Independent bottlers. When you read or hear that phrase who or what immediately springs to mind? Likely it will be names such as Cadenhead’s (much loved by our JJ of course), Signatory, Gordon & MacPhail or the SMWS (The Scotch Malt Whisky Society). Mention these names and you know what you are going to get. Releases from distilleries in Scotland, Ireland and all over the world that have largely been left free of finishing, adulteration of colouring and often are non-chill-filtered. These releases allow us to peer into the distillery character and often in a cask strength format. Importantly they almost always tell you which distillery the whisky comes from… unless it’s Highland Park.
This is not a format that is very familiar in Ireland though. Yes, we have independent bottlers, but they don’t often advertise themselves as such and certainly frequently fail to disclose where they have sourced stock from. Yes, Bushmills, Cooley and Midleton stock is sold third party but often hidden behind non-disclosure agreements and branded as The Quiet Man, Hyde and Kirker & Greer to name a few. Transparency, as has been pointed out here before, is at something that falls by the wayside here in Ireland.
One man who would like to change that is Daithi O’Connell, founder of W.D. O’Connell Whiskey Merchants. Daithi kindly took some time out of his schedule recently to talk to me about the company and I have provided tasting notes on his first two releases that I managed to grab samples of at Whiskey Live Dublin back in November 2019.
Malt: Why did you decide to become an Independent bottler? What was your path into that area?
Daithi: First and foremost, I’m a whiskey fan, Phil, like yourself (Editor’s note: many would argue that this description of Phil is debatable) and when I was living in Hong Kong I got more and more into my whiskies. I was exposed to a much larger range of whiskies than I’d ever seen before. I used to be involved in the pub trade back in Ireland but there was no specialist whiskey scene back then. At that time whiskies available in Ireland were Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Jameson, Powers and so on and that was about it, maybe a bottle of Crested on the top shelf covered in dust.
I opened a bar in Hong Kong with some friends and there were a lot of shops that sold premium spirits there…premium tequila, vodka’s and that’s what we were selling. It was a completely different demographic and city compared to anything in Ireland and definitely Cork at that stage. A good guy I met at Diageo, he started taking me to tastings and I was introduced to a lot of scotch whisky funnily enough. Previously I had a conversation with him that I didn’t think scotch was any good… I was pretty wrong and got educated! That really got me going.
I was then watching the Irish scene and I heard about Union Hall now West Cork Distillers who started making a brown spirit, I was watching what John Teeling was doing. As I was getting into whisky, I started bringing Irish whiskey over and expanding the Irish range in the bar. So, if someone was visiting Ireland, I’d get them to bring back Midleton, Redbreast, Green Spot, whatever we could get real and I’d sort them out for it. Guys were literally bringing us in whiskey illegally I suppose for want of a better word.
Funnily enough, I got caught one time myself bringing in whiskey in my bag. I think I had like two bottles of Midleton Very Rare, a bottle of Barry Crockett, a couple of Redbreasts and a Green Spot, so I had a whole bag just for these. The guy who pulled me over didn’t know what it was, he had a huge exhaustive list of Scottish whiskies but he had no clue what these Irish whiskies were. I told him they were like Jameson and he let me off paying €30 in duty and that was it! So long story short that was really how I got into the whiskey scene.
I essentially founded a payment technology business in Hong Kong for events with the whole end goal of building a distillery back in Ireland. I was going to become wealthy from this other company, flip it for 50 million and then build a distillery. That business is still going and I haven’t exited or become a multi-millionaire.
But I actually started looking at building a distillery in 2014, in 2015 I had a sale agreed on a site in Killarney and I was in discussions with Forsyths in Scotland and Engineering firms. I was talking to the local authorities County Council and had road traffic surveys conducted…architects engaged and so we were pretty well advanced with it and had some money raised in Hong Kong for it…and then essentially due to work and due to travelling so much between Dubai, Hong Kong and Ireland my marriage failed and I decided that I needed to recheck my priorities in life as I was all too focused on work.
I decided to dial everything down and I parked the distillery idea.
