Can the Ex-Master Distiller of Jameson Put Minnesota Whiskey on the Map?
Brian Nation wants to make the Minneapolis-based O'Shaughnessy Distilling Company the crossroads of American and Irish whiskey styles
“I think I speak quite correctly, but the first time I met the team in Minnesota, they needed subtitles.”
For new O’Shaughnessy Distilling Company Master Distiller Brian Nation, a sudden move from Ireland to Minnesota was bound to cause culture shock. But the former Master Distiller for Irish Distillers — aka the group behind Jameson, Redbreast, Powers and Midleton whiskeys — thankfully found his new surroundings quite charming, language barriers aside.
“They thought I was speaking too fast, and I didn’t understand them,” says Nation. “We nearly needed to have cue cards.”
Leaving his homeland and his extremely prestigious position in the Irish whiskey world to head up an unknown distillery in Minneapolis — and one that’s still under construction — would obviously present challenges, especially when this all went down as COVID-19 hit. Thankfully, Nation is an incredibly good-natured guy and seems ready to tackle any challenge, as evidenced by a recent conversation I had with him about his career change, the Midwest and the future of whiskey on both sides of the pond. Read it in full below.
InsideHook: Can you give me a little background on your whiskey history?
Brian Nation: Effectively, my background is chemical and process engineering. After school I went to work in an oil refinery, then to Irish Distillers in 1997, where I worked in engineering to production and then as Master Distiller starting in 2013.
You’re leaving what many would consider an ideal job.
If someone said two years ago I’d leave Irish Distillers and end up in Minneapeolis, I’d say they were mad. But that was before I met (distillery co-founder) Patrick O’Shaughnessy. He basically cold-called me and as we were talking, and I heard his passion and drive to develop something different. We struck up a relationship quickly.
And maybe I was at a crossroads in my life — building a brand and a distillery from the ground up, and in a different country, excited me. And I didn’t need much persuading from my wife and kids, who were very supportive. For my kids, it’s a chance to explore a different country and go on an adventure.
COVID must have been an issue.
We decided to do this in July of 2020, but obviously we couldn’t move. So we’re excited to just get over there and get going. I’ve been a few times on my own — I was there in January of 2020 and realized it was a lot colder than Ireland. But I did like what I saw; I loved the friendliness and the scenery, though admittedly everything was covered in snow. I was there in April and it was the first time of no snow and I saw plants, and I liked it even more.
The important question: What about this whiskey excites you?
The distillery we’re building, it’ll revolve around the copper pot stills. It’ll be the first thing you see if you visit. So we’re making triple-distilled American whiskey in copper pot stills with American cereals and maturing in virgin American oak barrels. So malted and unmalted barley in virgin American oak. It’s a lovely taste profile, with spice and fruitiness from the pot still, wood influence from the oak. And we’ll introduce other cereals, like rye and bourbon mashbills, at some point.
We’ll also have columns in place for continuous distillation, so we’ll have the ability to make vodka and gin as well. Lots of flexibility. But our vision is to produce whiskies inspired by the triple pot still distillation.
I know this will take a few years, but it looks like you already have something out.
Keeper’s Heart. The first release is actually a blend of Irish and American whiskeys. We sourced some of the finest pot still and grain whiskey in Ireland and some of the finest American rye. My job is to find that perfect balance. It’s a taste profile people won’t have necessarily had before. And it’s versatile! You can drink it neat, rocks, cocktails, long drinks …
Was there anything in American whiskey that inspired you?
To be honest, I wasn’t always familiar with American whiskey brands. But there aresome that I’ve come across in the past that I’ve liked. High West is a good example. Very innovative, pushing boundaries, it’s something we want to do.
How’s your Minnesota slang coming along?
One thing I haven’t gotten used to was everyone saying, “You betcha.” What is that? At first, I was always like, sorry, what? Now I’ve said it a few times, and my kids are like, “Dad, what are you saying?”
We’ll obviously be doing more than just Keeper’s Heart blend. We do have the Keeper’s Heart Cask Society, we’re offering ownership to the first 100 casks we produce. One-of-a-kind single casks out of Minneapolis with a traditional Irish mashbill. I’d say there’s been a lot of interest.
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