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Conor Ryan and Robert Walker — Growing Whiskey

September 23, 2021
Interior of the historic St. James Church site of Pearse Lyons Distillery

The historic St. James Church in Dublin is home to Pearse Lyons Distillery, which opened in 2017 after an extensive restoration project led by Mrs. Deidre Lyons.

Pearse Lyons Distillery is harvesting their own grown grains on the Lyons family farm in Dunboyne with the help of Loughran Family Malt and Alltech Crop Science. Conor Ryan, global brand ambassador for Pearse Lyons Distillery in Dublin, and Robert Walker, European growth officer at Alltech and CEO of Ireland-based KEENAN, join Ag Future to discuss the project and the history of Pearse Lyons Distillery.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Conor Ryan and Robert Walker hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Tom:                        I’m Tom Martin, and joining us are Conor Ryan, global spirits brand ambassador for Pearse Lyons Distillery in Dublin, and Robert Walker, European growth officer at Alltech and CEO of Ireland-based KEENAN, an Alltech agri-brand and a pioneer in the Internet of Things for the farm. We’ve invited them to tell us about the barley and oats being cultivated at the Lyons family farm in Dunboyne, a lovely country town in the county of Meath, just outside Dublin. The project marries a passion for distilling and agriculture — the crops have been treated with Alltech Crop Science products. Thanks for joining us, Ryan and Robert.


                                Conor, let’s start with you. There's quite an amazing story behind the Pearse Lyons Distillery there in Dublin. If you could, give us a bit of background on this distillery.


Conor:                      Absolutely. As you mentioned, it's called the Pearse Lyons Distillery, and it's in the middle of The Liberties in Dublin. And The Liberties area, historically, in Dublin would have been the beating heart of Irish Whiskey. It's where all the big whiskey producers were located. And when Dr. Lyons and Mrs. Lyons were looking for their location for picking their Irish distillery site, they were drawn towards St. James' Church on St. James Street.


                                Now, for many reasons, there's a big personal attachment to the St. James’ Church, which is now Pearse Lyons Distillery, because the church itself used to be the Lyons’ family church. It’s the church they used to attend. It was deconsecrated in 1964, but the first funeral Dr. Lyons was ever at was his grandfather's funeral when he was a small boy — and he subsequently realized he had nine relatives buried in the graveyard outside.


                                 Also, from that area, on Pearse Lyons’ mother’s side of the family, the Dunnes, they were all coopers in the barrel industry in Dublin, providing casks to the whiskey industry, (including) the Guinness, which is only 150 meters down the road from us. So, there were six generations of coopers (in the Lyons family) to be involved in the whiskey business in Dublin prior to Pearse Lyons getting involved in it. And now, with his passing, Mark Lyons is the seventh generation of his family to be involved in whiskey in the Dublin area. Even so much so that there’s very interesting tidbits — (including that) Pearse Lyons’ grand-aunt was actually the first female cooper ever registered in Ireland.


                                So, that was a natural site for Dr. Lyons and Mrs. Lyons to be drawn to, to put the distillery there. And through years of restoration, they’ve put the most magnificent distillery you’ve ever seen in the heart of Dublin to produce Pearse Lyons Irish Whiskey.


Tom:                        Yes. And I know that that restoration story by itself is quite a long one, quite a detailed story. Mrs. Lyons is incredibly meticulous about restoration, and the result of that meticulousness is quite evident, isn't it?


Conor:                      It’s outstanding. So, there's been a church on the site where we are for 800 years, but the church as it stands now was built in 1864. I mentioned it was deconsecrated in the mid-1900s, or 1960. So, once it was deconsecrated, it had many afterlives — pardon the pun. It was an indoor vegetable market; it was a lighting store; and then it fell into massive disrepair. So, when Dr. Lyons and Mrs. Lyons bought the church, they bought it knowing that there was a big restoration project, and they would have done it meticulously anyway. Two weeks after they purchased the church, somebody in Dublin Corporation decided to turn it into a national monument. So, what should have been an 18-month project and an 1x ended up being a four-year project and an 5x project.


