It’s not often that a large new distillery is born from scratch. One such rare distillery, O’Shaughnessy Distilling Co, has a unique story predicated upon a one-of-a-kind ambition and the adventure that followed. It was only three years ago that two cousins of Irish descent, Michael and Patrick O’Shaughnessy, decided that they would create one of the first new distilleries in the US specifically focused on craft Irish-style whiskey. Their dream has come true. Open in Minneapolis, O’Shaughnessy Distilling Co distillery is one of the most impressive new distilleries in the US.
“If you look back at our family, we’re originally of Irish heritage and kind of in our fourth generation. You go to one of our family reunions there’s 300+ people there. We’re spread out all across the country, but we’re still a tight-knit family,” Patrick tells us as we tour facility. “We were kind of joking at family reunions, saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had our own whiskey’ and ‘Better yet, if it was Irish.’ We started poking around about it, but momentum gathered and all of a sudden we were having serious conversations.”
The cousins began to do research in the spirits space. They dove into the important global history and contemporary relevance of Irish whiskey today. Irish whiskey is traditionally triple-distilled in pot stills and is one of the variety’s hallmarks. O’Shaughnessy wanted do pursue this path as well, even though it’s uncommon outside of Ireland—there’s only one other small craft distillery in the US that creates whiskey this way; most others choose simpler, and frankly more profitable, methods of distilling. The O’Shaughnessy distillery took advantage of its startup status to leverage the latest and greatest in distilling technology, placed in purpose-built building with the highest quality materials. Their investment has paid off.
To get there though, the cousins—entrepreneurs, investors and whiskey lovers—knew that money and business know how wasn’t enough to bring their vision of Irish-style whiskey made in America to life. “We would need the history, the expertise and experience of an Irish distiller,” Patrick continues. That led them to seek out one of the most highly regarded whiskey makers in Ireland (and the world), Brian Nation, to be their master distiller. A legend in the whiskey world and one of the best distillers in Ireland, he was the guiding force behind all of the brands produced by Midletown, the largest distillery in Ireland, including Jameson, Redbreast, Powers, Yellow Spot and others.
The cousins cold-called the master distiller and were able to set up a meeting in Ireland in January 2020. They were shocked that he even accepted their invitation to dinner, which led to drinks and then darts, a passion they all share.
“We just hit it off and formed an immediate connection, and I don’t even think we talked a lot about whiskey that night,” Michael says of their first meeting in Ireland, “but we did form some trust. It was one of those lightning in a bottle experiences where you know that a connection was formed.”
They invited Brian and his wife to visit the empty lot where the distillery would stand, in peak Minneapolis winter. More conversations, more darts, and Brian found their vision to be contagious. He realized that the opportunity to make great whiskey comes along often, but to create a brand from scratch is something that appears much less frequently. He and his wife moved their family from Ireland to Minneapolis and the process began.
“It’s a big adventure,” Nation explains. “It’s exciting to be involved in a brand from the ground up—to build a distillery from the ground up. And if you look at all of the people that have gotten involved in this and if you look at all of the teams that we have together, the big common denominator is a lot of fantastic family values, all of us have an innovative spirit and all are really, really passionate about what we’re building here as a team together.” Though the triple pot stills and Irish-style whiskey are the heroes, the distillery has column and alembic stills as well, setting things in place to create a diversity of spirits.
Any enterprise is only as good as the idea and the people behind it. While the founders are not dedicated career distillers and brewers, they’ve hired the best people in the industry—literally—to create an inspiring environment for participating in bringing this vision to life. Their passion thus far has been in creating the team—which also includes legendary David Perkins of High West, who serves as Liquid Collaborator and Advisor and will work with Nations and his team to develop new spirits. Working with these two highly regarded legends became an incredible opportunity for the rest of the team, all of whom are eager to be part of the adventure.
O’Shaughnessy has already launched their debut product, Keeper’s Heart, even though the distillery hasn’t begun distilling yet. This liquid is created using two premium Irish whiskies that they sourced, blended with an American rye. Not only is the product category-defying and compelling, not to mention surprisingly tasty, it also retails at an accessible price of $30 per bottle.
The state-of-the-art building also encompasses a very unique restaurant and bar. Given Minnesota’s archaic liquor laws, the distillery is only able to serve the alcohol that it produces, so creating a full-service bar is a challenge few would even consider, leaving it to mixing their spirits with sodas and juices But that undertaking is being done by the legendary Minneapolis bartender Pip Henderson, formerly of the iconic Marvel Bar, who helms the food and beverage program. Disillusioned with the industry, Pip spent more than two years pursuing other work and passions. Once he heard that Nation and Perkins were involved he also believed that the opportunity was unique and the next chapter in his career.
Henderson and his team have taken on these challenges with gusto and imagination—making a negroni, for example, with their own vermouth and their own herbal aperitif, blended with their own whiskey. That’s just one illustration of their efforts. Henderson and his team also designed the bar itself and its set-up reflects knowledge gained from some of the best bars in the world. Not only is it designed for efficiency, it takes the bartender into account as much as it does the client. Dishwashers can load clean glassware directly into refrigerated storage across from their equipment, the other side is easily accessed by the bartenders—meaning no barback is needed to carry things around to the service area of the bar, creating unnecessary traffic. The cocktails are considered, crafted, perfectly balanced and, along with the food, worthy of a visit. The bar and food area sits below the three hero pot stills, which create an appropriate backdrop for the experience. It’s not a surprise that a darts area is part of the space.
“I do think the distillery is going to bring some unique liquids to the market, starting with our Irish American blend,” Patrick concludes. After our Keeper’s Heart tasting in the tasting room, in what was a cold storage area in the old potato processing factory that was previously on the site, we fell in love with the sweet creaminess and touch of spice to the whiskey. We’re excited to see—and taste—what comes next.
Hero image courtesy of O’Shaughnessy Distilling Co