Whisper it quietly, but there is a revolution taking place. County Down is slowly becoming the distillation centre of Ulster Whiskey. Bushmills has real competition… not just in quality, but in tourist appeal too. You see in very close proximity we now have Copeland Distillery, Echlinville Distillery, Killowen Distillery and Shortcross Distillery. Added to the list, there is Hinch Distillery, which is in the process of being built and should be operational at the end of the summer.
Over the next while, I plan to give some airtime to all these distilleries here on Malt. We start off just outside the village of Crossgar, about 15 miles south of Belfast and home to the Rademon Estate Distillery that is well known for its Shortcross Gin (available from Master of Malt for £39.95), but has also been quietly producing whiskey.
I reached out to Co-Founder and Head Distiller David Boyd-Armstrong to answer a few questions over the old dog and bone. I had visited the distillery last March and had planned to do this piece much, much earlier, but sadly life got in the way. Anyway, patience is a virtue and you lovely readers and supporters of Malt get to read all about it now!
Malt: David, thanks for giving us your time. Perhaps you could give us some information about Shortcross & Rademon, how did the distillery come about?
David: Well like all married men’s bad jokes, it’s my wife’s fault for getting me into the distilling industry! Fiona’s family acquired Rademon Estate about twenty years ago and it’s been a labour of love for them to restore the Estate. At that time Fiona had inadvertently read a book about the lost distilleries of Ireland, possibly Brian Townsend’s book. Fiona was fascinated by this idea and she said to her Dad wouldn’t it would be great to build a distillery here and bring back the lost art of distilling to County Down. Needless to say, her Dad said no: you’re crazy!
So, that idea sat to one side until we got married in 2011. I worked as an engineer in the defence industry and Fiona was a property surveyor. We both love food and drink, and we would have loved to have created a vineyard here, but it’s County Down not Bordeaux. We both loved gin and so we decided to explore building a gin distillery. With that in mind, for the first two years of our marriage, whilst still working full time we spent every weekend and holiday researching travelling around the world visiting distilleries and doing courses. We were lucky with where we got to see, we got to visit Sipsmith when it was still in Michael Jackson’s garage, which is something most people never got to see. We visited Beefeater before it was opened up properly to the public. We even had a guided tour at Loch Lomond.
But particularly when we were in the United States, we fell in love with the craft distilling movement. The Americans do craft at a level that we don’t really appreciate here. As February 2013 arrived, we bit the bullet and ordered our first still from Christian Carl in Germany. It arrived in the summer and we spent 6 months commissioning the still in the distillery and doing our recipe development. Just before we launched Shortcross (gin) itself, we attended the American Distilling Institute (ADI) conference in Seattle in March 2014, where we visited distilleries that were way bigger than us and also way smaller than us, all distilling a range of products, and so whiskey became a personal focus. Whilst in Seattle, one of the places we visited was Westland, which is absolutely stunning if you ever get to the West Coast of the States – make the effort to visit Westland!
From a personal perspective, I like malt whiskey, I fell in love with whiskey whilst travelling to Bristol for work. At Belfast International (airport) they were doing a tasting of Connemara Turf Mor, and I just fell in love with the intensity of the smoke and the sweetness and this was where my whiskey journey started, in many ways in parallel as we were starting Shortcross Gin. After coming back from the ADI conference, we talked it through and as we believe that you should love what you make, we decided to explore how we could distil a whiskey and create a malt whiskey.
Shortcross launched in April 2014, and in parallel, we ordered our mash tun and fermentation equipment which arrived in early 2015 and we started brewing in June 2015 and we filled our first barrels in August 2015. We then added in further much larger pot stills, one from Frilli in Italy and a second from Carl, so over time, we have gradually built up capacity. So next week, for instance, I’m taking delivery of additional wash backs.
The name Shortcross is the Anglicisation of our local village Crossgar which means ‘The Short Cross’. For Fiona & I everything we do is all about our location and terroir, so we are proud to have our village name as the brand. Our logo is the Shortcross Penny which is an old Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Celtic coin but from an Irish perspective when the Normans invaded Dublin in the 12th/13th century it was the first coin to be minted in Ireland as a way of exporting Irish silver, and as we wanted to export our products it was the perfect way to tie in locality and something that has been exported before.
Malt: You use a lot of local botanicals in your gin, don’t you?
