women in whiskey
Meet the women shaping the whiskey industry
Louise McGuane: Ireland’s Modern Whiskey Bonder
On the west coast of Ireland, the Cliffs of Moher, formed over 300 million years ago, rise 702 feet (214 meters) above the Atlantic Ocean, impressing an average of 1.5 million visitors each year. They are the second most popular attraction in Ireland behind the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.
Americans may remember them from cult favorite The Princess Bride. As the hero Westley pursues his kidnapped love, Buttercup, on the seas, Vizzini (one of her captors) gleefully declares “Whoever he is, he’s too late! SEE! The Cliffs of Insanity!” as their ship draws closer to the shore.
So, it seems fitting that this natural wonder stretching as far “as the crow flies” (i.e., 5 miles/8 kilometers), borders County Clare, is the birthplace of Louise McGuane, who made the seemingly insane decision to walk away from an international spirits career to become Ireland’s first female modern whiskey bonder.
Irish Whiskey Outpacing Scotch? (Not) Inconceivable!
However, after you learn her story, I think you’ll agree that this was not only a brilliant decision on her part but also that she wasn’t “too late” to enter the Irish whiskey market but right on time.
The Spirits Business declared Irish whiskey as the “world’s fastest-growing spirits category” last year with a 140% growth volume from 2010 to 2020 based on an industry report (Drinks Ireland/Irish Whiskey Association). Numbers showed that the sales gap between Scotch and Irish whiskey in its largest market, the US, fell from 470% to 76% in the same period, introducing the possibility of Irish whiskey surpassing Scotch sales by 2030. But years before these numbers were crunched, Louise recognized that the Irish whiskey market “correction” (her preferred phrase) was on the horizon.
Her Spirited Global Journey
Louise and her brother grew up on their parents’ 60-acre farm near family and in the community of Cooraclare, where everyone helps each other out. She knew she’d eventually leave as Ireland generally had an emigrant history of people leaving to find jobs elsewhere; her own family had landed in New York, Chicago, Sweden and Australia. And while she went to University in the UK, it followed suit that she graduated on a Friday and Monday morning was at work in America.
After a brief stint at a PR agency, she ended up working in the spirits industry heading global marketing campaigns for a few familiar names: LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey), Pernod Ricard, and Diageo. Moet Hennessey asked her to relocate to France and Louise cites this point as kicking off her multinational career.
Her familial agriculture background drove her to stay close to the production side of the industry. While living in Champagne, she spent time in the vineyards, and while working for Pernod Ricard she visited the Tambov wheat fields in Russia. One of her favorite Diageo memories was going to the Agave fields of Jalisco and meeting the families as they brought in the harvest.
While jet setting had its glamor, Louise spent almost 60% of her time on the road; she had a Singapore to Brazil commute every several weeks. At the time, her husband was living in London and while in Brazil, she found herself working on spreadsheets at 2 am local time.
A life change was needed and before she opted out of Corporate, Louise’s decision to enter the Irish whiskey industry was based on a combination of wanting to spend more time with her husband and her confidence that it was on a trajectory similar to the American craft whiskey industry. Her original business plan was for a grain to glass distillery that would also help secure her family farm.
Discovering J.J. Corry
No longer tied to her Blackberry, Louise took the opportunity to readjust, reset, and recharge. And research.
She began to research the history of whiskey making in Ireland and pointed out that at one point in history every county in Ireland had a few distilleries. Louise focused on her home county of Clare and had identified one near her that had shuttered in 1850 and had only one wall standing. She was going to buy it and restore it.
But then she came across a J.J. Corry label that said “Whiskey Bonder” being sold for 5 bucks by an antique dealer on eBay. This term intrigued her as she had never come across it either in her time in the industry or during her research. It turned out that he lived only 15 minutes away so she visited him and learned that the label was part of a sale of J.J. Corry’s shop. J.J. had passed in 1936 and his daughter, Bridie, took over until her passing in 1983. The family next door bought the shop and charged the antiques dealer with gutting the interior. He sold the gutted parts and still had various shop items that he showed to Louise such as labels, receipt books, telegrams, advertisements, wrapping paper, etc.
Irish Whiskey Bonders
Additional research led her to the British and Dublin Parliamentary archives documenting that whiskey bonding had been a common practice in the 1800s and early 1900s. Distillers at that time often sold their distillate to Whiskey Bonders that owned shops selling everything from spirits to tea to musical instruments. Essentially, Bonders sent their empty casks to distillers who returned them filled with new make which they would then mature, blend, bottle, and sell under their own brand. Bespoke blends for customers were commonplace.
To put this in perspective, Louise mentioned that Mitchell & Sons had been Bonders that sent their casks to the Jameson Distillery on Bow Street. They aged in cellars underneath Dublin, marked by different colored spots denoting the amount of age.
