Without overselling it too much, the fact that the Twin Cities’ newly minted O’Shaughnessy Distilling managed to lure whiskey guru Brian Nation away from the loving embrace of Irish Distillers is nothing short of a Minnesota miracle.
With more than 20 years behind the wheel of some of the world’s most renowned Irish brands like Jameson, Powers, Redbreast, and Midleton, Nation is a bonafide legend in the world of whiskey, and now he’s bringing his immense talents to our fair state to help shepherd an emerging brand with an ambitious dream to fuse the best parts of Irish and American whiskey traditions.
We chatted with Nation over a cocktail during a press preview at O’Shaughnessy Distilling’s expansive new digs in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood, just a stone’s throw away from Surly Brewing’s massive destination facility. Here’s what he had to say about what drew him to Minnesota, O’Shaughnessy’s Keeper’s Heart Irish-American Whiskey, and the grand designs he has for future innovation at the distillery.
Beer Dabbler: You’ve stated in the past that one of the reasons that you decided to leave what most would consider to be a dream job at Irish Distillers was the opportunity to build a brand from the ground up. What kind of potential do you see here in Minnesota that you didn’t see in Ireland? What excites you about this job and this distillery?
Brian Nation: In all of the roles that I’ve been in with Irish Distillers, it’s always been around established brands, and it’s always been when you have the opportunity to progress an existing brand or widen a brand portfolio. We did get involved in some new brand releases, which would have been [experimental Irish Distillers offshoot brand] Method and Madness, but what excited me about coming here to do this role was that no brand existed, no distillery even existed, and now we have the opportunity to build the distillery and build brands on the back of this new distillery. So you had an input, straight away, into the overall design of the distillery, the versatility of the distillery, the flexibility, and to bring some nuances of distilling to America. Then, associated with that, from the discussions that Patrick [O’Shaughnessy], Michael [O’Shaughnessy], myself, and the rest of the team had to actually take the opportunity to look at Irish whiskey and American whiskey, and see what we could do to create a whiskey that’s kind of complementing both crafts and both categories. I don’t think you would have got that opportunity in a bigger style distillery, because when you’re focused on a certain category, you kind of stay focused on that category. So this gave me an opportunity to do that. So that’s one of the things that excited me.
I think the other side of it is, on a personal level, I was 23 years at Irish Distillers. Very proud of being involved in it, very happy with everything we achieved there as a team, but for me and my family, an opportunity like this—to come and live in another country, to experience a different culture, experience a different country, experience different adventures—it comes along once in a lifetime. You have two choices, and neither of them is wrong, you know? So you can make the decision to stay where you are because you’re very happy or you take the leap of faith.
What made it easier for me to take that leap of faith was Patrick, Michael, and the O’Shaughnessy family. They were so genuine, family values, they were honest in every part of the discussions. I believe in them, and I believe in their passions, and they believed in me and believed in my passions.
What kind of input did you have on the construction of the facility itself? Were there any pieces of equipment or architecture that you pushed for?
BN: Absolutely. I came and visited here in January of 2020 and I actually stood up there [on Surly Brewing’s upstairs balcony] from Surly looking down. Obviously, none of this existed [laughs], there was just the potato building and the shell of a building. Patrick and Michael were explaining their vision for the distillery, and I was standing there… think about this, I think it was the 2nd of January, and I’m with my wife standing there going “Are we really going to do this?” but I had enough belief in them to say that it was worth doing.
So I had some input with it, because conversation continued from then on, so there were certain adjustments that I would have made to the plant, the size of the plant. Around the pot distillation there were substantial changes made to it, particularly around the versatility of the pot stills, and showing that we can have a lot of flexibility to give us triple pot distillation, we can also do double distillation if we want to, so there was a lot of flexibility around that. Those would have been the key areas, brewing, fermentation, and distillation. Column [still] side, not so much, because the people designing the columns would have had way more experience than me in American column distillation. But in regards to the rest of the plant, it has my fingerprints all over it.
O’Shaughnessy is launching its first brand, Keeper’s Heart, with a whiskey that’s been blended from Irish and American styles. Does that feel at all heretical to a man whose career has been spent preserving the character of Irish whiskey? How did you approach the science of balancing those two distinct flavors?
BN: When you set out to do this type of blend, you have a certain feeling of an endpoint. What’s most important when you’re doing something that’s new to America, or new to the world, you want to make sure that, first of all, it’s a whiskey of very high quality and of fantastic taste. But in order for it to be a true blend of Irish and American whiskey, you have to see the components coming through. That’s why it took quite a bit of time in order to get the blend right, in order to ensure that we had that perfect balance. What’s your ultimate goal? You’re always looking for complexity, you’re looking for balance, you’re looking for whiskey that, over time when you’re sipping it, evolves in a glass.
