Q1. Tell us where it all began
Daithí O’Connell grew up in the hospitality sector in Ireland and then moved abroad to Hong Kong, Australia and Dubai, doing everything from opening up a bar to starting a firm that specialised in payments technology. Throughout those years, he developed a passion for Irish whiskey and a determination to open up a business in the industry. In 2019 and back in Ireland, Daithí developed plans for a distillery that quickly morphed into W.D. O’Connell Whiskey Merchants – not a distillery, but a bottler and bonder of Irish whiskey. Bonders have a storied history in the whiskey world, and were the link between distilleries and pubs in the golden years of Irish whiskey in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Now, bonders are back on the rise, and O’Connell Whiskey Merchants has carved out a little space for themselves in the industry. They have found interesting, new whiskies distilled at some of the finest distilleries in Ireland and store them in their warehouse in Kilmacthomas while they mature. They started the journey in late 2019 with the release of Bill Phil, Ireland’s first triple-distilled peated single malt Irish whiskey in 100 years. Then, after working from home; they now have a 11,000 square foot warehouse in Kilmacthomas, Waterford, on the site of the Workhouse complex along the Greenway. They have plans to expand the business in the coming years into adjacent buildings; with the addition of a bottling line this year, they will continue to curate a library of casks and deliver top-quality whiskies to the market while also assisting other small-batch producers to bring their products to market.
Daithí is known as an honest broker in the industry – both producers and customers alike trust his opinions about the quality of whiskey in the market and where the industry is headed.
“W.D. O’Connell Whiskey Merchants – a bottler and bonder of Irish whiskey.”
Q2. What differentiates you from similar businesses in this area?
The whiskey industry in Ireland has been dominated by Irish Distillers for decades, but in the last decade or so, the number of smaller brands and producers has grown significantly. There are over 40 distilleries in the country now. We rely heavily on these newer distilleries to source our whiskies, but where we differ is in our flexibility and ability to move quickly with the market. Most producers in the industry have sunk costs and investment into the production of whiskey – they are tied to their processes for years while they distill and mature their products. We have the flexibility to buy new-make whiskey and mature it over time, or buy already matured whiskey and bring it to market right away or apply a cask finish to add another layer of complexity.
Our flexibility means that we can move with the market, meet our consumers where they are with their preferences, and help drive some of the innovation that we see in the types of casks being used and types of whiskey being produced. Our expertise and willingness to experiment with the business model gives the business an advantage and a place in the industry as kind of ‘trusted advisors’.
Q3. What are your top ‘moments of joy’ over the past 4-5 years?
We have put a lot of time and investment into expanding our export markets and building a presence outside of Ireland. Developing our brand in new markets takes a ton of effort, and so balancing our focus on Ireland and the global market can be really challenging. We also moved into our warehouse this year and added a bottling line to the business; this means new administrative and production challenges that we will need to anticipate for next year while we continue to bring our new bottle releases to market. All of this requires cash, and cash flow in the whiskey industry can be very challenging. With our focus on small-batch premium releases, we are looking forward to releasing new lines and bottles in 2023 after a busy year building out the warehouse.
“With our focus on small-batch premium releases, we are looking forward to releasing new lines and bottles in 2023.”
“In 2023 we will start to expand into our heritage building at the workhouse with plans to develop a ‘History of Whiskey” tour
Q4. What would you say are the biggest challenges your business is currently facing?
We have had lots of ‘moments of joy’ over the past 4-5 years, including:
• Launching our fist Bill Phil release at WhiskeyLive in Dublin in 2019.
• Opening up our online shop and delivering our first bottles to retailers in Ireland, like John Kelly’s Number 21 Off-Licenses, James Fox in Dublin and the Carryouts in Tramore and Killarney, among others.
• Getting our first orders in each of the 9 export markets we opened up in 2021
• Winning the Waterford Local Enterprise Award in 2022.
• Rolling the first bottles off our bottling line (after lots of delays and challenging work getting equipment delivered and the warehouse ready) in August of 2022.
• Winning Gold (Bill Phil) and Double Gold (10-Year Single Grain) medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Awards this year.
We also carry out a lot of tastings, chatting with customers and building relationships with other small producers in Ireland. We enjoy all of these moments that keep the drive going when times are tough or challenging, and meeting folks who enjoy our whiskies or who we might be able to work with in the future is fantastic.
Q5. What does the future hold for your business?
In 2023 we will start to expand into our heritage building at The Workhouse with plans to develop a ‘History of Whiskey in Ireland’ type tour experience as well as some event space / office space for the business. We will be putting more energy into our new releases, bringing out new batches of our core products and delivering new single cask releases to markets in Ireland and abroad. We hope to expand into additional markets, and will try to double our number of export markets. In addition, we see a tremendous opportunity to be a bottling provider for other small (and some not-so-small) brands and producers; we are going to work hard to expand that part of the business.