Great Whiskey Comes to Those Who Wait – An Interview with Gearoid Cahill, Head Distiller at Pearse Lyons
Master Brewer Gearoid Cahill’s experience in the world of beer, including a PhD in Brewing, has provided him with a solid base to step into distilling. After two decades working “just next door” in Diageo, he became part of the Pearse Lyons Distillery team.
His interest in the project grew when he met the late Dr. Pearse Lyons and after several conversations, he was happy to take on the challenge of not only heading the production of the Pearse Lyons range of whiskeys, but of setting up the distillery itself.
“It’s been academic and practical at the same time”, he considers, as the day to day operations are accompanied by dedicated study of distillation.
Among the challenges that he had to face during this new stage in his career, he highlights the ambitious efforts to bring everything together to have the distillery up and running. On the day I interviewed him, he notes that it had been exactly one year since the Pearse Lyons Distillery finally opened on the 25th of July, 2017.
The date also marks St. James’ Day in the calendar and it wasn’t a coincidence that the state-of-the-art distillery located on St. James’ Street, Dublin 8, had had its ribbon cut on the day.
Gearoid remembers that there were numerous delays in the construction of the Pearse Lyons Distillery. “What was originally one and a half year took almost four”, he adds, noting that because of the fact that the building was given National Monument status, a series of special considerations were required: “for example, we couldn’t use any slate, it had to be the one that was already part of the building, so we had to source the same one from a quarry in Wales.”
At some point, he remembers “we were wondering if we would ever open.”
So, “when at some point it became obvious that we could finally open in 2017, Deirdre [the widow of founder Dr. Pearse Lyons] suggested we did so on St. James’ Day.”
For Gearoid, that opening day and the work that went into it has been of the most rewarding moments in his long and successful career. “Everyone was here, Deirdre and Pearse Lyons were exhausted but very happy”, he recalls.
“Making interesting and exciting whiskey in a distillery that you helped design and that works, that’s the dream job.”
On Crafting Great Whiskey
He explained the whiskey-making process as we toured the beautiful church turned distillery… Long story short, the malted barley is added to hot water in the brewhouse and allowed to ferment. The resulting liquid, the wort, is distilled.
He points out that they only used Irish malted barley and that their production is limited. As he proudly describes it, the Pearse Lyons Distillery is a “small, boutique, craft distillery.” We keep walking and he mentions that their two shiny copper stills (which are affectionately named “Mighty Molly” and “Little Lizzie”) come from prestigious producer Vendome (Kentucky, US) and that the brewhouse was sourced from Vienna.
“We do double distilling”, Gearoid explains as it is common for Irish whiskey to undergo triple distillation. “It’s an interesting debate among whiskey lovers”, he adds, noting that both options can produce great whiskey. Triple distilled whiskey tends to be lighter and more refined, and double distilled can offer a more intense and complex result.
“We wanted full, complex flavours. That’s why we went for double distillation.”
When asked if the relatively small space where Mighty Molly and Little Lizzie stand had anything to do with the decision to use two instead of three stills, he explains that that wasn’t the case. “If we were to build a bigger distillery in the future, it would still be a double distilled whiskey.”
And while the thought has crossed his mind, this project is not yet anything more than an idea. “We hope to one day have the problem that we can’t produce enough whiskey to meet demand in this distillery”, he says, and with a production of 100,000 bottles a year, the possibility in the mid-term is not unrealistic.
Whiskey is Made of Decisions
We then stop to speak about what makes Pearse Lyons Whiskey special. The first element Gearoid highlighted was the yeast they use, which is only available to Alltech, the umbrella company that covers the Pearse Lyons Distillery as well as breweries and distilleries in the US and their animal feed industry. “We found a strain [of yeast] we really like”, Gearoid says, explaining that it “produces a lot of esters”, the compounds to thank for the very pleasant fruity aromas found in whiskey and other drinks.
And while the right yeast gives the product an ideal start, unicellular organisms are not equipped with the ability to make complex decisions. So it’s in Gearoid’s hands to ensure all the goodness from the raw materials comes together perfectly. “We make sure we get a reasonable amount of complexity by not collecting our spirit too early”, he points out as an example of the many factors he has to take into consideration, as the precision of knowing when to move through the different stages of distillation is crucial for the quality of the final result.