I had recently turned 40 and become a father and a year earlier my own Dad died and I was looking at this unfinished plan…and I was thinking if I ever want to get back into whiskey then I don’t have access to the same funding as before and I don’t want to go down that work rabbit hole again and so I woke up on a January morning last year and asked my new partner Alina, ‘What would you think if I got back into whiskey as an independent bottler?’. To be honest I would have complained a bit about some of the whiskey scene and independent bottlers in Ireland, regarding variety and transparency and so with her full backing in April 2019 I packed in my other business and decided to go full time as an independent bottler.
Malt: So, we can differentiate you from the likes of Chapelgate Whiskey who are bonders and at present seem primarily interested in Irish whiskey. Do you have any plans to move into other whiskey regions in the style of say Cadenhead’s or North Star Spirits who do rums, bourbons and world whiskies?
Daithi: Yeah, great question. You’re actually on the money and obviously, I am primarily interested in Irish also but that’s the long-term plan. I would like to become the Irish Cadenhead’s if possible… maybe like a mix between Cadenhead’s and Gordon & MacPhail that would be ideal. I am absolutely looking at other whiskies and I have identified whisky in other parts of the world that I plan on picking up. I kind of want to bring people on our whisky journey as well so when I talk about whisky, I don’t want to talk about my whisky all the time. I want to talk about other whisky, about other distillers and producers and what they are doing. Obviously, I need to make money, I need to cover our bills but I also want to enjoy it, and I want to learn a lot more about whisky, rums… I mean I have an interest in all drinks whether they be beer, spirits or wines.
This is a long-term project and it’s not going to happen overnight. Do we want to have our own bond? Absolutely! Will we change our name to ‘bonders’? No, we are going to be Whiskey Merchants.
Malt: You touched on this earlier but transparency is one of the big buzzwords doing the rounds at present and Irish whiskey isn’t always the most transparent of businesses. I have noticed that your labels are very transparent, you a very open about where these whiskies are sourced from. Have you had any issues with suppliers advocating non-disclosure agreements?
Daithi: Personally, no… although at the minute I wouldn’t be dealing with a lot of distilleries. With some of the distilleries, I approached with their pricing we didn’t even get that far…they were talking to me like I was joining a cask club so those didn’t progress any further. Although limited in who I’m talking to at present, no one has mentioned an NDA and I certainly wouldn’t be signing one.
Malt: Have you had any real issues trying to source whiskey in Ireland or have distilleries been open with you?
Daithi: To be fair John Teeling and his team at Great Northern have been absolutely fantastic, a lot of us wouldn’t be here without him! So, I’ve been able to acquire some Cooley stock and Great Northern Distillery stock after that. Access has been good, but the problem has been speaking to some of the smaller distilleries, where some won’t sell their spirit to anybody, or they’ll sell it but at an absolute ultra-premium price. Now I haven’t spoken to the majority of them yet as there are now 31 distilleries in Ireland now but I will get to them eventually…so yes, the problems have been either price point or unwillingness to sell spirit…and maybe in the future that will change. Possibly some people think ‘oh you’re competition, why would I go to the effort of doing this so I can sell my spirit over to you’. And I have to respect, at the end of the day that’s their prerogative whether I agree with it or not.
Malt: So, I have been interested in the name ‘Bill Phil’. I was wondering where this nom de plume had come from?
Daithi: Yeah, so Bill Phil was my great grandfather who lived in a small village called Mountcollins in West Limerick. He was William Philip O’Connell and I’m William David essentially, Daithi being the Gaelic for David. William Philip became known as Bill Phil because there were so many O’Connells in that parish and that village back in the late 1800s. He was the local blacksmith and the local merchant store owner so you could buy anything in there. They were selling chests of tea, salted fish once a week, nails…like no one sold milk and eggs back then as everyone was self-sufficient…so it was like a hardware store meets dried goods and over time it turned into a newsagent. So thereafter everyone in the family became known as Bill Phil…my grandfather was Jackie ‘Bill Phil’, my father was Billy ‘Bill Phil’.
Bill Phil was a bit of a local legend…back then he was really probably the epicentre of that little community being a blacksmith, a bit of an engineer, a shopkeeper. My grandfather then took over the shop and expanded it as time moved on. They were also renowned for cutting or footing turf in the local area and for making a great sleán (a tool for cutting turf) and it became known far and wide as the ‘Bill Phil Sleán’. That inspired then the name for my peated expression that was coming out due to the direct link that my family had with peat.
Malt: So, will the Bill Phil be a series?
Daithi: Yeah so the first release is a single cask from a batch and there is more of that in stock and essentially I have to make a decision when the next batch is released will be another single cask with a different cask style or a larger vatted batch…I probably need to figure that out over the next few weeks as it’s due out mid-March. (Small batch of circa 600 bottles)
Malt: So there are a few people in the Irish community who are on a #CaskStrengthCrusade like David Marra (if you follow the FridayNightDram, SaturdayNightSip & SundayNightSup tags on twitter you will know Dave well) who love to have all their whiskies at cask strength. How do you decide your bottling strength? 47.5% is a fairly unusual strength for a release.
Daithi: Really it comes down to sampling, I started the Bill Phil at cask strength which was around 61% and I just felt it was just too strong and then I have to consider how many bottles I’ll achieve and the price point. The other side of the coin is that cask strength isn’t for everyone. I do love cask strength, like the PX is lovely at cask strength but I just felt the Bill Phil was really fantastic at this particular strength. I think that if you add water to the Bill Phil it definitely changes and doesn’t have the same wow factor.
Will there be cask strengths in the future? Absolutely but I certainly won’t bring out every whiskey at cask strength. Cask strength can alienate the market too. As you develop your palate you definitely want to go up the abv. I’m not saying 40% is wrong, I’ve had plenty of lovely whiskies at 40% but will I ever bottle at 40%? Only if the whiskey absolutely needs to be bottled at 40%.
Malt: Is there anything that keeps you awake at night regarding whiskey?
Daithi: (laughs) Are you on my Facebook messenger listening in on me? I was telling someone recently, they were like ‘what do you lay awake at night about?’, last night I woke up a 4 o’clock, ‘what was the problem?’…so I said ‘oh I was worrying about cask quality and where I was going to source these casks from and where I was going to get enough of the right spirit that I’m after’.
What I want to ensure is continuation of product and that’s really my worst nightmare, running out of stock and not being able to access enough stock because obviously I can’t buy all the stock I’d love to buy…I wish I had the money and going on a spending spree! I’d be really worried about someone else coming in and thinking ‘that’s a great product, we didn’t know about it and we have loads of cash, let’s give John Teeling a shout and snap all that up!’ Especially if I was the one who brought the product to the forefront. That would be pretty frustrating.
Malt: Do you have any logistical issues? As you don’t have your own bonded warehouse you won’t be in direct contact with the casks all the time. Does that pose problems?
Daithi: I was living in West Cork when I started the business, about 10 minutes outside of Skibbereen near Toe Head. A fantastic house looking out at the Fastnet Lighthouse, prior to the LED light going into the lighthouse the sweep used to bounce off our living room wall and our bedroom wall. Just a fantastic place but driving from there to Dundalk, Dublin or anywhere really was a bit of a disaster. We actually moved at the end of October to Stradbally just outside Dungarvan. So now I’m only an hour from Cork, the bottling plant is in Clonmel 45 minutes away as are the labellers. Dublin is 2 hours away and Dundalk 2.5 hours. Blackwater Distillery and Waterford are very close and there is a lot happening in the are generally.
Logistically it is still an issue and it’s something I’m looking at as I want to have more interaction with the casks and especially as we grow them….particularly the older stuff. Like the PX we released, the first couple of months after it went from the bourbon casks to the PX it was very slow and nothing much changed. So I left it for two months and then I said ‘Oh I’ll not bother checking’ and came back about 4 months later and I thought I’m going to have to watch this. I hadn’t planned to bottle it for Whiskey Live (November 2019) but it felt right at 6 months exactly in the PX cask.
Eventually, my plan is to have a small bond somewhere with a small bottling line just in case I need to do small runs as realistically I don’t want to spend my time bottling but I want to be agile enough to react to corporate or third party runs. And I’d like to explore blending too….playing around with various styles and build up a library of whiskey so we can add variety to the market place.
Just finally before I go, one thing I have to really say though, I know people talk about the whiskey fabric or whatever…but the community has just been fantastic. There are too many to mention, really but from the online community and influencers to the retailers and publicans and professional bartenders to the government agencies etc. Chris Hennessy, for example, has been so much help…introducing me to so many people, you know he’s young and on the scene and I am old and not in the scene. So the whole local community here has been brilliant…I really can’t get over just how helpful everyone has been.
So let’s look at the first two releases from W.D. O’Connell then.
The ‘Bill Phil’ which is a heavily peated Irish single malt (55ppm no less) which is triple distilled at the Great Northern Distillery and was bottled at the tender age of 3 years and 5 months at 47.5% abv and is bourbon cask matured in a single cask. This cost €65 a bottle.
The second whiskey available is the 17-year-old PX finish. This single malt came from Cooley stocks and was matured in 1st fill bourbon barrels before a 6-month finish in a Pedro Ximenez cask. Bottled at 46% the cask turned out 370 bottles priced at €160.
Both these whiskies are natural colour and non chill-filtered and I managed to pick up samples of both at Whiskey Live Dublin.
W.D. O’Connell Bill Phil Irish Whiskey – review
Colour: Pinot Grigio
On the nose: A real dirty and industrial nose – engine oil and diesel, lanolin, curing salt, lemons in brine, sweet peat and then thyme. Peaches & apricots in cream come through all wrapped up in tarry smoke.
In the mouth: A sweet arrival – sugar syrup, salted milk chocolate and a creamy character too. A slight chalkiness now with medicinal iodine and oil. Stone fruit underlies the industrial heft. Lemons, tobacco ash. Mid palate brings a spike of pepper and chilli heat but nothing aggressive. The finish is of good length. It’s creamy, lemony and ashy.
W.D. O’Connell 17 year old Irish Whiskey PX – review
Colour: Pale amber.
On the nose: Very fruit-forward – apple strudel, poached pear and stewed strawberries and blackberries. Tinned pineapple. Light baking spices, flashes of cinnamon and nutmeg. Almonds and orange peel with a lovely malt character.
In the mouth: A creamy and oily arrival. Stewed berries and some darker fruit of raisins and date. Not overly sweet so thankfully the PX hasn’t overpowered the spirit. Liqueur filled chocolates, marzipan and a touch of eucalyptus and citrus oils. Balanced spices of cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper. The finish is long with chocolate, orange peel and warming spices.
First things first I’d like to thank Daithi for taking the time to talk with me and be so upfront. Hopefully, things go well for W.D. O’Connell Whiskey Merchants in the future.
Whiskey wise, we’ll start with the 17-year-old PX. A typically fruity example of Cooley single malt aided by the short finish in the PX cask that thankfully added layers to the base spirit and didn’t take over the show. The nose on this shades the palate, but it is well balanced overall and enjoyable rather than show-stopping. It reminded me very much of the Creative Whisky Company’s Irish malts that we have reviewed here on Malt before.
The ‘Bill Phil’ is the pick of the two for me though. It is actually hard to believe you are drinking a whiskey that is only two months past its third birthday. This is a drop that easily matches up to some of it’s more famous Islay cousins – while maybe not as complete as an Ardbeg 10 (although it isn’t too far off) I’d easily choose this over a Bowmore 12 or Laphroaig 10. It is fresh, vibrant and well balanced. It will be interesting to see how this expression matures and how the ‘Bill Phil’ line develops as a whole through time. I was mulling over whether this was a 7 or an 8 but the fact that this is so young and frankly just so tasty I for once let my good-natured side win out and I awarded the 8.
A strong start from W.D. O’Connell then. Let’s hope they can continue to put out releases as good as this going forward!
Two photographs provided by W.D. O’Connell and one from Phil.