I first talked to Brendan Carty a couple of years ago as he was developing his Killowen small batch whiskey distillery in what is surely the most stunning location for the production of spirits on the island of Ireland.
I was impressed then by his knowledge of – and enthusiasm for – what has become one of the most dynamic industries in Ireland. He’s since launched small batch whiskey, gin and Irish poitin from his operation high in the iconic Mournes, overlooking the majestic Carlingford Lough.
“It’s been a busy and very successful couple of years,” Brendan says. “While it’s been hectic, I am delighted by the response to our products, especially our small batch Irish whiskey from lovers of the spirit and, indeed, the wider community here and in the Republic.
“I am looking forward to continuing growth of the whiskey in particular within the niche market we are creating for our premium products,” he adds.
And it’s easy to understand why Killowen’s products are proving increasingly popular. The flavours, colours, branding and bottling set the whiskey, in particular, apart in its category.
Take the small company’s unique Killowen Bonded Experimental Series, for instance, which features exceptional Irish whiskey clearly crafted with patience, professionalism and passion by Brendan, who turned to distilling from a successful career as an architect. The decision was the outcome of a long-standing interest in whiskey production.
“What we are doing in the series is to mature whiskey in unique casks for quite different flavours. Cask selection has long been an essential element in producing unique flavours and colours.
“We go further. Our last cask was Txakolina Wine with Acacia wood from Spain’s Basque Country.
“This was the first whiskey cask of its kind. And the cask before that was Dark Rum from Jamaica,” he explains.
Brendan’s enterprise is an excellent example of the innovation driving whiskey, gin, vodka, rum and poitin here.
The approach in whiskey has been pioneered, of course, by Old Bushmills Distillery. But he’s not attempting to rival the big producers and is set on creating his own niche with distinctive tastes, colours and styles, its unique terroir being the Mournes.
He points to other features, including the hand filling of each bottle directly from the cask, hand labelling and wax dipping of each bottle and also the hand numbering of each flask shaped bottle along with its alcohol content.
The integrity, transparency and sustainability of the process is important to him. “The way we bottle our blends is known as integrity bottling,” he continues.
“The Killowen 10-year-old blend series, for example, is all small batch featuring labels that push the boundaries of transparency, informing the consumer where the blends come from and when and where they were distilled.
“We source unique casks for finishing. We do not add colour and certainly don’t dilute the spirit. We bottle at cask strength, giving the consumer the ability to dilute only if they wish.
“This also gives the consumer far more flavour,” he continues. What he is creating is range of very distinctive and uniquely small batch Irish whiskies.”
The bottling strategy, he continues, “is actually designed to educate the consumer” about whiskey distillation and the production process.
The whiskey is currently the only in Ireland copper pot distilled over flame and featuring a unique worm tub condenser. The distillery has two pot stills with a total capacity of 1,800 litres.
“A worm tub is a traditional way of turning vapour into liquid for a complex whiskey with a distinctive character and a much richer flavour,” he says.
These are certainly brave moves for a small new start distillery: “We aim to be different. I believe we are starting to change the market through leading by example,” he says.
This integrity is also reflected in the distillation process at Killowen, which began producing spirit to be laid down for whiskey in 2019. Producing whiskey takes three years and a day – usually much longer – before it can be called Irish whiskey.
Brendan cares about provenance: “I make no attempt to mislead the consumer into thinking this is currently our whiskey distillate, as is sometimes the case in the industry.
“Our own in-house whiskey will be available in time and only when I am fully satisfied that it is a premium and great tasting product. It is important to us that consumers know where our whiskey comes from.
“What’s also different and unique about the whiskey is that it is distilled in two copper pot stills which are flame-fed. Grain for distilling is also smoked slowly in a chamber lined with sustainably sourced turf,” he explains.
“My aim has been to create an Irish whiskey from traditional techniques over flame. The whiskey produced here is also different in that it is double distilled unlike others in Ireland which are triple distilled,” he adds.
As well as novel products, the white-washed distillery is fast becoming a destination for food and especially whiskey lovers.
Visitors are increasingly bracketing the picturesque distillery with neighbour Neary Nogs, an award winning artisan chocolatier, which has been created by husband and wife team Shane and Dot Neary.
And it’s well-placed to benefit from Tourism NI/Tourism Ireland’s imaginative Embrace a Giant Spirit marketing campaign and its ‘Walking the Mournes’ experience.