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Portmagee Whiskey – Interview with John Murphy – CEO
- Can you tell our readers your own personal backgrounds.
James Murphy and I are brothers from Portmagee and the 5th generation of the Murphy family to grow up in this picturesque village in South Kerry. James trained as a plumber initially, but then graduated from DCU with a degree in Multimedia following which he and I established a video production company, Bold Puppy Ltd. We ran this business for over a decade before we decided to set up Portmagee Whiskey. James is still heavily involved in the creative side of the business and regular creates digital media advertising content for both the Skellig Coast Tourism Network and Kerry Tourism Industry Federation, both of which he plays an active role in. I met Stuart McNamara who completes the Portmagee Whiskey team in Sarajevo of all places where he was based overseas during his 37 years’ service as an officer in the Irish Defence Forces. Stuart is a well-known Irish Whiskey writer and blogger and these connections opened many doors for the company. Stuart has gone on to complete a post grad in Brewing and Distilling in TUD as well serving on the national council of ISME representing ICADA (Irish Craft and Artisanal Distillers Association). My own background as a chartered engineer officer with twenty years’ experience in the Irish Defence Forces and general grafter helps to keep the train on the tracks as we grow from a company that started with a single cask of whiskey to bringing to life our grand ambitions.
- Where did the idea for Portmagee Whiskey come from?
The idea came about following James’s decision to return to Portmagee to raise his family. Both James and I always had ambitions to restore the Murphy family’s historic home which was once the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Barracks on the top of Barrack Hill at the entrance to Portmagee village. The last use of the building was as a cow shed with our grandfather and it had falling into ruin since his passing. We wanted to create a quality product that would have both domestic and international appeal to tell the unique history of Portmagee village and develop the building into a visitor attraction that could support tourism in the village all year round. Irish whiskey was the natural and perfect fit!
- Can you break down your individual products and explain what they are made from, taste etc?
We have three whiskey expressions on the market at present, two blended whiskeys, our small batch and a 9-Year-Old, as well as a Single Pot Still expression. All our whiskeys are finished in a Barbados Rum cask finish which is a homage to Captain Theobald Magee, the smuggler after whom the village is named. One of the many spirits he would have smuggled into the village in the 18th century would have included Rum from the Caribbean and the newly discovered Americas. The Rum Cask finish really gives our whiskey an easy drinking appeal to all whiskey drinkers. All our whiskeys are non-chill filtered with no added colouring as we want to keep the product as natural as possible.
- What, in your opinion, sets Portmagee Whiskey apart from other Irish whiskey brands?
Beyond our high-quality smooth Barbados Rum cask finish, and also the 9-year-old expression, both of which are pretty unique on the market, I think what really sets us apart is out passion and vision for the brand and the story behind it. We really consider every bottle of Portmagee Whiskey to be a brand ambassador for the village and with every expression we want to tell a little bit more of the story of Portmagee’s unique history and culture.
- You have intertwined a lot of local history into your story and branding, was this always a focal point or a direction you wanted to go in?
Yes, very much so. We initially started creating the brand by drafting a document that covered over 50 pages of local stories, tales and peculiarities about the region that were interesting. We worked with a fantastic graphic designer by the name of Gillian Murphy, no relation of ours, to turn these stories into brand options. When she showed us the first draft of the Seine Boat logo, we immediately knew exactly where we wanted to go there and then. The Seine Boat is a traditional fishing vessel still used to this day exclusively in South-Mid Kerry as a traditional rowing sport. The Portmagee regatta is the final regatta of the season and the ultimate race of the season. It was the perfect logo for the brand and reflects the stories and history behind the visitor experience we have today and believe me, we have plenty more stories and tales yet to come that we look forward to bringing to life over the coming years.
- You successfully branched out into the American consumer market which can be notoriously difficult to break into, how was that experience for you?
It has been a great experience so far and we look forward to developing it over the coming months and years. We are working with a great importing team – Camelot Importing, who have a great connection to Ireland and are a family-based business already working with their own Irish based brands of Meade and Whiskey. We had a very successful initial launch in Florida just prior to the Fort Lauderdale boat show which wonderfully tied into both our tagline ‘Spirit of the Sea’ and the wider Portmagee story as Florida would have been at the far reaches of Captain Magee’s smuggling empire many centuries ago. We are now just about to expand to several more states and have also secured a placement on the USA wide online retail store www.ReserveBar.com for alcohol products. This placement will allow Portmagee Whiskey to be available in nearly all 50 USA states and already we have had orders from both East and West coasts getting facilitated beyond our initial launch state of Florida.
- Can you tell our readers about the Portmagee Domes, the idea behind them and your hopes for the future with it?
The Portmagee Domes are where we have our visitor centre located on the top of Barrack Hill. So far, we have constructed two of the three geodesic domes we plan to have on site. The first 9.5m diameter dome is our history dome which tells over three hundred years of Portmagee’s history and cultural growth from a smuggling village to the present-day fishing and tourism village it is now famous for. It also tells the story of the Seine Boat and how this fishing style has over time morphed into the traditional rowing sport we are so proud to support and participate in today. The second dome is 14m in diameter and houses a state of the art 360 immersive experience unlike anything else created here in Ireland. This is our flagship ‘Spirit of the Sea’ experience which brings the visitor on a journey out at sea through centuries of our history right up until modern day racing times. We elected for the domes to house the visitor centre taking into account our plans to incorporate digital technology into the whole experience, bringing the past into the future so to speak – the domes are very versatile as a space and facilitate incredible creativity for the digital aspects of the centre with the 360 projections. Last December we turned the entire experience into a Christmas wonderland with the 360 Dome becoming a giant snow globe complete with a 12 ft tall story telling Santa Claus to entertain and amaze children and adults alike. We have even more plans for the Domes this year to create magical moments and experiences for our community and beyond, using this state-of-the-art technology.
- Have you plans to expand on the range in the future?
Yes, and Stuart, our master of whiskey is doing some exciting work in this space already. Rum wasn’t the only spirit that Captain Magee smuggled into Portmagee so we have a lot of that story left to tell and that is before we even start experimenting ourselves on site.
- Given that you are now supplying in America, have you plans to go further afield?
Yes, is the short answer. We are already exporting to the EU via our German based distribution partners. We have very much an open mind on the future and are openly exploring several options to get Portmagee Whiskey to Asia, Australia and other parts of the world. The diaspora of Portmagee have made it to every corner of the world. Our ambition is that in any Irish Bar and others that they set foot in, a bottle of Portmagee whiskey should be part of the top shelf. That way they can tell of the wonderful village that they hold so dear to their heart simply by just talking someone through what is on the bottle in front of them.
- I will leave this as a section for you to use at your discretion for any information you may want to include.
One key aspect of our business that we have taken very seriously from the start is the issue of sustainability, not only are we a Bord Bia – Origin Green certified company since 2018 but we have actually managed to realise some of our bigger ambitions. None more so than the plating of 5,430 native Irish trees on our site surrounding the distillery and visitor centre location. 550 of these trees are Oak trees so we are really laying down a mark here that we plan on seeing this business as an intergenerational game and something that can help sustain and grow along with the village of Portmagee for generations to come. Six generations of the Murphy family have lived in Portmagee so far, we want to create a business and legacy for the next six generations to continue.