The World of Single Malt Whisk(e)y Special Edition
Slane: Saints, Whiskey, and Rock’n’Roll
Slane Castle, located in the Boyne Valley, overlooking the River Boyne, in County Meath, Ireland, has a fascinating history. From ties to Saint Patrick himself to rock’n’roll legends and even faeries, it features with us today thanks to its recent foray into whiskey production. But don’t worry, we’ll touch on the other cool stories, too!
Slane Irish Whiskey is a whiskey blended from malt and grain whiskies, made from Irish grown grains (some produced by Slane), triple distilled in hand-crafted copper pot stills, and specially aged in a combination of three different cask styles: virgin oak, seasoned whiskey, and Oloroso sherry. Each cask lends different flavors, nuances, and colour to the whiskey, although it should be noted its rich golden color has been made uniform by the addition of caramel colouring - a legal practice in Irish whiskey production which does not affect the flavour.
Alex Conyngham, co-owner of Slane Castle and the distillery (which is located in the old stables of the Castle), sat down with us to chat Slane, whiskey, and music. For the full interview with Alex, watch the video. The interview was co-hosted by Whiskey Network Co-Founder, Bill Varnell, contributor and Speak Easy columnist, Mark Pruett, and Whiskey Network Assistant Editor and Single Malt columnist, Julia Menn.
It was in 1981 that Slane Castle became playing grounds for the Slane Festival - over the years garnering such musical talents as U2, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Guns N' Roses, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, David Bowie, Queen, Thin Lizzy, Madonna, REM, and many more. A young Alex was sent up to bed instead of getting to watch U2 perform, but he holds a fond memory of listening to them through the bedroom floorboards. Turning the natural amphitheatre of the Slane grounds into a Rock’n’Roll venue was done out of a desire to sustain the property and family. But at the start of social media and streamed content, the Conynghams had the foresight to realize live music might not be such a sustainable future.
Music and whiskey often go hand-in-hand. If you’ve read any of the Speak Easy articles, you’ve enjoyed the wild stories and unforgettable occurrences that come from the blending of the two. It was with an eye towards the future that whiskey was brought into the picture. The Boyne Valley had once been a whiskey producing region, but that way of life eventually disappeared. The Conynghams were determined to bring it back.
They got their start in 2009 with sourced juice from Cooley Distillery and launched it at the Oasis concert; but when Cooley was acquired by Beam in 2012, their relationship dissolved. Wanting to continue the whiskey venture, this time by creating their own spirit, Slane joined with beverage giant Brown-Forman. With the backing of Brown-Forman, they were able to build their own distillery, with the official opening happening in 2017.
The Search for a Second Source
Water is vital for whiskey production, and while Slane is ideally situated on the River Boyne, they wanted to find a secondary water source in case anything terrible should befall the integrity of the river. Hiring a drilling company that charged $6,000 per drill, they depended on technology and educated guesses to find a water source on Slane property. After multiple holes and many thousands of dollars later, they were still no closer to finding a viable borehole. Alex decided to call in a water diviner to assist matters for €50, much to the resentment of the digging company. It was the best money he ever spent. The diviner searched the grounds and told the diggers where to drill, and they hit gold - or rather, water. This first water source, however, wasn’t as clean as was needed to create whiskey. The diviner said he could find water, but couldn’t guarantee its purity. They tried again, miles away from the first site, and this time the water was crystal clean and perfect. They’d found their secondary source! The gentleman proved his worth yet again by asking a group of faeries whether they’d be willing to move into a lime grove, as Alex was afraid construction would disturb their fort. Irish belief in the fae runs deep, and Alex is no exception; so, for another €50, the diviner made the request and the faeries obliged. In honour to the faeries, the traditional “Angel’s Share” in whiskey production is called the “Faeries’ Share” at Slane Distillery.
The Triple Cask Process
Slane is very open about buying in whiskey from other distilleries in 2015 to get themselves started as they built their own facility and aged their own spirit (Irish whiskey has to be aged a minimum of 3yrs).
Many blended Irish whiskies are smooth, lightly sweet, and very approachable. Slane wanted to dial up the flavour, so they utilize a specialty maturation method: The Triple Cask Process. Taking the already aged, sourced malt and grain whiskies, they put them through an additional 2 years of maturing in three separate casks and then blend the whiskies back together.
Virgin oak casks, which have been custom made for Slane at the Brown-Forman facility in Kentucky and are heavily toasted, bring intense vanilla and spice notes to the whiskey.
The second set of maturing casks are Tennessee Whiskey barrels from Jack Daniel’s. This deepens the sweet notes - think rich brown demerara sugar, toffee, and butterscotch. You may even catch notes of banana.
Finally, there are the Oloroso sherry casks, which impart dried fruits and rich sweetness, like a fruitcake, and those Christmas-esq spices such as nutmeg and clove.