                                        So, basically, to restore the church to its former glory, there was a closed quarry in France (that was) reopened to get the exact same limestone to match the building. There was a closed quarry in Wales (that was opened) to get the exact same slate to match the roof. All the windows had been bricked up, so Mrs. Lyons commissioned a company called Art Glass in Derry to put in stained glass back into the church — but instead of having an ecclesiastical theme, it’s got a brewing and distilling theme.


So, from the outside, it looks very much in keeping with the area, very much in keeping with the church, but on the inside, as the beautiful natural light comes in through (the windows), you’ve got the most magnificent framing of the brewing and distilling story told through the stained glass windows in the church, all done and all supervised by Mrs. Lyons.


Tom:                        And if our listeners want to see that, is there a place they can go to view photographs?


Conor:                      Absolutely. Log on to It will bring you straight to our main website, and all the information needed will be there, plus plenty of pictures and links.


Tom:                        Okay. We want to focus on the barley and oats grown on the Lyons family farm there. Tell us about the importance of these particular grains in the creation of whiskey.


Conor:                     I'll jump in with the whiskey side of things, and we’ll get Robert, then, to tell us all about the magic that we have put in play with the grains out in our land in Dunboyne.


                                        So, the recipe that we’re going to be using these grains for — we planted the majority of our land with barley and then a small amount with oats. The reason for that is the traditional Irish style of whiskey is called pot still whiskey. And pot still whiskey isn’t just whiskey that’s made in a pot still — you know, that copper, bulbous still that everybody will know to look at. Pot still whiskey is a mixed mash bill that would have a minimum of 30% malted or 30% unmalted grains, plus the addition of 5% other adjunct grains. And the adjunct grains that will be traditionally used will be oats, wheat and rye — very much so, in the Dublin distilling industry, it would have been oats.


                                So, what we’re going to do is create a pot still whiskey distilled in the Pearse Lyons Distillery with grain that’s been grown on the Lyons family land with Alltech Crop Science products. Again, in keeping with the Lyons family ethos of doing everything naturally, sustainably, and tying in with our Planet of Plenty platform, we’re going to be using — in the pot still, half of our grains are going to be malted, and half of them are going to be unmalted; so, basically, (those are) raw grains.


                                So, half of them, which is the barley, is going to be malted, where you bring it to maltsters. Basically, what they do is they leave it soaked in warm water, (then) they dry it out, and all of a sudden, it’s easier to access sugars in the grain. Then, for the other half, we’re going to use raw barley straight from the field, as it was grown and as it was brought in. So, we’re going to have a 50/50-percent mash bill, and we’re going to make your traditional Dublin-style pot still, which is heavy on the unmalted grains and heavy on the oats.


Tom:                        I’m going to turn to Robert now. And Robert, if you could, give us some perspective on the significance of the company growing its own grain and how Alltech Crop Science is involved in that.


Robert:                     Great to speak, Tom. It's a very, very exciting project in that, first of all, we’re putting the Lyons (family farm) to good use. We have, around our European Bioscience Centre (in Dunboyne, Ireland), about 120 acres of land. Now, bear in mind that the European Bioscience Centre is where we do a lot of our fundamental research into animal nutrition and then, also, agronomy. So, we have a lot of research in other departments based out of that site, and then we have the site surrounded by the most beautiful land, which has been used for crop research. But more recently, we’ve now turned to this project.


                                The site is also the head office for our Alltech business in Europe. And so, we have a number of customers and other partners coming and visiting us on that site. So, it’s a really beautiful site in Pearse Lyons (Distillery in Dublin) as well. And it’s something that we’re very proud of bringing customers to.


                                 Now, when my whiskey colleague, Conor, approached me on this, we got really excited when we saw what we could do with this — meaning we can follow the crop all the way from seed, all the way through to shipping the whiskey. And what that means is that — that full traceability, that full control, means that we’re able to start with the soil.


                                So, when it comes to crop science, the Alltech Crop Science product has a huge focus on trying to drive up the organic matter in the soil to make sure we have maximum carbon in there, lots of microbes, and that the fertility of the soil is maximized and, of course, diseases are suppressed. We then go on to treat the crop with natural-based products that make sure that the crop reaches its full potential.