She stated that eventually the major distillers halted the practice of contracting with the Bonders and transitioned to keeping control of the entire practices and branding the whiskey under their own names. Louise pointed out that when she put her plan into motion, Irish whiskeys came from 3 distilleries and in 5 years has jumped to 36.
Louise’s goal is to work with all these distilleries to create a library of whiskey flavors and blends highlighting the product of everyone from all over the island. She calls today the Irish whiskey “market correction”.
Building the Dream (Literally) and Barrel Management
When she first launched her company, Louise converted her house shed to an office, putting in 15-to-18-hour work days and built a bonded Rackhouse on the premises based on her experiences in places like Scotland and Kentucky.
Louise’s workday focuses on production, sales, and communications. Pre-Covid was filled with travel that were mostly sales training and customer meetings, especially for the US -- their biggest market. Since the pandemic, she’s transitioned to online Zoom meetings that could either be sales training for New York or tastings for the Singapore Media. On the farm, she can be found in the rack house tasting and splits her time between sourcing whiskey and casks.
In fact, Louise’s wood management program contributes significantly to their portfolio. She works with cooperages in the United States (Kentucky for bourbon and Maine for independent distillers), Spain, and Sweden.
I asked her about Irish cooperages and Louise told me that when she started in 2015, there were none as they had been shut down in the 90s. Louise singlehandedly convinced a cooper to come out of retirement, so now there is one working cooperage in Nephin with two young apprentices. Not surprisingly, the oak needs to be sourced as Irish oak is not suitable for full maturation, although can be used for finishing.
Random suggestion from Louise: If you’re a cooperage geek, visit the Kelvin Cooperage in Kentucky because they don’t gas char their casks, they use the cut offs from their heads instead.
Mental Health and Motivation
As an entrepreneur, Louise is able to create her own calendar and carve out time to return to her personal passions, such as horse riding. She learned at the age of 4, and as an adult didn’t have the time, though she admitted that towards the end of her 20-year career in Singapore, she learned to play polo.
Today, she has a horse named J.J. and a mini horse name Captain Jean Luc Picard (or “Captain” for short), and when not in the rackhouse she can be found with one of them. Louise credits them for helping to keep her mental health in check and helping her to stay motivated.
When asked to name another woman in whiskey that’s motivated her, Louise immediately named Nicole Austin as a “bada** b*tch of whiskey with experience from craft to corporate”. Nicole’s accolades include an impressive distilling resume that includes co-founding two industry organizations and helping to create the Empire Rye category. She credits Nicole with helping her to be a co-founder of the new Irish Whiskey Guild -- dedicated to support and advocate for independent producers.
For those interested in working in whiskey, Louise recommends that you be sincere about adding value to the industry, educate yourself with the plethora of free resources, and be open to learning through different entry points.
J.J. Corry’s current portfolio boasts six expressions: The Gael, The Hanson, The Battalion, The Flintlock, and The Banner County Blend.
As they are currently in the midst of rolling out distribution throughout the US, most liquor stores will carry either The Gael (usually Batch 1) or The Battalion (usually Batch 2), the world’s first Irish whiskey finished in mezcal and tequila casks.
The Gael: Flagship product. Batch 1 is 60% Malt/40% Grain blend featuring their oldest whiskey stock of 5% 26-Year-Old Single Malt Ex-Sherry Butt, 27.5% 11-Year-Old Single Malt, 27.5% 15-Year-Old Single Malt, and 40% 7-Year-Old Single Grain. 46% ABV. 7,500 bottles.
The Battalion: Named for the Battalion San Patricios, or ‘St. Patrick’s Battalion, a group of Irish men who fought for Mexico in the Mexican/American War of 1846-1848. Batch 2 is 9-Year-old Single Grain matured in bourbon casks and finished in a combination of mezcal and tequila casks. 46% ABV. 600 Bottles
To see where it is available near you, visit their J.J. Corry Locator
And as always, our list of “If you like this, try this” from Louise
If you like this…. Try This J.J. Corry Whiskey:
Vodka Soda J.J. Corry Hanson Highball
Cosmopolitan J.J. Corry Whiskey Sour
Gin & Tonic Suggest you stick with it!
Tequila The Battalion finished in a tequila cask
Mezcal The Gold Rush finished in a mezcal seasoned cask
Red Wine The Flintlock Single Malt
White Wine The Gael
For a refreshing cocktail, Louise suggests:
The Hanson Summer Highball
● 1 ½ oz J.J. Corry The Hanson
● 1 can of San Pellegrino Aranciata Blood Orange
● Ice (enough to fill a highball glass)
● Slice of Dried Orange (for garnish)
Fill a highball glass with cubed ice to the top. Pour over the J.J. Corry Hanson. Tilt the glass and slowly add the San Pellegrino Aranciata ensuring the bubbles don't dissipate. Garnish with a slice of dried orange. Add a paper straw (but don't stir) and enjoy!!!
We hope you enjoyed this month’s edition of Women in Whiskey; join us next month as we chat with the team at Freeland Spirits!