Whiskey Bonder Maurice O’Connell: A portrait

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

If you travel through Ireland, you will see them in many places:
the old mansions on huge estates. They are signs of a bygone era
when a privileged class invested their wealth in location, land
and architecture. They regularly remained in family hands from
generation to generation. Nevertheless, many of these buildings
have long since fallen into disrepair or have disappeared
altogether. A few have achieved new fame in more modern days and
are now popular museums, gardens and destinations. Names like
Powerscourt, Muckross or Bantry come to mind. However, a large
number of former stately homes are still privately inhabited
today. These include the magnificent Lakeview Estate of Sir
Maurice O’Connell in Fossa near Killarney.

Wayward Spirits and The Liberator: Whiskey Bonding in Killarney

Both the estate and its occupant have recently come increasingly
under the scrutiny of a small public. So it did not go unnoticed,
at least by the international whiskey community, that Maurice
began whiskey bonding in Killarney with Wayward Irish Spirits in
2018. With The Liberator brand, the first Irish whiskeys, aged and
finished on the Lakeview Estate came to market in 2020. In doing
so, the centre of what he does as a whiskey bonder is in a 300-
year-old stone building on the estate. Maurice transformed it into
a bonded storehouse. His whiskeys from various distilleries are
stored there. An exciting undertaking.

Ring of Kerry National Park Gap of Dunloe
The Ring of Kerry at Fossa near Killarney

Fossa is a small town on the N72, the main road northwest of
Killarney. It is better known as the first section of the Ring of
Kerry, Ireland’s most famous travel route. On this, thousands
travel from Killarney each year along the sights of the Iveragh
Peninsula. Moreover, Fossa is no stranger to whiskey lovers. Just
a kilometre away is the new Killarney Distilling Company. An
illustrious neighbourhood.

A visit to Whiskey Bonder Maurice O’Connell

On February 1, 2022, I make the short journey from Tralee to the
Ring of Kerry to meet Sir Maurice at his estate.
A driveway leads off the main road, guarded by a gate and an old
gatehouse. The narrow driveway is lined with large trees. After a
few hundred yards it turns west. The view clears under the trees
and falls on Lakeview Lodge, the home of Maurice O’Connell. This
is slightly elevated at the end of a meadow. The mown green
extends south down to the shore of Lough Leane, one of the great
lakes in Killarney National Park. In the background, Ireland’s
highest mountains frame the impressive landscape scenario on
Maurice’s doorstep.

No less impressive is the historic house where Maurice lives with
his wife Francesca. The multi-storey building
is painted white and faces the lake panorama. Columns flank the
main entrance, steps lead up to the heavy front door. I park my
car next to the house and shortly after Maurice steps out through
a side entrance. Friendly he greets me and leads me inside. We
walk through a bright entryway and enter a room with stylish,
vintage furniture. The walls are hung with portraits both large
and small. Maurice’s family members from several centuries look
down on us as we stand in the room. Among them are quite a few
famous personalities. One in particular stands out nominally:
Daniel O’Connell.

Wayward Irish Spirits Lakeview Estate Killarney
Evening mood at Lakeview Estate

A famous ancestor: Daniel O’Connell

A lawyer known for his eloquent speeches, he fought for equal
rights for Irish Catholics in English Protestant-ruled Ireland in
the first half of the 19th century. Successful. Because of his
achievements, Daniel O’Connell is now considered one of the most
important figures in Irish history and is celebrated as “The
Liberator”. His oversized statue proudly towers over the city’s
main street in Ireland’s capital, Dublin. O’Connell Street was
also named after him.

Under the eyes of his famous ancestor, Maurice stands in the
middle of the room. Like the estate and the house, Maurice
radiates the calm and dignity of old nobility. However, he appears
neither aloof nor elitist. Rather, he is open and down-to-earth.
His manner of expression is refined, his tone serene. His language
expresses the long years he lived in London. He points to various
portraits and begins by giving a brief insight into his family

The smuggler with the hunting cap

A man significant to him was his ancestor Maurice “The Hunting
Cap” O’Connell. The man whose given name he was to receive lived
in Derrynane in the southwest of the Iveragh Peninsula from 1728
to 1825. This was the home of the O’Connell family, who used the
natural harbour of Derrynane Bay as their base for their import
business in European wines and spirits.

“Not always legally,” Maurice reports with a smile. Because when
the English crown introduced taxes on alcohol, the O’Connells
shifted their business into the legal grey area. “Ireland’s
coastline is ideal for smuggling,” Maurice explains.
“Innumerable bays, impossible to survey.” Like Derrynane Bay. In
addition, the O’Connells, with their import business, were the
main supplier of fine wines to the local gentry.
Accordingly, in their own interest, they kept a low profile and
let the smugglers from Derrynane have their way.