On top of that, we were looking for versatility, and versatility in this day and age is very important, because people like to experiment. We’ve moved on many years ago from the whole idea that you can only drink a whiskey neat, or you can drink it with three drops of water or once ice cube, or whatever. You drink the whiskey the way you enjoy your whiskey, and lots of people now experiment a lot more with drinks, and they experiment a lot more with cocktails. Let’s be honest, if 10 years ago, even less than 10 years ago, somebody came to me and was offering me a cocktail like this with whiskey in it, and strawberries and mint coming out of it, I wouldn’t be comfortable drinking it. But people evolve, tastes evolve, and we move into a world where things change, and whiskey needs to change with that as well.
I’m all for authenticity, and I’m all for heritage, and I’m all for tradition, but there’s no problem with actually marrying two traditions, there’s no problem with marrying cultures, there’s no problem with marrying taste profiles, as long as it’s done in such a way that you’re getting the balance of both, you’re getting the complexity, and that you’re getting a good whiskey at the end.
The other side of it, too, is that we went for the higher proof, and the higher proof is really done around the cocktail mixing as well. It definitely did add more spice at the higher proof, but it also allowed it to show its face through when it was being put in cocktails. You know sometimes when you take a cocktail, you don’t even taste the whiskey because the cocktail flavors overtake it. I feel that all of the cocktails that Pip [Hanson, food and beverage director] and his team are making really showcase Keeper’s Heart, showcase the versatility of it, and showcases the quality and the craft that they have as well.You’ve mentioned plans to bring the Irish triple-distilling techniques to distinctly American whiskey styles like bourbon and rye in the future. How do you foresee that playing out in the glass for drinkers?
BN: I think what we have to be careful of, and what we will be careful of, is that when you’re doing it, you’re looking to bring a higher congener level of triple-distilled distillate to the fore, rather than a lower congener level. Because, if you think about it, in rye whiskey you want to keep a lot of the rye character when you’re distilling. So when you go into triple-distillation, what you need to make sure is that you’re carrying all of that congener flavor and profile through. You go for a higher congener distillate at the end of the distillation, which would mean that you would go down to a lower proof. Typically in Ireland, the pot distillate will come off of the still at maybe 85% alcohol, we will probably go below 80%. And this is trial by commissioning because we haven’t done this before. We have to give this a go and see what will work.
For the bourbon, I think that the taste will be different. The exact flavor profile, I can’t tell you until I start doing it, but what I am confident in is that we will be able to make a very high-quality rye that’s distilled in pot stills and that we’ll be able to create a very high-quality bourbon that’s distilled in pot stills.
What has it been like to work with High West Distillery founder David Perkins? What has he brought to the table for O’Shaughnessy?
BN: I’ve known David for years. I met David probably 10 years ago, and we actually got on very well at that time, and we kind of kept in contact. We weren’t ringing each other every week or anything like that, but we would meet at various whiskey festivals, and we kept in contact.
When I came on board here, I was a few weeks in, I’d say, and Patrick O’Shaughnessy said, “Do you know David Perkins?” and I said, “I know David Perkins very well!” and he asked, “Would you like to call him?” So we went and had a call, and you could see that David was excited about what we were trying to do with the distillery.
To be quite honest with you, I have great respect for David, I always have had, because to me David is one of the architects of innovation in American whiskey. He produced a lot of different styles of whiskey at High West through his ability to blend different flavor profiles, like Campfire where he blended Scotch whisky, he really did create different styles. The opportunity to have David on board for us, to try to create something different and to be innovative, I think we’re very fortunate. I was talking with him today, I would talk to him every fortnight, we would have a conversation every fortnight. My problem is that I’m not in America all the time, but at the end of July I’ll be in America full-time. I plan to take a trip out Utah to see Park City and spend a little time with him. He’s a great guy, and he’s so knowledgeable, and I think his knowledge of American whiskey and my knowledge of Irish whiskey, and the relationship that we have together, only bears fantastic opportunities for the future. I couldn’t be happier with having somebody like him on board.
The other side of it too is we’ve got two great distillers in Chris [Silber] and Kate [Doerges]. Chris was the guy that commissioned Old Elk initially, he came from Stranahan’s and then he commissioned Old Elk, then as he told the story, he moved [back to Minnesota to work at Indeed Brewing]. Chris brings fantastic knowledge, he’s educated to any job he does, and then you’ve got Kate who’s come from [Old Elk] just recently. The two of them work so well together, and as a team, we work very well together, I’m really excited about the team that we have. We have the formula to create something that’s very very successful here, and then when you look at the passion…I’ll give you an example of passion.
We bottled our Keeper’s Heart whiskey last week, Tuesday. You should have seen what it meant to everybody inside that team. Everybody. Every single person on that team went into the bottling line and bottled their own batches of Keeper’s Heart whiskey. Everybody was part of it, everybody had a part in putting that together. That’s what’s great about this, it’s not about any individual, it’s about the team that we’re putting together, it’s about the passion that the team has.
When you have passionate people who have the right values, who have the right interest in making a business succeed, you’re stacking a winning formula, you know? That’s thanks to Patrick, Michael, Gerry, and Kelly O’Shaughnessy for what they bring, the vibe and the atmosphere that they bring to the table is phenomenal.