Ireland’s primaeval lore


If there’s something in the air in Ireland, there’s something in the water in county Down. Downstream of Echlinville in the Mourne Mountains, Brendan Carty’s Killowen distillery (really three lads in a shed with two hand-beaten pots) is as impossible to get to as it is to describe.

If nosing Boann with Michael or walking the farm in Echlinville calls back to Irish whisky’s industrial and agrarian pasts, Killowen distillery is its primaeval lore.

Direct fired pot stills, cuts taken by taste off the drip, malt peated out the back using turf the boys shovel from a bog down the hill... playfully amorphous mash bills of oats, rye, wheat, raw barley, did I mention that they smoke the oats? The raw ones, not the malted ones. Killowen are the guys no one outside Ireland knows about, everyone in Ireland can’t shut up about, and everyone else is going to find out about in three years or so. The closest Scottish parallel might be Dornoch but to find a Brendan Carty you really need to look to world distilling. The American craft scene, some of the spunkier farm projects in Australia and New Zealand – and yes, our native old 1950s oil, which courses like a bloodstream through their wash into their cuts.

The capacity is tiny. It’s really legalised poitín, which they make quite a bit of by the way as an outlet for their mash bill trials. Killowen’s core (and due to some profoundly short-sighted current legislation as yet legally non-compliant) Irish pot still is mythopoeic stuff. Half peated malt, raw barley grist, and then in tumbling order malted and raw dry-peated oats, wheat and rye and depending on the run, a bag or two of a specialty malt – all left in an open-top fermentation for a whole week straight.

“You leave it open,” Brendan told me, “you let bacteria into it, it’s brilliant. It tastes like pineapples. We tend to get more infections in our mash, which is great. There’s sheep and cattle shite all round the place. I imagine that’s airborne.”

Beneath the myth and bravado, the lads really do have a considered understanding of the elements at play. More herbal menthol from unmalted oats, more custard cream and biscuits from the oaten malt, the mouthfeel from both against raw barley oil, the Maillard reactions in direct flame distillation, the cuts of each mash bill, and the cross considerations of the two peated grains. The newmake gristles. Shame about the sheep shite.

Killowen whisky isn’t whisky yet but I’ve a two-year old sample here from a Pedro Ximenez cask and even at this age it knocks the socks off nearly anything I know in Ireland. Pinecone and bacon and a full, burnt caramel underworld with a maple tree forest burnt straight back to pinecone by direct flame and peat. In the case of this particular cask, it’s also dripping dark PX around the sinews of the smoke. Then you swallow and the ginger starts to trickle out. Killowen is Ireland’s because it’s nobody else’s but I know no other whisky like it in Ireland or the world. Yet beneath the smoke, a petroleum belt and that pinecone ginger commune in tongues with Irish pot stills of the 1950s. Oaten creams, rye herbs, damp basement must, what the wheat in here is doing is anyone’s guess.

His love for Ireland’s mixed mash birthright is almost shamanistic, it’s so redolent when you hear him talk.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he runs a cult out there in the hills. But Brendan’s kitchen shelves are lined with projects from around the world. Europe, New Zealand, farmyard experiments.

“We’re sleepwalking in Ireland,” he often says with frustration.

Taking its original inspiration from Peter Bignell’s Belgrove Distillery in Australia, Killowen, at its core, is a tiny stillhouse on an open global stage. It’s an awareness Brendan shares with his near polar opposite, the ex-Bruichladdich capo Mark Reynier on the southeast coast. Both men have an acute understanding of whisky as an ultimately nationless sensory hypothesis, but if Brendan Carty is the Irish incarnation’s Alan Lomax, Mark Reynier is John Cage.