Glendalough Distillery: Home of the (future) Glendalough Whiskey

Glendalough Distillery Glendalough Whiskey Head Distiller

(Note from the author: This is an automated translation of the original German article)

Without a doubt, Glendalough is one of the most beautiful places
on the Emerald Isle. At the same time, the Valley of the Two
Lakes, as the Irish name translates, is one of the most visited
sights. Every day, buses, cars and motorhomes travel the narrow
roads of the Wicklow Mountains to experience the magic of the old
monastic settlement, framed by majestic rock faces. This puts
Glendalough on a par with the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast
and the Giants Causeway in the north of Ireland. Just as there is
a distillery at Bushmills, the Glendalough Distillery produces
fine distillates such as gin and the future Glendalough Whiskey.

However, on a much smaller scale than Bushmills. The distillery
with St. Kevin in its logo calls itself a craft distillery,
standing in a row with names like Killowen Distillery. And while
the Giants Causeway is less than five kilometres from the
distillery, it is a good 20 kilometres from the Valley of the Two
Lakes to the distillery of the same name. Accordingly, my way to
the distillery first takes me out of the Wicklow Mountains when I
have an appointment there for a tour.

Site visit under the eyes of Saint Kevin

It’s June 2022 and I’ve been enjoying the unusually warm summer
weather for a week now, walking in the mountains of Wicklow. A
meeting at a distillery is a welcome change from the daily hiking
routine. This is located in Newtown Mountkennedy. Visitors to the
small town enjoy the best of both worlds. With the mountains
behind them and the Irish Sea within shouting distance, there is
plenty to discover for tourists. In addition, the nearby motorway
is a short distance from the lively coastal towns of Wicklow and
Bray and, of course, the capital Dublin. There is an industrial
estate close to the centre of the village. Several purpose-built
buildings house various businesses behind roller shutter doors.
One of these is Wicklow Wolf Brewery, which also runs a Tap Room
at the site.

Behind another of these roll-up doors, Ciarán Rooney is waiting
for me. He is the Head Distiller at Glendalough Distillery. “I’ll
say it straight out, there’s not much to see,” he apologises in
advance. We enter the narrow and truly small hall. Inside, at the
end of the hall, is a gin still. Meanwhile, on the left side of
the wall is the brew kit and the pot stills for whiskey
production. Above the gin equipment, the logo with Saint Kevin is
emblazoned in deep black on the wall, which is painted grey.
Ciarán wears a matching grey hoodie with the same logo on the
chest. “That’s basically it,” he says, smiling and pointing at the
equipment around him.

Glendalough Distillery St. Kevin Logo

Glendalough Distillery: Start-up and Craft Distillery

Ciarán, who everyone calls Rowdy, first saw the gin machine in
2013, when it was still disassembled and packed by the factory on
a pallet in that very hall. “I was here at the time to help the
boys paint it,” laughs Ciarán. The ‘boys’ are the founding team
around Ciarán’s childhood friend Kevin. In 2011, he founded a
small spirit business with four friends. Two years later, they
added a craft distillery for the production of gin in Newtown
Mountkennedy. He himself had left the telecommunications business
shortly before after 20 years.

“My mother was ill at the time and unfortunately passed away. I
took time off and took care of her before she died. After that, I
didn’t want to go back on the hamster wheel,” he looks back
thoughtfully. “While I didn’t know what to do next, Kevin had just
really started his business. When the distillery came along, I
helped him renovate here. As one does when one is a friend.”

Ciarán ‘Rowdy’ Rooney: Friend, Helper, Head Distiller

In the time that followed, Ciarán noticed how his friend was
getting busier and busier. “The guys all still had full-time jobs
and were under stress with their gin business. I said to them,
“Look, you’re stressed and I’ve got nothing to do right now. Let
me help you.” So he started doing unskilled work like labelling
and packaging bottles. In the process, he was inspired by the
ethos and morale of his four friends. “The guys showed a huge
passion for their Glendalough Distillery. I thought to myself,
imagine loving your work like that.”

However, he noticed that the core of the distillery was often
neglected – the actual distillation. “There were so many things
that had to be taken care of. There was only distilling when there
was time.” Ciarán saw this as an opportunity for himself: “I
offered to take care of the distilling of the gin exclusively so
they had their backs free for everything else.” He did some
training and quickly found that distilling was right up his
street. “I loved it!” For the former office worker, this
realisation came as a surprise. “Up until here, I wasn’t even a
great gin drinker. I was more into wine and beer and the
occasional gin & tonic or whiskey with a pint,” Ciarán looks back.

Glendalough Distillery: Discovering the love of gin

That’s why he not only learned through the new, daily work at the
still, but also read everything about gin. “I fell in love with
gin. The production process and the possibilities are
fascinating,” smiles Rowdy. Especially since the distillery is a
craft distillery in the true sense: “Everything has to be
adjusted, operated and controlled by hand. Nothing is automated.”

After some time, he began to experiment with the given recipes:
“Geraldine, our expert for botanicals, brought things from the
mountains that I had never heard of before.
had heard. That was incredibly exciting. Kevin and his friends
liked what he created. Confidence in his work grew and eventually
he was the main person responsible for the distilling process at
Glendalough Distillery.

The now award-winning Rose Gin became a recipe for success. This
was created in honour of Rowdy’s late mother.
Originally it was planned to be a one-off personal project, because Ciarán distilled the Rose Gin
on the occasion of his brother’s wedding celebration. He used rose
petals from his mother’s former garden. The drink was so well
received that it became a standard.