Moreover, Maurice’s namesake attracted attention when he evaded a
tax levied on contemporary beaver-skin hats. In protest, unlike
his fellow nobles, he henceforth flaunted a velvet jade cap. This
earned him the nickname “The
Hunting Cap.” “It’s always been the case that the O’Connells did
things their own way,” Maurice laughs at his ancestor’s
stubbornness. He further clarifies, “So did Daniel O’Connell.
Through his tireless efforts on behalf of the underprivileged
classes in Ireland, an English parliamentarian gave him the
appellation of ‘Stubborn Irishman.’ From this appellation, in
English “Wayward Irishman”, Maurice derived his company name:
Wayward Irish Spirits. And from his venerable nickname as “The
Liberator” the name of his whiskey brand.

From Kerry into the world

Maurice himself left the tranquil Kerry of the O’Connells at the
age of 18 and went to the great London to write his own history
in the following decades. His career path in “The City” was
initially that of a management consultant and investor. But his
homeland Kerry never let him go. From the turn of the millennium
onwards, he commuted between London and Killarney on a weekly
basis. Finally, the tranquil Kerry won him back and he broke down
all the tents in London.

By now we are sitting in Maurice’s library. The room with thick
carpets, an open fireplace, more portraits and countless books is
cozy and extremely stylish. Maurice points to a large mirror with
the inscription “O’Connell Galway Bay Distillers” on the wall. “I
acquired this mirror in London 20 years ago. Since then, it has
accompanied me through various changes of apartment,” he reports.

Maurice O’Connell: How to become a Whiskey Bonder

“I like whiskey, consider myself a hobby connoisseur. And somehow
I’ve always had this fixed idea in my head that one day I’d
revive the brand from the mirror.” A historic brand, plus the
storied family name. It seemed ideal. However, he lacked faith in
its feasibility at a time when the Irish whiskey market was a
duopoly. “The market for Irish whiskey had been dominated by
giants like Midleton for decades. How could a small distillery
compete and survive there?”

Then something changed. “In 2012, Dingle Distillery started as a
small distillery and was successful. That changed everything.”
Maurice’s eyes beam back at the memory. “I didn’t necessarily want
to start my own distillery. But I wanted to give whiskeys a finish
to my liking.” The last doubts then fell in 2016 when John Teeling
opened Great Northern Distillery. “In that, I saw the opportunity
to not only source new make and finished whiskey, but even have my
own grain distilled,” Maurice says.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

Here’s how it happened. In 2018, Maurice O’Connell registered the
300-year-old building behind his home as a bonded storehouse for
storing barrels of whiskey. “The Customs employee laughed when he
registered it. He said it was the first time in centuries that an
O’Connell had volunteered to tax
Maurice reports with a laugh. For his storehouse, he sourced
different whiskeys, not only from GND, different barrels for
finishes, and finally launched his own bottlings as a whiskey
bonder from 2020. The Liberator Irish Whiskey was born.

Why did the O’Connell brand from the mirror not make it onto the
bottle label after all? “It didn’t exist at all. In 2016, I looked
into it more intensively and discovered that a mirror manufacturer
had completely invented the brand and the design.
Just to make it a pretty mirror.” The one fixture that motivated
him for decades to ultimately get into the whiskey business was
just a designer’s creative invention. “Sad, isn’t it?” he laughs
at me.

The Liberator Irish Whiskey

Thus The Liberator became the brand name for Maurice’s whiskeys.
It appeared in 2020, exactly 200 years after the O’Connells gave
up the wine and spirits trade, left Derrynane and moved to land on
Lough Leane. “We got off to a bad start, with our first release
falling in 2020 amidst the first months of the Corona pandemic,”
he looks back, smiling again.
The smile rarely disappears from his gaze when Maurice talks. Not
even now: “No pubs, no travel retail. Just us as newcomers with
our whiskeys. Those were bad conditions,” says Maurice. But being
the stubborn Irishman he is, he continued undeterred. The first
release from his Bonded Storehouse was a vatted malt whiskey with
a nine-month finish in Tawny Port Casks. The product was good.
That’s why, pandemic or not, it found its satisfied buyers.

The heart of Wayward Spirits: The bonded storehouse

Maurice and I leave the house and walk around the building. Under
the tall trees, a path leads to a courtyard area surrounded by
stone walls and old buildings. The size of the giant trees around
us conveys how long this land has been inhabited. A 300-year-old
stone building is home to Maurice’s Storehouse. If you’re
expecting a typical Whiskey Warehouse, you’ll be disappointed. The
stretched room has just enough depth to store several barrels in a
row. Likewise, space is limited upward. “In fact, it’s laborious
when we have to get to the back barrels,” Maurice explains.
There is no room for pallet trucks or forklifts here.

