The Spirit of Dublin
All photos by Ellie Tam. In Dublin's Liberties neighborhood, warehouses and shipping companies are giving way to new industries, art spaces, lofts, and restaurants. Not so many that it's obvious, but they're there. In one of these spaces you'll find Teeling, which prepares to celebrate their first anniversary in June of 2016. They're Dublin's only whiskey distillery and, one may be surprised to learn, the only working distillery in the whole of Ireland that offers tours, as covered in a previous article about distilleries outside of Dublin. The others are museums and visitors' centers; Bushmills, while a working distillery, is technically in another country. Stephen Teeling, one of the founders of the company, explains that when the Irish whiskey industry slowly began to rebuild after the collapse that hobbled it for decades, it didn't occur to anyone that people would want to see the ugly, industrial process of making whiskey. Surely they'd want to visit a lovely, curated museum instead.
When whiskey started enjoying its resurgence in the 2000s, Scotland and Kentucky both proved "whiskey tourism" was big business. But the Irish found themselves with a few massive factory distilleries built around the business of making whiskey in large quantities and no way to retrofit those facilities to make them safe for visitors. Teeling, however, is different. They've only been around a little while, and their Dublin distillery was built with tourism in mind. That didn't come easy. Stephen and his brother Jack soon discovered that the lack of visitor-friendly distilleries also meant a lack of visitor-friendly distillery guidelines and regulations. No one, it turns out, from construction crews to city officials to the fire brigade, knew how to make a visitor-friendly distillery. For Teeling to realize their goal, they wouldn't just have to build a distillery; they'd have to work with regulators and inspectors to define the very rules that would make the distillery legal to visit.
Teeling was founded after Ireland's Cooley Distillery was purchased by multinational Beam-Suntory. Stephen, Jack, and their father John all cut their teeth at Cooley, which John purchased in 1985 and converted from a schnapps house into a whiskey distillery. In short order, their lineup of eclectic spirits breathed renewed life into a moribund Irish whiskey industry still reeling from American Prohibition and all too happy, it seemed, to get by on Jameson's. The 1980s weren't a great time for any whiskey brand, but Teeling slowly but surely introduced one brand after another onto the market and started garnering awards. When the whiskey revival finally came, Cooley was regarded as one of the best and most inventive distilleries in the world.
With success came suitors, and in 2011, Ireland's only independent distillery became part of American company Jim Beam, which in turn became part of the Japanese company Suntory. Stephen explains that the Teelings had nothing against Beam-Suntory, but they knew being part of a large multinational would make them less able to experiment, less able to respond nimbly, and would air a layer or three of bureaucracy between them and the public. Rather than stay on, they decided to part ways amicably. John went into a retirement his sons find hilariously stretches the definition of retirement ("You never know when the old man has decided to show up despite being retired," explains Stephen). His sons Stephen and Jack, flush with some of the best casks Cooley had distilled (which they retained as part of the sale), decided to start Teeling.
They relocated to Dublin, where Stephen Teeling says the new distillery has a chance to combine Irish tradition and the modernism of urban life. They decided to call their new venture, simply, Teeling, and as Stephen explains, "If you put your family name on something, it damn well better be good." Their allotment of whiskey from Cooley would serve as the base of the company while they constructed the new distillery and waited for the product that eventually came from it to age. That's when they started running into problems with regulations and, more accurately, the lack of presence of anyone in the government who knew how to make the regulations. On top of that, there was a long waiting list at just about every well-known copper works, which meant Teeling was going to have to wait a long time -- too long -- for their stills. A working distillery without any stills was going to produce a pretty low volume of whiskey.
By hook and by crook, however, the Teelings and the Dublin government pushed their way through laying the foundation for opening an Irish distillery that was open to the public. They solved the problem with the stills by looking outside of the usual suspects, deciding to make a unique set of stills with the Italian company Frilli. Against the advice of just about everyone who it turns out knew nothing, the Teeling distillery took shape. It features a cafe and a large, open space used for events and displaying local art and other exhibits. The stillhouse is similarly wide open, with ample room for groups who will get to look at pretty much every piece of machinery that goes into making Irish whiskey. The stills from Frilli produce a surprisingly pleasant, fruity, floral new make spirit -- new make usually being harsh, overly alcoholic smelling, and not terribly nice to sip.
Although the role of Cooley is acknowledged, Stephen Teeling stresses that they are not looking to manufacture a lavish, fake origin story that dubiously bestows upon them hundreds of years of existence. "We opened in 2015," he says, "and we embrace 2015." While the bulk of what Teeling bottles is old Cooley and Kilbeggan stock, they've been distilling their own spirit for almost a year now and have embarked on some interesting experiments both with the new distillate and what they have from Cooley. Among those experiments was a collaboration with a master blender from Portland, Oregon (Teeling looks as much to American craft distilling as to traditional Irish distilling for inspiration), to create a single grain whiskey finished in California Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. They also sent old barrels to Brooklyn brewery Sixpoint, where Sixpoints brewing manager Heather McReynolds used them to age what became Bang Bang Dudley Irish Red Ale.The work Teeling has done to open not just an urban distillery, but an urban distillery in a country where, just a couple years ago, the tourism board had no idea people would want to actually tour a working distillery instead of a visitors' center, has made it easier for the next guy. But the next guy might not be in Dublin. Despite being Ireland's economic hub, craft distilling on a larger scale in in Dublin is limited by the most mundane of considerations; things like very limited truck access and the scarcity of non-historic buildings in which you could make all the modifications necessarily to get a stillhouse up and running. That notwithstanding, Teeling is at the forefront of new Irish distilling and, perhaps just as importantly, a new phase of Irish whiskey tourism.