Small Business Q&A: Conor Hyde from Hyde Whiskey

In this week’s Q&A, Kehlan talks with Conor Hyde from Hyde Whiskey. Hyde Whiskey recently won Best Irish Whiskey in the World at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirit Awards. Conor talks about what takes to win such an award and the journey they’ve been on to get where they are now.

So Conor, where does the story of Hyde begin?

Well, we have a long tradition in the drinks industry within my family here in West Cork. 

Myself and brother Alan are actually the last in a long line of vintners in West Cork. 

We’re 10th generation of vintners based in Bandon, going back to the 1600s. 

So we got together, we’ve had separate careers up until now, about three years ago and decided we’d like to do something together in the food industry.

We decided then to look at our heritage within the drinks industry and move into that area.

History and tradition is one thing, but actually making a business that works is quite different?

Well it wasn’t easy that’s for sure. If it was easy then everyone would be doing it. It was a long process, it took two years of planning before we finally launched in 2015. So we’re one year on the market at this stage.

We spent two hard years developing a business plan and researching the market. We looked into the positioning of the brand, price point, packaging and distribution.

So there was a lot of research, a lot of careful understanding of the market and how our brand would fit into it. 

So we launched in March with our first product which was a 10-year-old single malt aged in Oloroso sherry casks. Since then we’ve launched two more lines to our range and are now in 18 countries around the world within the past 12 months.

So this is a limited, premium product?

We’re not going for high volume low margin.

We are going for a very premium, very top-end whiskey. We’ve spent a lot of time developing this in limited edition small batches, with very special wood.

So we’re trying to command a higher price point in the marketplace given the amount of tender loving care that goes into developing the whiskey before we sell it on the market place.

You just won the Best Irish Whiskey in The World award in San Francisco too?

I have to say that we are absolutely delighted to have won the award. It’s a very prestigious award.

 The San Francisco Spirit Awards are the Oscars of world spirits. You have over 1,800 entrants from around the world and everybody strives to win an award at this competition.

You have some of the most respected judges from around the world too. These people are aficionados of whiskey, they know what they’re tasting. There were over 200 Irish whiskeys entered into the competition, so we were over the moon when we won.

You’ve had rapid growth, how do you keep a handle on the business through that?

I suppose like any business that’s growing rapidly we have to keep a close eye on finance and cash flow.

The revenue we get from sales goes back immediately into the product, packaging and marketing. 

Like all businesses at startup stage it’s been a struggle to keep hold of those finances in black, but we’re handling it and we’re growing at a pace that we’re comfortable with. We’re not overstretching ourselves.

How do you break through into a crowded Irish whiskey market globally?

Well, we’ve positioned the brand as Hyde’s President’s Cask, so we are positioning it as a presidential quality whiskey. 

It’s one of the best whiskeys to come out of Ireland as far as we are concerned. 

We take so much time choosing wooden casks from all over the world to justify that positioning. We bring in empty Oloroso sherry casks from southern Spain, which are handpicked and very carefully graded. 

So then we take our whiskey, which has been maturing in bourbon casks for 10 years, and put them into the sherry casks for a further six to eight months. 

That’s what makes it so special and that’s what makes it such a premium product and so presidential.

So what makes Irish whiskey so different to any other?

People generally describe Irish whiskey as smoother whiskey. When you drink Irish whiskey you get a lovely warm glow inside your tummy. 

With something like a scotch whiskey it’s a peated whiskey, which is made using a different technique. 

They actually smoke the whiskey and you get that warm or hot sensation in your throat or your mouth just before it goes down. 

It has a bit more fire in the mouth kind of feel to it. Whereas Irish whiskey is actually growing really rapidly around the world because it’s so smooth. 

It goes down so easily and has a lovely mellow gentle finish to it as opposed to a more fiery finish that you might get with a scotch.

How important is it to find the right casks?

Very important. The majority of whiskey in the world is actually aged in bourbon casks. 

Those casks are made from American oak and usually come from Kentucky, which would be the bourbon-making area of the United States. 

The law in the States is that you can only use a bourbon cask once, so a cask to make bourbon has a limited shelf life. 

So those casks are then exported around the world for other whiskey makers. 

We would then take a whiskey from those bourbon casks and put it into a secondary cask. The industry calls that ‘double ageing’. 

It’s that second cask that gives it that very unique flavour. 

So for us that secondary cask would be a sherry cask or a rum cask. 

So all whiskey is aged in bourbon casks, but what makes our whiskey special is that we put it into a second cask for a period of time to make it extra special. 

So the casks are very important to giving the whiskey its unique flavour.

So what’s next for Hyde Whiskey?

We have three products right now. 

We have two 10-year-old single malts, one in a sherry cask and one in a rum cask. 

We have a newly-launched single grain, bourbon-matured whiskey.

That is a limited edition run for the 1916 celebrations and we’re working on two other cask finishes at the moment. 

That may have a port finish on it with casks from the Oporto region in Portugal. 

So lots of new product development, lots of innovation still come from us.

That being said, we’re still very much focussed on giving the consumer what they’re looking for from us. 

People expect a different taste twist when they drink Hyde. People are looking for limited editions. 

They’re looking for small batches and more craft to their whiskeys, that is what we are focussed on.


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