Up close and personal with Teeling Whiskey's European Brand Ambassador Chris Hayes
Updated: Feb 28
In between face masks, social distancing strategies and just general COVID-craziness, I had the great pleasure to get to know Teeling Whiskey’s European Brand Ambassador Chris Hayes, who took time out of his very busy schedule to meet with me for a personal interview.
Chris took me by the hand (virtually of course) and told me everything I wanted to know about being a brand ambassador, Teeling’s Small Batch Whiskey, their efforts during the COVID-crisis and more... want to guess who he’d like to have a whiskey dinner date with? Keep on reading!
Being a Brand Ambassador sounds like a dream job, how did you get into the business?
Chris: I sort of fell into it. I’ve been in this industry for about seven years and the past four with Teeling. The one thing I love about this industry is how alcohol has this unspoken language that crosses all language barriers, no matter where you are. Of course it does help that I speak fluent French.
As an Ambassador, what is it that you do?
Chris: Within the distillery I run educational programs, workshops, give whiskey talks as well as tours. And then there are the sales drives, the whiskey shows. It varies from day to day. You have to be very flexible.
Flexibility - check! Any other particular skills that come in handy as an Ambassador?
Chris: Obviously consumers differ per market, depending on how much knowledge they have of the Irish whiskey category. Some might only just be discovering the big brands and others are more developed. If you were to go somewhere like Holland, where there is a great bar scene, you will find yourself talking about everything from whiskey cocktails to single casks. A Brand Ambassadors needs to have that versatility. You need to be able to talk to different audiences. Having a background in spirits helps but you have to be comfortable and brave to try something different.
What's the best advice you ever got when you got into the business?
Chris: Time management! You're going to be juggling plates on a day-to-day basis. This is a constant learning process, take every single day as a blank slate and be there to learn and absorb it all.
Teeling’s Small Batch Whiskey is aged on rum casks. Why specifically rum?
Chris: The main reason for using Central American rum casks is that we very much wanted to bring a new angle to the Irish whiskey category. The predominant blend whiskies back in the 1980s were around 40% ABV, filtered and matured in Port, Bourbon or Sherry casks. We wanted to move into a completely new direction and bring a whiskey that resonates with the modern whisky drinker and a modern palate.
During a blind tasting people just kept coming back to the rum matured premium blend and very few people could distinguish that it was a 100% rum cask. That’s how well it intermingled with our base blend.
Next to that we wanted to change the perception of blended whiskies. There are still some negative connotations surrounding the category and some people see blended whiskey as being inferior to single malts. With everything that's being developed around the world, the presumption that single malt is best, is being debunked. We know that there is more to making a good whisky than simply one unique spirit and one barrel.
Let's talk maturation.
Chris: So the buildup of the whiskey is 75% corn and 25% malted barley. To start, we take a four to five year old whiskey and a five to seven year old single malt which we age separately for up to six years in American Oak. I say up to six years because knowing when a whiskey is ready, is not a mathematical approach. We only select what tastes the best. This means that there can be a variation from batch to batch. A Small Batch from back in 2015 is very likely to taste different from the ones bottled in 2019.
After the initial separate aging, we bring them together in rum casks for the final maturation. The process is not always cost-effective as we lose about 12% but in terms of the overall flavor, it does mean you get the consistent high quality premium blend.
How does the Small Batch measure up to some of the great whiskies in the Teeling portfolio?
Chris: In 2015 Teeling Whiskey first started off with the Small Batch, which was a 6-year old blend and a 21-year old Peated Single Malt. People really were questioning who we were but we started building the brand story and sometimes people overlook the Small Batch but keep in mind: this was that first stepping stone to many of those future Teeling releases.
The white wine yeast and distillers yeast that we use have led to releases both from our distillery as well as from the family reserve. The rum casks became a staple for us. Because of all of that, the Small Batch stands up quite well against the other, sometimes bigger whiskies in our collection. Even our 24-year old Single Malt, which won the World's Best Single Malt in 2019.
So the Small Batch is very versatile.
