Brian Nation of Irish Distillers, Midleton – In 140 or LessJuly 13th, 2016
Brian Nation has been the master distiller at Irish Distillers’ Midleton distillery since 2013, having joined the company in 1997 as an engineering graduate. Like a number of other distillery managers I’ve met, it seems he never intended to be a distiller. Softly spoken, but hugely enthusiastic about his whiskeys, he also became the first Irish Distiller to receive the Worshipful Company of Distillers award for achieving the highest IBD (Institute of Brewing and Distilling) exam results in the world.
Where were you born and brought up?
Born in Turners Cross in Cork City and brought up there.
So west of Midleton then. Any history of distilling involvement in your family?
No history of distilling involvement in my family, but I have a number of uncles who are partial to a drop of Jameson!
What’s the view from your office window?
I can see our fermenters and our newly built pot brewhouse (built in 2012) through some lovely trees.
Keeping an eye on the place then. Did you have a hand in designing any of that?
Yes, a major part of my role at the time was my involvement in the project team responsible for the design, installation, and commissioning of the distillery expansion.
Was that exciting, nerve-wracking, or both?
Definitely both! But a great opportunity to be involved in such a large scale project. Learning gleaned from the experience is invaluable now as master distiller.
You joined Irish Distillers as an engineer. What was the path to master distiller?
Unplanned! I didn’t set out to end up as head distiller, I initially started as an environmental engineer and then became a project engineer.
And from there?
Process engineer, engineering manager, and eventually head distiller after working under master distiller emeritus Barry Crockett for ten years.
That’s a lot of engineering. Do you get to meet your Scotch whisky distiller colleagues much? If so is there friendly rivalry or all love and harmony?
We meet up from time to time and the banter and craic is always great.
What do you like best and least about your job?
Being involved in new distillate development is without a doubt the best part of my job. I am also very interested in plant optimization.
The Distiller’s Safe, from The Whiskey Makers Series, was the new expression that I was most involved in. I worked very closely with our head blender, Billy Leighton.
How did that relationship work out?
I was like a kid in a sweet shop and Billy was like the dad who kept me under control. Thankfully he did!
Because we ended up with a whiskey that is truly distillate-driven and showcases the craft of distilling very well.
What do these new Jameson ranges offer that you didn’t have before?
They explore the brand’s rich heritage, celebrate our remarkable present, and share an insight into our innovative future.
Remind us of what they are again.
They comprise of the Whiskey Makers Series, Deconstructed Series, a range of Heritage whiskeys, and Gan Eagla.
Briefly, one at a time, what’s the difference between each range, for you? Let’s start with the Whisky Makers Series.
The Whiskey Makers Series celebrates the people behind the Jameson family of Irish whiskeys and their craft.
The Deconstructed Series explores the key flavor notes of the original Jameson Irish whiskey.
And Heritage and Gan Eagla?
The Heritage whiskeys bring to the fore over 200 years of remarkable stories and milestones from the brand’s rich history. Gan Eagla represents the future of Jameson.
Do you have a favorite among them and why?
Distiller’s Safe. It’s truly my type of whiskey as it’s heavily distillate driven. Plus, I’ve named it after my favourite piece of equipment, the distiller’s safe.
Why is that?
It highlights the importance of the cut in making the perfect pot and grain distillate used in creating Jameson Irish whiskey.
So for my Jameson-fan brother, married to an Irish lass and living in Rome – is that the one you would recommend?
Absolutely, either that or Jameson Original as from there the world is your oyster.
For a Scot, he’s consumed quite a lot of Original already. Is there as much interest in “finishing” in Irish whiskey as there is in scotch?
Innovation in the Irish whiskey sector, including maturation techniques such as finishing, is certainly on the rise.
It’s been led by Irish Distillers through the release of new and interesting whiskeys such as Jameson Caskmates or Green Spot Château Léoville-Barton. [Caskmates has been finished in stout-seasoned casks. Green Spot Château Léoville-Barton is the first single pot still Irish whiskey to be finished in red Bordeaux wine casks. Château Léoville-Barton was owned by an Irishman, Thomas Barton, whose descendants are still involved today.]
An Irish connection! Is Irish less restricted creatively than scotch or does the distilling process allow more flexibility or is more done with blending?
Irish whiskey is governed by a set of rules similar to those in the Scotch whisky industry – creativity can come in all forms.
Tweaking the grain type, distillation style, or maturation in new cask types. At Midleton we encourage our craftspeople to experiment, break down preconceptions.
In my research you said family was your main interest outside work. Are your children young?
I have three children – two girls, aged nine and seven, and a boy aged two. It’s a busy household but great fun.
So any interest in what Daddy does then?
The two girls are very interested, especially if they see Jameson as they walk through an airport or a shop.
Any particular activities you enjoy with them?
I help train the camogie (ladies hurling) teams that the girls play with. They have very busy schedules with camogie, gymnastics, karate, and soccer. [Hurling is one of Ireland’s national sports and goes back hundreds of years. It can look akin to hockey and lacrosse and is a fast and furious game played by two teams of fifteen people.]
Are you mainly a taxi driver then?
I spend a lot of time bringing them to these events. Sundays we tend to go for a family day out which is relaxing. My son is happy to play soccer in our garden – he’s great fun.
I understand you also like cooking. Any signature dish?
Yes, I find it relaxing. I like to try different recipes, but the problem is I usually take too long. Signature dish is oven baked turbot with a scallop & prawn white sauce.
I’m coming to your house. What wine, beer, or whiskey would you match with that?
I find that a Green Spot Single Pot Still Irish whiskey works quite well with this dish.
You presumably travel a lot for work; do you enjoy that?
Yes, to talk about my role and our whiskeys. I really do enjoy it – meeting people worldwide. To see their passion for Jameson and our other whiskeys is truly amazing.
Favorite place you’ve visited for work?
For work, it has to be New York – I really loved the atmosphere there; it was great and the people that I met were so passionate about what we do.
The Cayman Islands as part of a Caribbean Cruise – I can’t wait to go back for a longer stay.
Caymans, yes. Like the sound of that. Last question! Stuck on a desert island which one whisky would you have with you. Doesn’t have to be one of your own…
This is a very difficult question to answer because I like different whiskeys for different occasions or experiences!
Well, I have to be firm. Choose.
I’m going to cheat and pick two – Jameson Distiller’s Safe and Powers John’s Lane Single Pot Still.
No, it’s one only so I’m going to let you take Distiller’s Safe since you helped create it.
Brian Nation, we’re done so thanks for sharing some of your time with us.