David: Yes, we try to use as many as possible, so for our classic gin we forage elderflower and elderberries from the forest on the estate, we take wild clover from the lawns, apples from the walled garden on the estate. For our Bar Tenders Series 1, (available from Master of Malt for £38.96), we take blackberries and raspberries from the forest, and similarity for our pink gin called Rosie’s Garden Gin, (available from Master of Malt at £26.50) named after Fiona’s mum we take strawberries, lavender and raspberries from the walled garden on the estate, and it has just won a Double Gold at the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Malt: When you took the decision to move into whiskey distillation you also decided to double distill rather than triple distill. Was there any particular reason for this?
David: Well, there is an ongoing debate by many about which is better and I have always felt that double-distilled whiskies would give you a greater body and depth of flavour, so that was really the science, but then you look at something like the Bushmills Acacia finish malt, which is the same distillate that they produce for all their other malts, but bottled at 47% and still being triple distilled. It has a really rich body. In a way, it’s horses for courses you know. I’m not necessarily the biggest traditionalist, which hopefully people will see through our releases and really the double distillation was just a personal preference.
Also from our side, once you get into the whole cycle of triple distillation, by the time you accumulate weak feints, strong feints and everything else you need to have a lot of space and vatting capacity to be able to deal with those, as you don’t have the balanced system that you get with double distillation. We take one mash which gives us one fermentation, which gives us one wash distillation and gives us one spirit distillation, which gives us the LPA to go forward for casking. From that sense then, we were looking at what’s the most straight forward way of whiskey production, but also when we started whiskey production, it was only myself in the still house. so you have to take account of what you can physically handle on your own. To put it in context our distillation team is only now comprised of four members, two of which only joined us in January. However, while I’ve said all of the above, I’m fascinated by what we could do through triple distillation so it’s definitely something that I want to trial and explore in the distillery this year.
Malt: One of the things I noticed when I visited was that you, I employ a really long fermentation time, over 120 hours wasn’t that right?
David: Yes, typically it’s actually 140 hours to 160 hours. I really dislike it when people say that 80% to 90% of a whiskey’s flavour comes from the cask, because if you are using good wood, then that’s simply not the case. If you follow some of the bad practices, of certain parts of the whiskey industry, where they view fermentation as purely the process of creating alcohol that may be the case, but from our point of view, fermentation is really about creating flavour and alcohol. So, by going beyond the typical 60 – 70 hours we get a lot more secondary fermentation and as the yeast breaks down, we get more flavours and aromas. At the same time whilst we lose a little in alcohol yield, we get back much more flavour and we see that in our distillates which are really fruity and rich. We don’t chill the fermentation’s so they run warm & long. We just let them do their thing, which when I was re-reading Fionnan’s O’Connors book A Glass Apart, it’s actually one of the things Midleton do.
We could push capacity further by shortening fermentation times, but I don’t think that would give us any great benefit, we have a balanced system that gives us the right balance between yield but more importantly as much flavour as we can get.
Malt: That’s a good ethos to have. A lot of distilleries do run short fermentation times and so would appear to put yield before all else, which then helps propagate the importance of the cask for flavour myth which suits some of the industry to keep that narrative going.
David: I think that really that idea suits those who are primarily buying stock whiskey and then finishing it in casks to try and differentiate their product. I have nothing against that, but if you are purely looking at the wood as being the primary driver of flavour, then I think you are looking in the wrong direction and you are really only paying homage to the idea that malt whiskey is only good at 10, 15 years or older. The thing is malt whiskey, any whiskey, in reality, can be good at any age but you have to look at what you want to do to deliver a product at a particular age and for it to be good.
Malt: When I was at the distillery you surprised us with some pot still new make. So, how are you splitting your production between malt and pot still?
David: Well, we have malt which is great and we have a few things on the malt whiskey side that I haven’t spoken about yet and so I’m not going to give that away just yet. We have a little bit of pot still, not as much as we’d like to have, but that’s because we don’t have a mash conversion vessel, so we are doing it in our mash lauter tun so there’s challenges getting full conversion on the raw barley side if we want to go with spirit that is GI (Geographical Indicator) compliant.
Pot still is something I wanted to do as a bit of a vanity project just to show we could do it! It’s been fun and it’s an absolutely cracking distillate and we’ll have mature spirit sometime around October this year. What’s matured now is really, really good and we are happy with it, but we just don’t have enough of it and that’s the challenge for the likes of ourselves is not being able to do all these things, but actually having enough of it to see that it makes sense. We have another distillate that is neither malt or pot still and it’s the one that for me I’m really excited about because I think it’s going to cut through earlier than everything else. It’s interesting as it has the characteristics of both malt and pot still, but it’s neither and it’s also not a heritage mashbill.
