As far as Irish whiskeys go, Slane has taken a lot of people—critics and casual drinkers alike—by surprise. A couple months back, they invited us out to Slane, County Meath, Ireland, to check out the distillery, learn a little more about the family’s storied history, and sample a bit of the sauce. We learned a lot about what they’re up to at Slane, but what we found fascinating wasn’t the juice, but the family behind it, and we don’t just mean the modern generation of entrepreneurial distillers. The Slane Irish Whiskey story actually begins somewhere in the mid 11th century, when the family earned its motto.
The Wanted Man and The Mad King
When you first step inside Slane Castle, one of the first things you see in the massive foyer is the Conyngham coat of arms, with the motto “Over Fork Over” emblazoned on it. We’ll admit, it’s a bit of a confusing motto, since most families get something closer to three honorable emotions or a quick bit of Latin advice. But as it was told to us by Alex Conyngham (officially titled Earl of Mount Charles and one of the men behind Slane Irish Whiskey), the story of the family’s crest and motto has a little more action behind it.
Malcolm III, future King of Scots, was on the run from Macbeth—yes, the same guy who went murder crazy in Shakespeare’s cursed production—and came upon a farm. Another Malcolm, the son of a man named Friskin, found Malcolm III in one of the family’s barns. Malcolm III quickly explained he was on the run and wanted to raise an army, come back and take the throne from Macbeth. Malcolm, son of Friskin, had to make a choice. Give Malcolm III up to Macbeth’s soldiers and win praise from a king who routinely saw his dad’s ghost; or harbor a wanted man who promised a great reward upon his return with his own army.
With Macbeth’s soldiers closing in, Malcolm decided to gamble. He saved Malcolm III by forking hay over him in the barn and keeping him concealed, presumably by leaning against his pitchfork and whistling until Macbeth’s soldiers passed. And when Malcolm III did eventually raise an army and came back to overthrow Macbeth, he remembered Malcolm, Son of Friskin, and unto him bestowed the Thanedom of Cunninghame and a shit ton of land, as well as his family’s motto: “Over Fork Over”—for the hay Malcolm forked over Malcolm III in the barn.
Do you know why, gentlemen? Because fortune favors the bold, and Malcolm, Son of Friskin, was just that. So began what has been the long and storied lineage of one of Ireland’s aristocratic families—the Conynghams.
Slane Concert Proves Everyone Needs to Unwind
Fast forward some 900 years to 1981 and we get Henry Vivien Pierpont Conyngham, 8th Marquess Conyngham, known officially as Henry Mountcharles, long-removed descendent of the original Malcolm Son of Friskin, and co-founder of Slane Irish Whiskey. He decides he wants to throw an epic rock and roll concert.
Now, if you know anything about Ireland in the 1980s, you know it wasn’t the most pleasant of places. The IRA was still running a guerilla war to get the English completely off the island and Northern Ireland had a significant British military presence. Only a couple other counties stand between County Meath and Northern Ireland, potentially putting it in the literal firing line between Irish nationalists and British loyalists.
When Henry Mountcharles proposed the concert, he was told that it’d be impossible to pull off and it was exceptionally dangerous. Henry said the Irish aristocratic equivalent of “Nah fam, fuck that,” gambling not only that people wouldn’t wuss out and bail, but that no one would destroy the tiny village of Slane.
So, on August 16, 1981, the inaugural Slane Concert took place. It was headlined by Thin Lizzy, with support from names like Megahype, Rose Tattoo, Sweet Savage, and U2 (remember, they’re Irish and super into unity and stuff). Tens of thousands of people showed up, and despite everyone warning Henry Mountcharles about the risk for catastrophe, only a couple arrests were made, and the only reported property damage came in the form of a broken pub window. For all intents and purposes, we’ve been to rowdier family reunions. The Slane Concerts have grown into a tradition these last few decades, with Guns ‘N Roses headlining this year’s concert. In order words, like His ancestors, Henry gambled, and he was rewarded.
What About The Whiskey?
And that brings us to the whiskey. When it came time a few years back to find a new revenue stream to help the family castle stay afloat, the family had one solid idea: Henry Mountcharles and Alex Conyngham, Earl of Mountcharles (Henry’s son), got into the whiskey business. During its first incarnation, Slane sourced its whiskey from the folks at Cooley Distillery (the same distillery the Teelings used to run). Cooley, now owned by Beam Suntory, is responsible for labels like Kilbeggan, Greenore, and The Tyrconnell, all respectable whiskey company to keep.
Lately, sourcing the whiskey has become increasingly difficult, forcing the Conynghams to adapt. That adaptation came in the form of turning the Slane estate into a beautiful, historic Irish whiskey distillery. You ever seen a crop of copper pot and column stills get stuffed into an 18th Century horse stable? Because if you visit their distillery inside the grounds behind Slane Castle, that’s exactly what you’ll see. They’re also restoring the original architecture on the grounds and turning part of the distillery into a state of the art tasting room, lounge, and visitor center.
While the distillery is nearing completion, it’ll be a few years before anyone will ever taste a drop of the stuff they’re distilling now. In the meantime, the teams at Slane and Brown-Forman (who recently inked a $50 million deal with the Conynghams) have spent a painstaking amount of time sourcing a blend fit for royalty. They’re keeping their sources quiet, respectively, but they did reveal they’ve settled on a mix of Irish single malt and grain whiskeys aged in light char, heavy toast barrels; ex-sherry casks; and ex-American oak bourbon barrels. We were able to try each individual source, as well as the final blended product, while we were out there, and it’s a high quality blend that will more than tide us over until they’re distributing their own distillations. Consider us fans.
Slane Irish Whiskey got a release in Ireland this past April, and it finally made its way across the pond to the States this summer, too. It might be difficult to find depending on where you are, but good whiskeys are worth seeking out, even if it takes 900 years to figure out that’s what your family should be making.