These Brothers Are Trying to Revolutionize Irish Whiskey

From day one, Teeling Whiskey Company had an unconventional goal: to bring more choice and innovation into Irish whiskey.

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Aug 21 2016, 4:00pm

When Teeling Whiskey Company released its Spirit of Dublin Irish poitín back in May, it was the first time liquor was distilled in the Irish capital in four decades.

Triple distilled through Teeling's three copper pot stills and bottled straight off the still, poitín is essentially new whiskey, a clear spirit that undergoes no maturation process. For many new distilleries, selling poitín is a way to survive for the five to eight years it takes for that spirit to mature and be sold as Irish whiskey (Teeling doesn't have that need—with mature stock from a previous distillery, they have been selling whiskey under the company name since 2013).

For Teeling founders, brothers Jack and Stephen Teeling, poitin offers whiskey drinkers a chance to taste the spirit straight from the still so they can understand the flavor imparted by the various casks Teeling uses. The Teelings' true passion lies in experimenting with whiskey in a way nobody else in Ireland has. Yet the new release is significant—it represents the fact that Teeling is successfully making their own spirit. And with most of that poitín being put into casks to be sold as whiskey for many years to come, the poitín going into barrels can be seen as a victory over big business and centuries of tradition, and a sign that Teeling's unconventional methods are paying off.

When Teeling Whiskey Company opened its distillery in Dublin in June 2015, it became the first new production facility in the capital in more than 125 years and the first operational distillery since Powers shut down in 1976. The distillery is located in a neighborhood on Dublin's south side called the Liberties, which was home to more than 30 distilleries in the late 1700s, including one opened by Walter Teeling on Marrowbone Lane in 1782. Now, six generations later, a new pair of Teelings have built a craft distillery in the same neighborhood.

Photo via Teeling Whiskey Co

To understand the significance of Teeling, you need to know a little something about Ireland in the last decade. In summary: economic boom, bust, and a reevaluation of what constitutes Irish values. Over years of tax hikes and businesses shuttering, there was a lot of countrywide soul-searching. Big was out and small was in. People had less money and were more choosey about how to spend it. "Local" was not only a buzzword, but a political choice.

When I moved to Dublin in 2008, just before the bust, Dublin was still flying high on the economic boom known as the Celtic Tiger. The capital city felt a bit flashy, but tradition still reigned behind the bar. If you walked into just about any pub, you'd find the same handful of beers on draught, the same few bottles of Irish whiskey—Paddy, Powers, Jameson, and Tullamore Dew—behind the counter. The same was reliable, maybe even comforting, which made going to the bar to buy a round of Guinness and Jameson a straightforward task.

Grabbing a drink in Dublin today is a different story. In the vein of other cosmopolitan cities, Dublin is experiencing a craft renaissance, with a new enthusiasm for local food, beer, and spirits. That said, Irish whiskey is also having a moment in the rest of the whiskey-drinking world. For evidence of that, look no further than the United States, where the spirit has been by far the fastest growing liquor of the last decade: according to the Distilled Spirit Council of the United States, yearly sales have increased 641.5% from 2002 to 2015, and the numbers just keep climbing. Few people have had as much to do with that growth as the Teeling family, because before there was Teeling Whiskey Company, there was Cooley.

Brothers Jack and Stephen Teeling

Brothers Jack and Stephen Teeling

In 1987, John Teeling—father of Jack and Stephen Teeling—created the Cooley Distillery in County Louth, north of Dublin, at a time when only two distilleries (Old Bushmills Distillery and Midleton Distillery) remained in the country, and a once proud tradition of Irish distilling was faltering. Cooley helped revive interest in what had lost ground against its Scottish and American competitors by bringing old brands back to life and experimenting in ways that were previously inconceivable. Peated Irish whiskey and Irish single malt might not exist, or at least wouldn't have gained international attention, if it weren't for Cooley.

Photo via Teeling Whiskey Company

In late 2011, Beam Inc. stepped in to purchase the distillery at a time when the Teeling brothers were cutting their teeth in the whiskey business at Cooley, and while they weren't able to match Beam's offer to shareholders, they negotiated a deal that allowed them to hang onto enough stock to allow them to start their own whiskey brand immediately, even before they started actually distilling a product of their own. The first bottle of Teeling was launched in February 2013, about 12 months after the transaction with Beam was complete.

"It was vitally important that we had stock in our own warehouses," says Stephen Teeling, owner and sales & marketing director of Teeling Whiskey Company. "Right away we could innovate with different cask finishes, bottle at higher strengths, and hand select the barrels."

Teeling_Whiskey_Barrels

The family distillery in Dublin took three years to plan and nine months to build at a cost of 10.5 million euros. During that time, Teeling Whiskey launched a portfolio that included products ranging from its flagship small batch whiskey finished in rum barrels to its 30-year single malt. And when it releases its upcoming 33-year single malt, Dublin's new distillery can claim ownership of Ireland's oldest single malt.

From day one, the Teelings had an unconventional goal: to bring more choice and innovation into a whiskey category that, until recently, was lacking choice and innovation. They experimented with a range of casks—like white Burgundy, rum, cognac, and calvados—to challenge what had been done previously. "What we were proposing had never been done within Irish whiskey," says Stephen. "So it really raised a few eyebrows—especially with finishing in rum casks, bottling at 92 proof, and non-chill filtering."

On average, Teeling produces about 600,000 liters per year with plans to expand this capacity to 1 million liters in the coming years (for comparison Midleton Distillery, the largest in Ireland, has a production capacity of approximately 60 million liters a year).

Teeling_Whiskey_Bottle

In a city of historic pubs, the Teeling Distillery feels fresh and contemporary. When I arrived for a tour, creative types were holding meetings in the sleek ground floor café. Posters detailed an upcoming summer craft fair, featuring local artisan food producers. With polished concrete floors, the tasting room has a modern industrial feel with fun, understated design touches such as booths and circular windows that nod to the shape of whiskey casks. Sitting in this bright space that feels more modern Brooklyn than Georgian Dublin, I couldn't help but wonder how Irish whiskey traditionalists have reacted to Teeling.

"A lot of brands focused on heritage and rural Ireland," Stephen explains. "But we saw a gap for an urban, progressive, and innovative independent brand."

Currently, Teeling is maturing whiskey in dozens of different cask types. Until the Teelings started experimenting, the formula for traditional Irish whiskey was pretty straightforward: the spirit must be distilled and aged on the island of Ireland, and it must be aged for a minimum of three years in wooden casks (commonly ex-bourbon or ex-sherry casks).

"We wanted to create a sessionable whiskey," Stephen said. I had lived in Dublin long enough to know what this meant: a whiskey that would hold its appeal over a long "session" in the pub, an extended period of time where the focus is often more on bantering with friends than refilling glasses quickly. After all, with the Irish, going out for a drink is rarely going out just for one.