SB Meets… Carol Quinn, Irish Distillers

The Irish Distillers archivist has hundreds of years of Irish whiskey history at her fingertips. She tells SB about the vital role understanding the past plays in achieving future success.

What’s involved in your role at Irish Distillers?

I am the archivist for Irish Distillers and that means I look after the documented history of the three companies, which in 1966 combined to form Irish Distillers: John Jameson & Son, John Power & Son and the Cork Distilleries Company. I look after all the records that were needed for the day-to-day activities of the different distilleries – the employee records, customer records, whiskey going out and things like barley and grains and dealings with farmers, everything like that.

What’s your professional background?

I am an archivist by profession and in Ireland it’s a postgraduate qualification. I had been working in the University College Cork for about 16 years as an archivist, and I was approached by Irish Distillers about seven years ago as they were looking to set up an in-house company archive. They were looking for advice, which I was very happy to give, and then I thought, what a lovely opportunity! So I jumped ship and went to work for them.

Is there a particular character in Irish whiskey history that has stood out for you?

There’s absolutely loads of personalities and there’s loads of unsung heroes of Irish distilling. Irish whiskey is experiencing a renaissance at the moment, but for a long time it was in the doldrums and people weren’t taking an active interest in it. For me, significant figures include people like Frank O’Reilly. He was the last chairman of Power’s and he was in position when Power’s amalgamated with Jameson and the Cork Distilleries Company. He became the first chairman of Irish Distillers, and that must have been an incredibly difficult job. You had three companies, all family owned and family run, all with long histories, all with signature styles of whiskey, all with a certain amount of suspicion towards each other’s motivations, and he was the glue that held it all together. He was very much an unsung hero of Irish whiskey.

I also think of figures like Mr Norbert Murphy – he was a colossus of Irish whiskey, who is again largely unknown. He joined the Cork Distilleries Company, which was his family’s company, in 1919. Murphy was in charge of the distilleries at a very difficult time, at the end of the First World War and the beginning of Prohibition. We think of the challenges now in terms of Brexit and trade sanctions, but he had two wars, as well as Prohibition and an economic trade war to deal with. He governed the Cork Distilleries Company through that time and kept it going. That must have been tremendous pressure.

Is there a particular period in Irish whiskey history that you find most interesting?

The ‘golden age’ of Irish whiskey from the 1880s. With the phylloxera disease spreading across the vineyards of France in the 1870s, it opened the doors for Irish whiskey, which was always considered a premium drink, but when connoisseurs couldn’t get the fine wines and the Cognac that they were used to, they turned to Irish whiskey. Irish whiskey was a product that always marketed itself as being from Ireland, it was a product that had worldwide reach, and as an Irish person there’s great pride in that. It was an incredible success story that should inspire us now.

How does the archive itself operate?

When the historic Dublin distilleries were closed in the 1970s, on Bow Street and John’s Lane, all the records were in situ within the buildings, and the company at the time wasn’t in great financial shape, so they didn’t know what to do with them. They parcelled them all up and there were 40 palettes’ worth. They were put into long-term storage until such a time that the company could devote some resources to them. That time came, thanks to the global success of Jameson, and when Midleton was undergoing a redevelopment in 2012, they decide to create a purpose-built archive. We took part of the distiller’s cottage on site, converted it, and it is now a repository for our history. We have temperature control, humidity control, UV filters on all the lights, so I am very confident that what has gone into the archive will survive.

How important is oral testament to understanding Irish whiskey history?

Some of the most interesting stories that happened in a distillery are not going to be written down. Things like nicknames, practical jokes, the atmosphere – it’s very hard to get them out of the official record, and that’s why you always need an oral history. It’s lovely to hear people’s memories and it makes retired colleagues still feel very much part of the company.

Must brands understand where they’ve come from to move forward?

It’s absolutely hugely important. I don’t think any company should underestimate how valuable it is to actually know your history in order to define who you are and what you stand for. Those are things that shouldn’t change, no matter how successful you get or how big you get. Having the archive in house allows us to look back and it allows us to learn from the lessons of the past, but also understand what motivated us. History should always be used to inspire you; it’s not about constantly emulating the past.

How has your research into Irish whiskey history informed your opinion of where the industry is headed in the future?

It makes me realise that the future is not going to be linear. It is not going to always be good times; there’s going to be bad times because the wheel turns. When you look at the decline of Irish whiskey in the 20th century, it was all external forces. But the main thing that I take from it is that Irish whiskey survived, and it survived because it didn’t compromise on quality. That’s the lesson anyone should be taking now.


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Author: Amy Hopkins {authorlink}