“We don’t want to make a safe whiskey that’s going to be bland and inoffensive”, he adds, explaining that they’re aiming for something with character and personality.
We stop in front of the stills and he explains that Mighty Molly, the one to our left and the biggest of the pair, goes first. The fermented liquid poured into it (a.k.a. the wash) is partially distilled to produce what’s known as “low wines”, which are then given to Little Lizzie, which is tasked with distilling the end spirit that will go into the barrels.
“We run the stills slowly, and with the heat not too high”, explains Gearoid, pointing out that the second distillation “is where the distiller decides what type of whiskey is going to be made.” He mentions that thanks to Lizzie’s unique tubular neck with four different chambers, the spirit can spend more time in the still, becoming more refined and aromatic. In practice, this special built means that the resulting drink will effectively reach a happy medium between a triple distilled and a double distilled whiskey made with an ordinary still.
Then it’s barrel time. “We always use first use ex-Bourbon barrels from our sister distillery Town Branch, in Kentucky”, Gearoid explains, and as he describes the toast, butterscotch and vanilla aromas that this type of barrel is known to confer golden spirits with, we actually get to smell these aromas from a sample barrel that tourists can open and interact with during their visit to the distillery.
By the way, while the Pearse Lyons is a working distillery, the best times to visit for those wishing to see some whiskey-making magic in action are generally between four to six in the afternoon, according to Gearoid.
On their Recently Launched Pearse 5 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey
The many delays in the original plan to open the distillery were a blessing in disguise as the team started fermenting and distilling years before the St. James’ Street location was ready to go. For this purpose, they set up their equipment inside of a brewery in Carlow, so by the time they were ready to open, they actually had some whiskey of their own.
“Now the oldest of our whiskeys is five years old”, Gearoid says, highlighting why their recently launched Pearse 5 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey is so special, as it’s made from this first spirit they were able to make while waiting.
He points out that the late Dr. Pearse Lyons tried the whiskey when it was 4 years old back in 2017 and was eager to let it mature for one more year. While he passed away and never got to see the finished product, “he is still with us in spirit”, Gearoid says, noting that the teachings and ideals on which the Irish entrepreneur and founder built the distillery will live on.
Craft Spirits, the Logical Progression to Craft Beers
Do you agree with the phrase “craft spirits are the new craft beers? I asked him, as we finished the tour and sit down to have a taste of the newly launched whiskey. He pauses for a second. “Yes, and I wouldn’t have thought so three years ago. There is such a big interest, and at the moment, it’s taking some of the focus away from beer, the number of active distilleries is growing.”
And with that momentum going, what is the best course of action for the different players in the industry? For Gearoid, team work and cooperation, even among rivals, is key, as ultimately everyone involved has the common goal of strengthening the “Irish whiskey brand.” Gearoid celebrates that in the Irish whiskey community “everyone looks after each other,” so small and large producers coexist and maintain positive relationships.
He also sees opportunities in specialty whiskeys, however, he adds that innovation is important “but you don’t want to be too silly.”
So, where does he draw the line? It’s all about playing within the parameters of what Irish whiskey can be. “Be innovative about your raw material, about the way you run your stills and your barrels.” He points out that unlike Scotch (which specifies oak), the wood for the barrels used to age and mature Irish whiskey can be of other sources, so there’s room for experimentation within the boundaries there.
Gearoid is careful not to get into specifics yet, but he does share plans for innovative additions to their portfolio in the near future. “We are saving some of our barrels for a special edition”, he says “it’ll be a surprise for next year.”
With a little insistence, he lets us know that while the current focus is their new 5 year old, they’re “sourcing interesting barrels, at least three different types we’re working on, and there’s some experimentation.”
And while fearless about trying out new things, when asked what style of whiskey would resemble his personality, his love for traditional Irish whiskey blends with his experimental edge. “I’d look into pot still because it’s very traditional, but I’d play with the raw material and use a type of wood that’s not oak.”
We’re counting the days, but there is no point to getting impatient, as great whiskey comes to those who wait.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.