- Slane Irish Whiskey founder Sir Alexander Burton Conyngham, the Earl of Mount Charles sits down with us to discuss Irish Whiskey, legendary music festivals, growing up in a castle, and sharing a breakfast table with U2 when he was a kid
- Slane Irish Whiskey is inextricably tied to the Slane Castle grounds where the whiskey is distilled and where the Slane Music Festival has been held since 1981
- Read more Whiskey articles on BroBible here
One of the best parts of my profession is getting to meet and speak with interesting people from all walks of life. I’ve spoken with professional athletes, musicians, founders, actors, and celebrities over the years and they all have libraries full of captivating stories. But this marked a first for me, the first time I’ve ever shared a drink with a British Lord, who coincidentally owns an actual library inside of Slane Castle where he lives in Ireland.
Sir Alex Conyngham is the founder of Slane Irish Whiskey which is aptly named for the castle he grew up in (and nearby town). It also shares a name with The Slane Festival, an annual music festival held on the grounds of Slane Castle each year since 1981. When I tell you this distinguished gentleman has the coolest stories I’m dead serious.
Alex Conyngham was gracious enough to hop on Zoom with me recently to discuss Slane Irish Whiskey which is a triple casked blend of Virgin, Tennessee whiskey, and Oloroso Sherry casks. We also talked about how as a child he shared a breakfast table with Bono for months while U2 recorded The Unforgettable Fire at the castle. And how as a kid he’d meet musicians like David Bowie at the helicopter to carry his luggage ahead of a Slane Festival performance.
First, let’s talk about the whiskey, its origins, the blend, and why you should care about it.
Slane Irish Whiskey: A Triple Casked Blend
Compared to the fairly strict regulations distillers must follow to legally call their product “bourbon” or “scotch,” producers of Irish whiskey don’t have to adhere to too many rules. If the liquid (made from a mash of grains or cereals) was distilled in Ireland and boasts an ABV of at least 40% (80 proof) after being aged in wood barrels in the country for a minimum of three years, the spirit can be labeled “Irish whiskey.”
With that said, there are a few traditional techniques harnessed that set Irish whiskey apart. Many distillers use what is known as a “pot still” (essentially a big tea kettle) as opposed to a column, which is a more labor-intensive process but one that tends to produce a more flavorful whiskey.
So, within the realm of Irish Whiskey while there is a rich tradition of distillation methods there’s also a lot of variety in flavors because there is room for experimentation. Slane Irish Whiskey is made using a traditional Irish Pot Still and it’s a blend of whiskeys aged in three different casks: Virgin, Tennessee whiskey, and Oloroso Sherry casks.
I was able to do a deconstructed tasting of Slane Irish Whiskey with Conyngham, tasting the three components separately and the finished blend. The Oloroso Sherry cask portion was very powerful on the nose and I expected the flavor to hit me like a freight train but it was very smooth across the palate and really elevates the final blend perfectly. The Virgin Cask whiskey was actually probably my favorite portion of the blend.
But as is the case with any blended whiskey, I always expect the finished blend to outshine the individual parts and that was absolutely the case with Slane. And at a $25 price point in most places, it’s an absolute steal.
Origin Of The Slane Whiskey Name
Slane Irish Whiskey is named for the Slane Castle where it’s distilled. The castle was built in the 1780s and is located in the village of Slane. I asked Conyngham about whether or not he was afraid to name a whiskey after the town and castle because it might upset the neighbors.
Here I am a country bumpkin in America imagining this bonafide Lord using a town’s name for a whiskey and the locals grabbing pitchforks in anger but that wasn’t at all the case. In fact, his answer was fascinating and I’ll share it in full here:
“I think this Whiskey brand is a bit more than just us as a family, it’s embedded in a place and that includes our relationship with the village. So, we decided to name after the place (Slane). So that in a way, there was almost more trepidation because people will say “well, how can you be taking our name?”
But actually, in the history of the project which went through various ups and downs, the distillery, which is stunning, is built in an architectural conservation area. So it’s the old farmyard and stableyard building for the castle. And they are earlier than the castle and date from the 1750s.
And part of it was designed by Lancelot Capability which is a renowned British landscape architect. And so they’re protected up to the hilt, and when I told people I was going to try and build a distillery, most people thought I was barking mad because we’ve got to get permission.
But when I convinced the authorities that this was about bringing buildings back to life, I’ve always sort of thought of buildings as living things, and taking what we were growing themselves, which is the barley and the water from the River Boyne, and employing local people, adding value, and then sending Slane out around the world. Then once people understood that vision they came on our side.
And so anyway, prior to going for planning commission to get permission to do this I held a public consultation upstairs in the castle. I put out adverts in the print and anyone who was interested to come was welcome. And it was packed with loads of people turned up.
I was pretty nervous and I told everyone what we wanted to do, and I explain the vision, and then I got to the awkward bit and the end and I spoke about “aromas” and “traffic movements” and all of the boring stuff that can get people’s back up.
And then I said, “right, ladies and gentlemen, any questions?” And I started steeling myself for an assault of some kind. And this fellow the back of the room takes his hands up and goes “When are you going to open???” And there was a big round of applause and that was it. We didn’t get a single objection, in fact, we just got loads of letters of support.”
