“It looks like Chernobyl over there.”
The new O’Shaughnessy Distilling Company is located in a rather, well, underused suburb of Minneapolis. Yes, it’s located next to a popular two-story brewery and across from a new artisan food hall. But the nascent whiskey brand’s new home is also surrounded by numerous bombed-out buildings (not literally, but in aesthetic terms), empty fields and dead spaces.
It’s hard to imagine a revolutionary whiskey brand forming here.
Hence that Chernobyl commentary from a member of our small tour group when we arrived at O’Shaughnessy, a beautiful new structure that hardly existed a year ago except in the most stripped-down forms.
âThis building we are in now was a former potato processing building,â says Michael O’Shaugnessy, one of the founders of the distillery of the same name. But when Michael, along with his cousin Patrick, were trying to convince one of the world’s most famous master distillers to come and help create a new style of whiskey, they had nothing to show.
âI came to Minneapolis in January 2020 to get a feel for the place,â says Brian Nation, the transplanted master distiller, formerly of Irish Distillers. “Nothing of that existed when I arrived. We couldn’t even enter the area when I visited.
Essentially, Nation – the man in charge of renowned Irish whiskeys such as Jameson, Redbreast, Powers and Midleton – was being wooed with a dream job in his homeland not only in the middle of the United States, but also in semi-land. – sorry for helping to start a distillery from scratch. And he had little more than the enthusiasm of two cousins ââ(who were foreign to him) with little professional experience with alcohol as an attraction.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster. Instead, it was the start of a beautiful friendship. And potentially, a reimagining of two styles of whiskey.
Eighteen months after Nation simply had to imagine a business because he couldn’t even fit into the lot that housed the old potato building (in the middle of a winter in Minnesota and two months before Covid went global), we’re all sitting in a sparkling new three-story distillery and visitor center.
And we’re about to sample Keeper’s Heart, O’Shaughnessy’s first release. It’s an attempt to merge two very different worlds of whiskey – Irish and American – into something you’ve never really seen (or tasted) before.
Yes, the first version is original juice. The rickhouses are not being built and the copper stills are ready but were not in action when we visited in late June. So for now, Nation is just trying to get the idea of ââO’Shaughenssy across with the first distillery release.
We will soon be diving into this remarkable Irish-American hybrid. The first big question is: how did the O’Shaugnessys sell a world-class master distiller to change his life?
The company’s official story is that American cousins ââPatrick and Michael O’Shaughnessy were inspired to start a whiskey business – and pay homage to their Irish heritage – at a large family reunion. Conversations turned to dedicated research, which turned to the Irish whiskey community.
Unsurprisingly, few of the big names in the whiskey world responded to a few American newbies.
âWe had to grapple with the history, expertise and experience of Irish distillers, but we were told early on: ‘you will never find an Irish master distiller,’â recalls Patrick. âAnd no one will join a young company in Minnesota. ”
Yet the cousins ââ- successful entrepreneurs outside of the alcohol business – had a vision. Irish whiskey has been the fastest growing alcohol category in the world for several years in a row. They also knew that Irish whiskey was once the dominant whiskey across the world, producing around 80% of world production (then came the world wars, temperance movements and the rise of Scottish industry and its adoption of the most efficient column). And they wanted to embrace their heritage, as well as the growing acceptance of Irish whiskey, while staying close to home.
âIrish whiskey is being reborn,â says Patrick. âAnd we wanted to do something special. But we are Irish Americans today. So what can we do to innovate? ”
An exploratory email sent to Nation resulted in a surprise: a return phone call that turned into a meeting and dinner in Dublin days later. âWe jumped at the chance to go there and Brian was kind enough to entertain us,â says Michael. âIt was a long shot, but I ended up enjoying each other’s company. There was an immediate connection. We just hit it off and there was confidence from the start. “
Nation was intrigued, but not convinced. âI told them I was happy where I was and that I wasn’t looking for a new job,â he says. “Even my wife was saying, you’re pretty busy, why are you even taking that call?” But their passion for it and the knowledge they had was amazing.
“And when I finally saw the place I thought it would be a great adventure, to build something from scratch and create an innovative spirit.” (Nation’s background in engineering, predating his experience in distillation, certainly helped the O’Shaughnessys build the final distillery.)
“Has anyone ever tried a mixture like this?”
David Perkins, founder of Utah’s High West Distillery, raves about Keeper’s Heart, O’Shaughnessy’s first and main release. We’re all in a tasting room on the ground floor of the Minnesota Distillery – which, as you read this, should be open or close to opening to the public – sipping the three individual spirits that together make up the distillery’s first commercial foray into the world of whiskey.
Keeper’s Heart is an original four year old Irish jar whiskey, four year old grain whiskey from Ireland and four year old American rye. Adds Perkins, who is now on board at O’Shaughnessy as a collaborator and liquid advisor: âAll of these components together, it’s amazing how good it got. And it’s amazing how some of the original prototypes weren’t that good. (Nation estimates it went through 45 to 50 prototypes, with the entire process to be done remotely and through a global pandemic.)
Adding Perkins to the distillery was a smart move; Nation was a longtime High West fan, and the two had kept in touch for over a decade. âThey were so innovative with their blend of Scottish and American whiskey,â notes the master distiller.
A similar process is now underway in Minneapolis, using Irish whiskey instead of scotch and, once the juice from the distillery is ready, the traditional Irish whiskey style triple copper pot still but made from 100% grain. Americans.
But today we have Keeper’s Heart. On their own, you can see what each component brings to the final mix. Irish Whiskey in a Copper Jar adds spices, fruit, baking spices and a bit of toasted oak, along with a creamy mouth feel. Irish grain whiskey has a floral aroma and some vanilla sweetness. And MGP rye from Indiana brings a herbal element, some dill, baking spices, nutmeg and, as Nation notes, a “syrupy and oily mouth feel.”
Together? Nose of spices and tropical fruits, with hints of cinnamon and cloves (and maybe even a bit of Tootsie Roll). A creamy sweetness on the palate, with the contributions of charred oak and wood evolving more on the finish.
I tried Keeper’s Heart alone a few times – what I liked was that depending on the sip, I could choose all of the disparate elements. But it is really a sum greater than its parts. Interestingly, although I liked it on its own and for its incredibly affordable price ($ 30), it’s fantastic in a cocktail. All of these unique flavor levers can be pushed and pulled in different directions, making this one of the versatile whiskeys on the market. Want something citrus? Want a new take on an Old Fashioned? Fancy a highball? It works equally well in all drinking situations.
It will take around 2-3 years before O’Shaugnessy produces its own stuff, but in the meantime expect innovative cask matures of 10 year old Irish whiskeys (e.g. Spanish casks from Malaga) and other limited editions.
Everything O’Shaughnessy does, however, will have the same basic mission. Said Nation: âWe’re looking to put something in place to showcase the best of American and Irish whiskey. ”
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