Wayward Irish Spirits Bonded Storehouse Whiskey Bonder Maurice O'Connell
The Bonded Storehouse

Nevertheless, the old building serves its purpose. According to
Maurice, even particularly well. “Here in the shadow of the
mountains and directly on the lake, the climate is very
changeable. It rains all the time, only for the sun to shine
shortly afterwards. As a child, that annoyed me. Now all the
humidity and the constant ups and downs have a positive influence
on the barrel aging”, the Kerry veteran explains. “Inside the
warehouse, the weather changes have a huge effect on the casks.
Due to the strong pressure fluctuations, there is a high exchange
between wood and liquid. This technically ages the whiskey much
faster than elsewhere,” explains the whiskey bonder.

A love for port finishes

This was already noticeable in his first whiskey. Early on, he was
pleased with the result of the Tawny Port finish. The intense
finish gave the whiskey a high recognition value. Here port wine
was to become a kind of trademark. Again, family backgrounds
played at least a minor role. “My wife Francesca is from northern
Portugal. My sister worked for Taylor’s (note: Taylor’s Port,
well-known port producer)”, Maurice reports. Last but not least,
there was the family history as (Port) wine merchants in
Derrynane. “I like to do things that follow connections like that.
Port was just a logical choice,” he sums up. So the first release
was followed by various other port finishes like a Double Port
Finish and Peat’n Port Finish.

Tradition and family business

“But I have other wine barrels besides Port,” Maurice smiles. “My
family on my mother’s side had a branch in Bordeaux. They founded
Chateaux McCarthy there, complete with winery. They traded wines
with Hunting Cap O’Connell in Derrynane,” he reports. While he’s
telling the story, Maurice expertly takes some whiskey out of two
barrels with the Whiskey Thief and pours it into glasses. I get
to taste a sherry finish, as well as a nutmeg wine finish. In the
process, the last one is ready to be released as the next The
Liberator Whiskey (note: The Liberator Storehouse Special
Moscatel was released in the summer of 2022). In addition to
wines, he has other ideas for beer barrel finishes and already
has whiskey stored in tequila barrels. “But that’s five years
away before I even start thinking about what it can become,” he
winks at me.

The future: Grain to glass

But his heart’s project is distilling his own grain. Wayward Irish
Spirits already has the first version of the Lakeview Estate
Whiskey in the starting blocks. A milestone for Maurice: “We
harvested the first barley in 2018, had some malting done, which
due to the small quantity, was very expensive, and then took it to
GND for distillation.” He grew the grain on just under three acres
of farmland. “The particular microclimate on our land is very
unsuitable for arable farming.
But I believe that the grain develops its own unique flavour as a
result,” he continues.

Single Estate Whiskey

Maurice harvested a total of ten tons of barley and had it turned
into Pot Still New Make. “I don’t know if the decision to go with
Pot Still was the right one. Whiskey drinkers outside Ireland
often can do little with it. But historically, it seemed like the
right thing to do,” the whiskey bonder explains. The Pot Still
went into refurbished ex-Bordeaux casks and is scheduled for a
three-year coming of age release in late 2022. More bottlings are
firmly planned for the coming years. “In 2022, we harvested 36
tons of barley and a ton and a half of oats,” Maurice said.

Wayward Irish Spirits The Liberator Whiskey
The library room

What is another milestone, at the same time, however, remains only
a stopover on the way to a complete single estate whiskey. Because
the plan to build his own Grain to Glass distillery on the
Lakeview Estate is still in Maurice’s pocket. He made an early
first attempt right at the start of his business venture, “In
2018, we were in talks with someone who had been trying to build
his own distillery in Scotland. However, he was running out of
funds. We discussed whether he could realise his goal together
with us on the Lakeview Estate.”

Lakeview Distillery Killarney

However, the negotiations failed. “We were almost in agreement.
Then the good man brought his wife from Scotland to Kerry to show
her the future home. Well, what can I say? It rained, she hated
Kerry and the plan fell through,” Maurice recounts of the time.
But he has no regrets. “Wayward Spirits probably looks very
different now,” he sums up.

According to the company’s own plans, the Lakeview Distillery is
to start operations in 2024. Then, starting with the cultivation
of the own barley, all materials should come from the own land and
all processes should take place on it.
“I even looked at different options to capture rainwater and make
it usable. After all, what is more obvious in Kerry than using
Kerry rainwater?” Maurice asks me. Basically, sustainability is
important to him: “I would like to do without glass, but
unfortunately I don’t see any chance of that in terms of
acceptance for a high-quality product. That’s why I’m looking at
re-fill options, for example.” In addition, ten days after our
meeting, Maurice reforested 6,000 native woody plants on an Eco
Farm in the mountains behind his land. A strong contribution to
local conservation.

I thank Maurice for the insights into his private home and the
fascinating family history of the O’Connells and McCarthys, and
of course his Bonded Storehouse and future plans.