Essentially, 3 different whiskies from 3 different barrels are blended together to make Slane. Due to the Irish whiskey aging requirement, they are making their own spirit, which they’ll gradually phase into the blend. They are also laying down their own malt, pot still, and single grain whiskies for future expressions. While they’re not distilling 24/7, they are growing at a rate which can be nurtured over the long term.
Walking with his father as a child, Alex asked him about the pressures of owning a place like Slane. He’s never forgotten the answer: “Listen, son, when it comes to your turn, you’re never going to earn Slane - you’re just here to protect it for the next generation.” That has been Alex’s guiding light. He looks to leave things better than when he arrived, and he does this by looking after the community and the local environment. Here are a few of the sustainable initiatives of Slane.
Grain - Barley is a greedy crop when it comes to soil and nutrients. Slane has planted break crops and specific plants that put organic matter and nitrogen back into the soil. Wild bird covers are also planted to provide a biodiversity habitat. Birds naturally manage pests and crops, which cuts down on the amount of sprays and chemicals used. The spent grain from the distillation process is provided to local dairy farmers to use as feed, and they’ve even built an anaerobic digester to convert by-products into biogas, which will be used to heat the stills and reduce their carbon footprint.
Salmon Ladder - While restoring a mill pond to provide water for their fire fighting efforts, historically the salmon had not been able to jump the wall surrounding the pond. To rectify this, they built a series of ponds around the mill that allow the salmon to cut upstream and spawn - something which had been inaccessible to the salmon for 50-60 years. As a direct result of the distillery, the watercourse is now reopened and the salmon have come back to the area every year.
Planting trees - Slane property includes 350 acres of woodlands, much of which is ancient. They’ve taken to restoring and underplanting the old woodlands and have also planted 14,000 new trees, mostly native oak.
Alex is interested in utilizing native Irish oak down the line at the distillery. Irish oak is different from white American oak; it’s harder and has higher tannins, so more care needs to be taken with the toasting and charring. It has the ability to produce a lot of complexity, but more time will be needed in the barrel to get past the tannins and reveal the flavours. This is an endeavor they’re keen to pursue, but is still decades away from being realized.
It’s clear that Slane is focused on protecting and sustaining the environment in their efforts to produce quality whiskey. Their goal is to become a zero-waste and carbon neutral distillery as they continue to protect and enhance biodiversity. They are participating in Ireland’s Origin Green sustainability project and, once complete, they will be the first Brown-Forman production site to achieve ISO 14001 certification.
Ties to a Saint
Slane has a direct association with Saint Patrick. Overlooking the village, castle, and distillery is the Hill of Slane. There is an ancient mound on top of the hill, and this is where Saint Patrick lit his Paschal fire. Now, for context, it was the high kings that ruled Ireland at that time (433 A.D.), and their seat of power was the Hill of Tara, which can be seen from Slane. At the Spring Equinox, the high king would light a fire at Tara, and it was pagan practice that no one was allowed to light a fire before the new fire was lit by the high king. Patrick knew this, and he directly challenged the high king’s authority by lighting a fire on the Hill of Slane. There was then a skirmish, Patrick was captured and brought to the high king where he passed a series of tests which impressed the high king to such a degree he allowed Patrick to continue spreading his Christian message throughout Ireland.
Slane Castle and Distillery are full of fascinating stories and some terrific history. They also produce a killer blended whiskey. Let’s have a taste, shall we?
Nose - 89/100 Lush and immediately full of banana bread, marshmallow, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and raisin.
Palate - 88/100 Med+ body which is sweet on the front with vanilla, ripe banana, those baking spices, followed by a tinge of spicy heat and a gentle oak quality. The rich, heavy fruits come on the back end - molasses, raisin, baked plums.
Finish - 87/100 Long and complex, albeit slightly drying.
88/100 - This is an excellent, well balanced, and surprisingly flavourful whiskey - great for sipping or in a cocktail. Well worth buying at $30.
Speaking of cocktails, if you watched the interview, you saw Bill made an Irish Coffee with Slane Whiskey and their bespoke coffee beans. I, however, am not a coffee fan, so I checked out the cocktail section of their site and went with a Fizz, which turned out most excellent and is a solid addition to my cocktail repertoire.
River Boyne Fizz
•1 part Slane Irish Whiskey
•1 part lemon juice
•1 dash orange bitters
•1 tbsp spoon local honey
•Sprig of mint
•Pour whiskey into a highball glass
•Add lemon juice and honey
•Stir well until the honey dissolves
•Add ice and top up with tonic water
•Garnish with a mint sprig and lemon wheel
It has been such a pleasure experiencing a new whiskey, especially one that really delivers, and at such an attractive price! Do yourself a favour and give it a go.