Growing Up In Slane Castle With The Slane Festival
The Slane Festival is an annual music festival held on the grounds of Slane Castle since 1981. It was the brainchild of Alex Conyngham’s father. The first Slane Festival took place on August 16, 1981, with Thin Lizzy as the headliner and a little-known band named U2 on the bill.
The festival was borne as a way to keep the Slane Castle within the family as caretakers and give something back to the community every year. This was the late 1970s when grandpa called on his son for help.
“Ireland in the late 70s, it was in trouble. It was a pretty tough time to make a living in this country and there was all of the political tension. And so Grandpa rang dad up one night (dad was working in London) and said “Henry, I’m really sorry son. I’m going to have to sell it (the castle) because I can’t make it work anymore or you’re going to have to come live here and make a plan.”
And so dad was like 25. He had a promising career in publishing which he loved. And Slane was his home and so he wasn’t going to allow it to be sold. So we up-sticked and we arrived here, mom, dad, myself, and my sister was on the way. And dad was like “how in the hell am I going to keep this place going?”
He didn’t know much about farming. He’d grown up on the farm but was young and didn’t really know much about farming. So he tried farming and then opened a restaurant. The bar I’m standing in now is down in the basement of the castle, and this was kind of one of the first spaces they opened Mom was ‘front of the house’, dad was like Head Waiter and Host, and my godfather was in the kitchen. And they worked their asses off but they had a great time.
And that helped pay some of the bills. And then he took the old kitchen, stripped that out and turned it into a nightclub. That kind of got the entertainment thing going, but the real breakthrough came 40 years ago in 1981, and 1981 was the year of the Hunger Strike. So this is like the time of Bobby Sands. And it was pretty dark days. I was six years old and even I can remember the Black Flags and the mock funerals and the tension.
Then in the middle of that, dad decided to do something very radical. And being a child of the 60s, like he was educated at Harvard in the US, loved his music (Hendrix, Doors, Stones), all of that was what I grew up with. He was a man, one that’s what I grew up with blasting out of the speakers in the nightclub, and so he decided to open the gates and put on a rock concert on the grounds in the Year of the Troubles which everyone thought he was stark raving mad. ‘Cause a guy living in the castle wouldn’t have necessarily been the flavor of the month, right?”
The first Slane Festival took place when Slane Irish Whiskey founder Alex Conyngham was just six years old. Imagine being a little kid, living in a castle, and suddenly 18,000 people show up at your house to see Thin Lizzy and U2 (and others). U2 was just on the verge of becoming famous at that point. After that 1981 Slane Festival headlined by Thin Lizzy, U2 was a supporting act but that would all change soon. Conyngham referred to U2 as “pretty green back then.”
But that 1981 festival kicked off a lifelong friendship between Alex’s dad and the band (U2) as well as the band’s manager, Paul McGuinness. Flash forward a few years later, U2 was looking for somewhere to record their album “The Unforgettable Fire” and Alex’s dad phoned U2’s manager (Paul McGuinness). and said “I don’t care where they’re going, I will undercut them if you bring them to Slane (castle).”
Bono and the U2 band members moved in with Alex who was just a little kid and the Conyngham family at Slane Castle. This would be the band’s 4th studio album, it went 3x Platinum in the USA, and while the band was recording they’d all sit around and share cereal and the breakfast table in the castle where Slane Irish Whiskey is distilled today.
Scrolling through the list of musicians and bands who have performed at the Slane Festival is astounding. Guns N’ Roses, the Rolling Stones and U2 have each headlined the festival multiple times. While Oasis, The Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers and a select few others have performed at multiple festivals.
Other legendary names to appear at the Slane Festival include Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, Van Morrison, Queen, David Bowie, and the list goes on. One of my biggest personal music regrets is not having the chance to see David Bowie in concert before he passed. I asked Alex what it was like meeting Bowie in person, one of the coolest men of all time, and he told me about this interview with Bowie at Slane so I had to share it with you guys:
The name dropping in that interview is A+.
That interview naturally brought me down a rabbit hole of Slane Festival performances throughout the years on YouTube and I found myself pouring a glass of the Slane Irish Whiskey and just enjoying the music for a few hours. So I thought I’d invite all of you to talk a walk through the Slane history with me and vibe out on these epic performances.
Here’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers:
Freddie Mercury and Queen:
The Rolling Stones:
A great interview with Mick Jagger:
The Foo Fighters:
I could keep going here but by now I’m hoping you’ve realized where I was going with all of this. Whiskey is my favorite drink but it’s infinitely more enjoyable when there’s a story behind the label. Knowing where the whiskey was made, the history of the family who brought it to exist, the inseparable connection to this decades-long epic music festival. All of that has me reaching for the bottle of Slane Irish Whiskey more than I ever would.
To purchase a bottle of Slane Irish Whiskey (or several bottles), you can hit that ‘shop now’ button below to head over to Drizly and look for it for sale in your local market.
Cass is a partner at BroBible and he’s been found here for the better part of a decade. He’s based out of Florida and you can contact him on Twitter at @casspa or via email firstname.lastname@example.org
The BroBible team writes about gear that we think you want. Occasionally, we write about items that are a part of one of our affiliate partnerships and we will get a percentage of the revenue from sales.