                                So, (we are) reducing stress (on the crop), making sure that we keep the crops as healthy as possible without the use of chemicals and, therefore, keeping disease at bay naturally. And then, ultimately, the crop we get out of it at the end is healthier, and it has the right profile for what Conor and the whiskey distillers are looking for. Bear in mind that the crop is grown as a spring crop, which means that it is higher in sugars and lower in protein, which is what you want.


                                 And then, Conor and myself and the other agronomist involved in the project, we meet regularly to talk about what nutritional profile we’re looking for and make sure that what we’re giving the distilling team is exactly what they need to make that order in whiskey.


Tom:                        I mentioned in the introduction that you’re CEO of KEENAN and you are a pioneer of the Internet of Things for the farm. I’m just wondering if any of that technology is being applied in this project.


Robert:                    In this project specifically, no. Nothing from the KEENAN side of the business, because KEENAN is purely for animal nutrition.


Tom:                       I see.


Robert:                    But what we are doing is employing a lot of the scientific breakthroughs that we've had in the Nutrigenomics Center that we have there (at Alltech headquarters) in Kentucky here on the farm.


                                So, nutrigenomics, quite simply, is where we look at the effects of nutrients on genes, and what we are able to show in Kentucky is that we can up-regulate the beneficial gene in plants and, in so doing, ensure that the plants have more resistance to disease. So, not quite Internet of Things, but it is — what we are employing there is much (more closely related to) biotech, much more biological sciences. And of course, when it comes to agri-tech, I guess the closest we come would be in accurate monitoring of the soil using drones and then, of course, soil moisture, soil analysis and the like. Unfortunately, in this project, we don’t have KEENAN involved.


Tom:                        I see that pollinator strips have been planted all around the oat and barley fields as part of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan. What can you tell us about this?


Robert:                     It's a very interesting project in that Ireland has a challenge with carbon footprint. And so, there is increasingly, across the country, a drive to try and sequester as much carbon as possible.


                                So, there is quite a lot of rewilding being encouraged by the government. From that, Mrs. Lyons and the Alltech group are extremely passionate about encouraging pollinators, bees. And so, we have planted these wild strips around every field (of a) wildflower that is indigenous to Ireland. And of course, this has encouraged the growth of not only pollinators and other insects but has also established very good soil characteristics on the borders and then, also, very good water control. Ireland has a lot of rain, and of course, those pollinator strips do sometimes act as quite a good barrier and quite a good absorbent for those excessive rains that we sometimes have.


Tom:                       And what happens with these grains once they’re harvested? What is the next step in the process?


Robert:                     I’ll probably hand it over to Conor there in a short bit. We just finished harvest. And we do that in conjunction with some really good partners of ours (at) Loughran’s, who are just north of us in Dundalk — which, interestingly, is the town (where) Dr. Pearse Lyons was born. So, we do have a good connection with Loughran’s, who are established in Dundalk. And they’ve coordinated the harvest for us. And they’ve been taking in all the grains and transporting it, then, to Conor and the beverage division in Alltech. And they’ll take over from here. Maybe you want to explain that a little bit, Conor?


Conor:                     Thanks, Robbie. The reason for — Loughran’s, I suppose, in the first place was mentioned (because) Dr. Lyons was from Dundalk originally, and he actually ended up working in the Harp Brewery there after he did his master’s in brewing and distilling in the British Institute of Brewing and Distilling. And while he was up there, he worked there. He was from there, and obviously, he then went away to do other things.


                                Like, what people might not realize, coming from Dundalk and doing what he did — he was actually one of the lead engineers that designed and commissioned what we call New Middleton Distillery, (and) that was opened in 1975. Dr. Lyons was, foremost, a brewer and distiller first. It became his passion after, obviously, the Alltech company was set up. And he went back to brewing and distilling in 1999 with the opening of Lexington Brewing Co. and then started distilling over there in 2008.


                                While that was going on, Pearse Lyons also operated and put on the Alltech Brews and Foods Fair in Dublin to give people — craft brewers and distillers — a platform to meet up to show their wares. Where we used to be very much a couple of large industries only in the beverage scene, Dr. Lyons created this scenario where lots of small producers come together. And the reason I'm telling you this is because Loughran’s, when they went from their — they're a sixth-generation family farm company themselves, but their first transition to go from animal feed into beverage grains was actually (set in motion when) Dr. Lyons met James Loughran at an Alltech Brews and Foods Fair, where James said, “I’m thinking of going into the beverage side of things. I know who you are, and thank you for inviting me here. Is there any opportunity for us to do a bit of business together?”