Glendalough Gin Botanical

The Future: Glendalough Whiskey

After these successes, the time came to seek new challenges. Early
on, the company began to buy whiskey from an undisclosed distillery
and distribute it under its own label. The idea of producing the
Glendalough whiskey themselves was obvious. It was here that
Ciarán became the driving force. “I had my first experience with
the cask finishes we did here with bought-in whiskey and also gave
tastings,” he says. He worked his way into the rest. He was at the
forefront of planning, installing and setting up the new still for
the Glendalough Distillery’s future whiskey. “I had very wild
plans with columns and special shapes. Unfortunately, the bosses
weren’t so keen on taking risks,” Rowdy laughs.

In the end, it remained a standard pot still design. The biggest
challenge was space: “A lot of the planning came from the limited
space available. The Glendalough Whiskey apparatus simply had to
fit into our small hall.” In the end it did. Two copper pot stills
with 250 and
200 litres of capacity have been standing in the small hall in
Newtown Mountkennedy since 2018. “When distillate went through
for the first time, it was a very proud moment for me,” Rowdy
says with satisfaction.

The making of Glendalough Whiskey

For the production of Glendalough Whiskey, a set of mash tun and
washbacks for brewing 500 litres of wash has been available since
2018. Ciarán explains the production process: “We first brew 500
litres of mash twice. With that, we make eight runs on the first
still. The resulting low wines then have 16 to 17 per cent
alcohol volume. Then we distil them for the second time in four
runs. The spirit now has an alcohol content of around 45 percent.
This is distilled a third time and then has an alcohol volume in
the high 70s.”

To fill a standard barrel, Ciarán has to repeat this process five
times. Since gin is still the mainstay of the distillery, he has
to divide his time between gin and whiskey. “On top of that, I do
a lot of cask management,” he says. That’s why Rowdy has had the
support of a helper Sam since 2020, who takes care of the day-to-day
distilling. “It keeps my back up,” Ciarán, who once started as a
helper himself, says of his own assistant.

Glendalough Whiskey Bar

Glendalough Distillery: Pure Pot Still Whiskey

The future Glendalough whiskey is exclusively pot still whiskey:
“We process 5 percent oats, 35 percent unmalted barley and 40
percent malt whiskey.” It’s not meant to stay that way forever.
For this, Ciarán is hoping for the changes in the current
Technical File for the production of Irish Pot Still Whiskey.
“I hope that we can officially use more oats. It will give the pot
still whiskey a stronger creaminess and a different texture. I
also want to experiment with wheat and rye.”

His employer gives him a free hand. “I have no commercial pressure
from above. But of course I can’t exaggerate, because we are small
and it takes a long time to produce a single barrel. Even after in
2016 the Canadian
beverage company Marc Anthony Brands entered the market and in
2019 ultimately
took over 100 per cent of the distillery. Ciarán: “Marc Anthony
Brands fully supports our concept as a craft distillery. It’s
great how they put quality first in the process and trust me on
the ground.” In addition, gin and Glendalough Whiskey benefited
from Marc Anthony Brands’ large distribution network and marketing

Quality: Raw materials from local organic cultivation

Behind the concept of quality Ciarán refers to is a belief in
distinct localism. He explains: “Our grain is 100 per cent organic
and comes 100 per cent from a single farm. This is in the Glen of
Imaal, one of Glendalough’s neighbouring valleys. The maltings are
15 miles from the field. The water is from the mountains, the
botanicals for the gin too. Everything is as locally produced as
it can be.”

Virgin Irish Oak: Failed Pioneers

And with the barrels, too, the focus is on the special.
“We sat together at that time and thought about why no one was
using Irish oak. All the pot still whiskeys we knew at the time
had been matured in bourbon barrels first. But Irish oak is not a
special oak, it is the same type of oak as European oak,” Ciarán
summarises. Nevertheless, there is one difference: “Due to the
wonderful Irish weather, it grows more slowly than on the
continent.” He laughs.

Thus, all the spirit produced to date has been in Virgin Irish Oak
casks. While Rowdy and his colleagues thought they could be
pioneers for Irish oak, Irish Distillers launched the Midleton
series Daer Ghaelacht in 2015, which took up exactly their
pioneering idea. “That was annoying. But at least we now knew that
our idea couldn’t be bad if someone like Midleton was doing it
too,” he laughs again.

Glendalough Whiskey

When will the first Glendalough whiskey appear on the market?

One question many people in the Irish whiskey scene have been
asking for years is when the first Glendalough whiskey of their
own will be launched. “I can’t reveal too much about that,” says
Ciarán. “But we are not far away from being able to legally call
the first casks Irish whiskey.” If Rowdy has his way, it should be
a long time before the release from Glendalough Distillery. “I’m
thrilled with how the New Make is developing in the cask. Already
after six months, the colour and taste were great.”

Reason for him to wait with the release. “I think there’s going
to be a tough debate between me and the bosses,” he laughs. “They
say never ask Rowdy when he’s happy with the release date,
because he never will be.” A debate, then, between the
distillery’s commercial interests and its head distiller’s sense
of quality. “They’ll release it when I’m least unhappy with the
date,” Ciarán said with a grin.

From the Port of Cork to the World

Currently, the casks are stored together with purchased whiskeys
in a warehouse in West Cork. This has the practical advantage that
the export port is right on the doorstep. “Most of our products
are exported and shipped from Cork.” In the future, that could
change. For plans for the construction of a new larger distillery
have been in the making for some time. Rowdy cannot and will not
divulge details. “But it will be immediately in Glendalough,” he
reveals. “And the character of the distillery, the craft spirit
and the quality, will not change.”

I would like to thank Ciarán ‘Rowdy’ Rooney for his time and