From crisis to crafting the world’s most expensive whiskey
Three years ago, The Craft Irish Whiskey Co. founder, Jay Bradley, was at rock bottom. A lifetime’s work had been lost, and from a six-bedroom house in a beautiful island location, he found himself living with his wife and three children in his parents’ three-bedroom house in Dublin.
Three years later, he’s the man behind the world’s most expensive whiskey, The Emerald Isle. His inaugural release, The Devil’s Keep, has been judged the World’s Best Irish Single Malt by the World Whiskies Awards, and he’s gained a reputation for crafting the finest single malts of a generation; it’s certainly a far cry from the modest circumstances he found himself in just a short time ago. We caught up with Jay to find out how this real life rags-to-riches tale came to be.
You’ve had quite the comeback career, tell us how it all started?
As an entrepreneur from a young age, I’ve been used to the highs and lows of building successful businesses. I’ve scaled 8-figure companies, built and run a restaurant, travelled the world for BBQ championships, and spent 17 years as a CEO. And what I’ve learned through all of that is that when you dust yourself off and start again, you’re not starting from zero. You’re starting from experience.
So when I lost my restaurant and cocktail bar in New Zealand to a buyer who never paid and ran up huge debts, I had to walk away. Being on the other side of the world and fighting for that business while my father was sick with cancer in Ireland was a battle I had to lose so I could be with him in his last months. But it wasn’t an easy decision and I hit rock bottom. All of a sudden I’d gone from a comfortable lifestyle with a six-bedroom, six-bathroom house, to being on welfare; living with my wife, my three children, my sister and my parents in their three-bedroom, one-bathroom house. For someone who’d been financially successful since the age of 22, this was a tough pill to take. In addition, I was watching my father suffer and feeling like a burden on him when he had his own struggles. I was determined to start again so I could support my family once more.
And now you have what looks to be an overnight success?
It may look that way from the outside – we started the company in 2018, launched our first whiskey in 2020, and within 6 months we’d knocked the infamous The Macallan Fine & Rare 60-year-old from its position as the most expensive whiskey in the world.
But I wouldn’t describe it as an overnight success. It took 21 years of being a craftsman, CEO, restaurateur, BBQ pitmaster, mixologist, and marketing specialist, to be able to craft whiskeys like these and make a success of the company so early on. Everything I’m building with The Craft Irish Whiskey Co. is built on everything I’ve done before.
From rock bottom to world-beating – these must be pretty special whiskeys?
You could say that! I was inspired to start The Craft Irish Whiskey Co. after reading a book titled ‘Truths about Whisky’. It was written in 1879 and showed me this history of Ireland and Irish whiskey as global leaders. In the 19th century, 84% of all whiskey around the world was Irish. Sadly the political reverberations of the 20th century saw production plummet. And we’re only just catching up. But so much of the whiskey produced now, in Ireland and elsewhere, is made for a mass-market. Cheaper techniques and cost-cutting have pushed the art of whiskey-making to one side. We’re reviving that centuries-old art. But we’re adding 21st century science and a healthy dose of innovation and disruption to improve it.
Multiple awards and record-breakers would suggest that revival of the craft was long overdue?
I don’t think the world ever fell out of love with Irish whiskey, it just needed reminding of the extraordinary layers of flavour and complexity built up by careful crafting. Our first release, The Devil’s Keep, sold out in record time and then became the most expensive inaugural whiskey ever sold at auction, fetching $60,000. The Emerald Isle became the world’s most expensive whiskey when the first bottle sold for $2million in 2021. But subsequent bottles have sold for over $3million.
People have been reminded of Irish whiskey’s reputation for impeccable craftsmanship and quality. It was always our mission to restore Irish whiskey to the global leader it once was, and with all the records and awards, we’re doing just that. In fact, our inaugural release, The Devil’s Keep, was just awarded World’s Best Irish Single Malt across all categories at the World Whiskies Awards – an accolade I’ve been dreaming of throughout this journey – while The Taoscán and The Brollach were awarded Silver and Bronze.
