My Brilliant Career: Colum Egan

09 April 2011 - 23:32 By Adele Shevel
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Colum Egan, master distiller at Bushmills, Ireland, speaks to Adele Shevel

What does a master distiller do?

One of my key roles is to ensure that the whiskey we're making is the same as it has been for the last 150 years.

We have a band of loyal consumers, so it's crucial to have the same taste. At the same time, however, we need to be innovative and come out with new whiskey.

The whiskey-making process is long. What we're making today won't be put in a bottle for five years - in some instances, it won't be in a bottle for 21 years. Most of the Bushmills taste comes from the fact that it's triple-distilled. We capture these light, fruity, floral characters when we distil three times, and this leads to a lot of smoothness.

We use oak casks - brought from Kentucky - that have been used to mature bourbon. The heavy, woody character is stripped and the casks interact with our whiskey.

How long has Bushmills been around?

The first licence to distil in the Bushmills area was granted in 1608, but records show it goes back even further. As a brand, we were established in 1784, but we were making whiskey long before then. The Old Bushmills Distillery is the oldest working distillery in Ireland.

Over the years, the history and secrets have been passed down. I see myself more as a gatekeeper and want to pass on the distillery in as good a position or better.

How did you get involved in whiskey?

I was an engineer in business and had a variety of roles. I've been in a supervisory role, which requires people skills, and then manufacturing breakfast cereals - where I started tasting and cooking - then had a job at a brewery where, at 11am every day, we would taste. After that was a job in bottling and blending whiskey in Dublin, which I did for five years. The same company at the time owned Bushmills.

I never envisaged being a master distiller, because it's specialised and unusual. There are probably only two or three master distillers in Ireland.

What makes you a good master distiller?

My never-say-die attitude, my enthusiasm and passion. I love the tradition and innovation in the drinks industry. It matches my personality.

How did you get the skills?

I worked with the master distiller for a year and picked up the skills.

At 32, I was one of the youngest master distillers in whiskey.

Do you feel this job is a good fit for who you are?

When I was working in London in a brewery, I met a girl from Ireland. We'd known each other for a few weeks, and it turned out she was born 15km from the distillery (she became my wife).

I came to meet her family: and, because she was one of 12 children and they talk so fast in this area, I couldn't understand what they were saying.

To get refuge, I went to the distillery.

As soon as I got in, I just loved it, the countryside, the crystal-clear waters.

I didn't make it my life's ambition to become a master distiller, but I came back eight years later for the job. It felt as if I was meant to be here. It was eerie, but I almost believe I was destined to be a distiller.

What skills and character traits do you need to be a great distiller?

You have to have a very strong respect for the past: there's a reason we make it that way.

It's more about maintaining what there is and making minor improvements. You have to ensure the consistency of the whiskey remains the same.

You have to have an unusual set of skills: engineering, process skills, dealing with people. You need to be media-friendly and be a good communicator. A lot of technical people don't like to work with people and are not great communicators.

What's the difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey?

There are probably more similarities than differences. The rules and regulations and wording are the same. There are really two ingredients: water and barley. In general, Irish whiskeys have a more fruity character and Scotch whisky has more of a smokiness.

Scotch whiskies are generally distilled twice, while Irish whiskey is mostly distilled three times.

They have to be bottled in Ireland or Scotland and distilled in oak barrels for at least three years. The spelling is different. In Scotland it's "whisky" and in Ireland it's "whiskey".

We even told them how to spell the word wrong!

How long have you been in this position?

Over nine years, nearly 10. I love every minute of it. It's a lifestyle, which drives my wife mad. My catch phrase is, "If I can just get people to taste it, they'll drink it." It's an old brand, but we're new in a lot of markets.

How many people work in the distillery?

About 110 people are involved in mashing, distillation and fragmentation. We put it in warehouses and do the bottling on site. We get 100000 visitors a year and, in the final part of their tour, they get to taste. In summer, we have about 1000 people visiting a day.

What is unpleasant about your job?

It's a dream job. It's not even a job, it's a lifestyle. The variety is fantastic. I wouldn't like to be sitting in an office all day only making whiskey or only sitting at my desk. It's full of variety.

Do you have to be able to handle your booze to be a master distiller?

The great thing about whiskey is it's there to be enjoyed. It's great to have a drink you can sit back and enjoy. It's not about the quantity, and the sip lingers on your palate for so long. The best way to enjoy yourself is to drink responsibly.

Has mechanisation changed the business?

It has helped in that, in the past, every valve and pump would have been opened manually.

Modernisation has helped in terms of control. We can actually measure the barley and water we put in, control the pumps and are able to get the same taste in whiskey every time.

Has your business been affected by the recession?

Up to 2005, we were owned by Pernod Ricard, and sales were very flat for many years. In 2005, Diageo took over and it is great at marketing and distribution. One of their strengths is they leave the distillery alone; they know we do our job well. Sales increased from 2006 to 2008, but in 2009, the recession slowed down sales. It's starting to increase again.

What does a master distiller earn?

It depends on the part of the world you're in.

You'll be able to afford a nice house and have a few nice holidays a year. You'll be comfortable. And you'll get rich in other ways.

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