brands–The Irishman and Writers’ Tears–under its banner. In November, the brand announced it was being acquired by Baltic spirits giant Amber Beverage Group.
In this week’s Bottle Breakdown, we sat down with Bernard Walsh to discuss the origins of Walsh Whiskey, his favorite way to enjoy it, and what’s next for the brands.
Spirited Zine: Just to get started, can you tell us a bit about the origins of Walsh Whiskey and why Irish whiskey is so close to your heart?
Bernard Walsh: Irish whiskey is close to every Irish person’s heart. We take great national pride in it’s quality and the history of it being the world’s number one whiskey in the 19th century. For us personally, Rosemary and I are both from farming families and we live in the country surrounded by farmland in a region known as ‘the barley basket of Ireland’, so to make our livelihoods producing a product made from Irish barley and water is very satisfying.
We started in 1999 with a product called The Hot Irishman! Sure what else? It is a mix for making the perfect Irish coffee, with a base of grain whiskey. Before we were married, Rosemary was working in Switzerland hosting ski chalets and I would come over from London on the weekends. I thought I would impress the guests, but mainly her, by offering to make Irish coffees after their dinner. Well, the high demand and labour involved got us thinking and before too long The Hot Irishman was born.
Soon after that I noticed that sales of Irish whiskey were enjoying double-digit annual growth, something that continues year-on-year to this year with the sole exception of 2020, for obvious reasons. Within a few years we brought The Irishman – Founder’s Reserve to market followed soon after by Writers’ Tears – Copper Pot. That was the beginning of it all.
SZ: Over the last two decades, you managed to create two different brands, The Irishman and Writers’ Tears, that have helped lead the renaissance in Irish whiskey. Previously giants like Jameson and Bushmills dominated the Irish whiskey scene, how were you able to get your brands into the hands of consumers and begin the conversation?
BW: As I write we are living in the era of a digital revolution, but just a few decades ago it was all about shoe leather and handshakes. We literally sold door-to-door first in Dublin and then, armed with our excellent premium whiskeys, we went to the big cities of London, Paris and New York. At first people, bar staff and managers, probably took pity on us, but once they opened their lips to the liquid in the bottle….then we had a real chance of making a sale! In time we were able to partner with some great companies in key markets for Irish whiskey (US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and Ireland) who took sales to the next level.
SZ: What makes the Walsh brands unique amongst the crowding landscape of Irish whiskeys?
BW: Walsh Whiskey produces super-premium whiskeys under our two brands (Writers’ Tears & The Irishman), by sourcing distillates and rare casks to Bernard’s exacting specifications and then maturing, finishing and sometimes blending them before bottling
and shipping them to over 50 countries worldwide. We focus exclusively on premium Single Pot Still and Single Malt whiskeys and blends.
To date we have produced 23 expressions including old recipes and a range of rare finishes including Mizunara, Florio Marsala, Rum, Cognac, Coffee Stout, Seaweed IPA, Icewine and of course Oloroso and PX Sherries.
In addition, Walsh Whiskey has a policy of pricing our whiskeys modestly relative to their quality and rarity.
SZ: The Irishman Founder’s Reserve is a unique take on Irish pot still whiskey and the original offering you created for the brand. Can you tell us a bit about the origins of the recipe and what goes into each bottle?
BW: The Irishman Founder’s Reserve is a recipe from the 19th century in Ireland when, two premium styles of Irish whiskey produced in their copper pots, Single Pot Still and Single Malt whiskeys were first put together. The resultant blend became known as the ‘Champagne blend’ of Irish whiskey and very popular amongst the well-heeled. But it fizzled out with the overall decline of Irish whiskey across the 20th century – this happened for a multitude of reasons, none of it related to the quality of the whiskey (war, religion, economic wars, technology). Walsh Whiskey revived the blend in 2006…and we haven’t looked back since then. The Irishman Founder’s Reserve is a predominantly single malt expression of Irish barley and water, triple-distilled in copper pots and matured in Bourbon barrels.
SZ: What separates The Irishman line of whiskeys from the Writers’ Tears range?
BW: The Irishman range is Single Malt led, while the Writers’ Tears line is predominantly Pot Still dominant.
SZ: Another offering from the Writers’ Tears range is the Double Oak. The whiskey uses both American Oak Bourbon Barrels from Kentucky and French Oak Cognac Casks. How do the two different woods impact the whiskey and what should drinkers look for when it comes to flavors and aromas when enjoying the whiskey?
BW: The American oak contributes bolder flavours with more sweet and vanilla overtones due to the presence of more lactones in the wood. The French oak, on the other hand, generates silky tannins which yield a light sweetness combined with fruity flavours that persist in the mouth.
SZ: Do you have any recommendations for pairing when it comes to the Irishman Founder’s Reserve, the Writers’ Tears Copper Pot and the Double Oak?
BW: The Irishman Founders Reserve; For breakfast, a cap full in your bowl of porridge. The barley of the whiskey goes sublimely with the oat of the oatmeal porridge.
For lunch, Writers Tears Copper Pot neat with Oven baked Salmon (5 minutes only) on a bed of sautéed spinach.
And for dinner, make an aperitif cocktail with Writers Tears Copper Pot, mint leaves, ginger ale & ice. This is a great high ball while you prepare dinner.
Writers Tears Double Oak with a tiny drop of water.
SZ: What’s your favorite way to enjoy a glass of whiskey?
BW: I just love Writers Tears Copper Pot in an Old Fashioned and an Irish Manhattan, which is a Manhattan with The Irishman Founders Reserve. Most importantly sip, savour, silax – that’s Walsh-speak for ‘sit and relax’.
SZ: What’s next for Walsh Whiskey? Are there any new offerings coming down the pipe that you can tell us about?
BW: Sshhhhhh that would be telling! Seriously though, we are always working on new expressions, but we have just released three in the last few months (Writers’ Tears – Icewine; The Irishman -Peated Red Ale Cask Finish and Writers’ Tears Single Pot Still) so we will take time to pause, reflect and enjoy our work, which now amounts to 23 expressions. It won’t be long before we have more news to tantalise the senses!