What techniques do you use that differentiate you from other whiskey producers and make your whiskeys so unique?
The list is as long as my arm! I was one of the first to really dive down deep on the science of what happens in the barrel – from the wood to spirit ratios, to the phenolic compounds. For instance, we underfill the barrels to allow maturation to begin from day one. Others wait for the ‘Angel’s Share’ to evaporate over a couple of years before this can begin. We add water before maturation for our new-makes and before finishing for our more mature whiskeys, and bottle at cask strength instead of diluting those rich, complex notes and viscosity. We don’t hide age statements but we also don’t rely on them as proof of quality. The Devil’s Keep was bottled at 29.9 years. Anyone else would have waited for a 30-year age statement but by then the Hungarian Oak would have begun to overpower the other layers of flavour. We recognise that whiskey is a living, breathing entity in the cask and changes throughout the year, peaking and troughing, sometimes as much as 130% in different flavour profiles. Regular tasting allows us to catch it at the moment of perfection as knowing when to pull it is key to creating exceptional whiskey.
You won more awards for design than any other company last year. What makes your designs so special?
Whiskeys as perfect as these demand an experience to match. So we spent three years researching and testing to create the perfect whiskey tasting experience, something which had never been done before. It’s not simply about good design, but combining it with science and a willingness to push the boundaries of both, sparing no expense in the pursuit of perfection.
For instance, our glassware is cutting edge – we use soda lime glass as its structure helps absorb the ethanol vapours that burn the nose and hinder the appreciation of flavour. The design of the glass, from the revolutionary ‘vortex point’ to the bulb, the chicane and the divergent rim, works to aid that removal. Knowing that 80% of the experience of flavour initially comes from the nose, we had to create a whiskey glass that removed the vapours that block the full flavour. All the drinker is left with are the layers of rich, intricate flavour.
And now you’ve taken your winning ways to the racecourse?
Yes, our sponsorship of the Plate Handicap Chase at The Festival at Cheltenham was just one of the ways we marked this St Patrick’s Day. We also chose that day to launch our latest release, The Taoscán. This is our fourth release, and it’s the first one to be available in upscale bars and restaurants from London to Cork.
And it’s a special one. The Taoscán is the world’s first and only Tawny Port and Chestnut finished single malt. It’s a one-of-a-kind, and epitomises the spirit of adventure that we bring to each of our rare releases. It started life in American Oak bourbon casks and Sherry Oloroso butts – that made a great whiskey. Not content with ‘great’, I split it across a range of barrels, from Sauternes to Cherry, Amarone to Banyuls. Two barrels reached peak perfection before the others – the Chestnut and Tawny Port. Again, we could have released each of these separately as superb single malts. But a perfect balance of the two has delivered a world first, described by celebrity chef Adam Handling as the best Irish whiskey he’d ever tasted.
Speaking of which, you recently collaborated with Adam Handling on a pairing dish, how did that come to be?
Adam and myself share the same passion for perfection and innovation – taking beautiful ingredients and transforming them into something exceptional through careful crafting and a knowledge of technique. His dish, ‘Celtic Cousins’ was designed to pair with The Taoscán; the sweet and smoky notes of the BBQ lobster complement the notes of the whiskey to create this incredible layering of flavour.
It was also a celebration of our whiskeys being available to order at the bar, by the glass, for the very first time. Our whiskeys are expensive, there’s no denying that. So there’s only a select group of people who will ever own one. But now people can try them by the glass, it’s opened up our rare releases to a new group of connoisseurs and it’s my hope that this will spread the message further, reminding the world of the perfection to be found in a glass of Irish whiskey.
So, the next time you’re in an upscale bar in London or further afield, look out for the bottle that’s a hit with Michelin-star chefs. Available now at select establishments, including Tom Kerridge’s The Hand & Flowers, Selfridges, and Frog by Adam Handling.