16 Jun Jay Bradley – How I got into the whiskey business
I’m often asked how I got into the whiskey business? And just like a fine Single Malt, the more I think about it, the more layered and complex it becomes.
The first thing to say is that I wasn’t born into it. I am a proud Irishman — and whiskey is in my DNA.
Contrary to common belief, whiskey is of the shamrock, not the thistle. We invented it. We perfected it. We dominated the world with the finest whiskeys ever created. In the 19th century, any wealthy connoisseur’s cellar would have been stocked with Irish Single Malts. Beyond the super-rich, it catered to all tastes and all classes: if you’d been sat in almost any bar, almost anywhere in the world, it would almost certainly have been a drop of the Irish nestled in your hand.
But that doesn’t explain why I, amongst millions of similarly proud Irishmen, found a passion for the whiskey business. So I have to dig a little deeper. And I keep coming back to my dad.
Dad had a fantastic sense of humour ─ and let me assure you, you need one in the whiskey industry. You might not know this, but he became an internet sensation AFTER his death by playing a massive practical joke on mourners at his own funeral. The video of his cries for help, made to sound like they were coming from the grave, went viral and he’d have been delighted to know that his mischief gave the world a laugh.
In life he was a serial entrepreneur who came from a long line of serial entrepreneurs, with the main business centred on a chain of butcher’s shops. It was here that he learned the family trade of spice blending, elevating it to an art form. My god, that man understood seasoning and flavour combinations.
Dad loved to cook for us, so while I wasn’t heir to a whiskey dynasty, the Bradley kitchen table was a masterclass of flavour and a temple to the five senses. It was here that I learned about the interplay of sight, sound, aroma, touch and taste. To this day, I automatically deconstruct whatever I eat or drink into the components, quantities and qualities of flavour.
Still I wasn’t ready for the whiskey business — though passionate about the spirit.
Next I refined my understanding of the business of business. I worked hard, pulling down two jobs (fairly standard in the Bradley family), learning furniture making by day and rising from bottle washer to bar manager at night. It wasn’t all work and no play — I travelled the world, got married and had children.
All the while I devoured books and insights from experts like Tony Robbins, Jim Collins and Michael Gerber to lock down business theory. I attended seminar after seminar in my spare time and read MBA course work at night. I worked for other companies to see how this played out in practice: I saw where they were successful, where there were not and where I could make them better. I started my own companies and learned how to get the best from staff: to identify their strengths and harness them so that everyone who worked for me was motivated with clear progression opportunities and structure. I grew my sales and marketing business from a one-man band into hundreds of employees.
At the end of a long day, I kept up my apprenticeship to flavour and dived into the world of barbeque. This was not some side-line, part-time hobby but a focus. I took masterclasses with greats such as Tuffy Stone and Myron Mixon. I practiced, I prepared and I perfected – winning multiple first place trophies and even competing at the World Championships as a pitmaster. Barbeque has taught me more about the importance of wood in building flavour than anything else. I learned from research papers on lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose. I discovered how fire breaks them down into wood sugars and flavours: the lignin giving off vanilla notes, while the hemicellulose gives more toasted flavours when heated but deep smoky notes at higher temperatures.
Stepping away from the world of sales and marketing, I bought a wine bar and turned it into a fun whiskey and cocktail bar with a smokehouse restaurant. It allowed me to combine two passions: my love of fine whiskey and great BBQ. I worked hard and made it a success, and it was here that I made the discovery that would change my life. Looking at my whiskey lists I found decent proportions of American, Japanese and Scottish whiskey — but precious few Irish. My bar wasn’t alone: I frequented other restaurants, travelled quite a lot and I noticed the same trend. Every other place offered one or two Irish whiskeys at best, yet far more of the others.
As an entrepreneurial Irishman with a palate, I couldn’t let this stand. It was a discovery that led to years of research through long forgotten books on the ways to make the best whiskeys — and how (and why) some distillers made bad ones. The differences between Irish whiskey and Scotch. I read about the rise and fall of the Irish industry and spotted a gap in the Irish whiskey market that nobody else was really going after.
Then and only then did I feel I was ready for the whiskey business. But I was on the other side of the world. So it was just a thought that ‘one day’ I would look at it more closely. Unfortunately my dad fell ill with cancer and I left my businesses behind and returned home to be by his side.
One drunken evening, we talked about Ireland’s glorious whiskey past, our sadness at its fall, how it was all but forgotten internationally and about how it stayed small for so many years while Scottish whiskey expanded. We also spoke of how fortunate and excited we were to be passionate about it at a time when it is was on the cusp of a renaissance. I told him I dreamed of opening my own whiskey business ‘one day’.
My Dad was a dangerous man to talk dreams with, because he wouldn’t rest until he turned them into reality. Like father, like son, I grabbed a pen, found the back of envelope and we began to plan. Many hours, drinks and envelopes later, we had come up with what was to become the Whiskey and Wealth Club.
Whiskey and Wealth Club’s strategy is three-pronged: to support distilleries by providing an income on excess immature whiskey stocks; to deliver an attractive and profitable opportunity to investors; and to realise the dream of father and son to resurrect the Irish industry, generating the capital needed to fund The Craft Irish Whiskey Co. and the creation of world leading, premium Irish whiskeys.
So we reached out to Scott Sciberras (another entrepreneur and old friend of mine of nearly 20 years) to see if he was as passionate about this idea as I was. I’d left the sales and marketing industry many years before (and had no desire to return) so asked Scot to lead the Whiskey and Wealth Club while I helmed The Craft Irish Whiskey Company. He flew to Ireland, we researched the concept at distilleries across the country and — over a few whiskeys — shook hands on the deal.
It is an intricate combination of pride, inheritance and apprenticeship to create the defining flavour — passion. Today, the Whiskey and Wealth Club is a huge success, while The Craft Irish Whiskey Co. has been buying mature and rare whiskey. We craft them with ultra-premium barrels, using ancient techniques alongside others that nobody else has attempted. We are now on the verge of releasing one of the finest whiskies that Ireland (and in my opinion, the world) has ever produced.
So, the next time a journalist asks me how I got into the whiskey game, I’ll have both a long and a short answer: the former being the words I’ve just written; and the latter simply, “my dad”.