Bill Linanne meets Louise McGuane who has given up the world of multinationals to start her own whiskey bonding company.
The Irish have always been good at booze. Whether making it, selling it, or simply consuming it, we have a national identity that is forever linked to — and somewhat soaked in — alcohol.
Take Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond. Born Jack Moran in Philadelphia to Irish immigrant parents from Kilrush in Co Clare, he served in the army before deciding military life was not for him. He moved to New York and built an empire by bootlegging liquor during Prohibition.
Known as ‘the clay pigeon of the underworld’, he survived many assassination attempts and became a socialite and media darling, a loveable Irish-American rogue.
Speaking to Louise McGuane, it’s hard not to hear the ghost of Legs Diamond in her voice. Her accent is a bizarre mix of her native Clare and the flat New York Irish of Brooklyn.
Like Diamond, she briefly considered a career in the military, even serving a couple of years in the FCA. But instead of heading east to fire shots across the Curragh in the rigid world of the armed forces, she opted to head west to America and fire shots across bars in the slightly more fluid world of high-end alcohol sales.
“Well it was the Eighties and Nineties in rural ireland, this was pre-Celtic Tiger — everybody left, it was a cultural thing. I had two aunts that had gone — there was a lot of emigration to the US in my family, I had cousins over there, so when I emigrated, there was a cousin waiting to pick me up when I got off the boat, so to speak, and there was a culture of emigration out west anyway. It was just what you did.
“I just sort of fell into the drinks industry; in America they simply don’t care what your degree is in — they just want to know that you can do the job.” But America, the land of opportunities for thousands of Irish emigrants in the Eighties, was a very different bureaucratic beast to the old country.
"When she started to work in the drinks industry in the States, McGuane soon realised that the world in which Legs Diamond and others operated — the dry America of the Volstead Act — still casts its long shadow.
“Ever since Prohibition, all of the individual states set their own liquor laws — so it’s almost like 50 different countries that you have to know individually, and then at county level those laws can change again, as you can have dry counties.
"You also have state boards that run the liquor so your point of contact for that state in terms of sales would be two guys who work for the state office.”
While the American market is the one she came to know best, she also spent time in Asia, working in the drinks business in Singapore. After spending two decades learning the complexities of the liquor business with luxury brands such as Hennessy and (Tony Soprano’s favourite) Stoli, McGuane had a tough choice to make: Love or career.
“When I was with multinationals I was on the global trek, and you have to move every two or three years, which was great until I got married and then it just wasn’t possible as I didn’t have a trailing spouse, he has a luxury PR business in London so he has to stay there.”
So she quit. But she didn’t stand still for long — and it was a relic from Legs Diamond’s ancestral home that started her on her next adventure.
“It was this one guy, this JJ Corry guy, a Cooraclare native who became a whiskey bonder in Kilrush. I found his label on eBay and I called up the guy with the label and said what do you know about this.
"I found out all I could about Corry, then I met his great-grand-nephew, and made all these enquiries around his neighbours and the local historical society, and just decided ‘ok, I am going to do this’.”
McGuane had the crazy notion of resurrecting a long-dead trade. A century ago, the Irish whiskey bonder was a common sight. Grocers and publicans would buy their spirit straight from distillers (who at the time were mere wholesalers themselves) and then age it in their own premises to sell on as they saw fit.
Over the decades as the industry contracted and consolidated, distilleries started selling direct to the public, and one by one the bonders disappeared. There are still relics of that time, famously the Yellow Spot and Green Spot whiskeys, but they are as close to bonded whiskeys as birds are to dinosaurs.
So McGuane set to work. After using her extensive knowledge to put together a copper-fastened business plan, she turned to crowd-funding fountainhead Kickstarter to raise equity. She offered a variety of buy-ins, from small gifts aimed squarely at the Irish American market — a packet of shamrock from the Emerald Isle — to week-long stays in her Co Clare home (a half-mile from the house Legs Diamond’s ancestors emigrated from).
The property was completely transformed under McGuane’s guidance, from a traditional farm cottage to an architecturally designed beauty, all glass walls, brushed concrete and stylish Scandinavian aesthetics. It has become part of the brand for Chapel Gate, as her business is now known, being the HQ for investor meetings and venue for business events.
“With the Kickstarter I sold 18 stays in my house — I raised 18,000 that way! It’s a beautiful house and it ended up being a really good asset for the business. It’s right next to the rackhouse, on the same plot, and I’ve had a few potential customers come over, a few potential importers too, and it then becomes a really good spot to show people the modern face of the brand and show them how we operate from a design perspective.”
With her rackhouse filling up with barrels of spirit, she is in for the long haul — but is the boom in the Irish whiskey category here to stay?
“Eventually, it will plateau but it will keep flying now for quite a while. Look at Asia. I spent a lot of time there, and if you go anywhere in Asia and ask for an Irish whiskey, you will be pointed to Ballantines or something as there is zero category knowledge or impact.
"Nobody has won there; Pernod has a tough time in Asia generally, but they haven’t launched the category there successfully, so that market is still completely closed, but it is going to open, they are going to start making inroads there. There is interest there now — there are Irish Whiskey Societies setting up in Hong Kong and Macau.”
So the boom is getting boomier. And thus it was for Legs Diamond back in the 1920s, and after making his fortune in liquor during Prohibition, he forged out on his own. However, once out of the protection of the syndicates, he was vulnerable, and ultimately someone caught up with the clay pigeon of the underworld, and he paid a supreme penalty.
While it seems unlikely that a beret-clad French assassin is coming for McGuane (good luck to them finding Cooraclare), I ask her if it is worth it — forging out on your own, leaving the safety of a giant multinational, to pursue your own dreams, to put it all on the line.
“By a factor of about 15,000, yeah. Those big multinationals are fantastic in that you learn, you work hard, you are exposed to a multitude of cultures, you get to know markets very intimately, and you get very specific market knowledge.
"I miss the perks though — the wildly extravagant expense accounts, the business class flying, and all the gold cards I used to have on all the airlines. Now it’s Ryanair, all the time, basically.”
With a growing stockpile of spirit, as well as plans ahead to release a sourced blend, and even a brand celebrating the legend of Legs Diamond, she may be due a seat upgrade to business class sooner than she thinks.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved