Mr. Whiskey

Mr. Whiskey
Fionnan O’Connor wants to cultivate the blossoming whiskey renaissance in the Bay Area. But a backwards state law may prevent his dream from ever becoming reality.
By Bailey Pennick

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Fionnan O’Connor sits at the head of a long table, surrounded by about twenty chatty UC Berkeley undergrads. At the tender age of 23, he is not much older than they are. But in dress and mannerisms, he is worlds away.

Wearing an old tweed jacket and sporting a disheveled cowlick, the Irish-born/Southern California-raised O’Connor stands up to discuss the chosen “dram” of the night. The evening’s tasting features two different incarnations of Midleton’s Redbreast Pure Pot Still Irish whiskey: the standard twelve-year-old, and a fifteen-year-old variation.

“Now that we all have our whiskey, I want you to take a great big smell of it,” he said lifting his whiskey snifter, his melodic voice a self-described mixture of SoCal “vanilla” and Clontarf middle-class. “Really breathe it in.”

The students in his DeCal class, called “Whiskey: Its Culture and History,” are most likely excited at the prospect of expanding their alcohol knowledge beyond the ingredients of a screwdriver, and in a classroom setting at that. But O’Connor has a much different relationship with whiskey than most people in his generation, evident from the florid language that he uses to describe it. As he talks about the evolution and almost complete extinction of Irish pure pot stills (PPS), words like “oily,” “thick,” and “potent” are commonly thrown around. He uses flavor descriptors like “smoky melon” and “burnt grass.”

“Unlike with last week’s incredibly strong Ardbeg Uigeadail, it is really important that you take a huge mouthful of the Redbreast in with each sip,” he instructs his students. “The flavors really open up when you hold it in your mouth. Hold it for at least thirty seconds in your mouth — and always remember to aerate!”

O’Connor instructs the class as naturally as if he has done this all his life. And it’s this easy Irish charm that has caught the attention of not only the UC Berkeley student body, where he has taught his DeCal class since 2009, but also the international liquor powerhouse Diageo, which recently hired him as one of its “whiskey ambassadors.” The sophisticated San Francisco speakeasy Bourbon & Branch also tapped him to teach a class on Irish whiskey on June 27.

Although he has been drinking the distilled spirit for just eight years, O’Connor has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of whiskey that rivals even the most seasoned experts. He’s an active member of the Irish Whiskey Society in Dublin, and is currently writing a book on the history of whiskey. His ultimate goal is to change people’s opinions about the drink.

In many ways, that’s already happening. Long associated as the stiff drink of choice for old men, whiskey is viewed in a far more sophisticated light these days. It now nearly rivals vodka in terms of popularity among many consumers, and bars increasingly feature it on their cocktail menus.

According to O’Connor, the Bay Area is uniquely positioned to become a major whiskey mecca. The damp climate of Northern California is suitable for creating a distinct peat that would give locally produced whiskeys a true local flavor. In fact, O’Connor has his eye on creating his own micro-distiller that would use all local ingredients. And with the area’s high concentration of bars and mixologists on the cutting-edge, the Bay Area could become home to a thriving new industry.

There’s just one major problem: State law currently prevents micro-distillers from selling their products directly to consumers. Unlike wineries, where the public can taste and then buy wines straight from the producers, craft distillers in California are prohibited from doing the same thing. And attempts to change the law so far have been unsuccessful.

In other words, while the wine industry thrives, the nascent market for craft distilled spirits is stifled, leaving entrepreneurs like O’Connor in the cold.

Born in Ireland, O’Connor was primarily raised in Southern California after his father received a Fulbright scholarship for architecture to attend UCLA. But instead of completely planting his roots in the sand of Santa Monica beach, O’Connor would spend every summer in Dublin — as he continues to do. Spending one fourth of every year in a country that has no hard, fast drinking-age laws jump-started O’Connor’s passion for whiskey.

He tasted his first dram of whiskey when he was just sixteen years old, in a Galway pub with his uncle. Immediately, he knew that this was more than just an ordinary drink. He was fascinated by the whole culture behind the liquor, as well as its complex flavor: “The intensity of the stuff and the whole mythology of peating and distillation and cask seasoning really appealed to me,” he recalled. “The really lathery PPS whiskeys and PPS blends that I was first drinking in Ireland probably made this [love] hyper obvious.”

His interest in the spirit led him to start reading up on the history of different whiskey-producing regions. Soon he was traveling around the United Kingdom and Ireland to visit active and silent distilleries. “It became a hobby that gradually developed into a minor obsession, and, by now, it’s probably a major obsession,” he joked.

In many ways, his passion for whiskey is the culmination of his dual Irish and American identity, which manifests in many aspects of his life. He has a constant need to talk about Ireland and classic literature. His closet seems to consist entirely of loose corduroy pants and baggy jerseys for the ancient Gaelic sport of hurling. He majored in English, and as a student started UC Berkeley’s first hurling team.

But his dual heritage is perhaps most evident in his accent. “I never really thought too long as a kid about being Irish or American, but I remember very clearly noticing that my parents didn’t have the same way of talking as my classmates, and I remember trying not to sound out of place,” he recalled. “I always felt awkward in shops in Dublin and would consciously tune my voice accordingly and then come back after vacations with different intonation habits and feel self-conscious about it in California for exactly the same reasons.”

Gradually, O’Connor discovered he could use his competing identities to his advantage. “Around high school I started to get more obsessive about the sounds of words and stopped trying to juggle the two accents,” he said. “Instead, I started just cherry-picking the pronunciations I was fondest of from both accents so now I don’t really worry about it too much and don’t really sound like I belong anywhere completely.”

According to O’Connor, the same fixation that he had with his accent and, more specifically, his own tongue, is the reason for his acute attention to the texture of whiskey. Take the way he describes one of his favorites, the Lagavulin sixteen-year-old: “The way that the smoke envelops every side of your tongue differently is really like nothing else.”

Beyond taste, O’Connor centers his knowledge of whiskey especially on how a particular one comes to fruition — including each aspect of production, from the types of barrels that the spirit matures in to the mineral content of the water used. He avoids clichés and distillery propaganda, letting the whiskey speak for itself. As a former English major, O’Connor tends to speak of whiskeys in a manner more befitting a novel than a drink.

“The best way to describe Fionnan is as a true renaissance person,” said Stephen Beal, the North American master whisky distiller for Diageo, which includes such internationally recognized whiskeys as Johnnie Walker, Bulleit Bourbon, Dalwhinnie, and Glenkinchie.

After sitting in on one of O’Connor’s whiskey classes at Berkeley last year, Beal was thoroughly impressed by the extent of the young man’s knowledge. “When I first met Fionnan, I thought to myself, ‘You’re the guy who probably knows about as much as I do,'” Beal recalled. “And he never tried to impress me. I have met a lot of people who have gone to distilleries and done research to try and show me all that they know, but he doesn’t try that.”

Seeing what O’Connor could do with an independent class at Cal on the subject of whiskey, Beal offered the then-third-year student a position as an official “whiskey ambassador” for Diageo. The part-time job mostly consists of manning tables for the liquor company at top-shelf whiskey events such as Whiskies of the World, which was held in San Francisco in March. But it also gives O’Connor the opportunity to put his whiskey knowledge in front of the public. Inevitably, he turns heads wherever he goes.

“Fionnan brings a sort of freshness and expertise that is very helpful to the whole category of whiskey, especially nowadays,” Beal said. “He is going to be huge in the niche world of whiskey. It is a lot of passion and hard work, but if anyone can break in, it would be him.”

Over the last decade, whiskey has begun to break out of that niche world and move into the larger bar scene. While shows like Mad Men have glorified the liquor, bartenders, distillers, and students alike are exploring whiskey’s wide range of flavors and regions of origin.

While most varieties of whiskey continue to be inextricably linked to the old traditions of Ireland and Scotland, the United States is finally bouncing back after the days of prohibition. It may seem like a bit of a stretch to link the recently rising interest in whiskey with the ostensibly ancient dilemma of a dry America, but O’Connor believes that it is only now that the country is really ready for a thriving whiskey community again.

“Prohibition was the ‘noble experiment’ that almost completely killed whiskey throughout the United States and the Bay Area in the first half of the 20th century,” said O’Connor. “Finally, drinks like rye and bourbon are coming out of the woodwork and diversifying beyond just Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s. It’s about time.”

Diversification is not the only thing that O’Connor believes is missing in today’s world of popular whiskey drinking — the public needs helpful guidelines in order to enjoy their drink more. His list of “don’ts” includes: don’t mix your whiskey, don’t chill your whiskey, never drink it on the rocks, and don’t “chug” your spirit. Despite the common practice of drinking whiskey on the rocks, O’Connor says ice hampers the flavors. His tips aren’t meant to be elitist or judgmental, but rather to help bring out the most flavor from one’s dram.

For the average American drinker, breaking away from a Jack and Coke may seem as revolutionary as it gets. But O’Connor believes that the strong spirit scene of the Bay Area is the perfect place to jumpstart the second wave of whiskey appreciation and production. “San Francisco and the Bay Area in general is a very important alcohol scene in the United States,” said O’Connor. “They basically ignored prohibition from start to finish, which is just fantastic.”

Plus, if foodies and winos have found their mecca in Northern California, why can’t whiskey fanatics?

The idea seems entirely plausible. For starters, unlike most types of hard liquor, whiskey is bridging the gap between older die-hard drinkers and the younger generation of barflies who are just beginning to learn what they like to drink and what to order. The local buzz around whiskey is evident in part by the demand for O’Connor’s seminars. Limited to about thirty students per semester, O’Connor’s DeCal class has consistently been one of the most popular student-taught courses at Berkeley in recent years, drawing well over one hundred applicants.

“We have a lot of people who come back from previous semesters just for tasting labs, which is great,” said O’Connor. “I’ve learned a whole lot just by teaching the class and I’m really glad to see that people seem to like it so much.”

Local distillers are also noticing the rising interest in whiskey. “Women, men, and especially the 21-and-over crowd are starting to get into whiskey cocktails,” said Marko Karakasevic, the master distiller of Charbay Distillery. “Vodka is still the dominant spirit, but whiskey is finally coming around in a big way.” Charbay has been distilling whiskey from bottle-ready beer, hops and all, since 1999. “It’s the most expensive distillation of whiskey,” said Karakasevic. “People are drooling for this stuff!”

It’s this vast variety — experimentation, more brands, styles, etc. — that excites bartenders and whiskey enthusiasts. “Whiskey has definitely been trending for the last ten years,” said Tony Devencenzi, bartender at Bourbon & Branch and manager of its Beverage Academy. “Rye whiskey, of course, being one of the hottest ones of the American whiskeys even before bourbon was really created. Now we have all of these distilleries that are almost moving past that with unique and different whiskeys, like Charbay. Choice is key.” And drinkers are responding appropriately. At Bourbon & Branch, Devencenzi says, “we are seeing a lot more people being interested in whiskey — more than just the diehard usuals.”

To meet this new demand for whiskey education and consumption, Devencenzi decided to expand Bourbon & Branch’s Beverage Academy to include classes not only on American whiskey, but also Irish and Scotch whiskeys. “We have such an educated public in the Bay Area, why not provide that access?” he reasoned.

In his search for instructors, Devencenzi inevitably ran into O’Connor, who he met at a whiskey event last October. “You could just see his excitement more than the others stationed there,” said Devencenzi. “Out of all the people there, he was definitely one of the most engaged.”

But it wasn’t until Devencenzi sat in on O’Connor’s DeCal class that he fully realized who he had stumbled upon. “I was blown away,” said Devencenzi. “[The students] were all asking very intelligible questions and he was answering each of them. That really shows that he taught them well.”

The Bay Area isn’t just a region with a growing appreciation for whiskey; it turns out to be an ideal place to produce the stuff as well. “Nobody seems to notice it, but Northern California is perfectly situated for whiskey making,” said O’Connor. “Whiskey barrels thrive in damp, temperate fog bowls like the Bay Area and we have an abundance of world-class wine-seasoned casks just up the road in Napa and Sonoma,” he said, referring to the use of wine barrels for whiskey. “There’s a blossoming micro-distillation culture around the bay and there’s even Northern Californian peat bogs, but no one’s really done anything with that yet.”

O’Connor revealed that gold mine of information at a recent meeting with his business partners in a soon-to-be-launched micro-distillery, the fancifully named Lorcan Distillery. In a room at UC Berkeley’s graduate student co-op HIP house, O’Connor sat on a leather couch next to his friend and business partner, Emory Taylor.

The men, along with 22-year-old architecture major Tyler Nguyen, hope to use Lorcan to further O’Connor’s goal of changing the perceptions and stereotypes of whiskey, while tapping into the unique flavor of Northern California peat. “Whiskey has continued to seem so old-world,” said Nguyen. “It can be a really inaccessible liquor, and we are trying to stop that. It’s not only men with beards!”

“We are not trying to resurrect old things; we are trying to move the world of whiskey forward,” added O’Connor, cradling a glass of Taylor’s cloudy homemade hard cider. “The Bay Area is full of great food and drink communities, especially with the upswing of ‘mixologists’ and spirits. It’s really the perfect time for us to come along. This is no longer just a hobby for many people.”

The moment in which O’Connor’s whiskey “hobby” became the future of Lorcan Distillery was the result of a brief conversation with Taylor after one of O’Connor’s DeCal’s classes last year. “I came up to Fionnan and asked him about how serious he was about this dream of distilling,” recalled Taylor, who will handle the business side of their endeavor. “He told me that he was very serious about it, and then I said, ‘Okay. Let’s do it now!'”

O’Connor says they’re looking into three styles of whiskey: The first two, single malt and single pot still (previously known as pure pot still), would both be made exclusively from barley, as in Irish whiskey. The third possible style is American rye whiskey.

Although the three partners are optimistic about Lorcan Distillery’s future, they are not blind to the realities of the enterprise. Besides the uncertain state of the economy, there’s the issue of securing a reliable source of Northern California peat. According to O’Connor, peat is considered a mineral under California law, so the partners would need to either acquire a mineral license or buy their peat from an existing purveyor.

But the biggest obstacle by far is California law — namely, that it’s basically impossible for craft distillers to sell directly to consumers.

“At breweries and wineries you can stay and drink as long as you want, and at the end of your visit you can buy cases retail, but at distilleries in California, you can’t sell a single bottle,” explained Charbay’s Karakasevic about the backwards provision in the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Act. “You can taste the product, but you can’t sell any as retail. It really pisses me off.”

Last year, state Senator Loni Hancock tried to change that by introducing Senate Bill 1068, which would allow craft distillers (defined as those who distill fewer than 50,000 gallons of spirits annually) to sell directly on their premises. It would also allow craft distillers to sell to distilled spirits licensees, who currently must purchase their products through a wholesale distributor. As it stands, it’s difficult for craft distillers to find a wholesaler to carry their product because of their low capacity for production.

Just how backwards is the current law? According to Senator Hancock, in order for a craft distiller to sell its own products on its premises, the distiller must first find a wholesale distributor to take them on as a client. The wholesaler then must send a truck to the distillery, load the product onto the truck, drive it back to the wholesaler’s warehouse (which could be as far as fifty miles away), unload the product, re-load the product back onto the truck, and drive it back to the distiller’s premises.

Hancock first became aware of the issue when Alameda-based St. George Spirits, which produces Hangar One Vodka, approached Hancock’s office because of the difficulties in selling their product.

“The process is inefficient, wastes natural resources, adds unnecessary pollution and congestion to the roads, and severely cuts into the profits of the boutique distillery,” reads the background sheet of SB 1068. “The process is also discriminatory, as wine growers, micro-brewers, and brandy-makers are not burdened with the same regulations.”

So why would such a law exist? “It’s a relic of the Depression era,” explained Senator Hancock in a phone interview. “It’s just something that has been maintained.”

And now, it’s the wholesalers who are against changing the law because of the perceived threats to their market share. The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of California was the only party to be listed in opposition to SB 1068.

Hancock says a similar scenario played out around brewpubs, when her husband, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, as a state assemblyman in 1982, authored legislation that legalized them in California. Back then, Hancock says, there was a lot of anxiety from beer manufacturers, who thought the law would lessen demand for their product. But that fear never materialized. “In fact, there was such demand that the wholesale distributors actually got more business,” she said. “I think this would be exactly the same thing. We would find that it would create jobs in California and it would be a very useful thing.” A craft distiller market would also fit right in to the artisan food movement in the Bay Area, she said. Currently, there are just 28 craft distillers in California, according to Lance Winters of St. George Spirits.

Nonetheless, the bill never moved out of committee. As it stands now, it’s dead in the water.

“It seems so simple and obvious,” Hancock lamented.

Despite the many obstacles before them, O’Connor and his Lorcan Distillery partners are optimistic that a Bay Area whiskey culture can thrive. O’Connor says current California law is “not critical … for the sales success of the whiskey but it’s certainly a hassle.”

In this case, he believes that if you build it, the drinkers will come. “In my personal opinion, the best first step to combating [the law] is for small artisan distillers like Charbay, Hangar One, etc., to work toward the branding of a recognizable California micro-distilling ‘scene,’ rather than just a random cluster of individual distilleries,” he said.

For his part — and contrary to the traditions and techniques that keep Irish, Scottish, and even most American distillers in line with a certain set of flavors and tastes — O’Connor has no limitations or preconceived notions of what Lorcan’s whiskey must adhere to. “We have endless creative opportunities and possibilities,” he said. “Bay Area whiskey will be whatever it wants to be. It’s amazing!”

But one thing the owners of Lorcan are strict on is that all the ingredients of their whiskey will be locally and sustainably sourced. “We are especially interested in the terra that we use,” said O’Connor. “In modeling the whiskey off of the true California style, we are very excited about the natural Bay Area peat. There is no getting away from peat; it’s the collected graveyard of flavors of the region. It is completely unreal that we will be able to burn the ecosystem into the whiskey.”

It’s hard to envision a full-bodied drink that literally embodies the Bay Area, but O’Connor says tasting Northern California might be closer than you think, even within the next three to five years.

At this point, it isn’t a question of if O’Connor will help spearhead the new whiskey renaissance; it’s just a matter of how far he’ll take it. Meanwhile, Senator Hancock says she’s trying to gather support from craft distillers in order to reintroduce her bill next year.

But regardless of whether California law ever changes, one thing can be counted on — the whiskey will taste good. “It’s just so fucking interesting and delicious,” said O’Connor. “And that’s all there really is to it.”

Kathleen Richards contributed to this report.

Whiskey Terminology

Aeration: The process through which air is circulated through a liquid. In whiskey, this can be achieved simply by opening your mouth and breathing across the surface of the whiskey to bring to a certain intensity of flavor, especially in very big, rich drams.

Dram: Whiskey jargon for a standard sipping drink, defined by the Scottish Malt Whiskey Association as a measurement of whiskey “the size of which is determined by the generosity of the pourer.”

Clontarf: Not really a whiskey term, it’s just the neighborhood in Dublin where my mom’s from (although I believe there’s coincidently a charcoal-mellowed Irish single malt called Clontarf).

Finishes: During the aging process, single malts are aged in barrels that held something else before them (usually some sort of fortified wine [sherry, port, Madeira, etc.] or bourbon). If a whiskey is taken out of its cask and set to age in another cask for a few more years, it receives a “finish.” For example, it may be said to have been aged in bourbon with a sherry finish.

Islay: Pronounced eye-la. A small island off the west coast of Scotland famous for its intensely smoky single malts.

Lorcan: The Gaelic version of the name Lawrence, after Lawrence Parker, our company’s mythical founder.

Peat: Soil made from decomposed plants. Peat is used in the whiskey world to dry the malted barley and to infuse it with a range of diverse smoky flavors from both the actual burning of the peat (phenols) and the flavors of plants such as fern, moss, heather, and often even seaweed that compose the peat in the first place.

Pure Pot Still or Single Pot Still: A specific style of whiskey unique to the Irish whiskey scene. It’s made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley distilled together in a pot still. It tends to have a thick, lathery body and flavor notes of ginger, licorice, and spice. The style, now referred to as single pot still, used to be called pure pot still until a rather dramatic and very recent change in Irish labeling practices due to American laws about writing “pure” on an alcoholic beverage.

Silent distilleries: Distilleries that have ceased to produce whiskey. Many of these whiskeys still exist in bottles floating around the whiskey-collecting world.

Snifter: Short for spirits nosing glass, a commonly used, short, tulip-shaped glass for fine spirits such as whiskey, brandy, etc. The inward-curving rim concentrates the aromas toward the drinker’s mouth and nose while the short handle allows for the drinker’s hand to keep the whiskey relatively warm while it is being held.

Still shape: One of the most important aspects of single malt whiskey, the still shape determines which flavor compounds will reach the resultant whiskey and how much copper these compounds will interact with on their way there. A bulbous, wide-necked still, for example would allow very heavy, oily compounds to reach the other side, creating a bigger, heavier whiskey. In contrast, a slender-necked still would only allow very light, volatile compounds to make it over and would produce a gentler, more elegant spirit.

Taken from East Bay Express. Published on June 15, 2011

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