Q&A: Jennifer Nickerson, Tipperary Boutique Distillery
When we think of whiskey (or whisky), we tend to think of aging, leathery skinned men labouring lovingly to create the peaty tipple we’ve come to love. Jennifer Nickerson, co-founder of Tipperary Boutique Distillery, is one of a handful of young people changing the face of whiskey production in Ireland and around the world.
Nickerson, along with her then-fiancé, now-husband Liam, and her father Stuart, founded Tipperary Boutique Distillery on Liam’s farm. The three of them together possess all the skill sets any distillery needs to succeed – financial know-how and managerial skills in Nickerson; Master Distiller in her father; and agricultural guru in Liam.
Nickerson and her boutique distillery are still growing in the industry. She is known for encouraging women whiskey lovers to expand their horizons and break into the often male-dominated scene. She is also known for her single malts, which are nice additions to any party.
I spoke with Nickerson about her experiences in the whiskey industry and what drives her to succeed.
How did you first get interested in making whiskey? What inspired you to co-found Tipperary Boutique Distillery?
I might answer these together as they lead into one another. I’ve always been interested in whiskey – My father, Stuart, managed several Scottish distilleries and is hugely passionate about whiskey. He is always keen to share his knowledge with anyone who will listen, and it’s a rare evening when he won’t regale you with a story about whiskey making or discuss the pros and cons of water types or still shapes.
When I was growing up in small villages across Scotland, most people’s family were involved in distilleries to some extent and I gained an appreciation of whiskey as a way of life. I retained this love of whiskey and the industry surrounding it, writing my university thesis on the Economic Impact of the Scotch Whisky Industry. Although I worked in finance for seven years after coming to Ireland, I stayed keenly interested in whiskey, and was always intrigued as to why Scotland continued to have so many distilleries compared to Ireland.
When I met my now-husband (Liam) and brought Stuart to Liam’s farm in Tipperary, it became clear from our discussions that we had the perfect climate for growing barley (the main raw ingredient in whiskey) and for maturation. Liam’s farm has been in his family for over 200 years and he had been thinking about ways to diversify from purely arable farming.
Luckily, we all love whiskey and over several drams we discussed the concept. With Liam’s family background in growing barley, my dad’s knowledge and experience in whisky distilling, and my own finance background, it seemed like the perfect way forward.
How many expressions/whiskies have you released to-date? Which has been your most popular?
We’ve released two expressions in the USA (Tipperary Boutique Selection Watershed and Knockmealdowns). Tipperary Boutique Selection Watershed is a non-aged statement single malt Irish whiskey, while Tipperary Boutique Selection Konckmealdowns is a 10 year old Irish single malt. So far, everything we have released has been single malt Irish whiskey, but we have some pot still spirit laid down which we’re really excited about too!
We have released a few more single malt expressions in Europe: The Rising (an 11 year old single malt) and some single casks exclusive to the UK, Germany, Austria and Ireland. We have released a number of different finishes, e.g. rioja and port finishes, and we have a REALLY exciting “Triple Wood” (madeira, red wine and sherry) that is being released exclusively in Germany for the World Cup.
We’re constantly trying to innovate and try different things with our cask finishes (and are excited about doing this with our own spirit in future!).
What’s it like working with your father and husband?
I actually laughed at that question because I imagine that I’m the harshest critic on the team! I do the majority of the day-to-day work, but both my husband and father are incredibly supportive, and offer their opinions and advice when they’re asked. At this stage, I think they both realise that if I don’t ask for their opinion, I’m probably not going to listen to it!
The most important thing about working with family is communication. If I am unsure about something or if I make a mistake, I immediately tell everyone (after cursing myself internally) and then we work together to fix things. Rarely is there an issue that can’t be resolved in some way, and I think the hardest thing is to not panic about problems – make a cup of tea, have a think, and work through it. Oh, and know when to ask for help! I’m lucky to have Stuart and Liam on board, as they’re both incredibly knowledgeable about distilling, farming and engineering. I also have great professional advisors and I’m really lucky to be surrounded by experts in their field.
What’s the whiskey industry like, from your personal perspective?
Incredibly friendly. The further along we get with our maturation warehouse and into design of our distillery, the more I realise this! Technical queries I can ask my dad, but there are practical questions that crop up every day that I often end up asking my colleagues in the Irish whiskey industry.
I think there are two aspects to this. Firstly, the industry itself is inherently friendly – as someone who grew up in the Scotch whiskey industry, I always found that people working in the distilleries were lovely, and that’s only been reinforced for me over the last few years as I’ve gone to meetings and conferences in Scotland – there is always someone to help you when you really need it.
For example our first year malting barley was too small for any of the Irish maltsters at the time and we sent this to a lovely Scottish maltster who malted it for us.
Secondly, Ireland has a really vibrant and growing whiskey industry with new distilleries cropping up in recent years. As such, most people are interested in growing the category as a whole and are happy to offer advice, from where to find outer cases, to who might insure your casks. Also, as people have recently gone through the process themselves, they’re much more likely to have details to hand and be able to tell you how they approached matters.
You have made an effort to encourage women to become more prominent in the whiskey industry; why do you feel this is important?
I think it’s a natural progression – I’ve noticed changing attitudes over the last 10 years, so that I’m no longer shocking the bartender if I order a whiskey at the bar! There is sexism, but this generally comes in the form of (mainly men) being patronising about whiskey and telling me about the industry or my own whiskey. It really has improved though!
I’ve never been alone in enjoying whiskey – I have a lot of female friends who love whiskey, whether straight up or in a classic cocktail. Having said that, when you attend whiskey events, there is a preponderance of men, and there can be a perception that it’s a “man’s drink” (despite the number of female distillers, distillery managers, shop owners, bartenders, whiskey writers, etc. etc.).
Women are actually everywhere in the industry – at least half the people I speak to every day are women, whether they’re managing whiskey stores, preparing customs documents or running their own whiskey company – they’re everywhere! It’s the same with female whiskey drinkers – they are everywhere! I think the problem with the perception in the industry is that women either tend to be in roles that don’t garner as much media attention, or when an individual woman is known for drinking whiskey, she’s perceived as a “woman who talks/writes about whiskey” rather than “a person who talks about whiskey” and by emphasising the fact that they’re female, we perpetuate the concept that being female and enjoying whiskey is unusual.
I think that the more we have women who are prominent in the industry (and who are vocal about whiskey), the more we help reduce this stigma. We need there to be so many women drinking whiskey, enjoying whiskey and TELLING people that whiskey is great, that eventually being female and into whiskey is no longer different or unusual: it’s completely normal. Honestly, I love whiskey, and that’s nothing to do with my gender.
What are you plans for the future?
To be Ireland’s first hotel with a whiskey distillery on the hotel grounds.
To release Tipperary’s first field-to-bottle whiskey. Tipperary Gin. Tipperary Vodka. Other Tipperary spirits.
To become Ireland’s number one whiskey – a girl can dream!