Make Irish Whiskey Great Again?

Roe & Co, Diageo’s Venture Into Irish Whiskey

Diageo’s Roe & Co Irish Whiskey has story, design and a mission – we uncovered the point.

“It’s about innovating and taking Irish whiskey to a contemporary audience,” states Caroline Martin, Master Blender for the Roe & Co Irish Whiskey Distillery, Diageo’s latest spirit endeavour. A Scottish national and with more than 30 years of experience working with whisky across the globe, Caroline is a force to be reckoned with – and the perfect connoisseur to award the task of coming up with a new Irish whiskey to expand Diageo’s premium spirits market. 

Linking old with new

This summer, Diageo opened the doors to the Roe & Co Premium Blended Irish Whiskey distillery, welcoming visitors, press and curious connoisseurs alike to look inside the restored powerhouse station across from Dublin’s iconic Guinness Brewery. Operating on the former grounds of George Roe’s Thomas Street Distillery, Dublin’s largest and most productive distillery until its closure in 1926, the Roe & Co building blends history into its tale.

The 18th-century St. Patrick tower, with its patina green roof and the equally as old pear tree next to, are the only remnants of the old operations. As a way to commemorate the former operations, Roe & Co have designed their bottles in the shape of the tower. Furthermore, all labels are coloured patina green, and the punt underneath is shaped like a pear – the dominant flavour in the blend.

Caroline has wagered her 30 years of experience and put in the hours to make Roe & Co live up to the task of taking Irish whiskey to a premium market. Hints of ripe orchard fruits expand into the nose and set the frame for Roe & Co’s taste. White pepper spiciness gives zing, accompanied by a smooth creaminess. It’s a playful sip with a lot going on and hits enough different notes to make an interesting component for cocktails. 

Cocktail mixability was a key mark that had to be ticked off if this whiskey was to be bottled. “I went around Dublin and talked with bartenders and let them taste the whiskey. I wasn’t happy until they were happy,” Caroline explains. Her process of trial and error sits immortalised on the wall inside the distillery. Like a train of thought, strings run between ingredients of all kinds and bottles in various shapes and colours. It’s a marvellous piece on its own, and a rare look into the mind of the master blender. 

Whisk(e)y needs to get with the times

Over the past many years, the traditional understanding of whiskey/whisky has been challenged from within by Japanese, Australians and Scotsmen alike, experimenting with everything from the meaning of ‘grain’ (Japanese rice whiskey) and ‘cask’ (Chivas Regal Mizunara) to ‘blends’ (Compass Box’s Affinity, blended with Calvados). Roe & Co’s Head Distiller, Lora Hemy, 37, finds the current time ideal for setting a new direction for Irish Whiskey. “I get inspired by all whiskey globally, including Scandinavian, like the Danish Stauning, or Swedish Mackmyra. It’s interesting to taste and learn, and become inspired to try new things yourself.”

If you have just a slight interest in whisky, you will have a fondness for whiskey. Although once the greatest whiskey producing country in the world, Ireland is yet to fully recover from the last big struggle. When Irish distillers rejected Aeneas Coffey’s patented still, he brought it to the Scottish – who upped their production rates and created the first batches of blended Scotch. When Irish distilleries started closing in the 1800s, due to blended Scotch’s sudden increase in popularity, it was ‘the premium quality of Irish whiskey’ that became the main argument for why consumers should drink the uisce beatha of the Emerald Isles over that of the Caledonian Highlands. 

Unfortunately, the reluctance towards innovation in Irish Whiskey makers in combination with bootleggers smearing the liquid’s good name during prohibition meant that Irish Whiskey suffered a big blow to its legacy.

In recent years, times have been changing in Ireland. The distilleries on Irish soil are fewer, but the demand overseas is growing, making Irish Whiskey the fastest-growing spirits category in modern times. And for the team behind Roe & Co, this means an opportunity to try something new. “It’s important to know the traditions and to know how the people who made whiskey back then, in the beginning, did it, and what motivated them to create the flavours they did,” says Caroline. “Then we must take it to a contemporary audience. And that vision in itself makes it easier to experiment and be creative.”

Premium the new Irish?

Although Diageo’s premium range is welcoming an Irish whiskey, how likely is it that Irish whiskey will welcome ‘premium’? Taking Irish history and culture into consideration, the immediate estimate is that the category will fail to impress on home base. Unlike Scotch, Irish Whiskey production has always been a part of urban life in Ireland. The close proximity to the citizens and consumers has made whiskey makers and indeed their whiskey as common a part of daily life as the tailor and his suits, the baker and his bread, and the butcher and his cuts of meat.

My Dublin cab driver in summer confirmed this. As it turns out, he knew a good deal about Irish Whiskey history, stemming from the fact that his two cousins were in the business. “Is that so. What whiskey is that?” I asked with little expectation of actually knowing the brand. “Teeling,” he replied. “Ever heard of it?”

In the UK, having two whiskey-producing millionaires as first cousins would be your rockstar entry card to all the fancy clubs and perks of upper-class society. Yet, my friendly cab driver was happily transporting half-witty tourists like myself from A to B on a Friday. For all he knew, they could have been bakers. In any case, good for them.

As such, ‘premium Irish whiskey’ is a tough label to sell. Like ‘artisanal bread’, it becomes hard to imagine in what ways the product differs from other equally as good products that don’t make use of extra adjectives. Indeed, premium whiskey to the Irish is not an exception as much as it’s the rule.

In spite of this, and of the largely British rather than Irish roots, Roe & Co seems to have found its way into the repertoire of Irish bartenders. As Irish Whiskey is entering a Golden Era, Roe & Co must be seen as a symptom of continued innovation, not a mockery of tradition. As Caroline reminds us, “it’s still a triple-distilled Irish whiskey distilled here in Ireland.” Strip away the bottle and branding, Roe&Co is not so much a premium whiskey, as it is a premium example of quality whiskey with an E. 

In Copenhagen, Roe&Co is part of cocktail bar Ruby’s latest menu release, as the main protagonist in George’s Marvellous Medicine, a refreshing, yet warming winter cocktail with ripe notes of pear, lemon and autumn spice. 

George’s Marvellous Medicine

Roe&Co Whiskey
Cold Hand Pyrus Pear Brandy
Spiced Pear

Stir and strain into a rocks glass with a cube of clear ice, serve with dehydrated pear slice

What does it mean in the long run?

Reviving an old whiskey-making address with an all-female distillery team is a much-appreciated step forward for the spirits industry as a whole. But Roe & Co is not to be mistaken with a phoenix rising from the ashes of Ireland’s whiskey past. Rather, it is an experiment with a purpose. An aspiration to propel Irish whiskey into the 21st-century as a premium spirit able to compete in a global market swiftly being overrun by quality newcomers from all around, including Denmark.

As such, it should be welcomed rather than condemned. In a way, it’s an opened Pandora’s box, keeping traditionalists on their toes and forcing new thinking into an old category. Who is then to know what (or indeed who) will break ranks in the global whisk(e)y scene next? The Roe & Co endeavour shows that building upon tradition doesn’t necessarily mean sticking with it. Take this and transfer it to any other spirit category, and only the sky’s the limit.

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Miriam Gradel
Much like the case of the chicken and the egg, I've never really been sure whether I started as a journalist or as a bartender. However, one thing's for sure: both require whiskey!