Chris: That’s what I love about it. That 46% ABV holds up incredibly well against bigger, bolder modern liqueurs and it is easy to mix in cocktails as well. The rum influence makes it easier to lean into rum based drinks.
Now that people are making their own drinks at home, they will discover new flavors like this as well. That same principle can be applied to our own whiskey process. From the 55 to 75 casks that we select, not every single one of them will end up in the blend. And we too make some interesting discoveries.
Chris: We once matured our Irish whiskey on barrels which were used by Kyrö, a Finnish Rye Gin Distillery. When we tasted the liquid after a couple of months it was really heavy on caraway seeds, juniper and spices and it was just a bit overwhelming. We left it for another 12 months and the end product was so well-structured, it was a night and day difference.
Let's switch gears here, how has Teeling been dealing with the effect of the COVID-crisis?
Chris: We're also facing a big 2020 challenge but we’re doing everything we can to come at this. We're doing a lot of virtual tastings, online workshops, we've been developing PPE kits and hand sanitizers as well. We’re facing a tough time but we've had a lot of success so far with the virtual tastings and offerings. We work closely with some of our distributors to offer E-commerce discovery packs where you can do a tasting from the comfort of your home and kitchen. The people we work with have the same kind of ethos as we do: focus on the local community and focus on flavor.
The community is a big part of who we are and being the first distillery in Ireland in 125 years, I think it was one of our biggest aims not only to revitalize the whisky pedigree but also to get back to the area.
The Teeling Virgin Oak Charity Bottle in Support of our Frontline Heroes was a limited release. How was that received?
Chris: That bottle was intended to be a Distillery Exclusive but with the distillery being closed, we decided to make it a charity bottle and gave all the proceeds to charity. Those 300 bottles sold out within 2 hours, which was phenomenal.
The whiskey was matured on Irish oak and it was the fourth edition of our Distillery Exclusives. In terms of flavor profile, it varied from dried fruits, apples, pears, your typical Irish flavors, as well as honey and caramel. Irish Oak tends to add a lot more wood varnish or sandalwood to the flavor as well.
Any other wood that has been used for the barrels in the past?
Chris: Because Irish whiskey laws are a little looser, we’re not bound to only using oak barrels. We can use anything from cherrywood to pine. Our very first Distillery Exclusive was matured on chestnut wood, which was really interesting, although not great from a cost perspective.
Chestnut is more porous than oak, so you lose a lot more of the whiskey, nearly 15% but from a flavor perspective, it’s incredible. It’s higher in tannin content and it can be a bit sweeter. Other exclusives have been matured in Hungarian oak as well as Chinquapin wood, which is like Appalachian white oak.
Teeling in 10 years, where will it be?
Chris: I think the range we have right now will have evolved. The Small Batch will be completely different and I'm very excited to try the 2030 batch and compare it to the 2020 batch. There will be some peated single malts which includes a triple distilled peated single malt. And you’ll see a lot more coming from Dublin. Much more variety. It’s impossible to say what our position as a brand will be but from a whiskey perspective, it's always exciting times.
What was a “Pinch me, I can't believe it is real!” moment?
Chris: It has to be the 24-year old Single Malt winning the Best Single Malt in the world. When you think of some of the great brands that have won the previous years, it has been predominantly dominated by Scottish or Japanese whiskies. It threw a spotlight on Irish whiskey which was fantastic. It was the first time that an Irish whiskey won that award.
What would you change in the industry?
Chris: I'd love to see more close interaction between people like myself in the industry and consumers. I have a great relationship with whisky bloggers and bloggers within the industry but being close to the consumer, I’d love to see that continue. Virtual tastings are great, it's kind of a fun way for consumers to build a relationship with the individual but also with a brand.
Who in this world would you like to take to dinner and have a whiskey with?
Chris: Matt Damon! It’s even very possible because he is currently stranded in Ireland. I’d have to take him to some of my locals but depending on how the current situation evolves, it might have to be in my backyard with a barbecue.
Special thanks to Chris, Niamh O'Connor, Darren Lovely and the Teeling team for making this interview possible. It was a great experience and I cannot wait to visit the Teeling Distillery in Dublin once we're allowed to travel again!