                                And the first order that James ever sold into the beverage industry was (for) Dr. Lyons. Dr. Lyons ordered a container of his brewing grains and got them sent over to Kentucky. So, Dr. Lyons himself paved the way for us to build up this relationship with the Loughran Family Malt from Dundalk by being their first beverage customer.


                                So, what Loughran’s are going to do — (they are) very skilled in what they do — they’ve taken in our grains, (and) a portion is going to be malted, (but another) portion is going to be unmalted; it's going to be siloed separately from all other grains. So, when we go to draw off the stock for using in brewing and distilling in the distillery, it will only be the Dunboyne crops that we’re brewing and distilling with for the future, for both single-malt whiskey and pot-still whiskey.


                                I suppose this is the beautiful synergy about Dunboyne: (we are) growing the crops out there and bringing it all the way in to the Pearse Lyons Distillery. There’s no other company in the world that actually has this transparency in their story that we have. We’re growing our own grains on our own family land with our own company’s crop science products to be distilled in our own distillery. And when that whiskey is made, we will be aging this whiskey in our own Town Branch (facility); that’s our distillery in Kentucky. We’ve also got (Dueling Barrels Brewing & Distilling) in (Eastern) Kentucky, but at the moment, the aged stock is coming from Town Branch Distillery. And we will be aging our own new-make whiskey in our own X Town Branch bourbon barrels. And the very important bit of that is of course we’re doing this! Also, we’re making the wash to make our whiskey with Alltech proprietary yeast strains. So, this is why the 360-degree circle that we have going on is unduplicatable by anybody, any other drink company in the world.


Tom:                        And this is another reminder of the fact that Pearse Lyons was the ultimate entrepreneur, wasn’t he?


                                I have to ask you: barley and oats. What properties do these two grains in particular bring to the production of whiskey?


Conor:                      When you're producing whiskey, what you want to do is extract sugars from your grains. Barley is obviously the first choice for anyone distilling in this part of the world. I know, in the U.S., corn might be your mainstay, but in Ireland and Europe, barley is the first choice. It's where you get your most soluble sugars, the most accessible soluble sugars. And what you want to do is you want extract sugar from your grain, and from that sugar, you create a wort, which is basically a sweet, unhopped beer. And you distill that into your spirit. And we use very unique and very beautiful Kentucky Vendome stills in Ireland.


                                So, what properties does it give us? High sugar content. As Robert mentioned earlier on, what you're looking for is low protein and high sugar inside in your barley crop. And then, with oats, the reason for using oats — and there's natural enzymes on oats themselves that actually aid in the fermentation and gives us some beautiful, fruity esters. And also, using oats in itself gives you a viscosity and it gives you a flavor profile that's very unique to Irish Whiskey. So, on our first foray into growing the crops in Dunboyne, that's why we went with barley and oats. There are plans, as the crop cycles go along, that we might do rye, wheat and maybe some winter barley.


                                 But it was important to us to use barley and oats. It's the traditional Dublin-style pot still. It’s made from that, and the characteristics you get (are), obviously, your beautiful malt notes and the fruity notes that you get, then, from the esters that are created in the whiskey spirit from your raw barley and from your oats, and then that, in itself, creates beautiful congeners in your Town Branch Bourbon barrels — beautiful flavor molecules that develop over time, then. So, that's why we picked those, because it’s the most traditional style of Irish Whiskey that's quite unique to the Dublin area.


Tom:                       Well, Conor, for anybody listening who might be planning a trip to Dublin and they want to come by and see this, how can they find the distillery?


Conor:                      Log on to There’s a booking engine there. Due to COVID, we’re not open currently because, obviously, the world is still opening up here in Ireland. (It’s) been quite a restrictive time for us. The distillery's planning on being open in the very near future.


                                So, once you log on to, you’ll find a booking engine, and hopefully, then, people will be able to book their way into the whole sensory experience that is Pearse Lyons Distillery, because when you're in there, it's a fully functioning distillery, from start to finish, in a church. You hear it. You smell it. You taste it. It’s a very tangible experience.