Malt: Following on from that then…. I’m sure you are aware of Brendan Carty down in Killowen Distillery and his view on the Technical File. Brendan is really pushing hard with the heritage mash bills and his view is he will release them anyway. Do you think the Technical File needs re-written? Some feel if we change what is there already pot still could become too broad an umbrella and lose its character.
David: Particularly amongst bloggers, and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way Phil, there is a lot of talk that the resistance to opening up the Technical File is the IWA (Irish Whiskey Association), I sit on the technical committee and that’s not the case. The problem with opening it up is actually the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) in the South. They are the blocker. It’s not that the Association doesn’t want to change the Technical File, we all recognise there will be a time for a review of the file, and it’s a big topic at the minute, as I do think we are at a stage where it probably should be reviewed, as the file was written 7 – 8 years ago. But it’s actually that mechanism of how do we review the file and open it up? That’s really the challenge.
The other the thing is the angle of the traditionality of pot still mash bills – there has to be a demonstrable practice of those mash bills being continuously produced and this is where it gets difficult. This isn’t something from the IWA or even the DAFM, this is something from the EU regulation as to what are Geographic Indicators. From a personal perspective, it’s in everyone’s interest for the Technical File to be reviewed but that doesn’t mean everyone will get the changes that they want.
There’s also this hostility to Irish Distillers regarding the Technical File, but I have to say that when we were developing our Pot Still process, IDL and Dave Quinn, in particular, were fantastic in terms of advice and guidance, they couldn’t have been more helpful.
There are others out there trying to set up Association’s but there is no guarantee they will get the recognition that would ultimately allow them to be a public voice. It is a hot topic, but I think we all need to take a step back as opening the Technical File will be like turning the Titanic, people need to understand that it will not be a quick process. It took a long time previously for it to be produced and it will take a long time, I think, for it to be updated and revised.
Malt: Finally, then, when are you likely to be launching some of your mature whiskey?
David: Well our plan was to release our Shortcross Whiskey right about now… so I’m a bit frustrated to be honest! Looking at how things are playing out it will likely be next year, just with the current economic climate it doesn’t feel right to be trying to bring something new to the market. The benefit of waiting though is that I have more mature stock and I have different distillates and profiles that I can look at. That’s the silver lining in it to be fair.
Malt: Have you taken the decision to name the releases? Will they be under the Short Cross brand or possibly under Rademon Estate?
David: It’s going to be under Shortcross… we know as well for export that a lot of the Gaelic names like in the Scotch industry you need someone to tell you how to pronounce them, like Bruichladdich, because unless you speak Gaelic to try to pronounce it, it is difficult I know my first attempt at pronouncing it was way off the mark.
So, basically, the plan is to do something next year, and for us it is quite a big thing… this part of County Down between ourselves, Shane & Jarlath at Echlinville and the other guys opening up (Killowen, Hinch, Copeland) we are actually in part of the country where we could do a proper whiskey tour/trail. I think Down could become quite an epicenter of distilling & distillery tourism, because it is accessible as there aren’t large distances between the distilleries and other tourist destinations and with that in mind, I think the futures bright, we just need to get through Covid-19 and get back on track!
Thanks to David for taking the time out to chat with me. Before I wrap up the piece, here’s my tasting notes for their Pot Still new make.
Shortcross Pot Still new make 44.9% – review
Colour:should be obvious.
On the nose: lovely cereal notes and fresh sourdough bread. Draft, barley sugar, fruit salad and kirsch with some white pepper.
In the mouth: Good texture – oily, creamy and coats the mouth well. Very barley forward with a subtle earth, nutty character. Very fruity, peach and black cherries predominantly with some pepper and fresh ginger spice and heat.
So, obviously unlike other well-known reviewers, we don’t rate new make on Malt with an actual score. Instead, we use it as a barometer of how well the distillery may do in the future and if this Pot Still is anything then Shortcross Whiskey is off to a very good start. Marry that with a good wood management policy and hopefully, the end product will meet the expectations that the new make sets.
When I visited the distillery, David did allow those visiting, to nose a couple of barrels of single malt that were actually of age and could have been bottled. Alas, he only allowed us to nose the casks… no samples were shared as David didn’t think they were ready yet for drinking… a shame as the smell was superb. But I also applaud David for not wanting to rush his whiskey… an ethos that bodes well I believe.
I look forward to next year then when (hopefully) the first expressions of Shortcross Whiskey are released.
It seems highly unlikely that Phil took these photographs, so thanks to Rademon Estate for providing them. We also have some commission links within this review if you wish to explore further.