Words: Emily Mullen
Photography: Clonakilty Distillery
Not content with dominating the whiskey and gin shelves of Ireland, Clonakilty Distillery has launched their own vodka. Minke vodka is a premium spirit crafted out of just two materials from the Atlantic Ocean surroundings, water and milk, filtered through an authentic copper still held in the Scully family distillery. Minke vodka has a smooth luscious taste that bears its pure origins, from farm to glass.
Residents of this island nation wouldn’t exactly be known for vodka production, which is surprising given the availability of potatoes on this damp little sod. Over the years our whiskeys have borne critical acclaim, so too have our craft beers and more recently our gins, but so far there have been few vodka producers. Stepping up the mark are Clonakilty Distillery, who have added vodka, to their now bulging portfolio of spirits.
The origin story of Clonakilty Distillery is as mystical as its surroundings, a tale that would make even the most stoic a little misty-eyed. A family who for generation after generation have worked the same land on Ireland’s southwestern point for roughly 320 years, decided to do something different with their produce. The Scully family combined their surroundings and the products of it and launched Clonakilty Distillery which operates in their local town less than 15 minutes drive away from their farm. The distillery is fed by products grown on the Scully farm and staffed by locals, creating a beautiful synergy between ancient land and modern commerce.
Growing something from the land, producing it and introducing it into the market was important to the Scully family. “Michael Scully [founder and CEO] has always wanted to bring a product from the farm to the consumer,” Adam Collins marketing executive of Clonakilty Distillery told us, “using something that’s produced on his farm and bring it full circle from grain to glass has always been a goal”. The distillery launched their cask whiskey series first, using sourced spirits that are aged onsite in Scully family farm, in a warehouse that peeks at the sea. The launch of their gin came next, accompanied by a new range called the Minke series, inspired by the mammal that inhabits the North Atlantic and can be spotted from the farm. The latest to join the now bulging drinks cabinet is the Minke vodka.
“Michael’s family have farmed this land for 8 successive generations. He respects the land, the unspoilt maritime location and wants to craft a spirit that best captures these values.”Adam Collins marketing executive of Clonakilty Distillery
The location of Scully farm is not just suitable for whale-spotting, but it’s set on one of Ireland’s more unusual climatic zones, which Collins explained, “the micro-climate that they have out on the farm set by Galley Head Lighthouse, the soil out there is fertile, sandy, it’s full of minerals and nutrients that have washed in off the sea, it’s amazing land”. This land is the basis for Minke Vodka’s two ingredients, milk and water. Beginning with a whey alcohol, a derivative of milk that has been taken from the farm’s dairy herd, this base spirit is distilled in the same copper still that’s used to make the Minke award-winning gin. This alcohol is then mixed with water sourced from the farm’s well. The mixing takes place through a process dubbed by the distillery as the gentle cut which involves adding water to the spirit at a slow rate over time.
Master Distiller Paul Corbett told us some of the more technical aspects of the distillation process, “our still has an aRoMat, this is a column unique to Mueller stills. It is essentially a 10-meter copper coil that the vapour must pass through before reaching the condenser. This copper coil greatly increases the vapours contact with copper and the amount of reflux in the still. The greater copper contact and greater reflux will cause impurities in the spirit to flow back into the Pot leaving only clean spirit forward into the product.”
“We are very excited to finally launch Minke Irish Vodka into the market and feel it will only enhance our reputation as a producer of premium Irish spirits. This is a superb new release for Clonakilty and further demonstrates our commitment to innovation while respecting tradition and craft”Michael Scully, founder of Clonakilty Distillery
The idea for Minke Vodka began when Clonakilty Distillery team noticed a booming cocktail culture in Europe and thought about how that could be applied to an Irish market. Thus a premium vodka brand that works well in cocktails was born. The nature of the spirit does indeed lend itself well to a mixologists deck, particularly for coffee and chocolate-based mixes. This is mainly down to its production process and ingredient base, a product that originates as milk will normally impart a certain quality to its byproduct. In this Minke vodka is not alone, the overarching feeling you get from it is the smoothness and luscious comfort that can only come from a milk derivative. It’s also glossy enough to have on its own just over ice.
On a personal level, I would have never classified myself as a vodka drinker, so learning about the processes, speaking to Clonakilty Distillery and tasting Minke vodka has been an eye-opener for me. It’s a change in mindset from thinking of vodka as merely another ingredient on the cocktail list and considering it as an actual standalone drink has been something I never once considered. Vodka can be a premium drink, that can be enjoyed not endured, just like our beloved whiskeys and gins. It can be a spirit that enlivens a cocktail, not to be drowned out with as many other tastes as possible.
Aiming to try it as recommended with tonic and a twist of lime, I ended up pulling the fine wooden stopper out and carefully decanted a glug of Minke vodka into a wine glass filled with lukewarm tonic, lashes with ice and served with a lemon that’s been hanging out in the fridge too long. It did feel like a bit of a travesty sampling the premium spirit in such a way but surely this is the truest test of a spirit, if it can carry the putrefied lemon and cheap warm Lidl tonic in a wine glass. Pass it did, with flying colours, it carried the drink in my wine glass out of the gag territory and made it into a lovely refreshing drink. It tasted alcoholic but without the telltale mouth-and-throat-scorch that cheap vodka usually brings. It’s got a smooth, delicacy to it, the kind of drink that opens the door for other people, lets them pass before commending them on their outfit choice, it doesn’t overpower other flavours it simply compliments them.
It’s got a smooth delicacy to it, the kind of drink that opens the door for other people, lets them pass before commending them on their outfit choice. It doesn’t overpower other flavours it simply compliments them.Emily Mullen
Clonakilty Distillery’s whiskey, Minke gin and now Minke vodka are all produced in the state of the art distillery, which opened in 2019. Prior to lockdown, the team ran a gin school, a restaurant and gave tours of the Clonakilty Distillery out of the town’s iconic The Waterfront building, capitalising on the heavy footfall of visitors to the Wild Atlantic Way. When the pandemic came, the business was forced to change overnight. One of those changes was the production of hand sanitiser, which Clonakilty Distillery was one of the first independent distilleries to do so. The selling of sanitiser was a lifeline for staff, “it obviously kept everyone within the business employed, we were allowed to redeploy people from our visitors centre who didn’t have work into bottling or labelling hand sanitiser,” Collins said.
The company also pivoted into eCommerce, integrating a buying element to their site, which enabled them to sell directly to consumers. Business is going well, the distillery is currently exporting to 13 markets around the world, but the Irish market would be their bread and butter, with the US in hot pursuit.
This emphasis on the Irish market is a conscious effort on the company’s part, “we are mainly of the belief that if you want to succeed you need to own your home market before you can look abroad. If you are not respected where your product is produced then there’s no real point,” said Collins. Clonakilty Distillery have made their home their product, and Ireland their market focus, and that’s the whole point.