                                 And then, while you’re there, you get guided around the graveyard. As I mentioned, there’s been a church on that site for 800 years, and you’ll be told about the history of the area through our surroundings. Some of the most famous people in the beverage industry in Dublin are actually buried and laid to rest in the Pearse Lyons Distillery graveyard outside, on the grounds. And it's just incredible. Like the cosigner of the Guinness lease, the Costigans, and the Rainsworths, the people who sold the brewing and distilling equipment to George Roe, who was one of the biggest distillers in Dublin and Ireland, and also the fantastically acclaimed James Power. The man who setup Powers Whiskey is also buried in the graveyard.


                                 So, Dr. Lyons and Mrs. Lyons, when they set up the distillery, they always said, “And as part of the experience, whiskey is only part of our story.” So, when you do come and visit us, you will get to hear about the history of the locality, the history of the characters that are laid to rest (in the church graveyard). And they’ll get the snapshot of past, present and then future when they get to taste our multi-award-winning whiskies. And hopefully, if they're really nice, I’m sure they might even get to taste a new-make sample from the whiskey that's being produced at the moment, if they talk nicely.


Tom:                        Robert Walker, you've been listening, and I just wondered if there's anything that you've heard that you would like to expand on or add.


Robert:                    Yeah. You know, what Conor was saying there about the flavor profile and what we’re looking for in the crop, I think that is very interesting, because when Conor first approached us and was talking about what he was looking for, it became immediately apparent that we could help a lot on the Alltech Crop Science side. What we can do with our natural product is we can make sure that the crop exhibits its maximum genetic potential. And so, if we’re looking for more sugar, we can do that. If we are looking for less protein, we can do that.


                                 And conversely, my experience from other crops has shown that we can up the protein, down the sugars, up the mineral profile and make a lot of other changes in the crop just by fine-tuning its nutrition and using these natural ingredients that are designed to get the most out of the crop and make sure that the crop is exhibiting its maximum potential. And I think that's where the exciting part is. The fact that we can trace it all the way from the very beginning, from when that seed first goes into the ground, treating the soil initially, and then all the way through, looking after that crop with natural products, and then finally seeing it harvested and made into whiskey.


So, you’ve got the full 360, as Conor mentioned. And yeah, it’s just a very, very exciting project to watch grow.


Tom:                        Well, actually, it’s the “full 359”. We’ve got one important question here to cover, and that is: When and where can we get our hands on a bottle of Pearse Lyons Irish Whiskey? Conor, you want to take that?


Conor:                      We import whiskey into the U.S.A. through our own beverage company in America. So, Lexington Brewing & Distilling imports all of our Irish spirits or Irish Whiskey and our Irish gin. So, through their website, you’ll be able to find what outlet it is available in stateside. And actually, a point to note is our Pearse seven-year-old whiskey has been awarded Best Blended Irish Whiskey for the last two years consecutively. Now, considering 90-odd percent of all Irish Whiskey is blended whiskey, for us to get the best blended Irish Whiskey for two years consecutively is an incredible achievement to all involved, and it's fantastic.


                                So, we have a range in our Pearse Irish Whiskey range. We also have a Ha’penny whiskey range, and then we also have two types of gins, which — we have a Ha’penny gin, and we have our Míl gin. They’re kind of our core spirits that come from Ireland that are available in the U.S.A. So, Lexington Brewing & Distilling, on their website, they’ve got a location finder on it, and they'll be able to guide you in the right direction to pick up a bottle in the U.S.


Tom:                        Well, as I said in the beginning, it's all such a fascinating story. And when you think back to the beginnings of Alltech, (the) very humble beginnings of Alltech, and to have achieved what you just told us is just remarkable. Conor Ryan, global spirits brand ambassador for Pearse Lyons Distillery in Dublin, and Robert Walker, European growth officer at Alltech and CEO of the Ireland-based Alltech agri-brand, KEENAN. We thank you both for joining us.


Robert:                    Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.


Conor:                     It’s been a pleasure and an honor. Thank you for the invite. Much appreciated.


Tom:                        I’m Tom Martin, and thank you for listening. This has been Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts.