Louise McGuane: Raise a glass

The Chapel Gate Irish whiskey founder on the power of being underestimated and spearheading change in a male-dominated industry

People 29 Nov 2019

Louise McGuane, founder of Chapel Gate Irish whiskey
'Stay focused and keep achieving what you want to achieve', Louise McGuane,

My entire career has been in the drinks industry. I worked with big champagne brands such as Moët, and that led me to work for Pernod Ricard, then with Diageo on its ultra-premium drinks, which included whiskey.

I was on the international track of moving every two to three years to a different country, and when I was living in Singapore and my husband was in the UK, I realised I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. As my husband couldn’t leave the UK, I decided to quit in 2015 and went back to Ireland, where I’m from, to set up an Irish company.

The Irish whiskey category was on the rise at the time, so it made sense for me to enter this market and set up my own Irish whiskey company. I started to investigate whiskey-making in my locality in Ireland, and discovered an old brand named JJ Corry, so my idea was to revive this brand and its story.

I used Kickstarter to get investment for the first round of barrels, to see if people would buy into the story, and that attracted angel investors, which enabled us to really get the company going.

When it comes to making a whiskey unique you can use different ingredients, but legally you can only make whiskey in one way. I discovered that there used to be hundreds of historic whiskey distilleries in my region in Ireland, and I initially found an old distillery that had closed its doors in 1849 – the building is still there.

I came across JJ Corry through a local antique dealer who was selling whiskey labels from the 1890s on eBay. Intrigued, I went to visit him, and found that in 1983 he had been asked to go in to dismantle JJ Corry’s shop, which had been run by JJ Corry’s daughter until her death in 1983. There, he came across a fascinating paper trail of whiskey labels, receipts, order books and advertisements.

JJ Corry called himself a ‘whiskey bonder’, a term I had never heard of. The Irish whiskey industry collapsed around the 1920s or 30s, and when I started to research the term ‘whiskey bonding’, I discovered we had hundreds of distilleries in Ireland in the 1800s, but only three left in the 1930s, due to geopolitical circumstances. Distilleries in Ireland commonly produced whiskey and simply sold the liquid to bonders who then handled the blending and bottling. Bonders were often small-scale mercantile owners in towns around Ireland, such as JJ Corry in our village. They blended bespoke whiskey for their customers and sold it in their shops.

I wanted to bring back the lost art of whiskey bonding, so I built a warehouse on my farm, and got the first whiskey bonder’s licence issued in living memory.

The reality of the Irish whiskey industry is that it is made up of 99.9% men of a certain age, so if you look at the governing body of the Irish whiskey industry, there are very few women. I deal with a lot of men, and they often don’t take me seriously. Even when I raised one million Euros to buy whiskey, the man on the other end of the phone said, ‘Is this really going to happen?’

The way I deal with this is that I go out and I prove them all wrong. I became the first modern-day whiskey bonder, I opened up the US market, I opened up in Asia, I create award-winning whiskey, and we’re one of the most exciting, successful new whiskey brands, with some of our whiskies selling out in minutes. I prove my worth by what we produce and by how hard I work.

My team is predominantly female, but I do have men working on the farm. I am very pro hiring women though, and while I personally won’t change people’s attitude to women in this industry right here and now, what I can do is give young women opportunities, so they can go on to orchestrate change. I take pride in setting the women I employ on great career paths in this industry, and I think empathetic leadership is very important.

A key piece of advice I would give to anyone is to not look around at what others are doing and compare yourself – stay focused and keep achieving what you want to achieve.

We’ve just launched a new whiskey called The Chosen, which celebrates the rarity and quality of aged Irish whiskey. Old Irish whiskey is incredibly rare, and I came across a very special old cask three years ago, and worked with local bespoke Irish furniture designer John Galvin, and crystal artist J Hill’s Standard, to create a beautiful crystal decanter and wooden pedestal for a limited edition of 100 bottles of The Chosen. It really is a showcase of excellence in Irish whiskey and contemporary Irish design.