Two Stacks: The art of the blend

Shane McCarthy from Newry bonder and blender Two Stacks talks Irish whiskey heritage and innovation with Ryan McAleer

Shane McCarthy (left) with his Two Stacks co-founders Donal McLynn (centre) and Liam Brogan (right).

IN the 19th century, Irish single pot still whiskey was the world’s most popular style of the spirit.

Born out of innovation, when Irish distillers introduced unmalted barley into their process to avoid a punitive malt tax in 1785, it produced something unique to Ireland that caught the world’s attention.

That same innovative spirit is alive and well in Newry and South Down, where Two Stacks and its sister company Killowen are playing their part in helping revive Ireland’s forgotten spirits heritage through experimentation and collaboration.

And it’s working. Just a little over two years after going to market, Two Stacks’ spirits are now in 35 countries, while Brendan Carty and the Killowen Distillery have earned an avid cult following.

Shane McCarthy has a stake in both businesses.

He founded Two Stacks in 2020 with Liam Brogan and Donal McLynn. It emerged from their export business, Ireland Craft Beverages.

“For us it was a natural evolution from exporter to becoming an independent bottler and bonder,” he said.

Two Stacks' range of Irish whiskeys, bottled at its Newry warehouse.

Two Stacks isn’t a distillery and doesn’t pretend to be. It harks back to the Irish tradition cask bonding, where small merchants and grocers all over the country, bought directly from distilleries and bottled their own branded whiskey.

The Newry firm works closely with distilleries across the island to create new and interesting flavours and products, which are stored in its warehouse.

“We’re trying to push boundaries,” said the Co Down man.

“It’s about the art of the blend and a flavour forward, contemporary voice. Innovation has always been at the forefront.”

Some innovations appear more simple than others. Take Two Stacks’ ‘Dram in a Can’ for example, which was launched just 18 months ago as the world’s first straight Irish whiskey in a can.

One million cans have now been sold worldwide, with Tesco in Northern Ireland the next major supplier to sign up.

“That wasn’t about building anything gimmicky. It was about how do get premium liquid on lips,” said Shane.

“We won a world whiskey award for our five-part complex blend. But people don’t want to pay £40 all the time for a new brand.

“But they don’t mind throwing a fiver at it. So we disrupted the miniature market.

“Ninety-nine per cent of people who got it said ‘why hasn’t this been done before?’

“I believe we have the 100ml spirits canning line in Europe here in Newry.”

The Two Stacks Dram in a Can, which has sold more than one million units since launch.

Behind the scenes, the Irish drinks industry continues to be dominated by a handful of major players, while on the global stage, Irish whiskey is miles behind Scotch in terms of sales.

Things are changing. Distilleries are popping up all over the island of Ireland, with some of the most respected figures in the industry predicting Irish whiskey will surpass Scotch this decade.

Poitín is also experiencing a revival.

Two Stacks is playing a part in rediscovering the often forgotten heritage of Irish distilling, which for much of the 20th century lay in the hands of the duopoly of Bushmills and Midleton in Cork.

In recent days, the Two Stacks team journeyed to Ardara Distillery in Donegal with a peated whiskey recipe from 1828, discovered by the historian Fionnán O’Connor.

“We would go into a distillery and with our level of knowledge, we would be confident of taking over and actually laying down heritage mash bills, buying all those casks and taking them in-house to Two Stacks,” said Shane.

“We’re not a distillery and we’re not trying to be a distillery.”

'Just three friends with a passion for whiskey'. L-R: Shane McCarthy, Liam Brogan and Donal McLynn.
But with the growth of the whiskey industry on the island, transparency is becoming an issue.

Most new brands on the market contain whiskey either sourced from the Great Northern Distillery in Dundalk or West Cork Distillery. Some are not transparent about that fact.

“The back of any bottle of Two Stacks will tell you as much as we are allowed to tell you,” said Shane.

Less than a year after launching its new 6,000 sq ft bonded warehouse in Newry, Two Stacks is evolving again.

Plans are advancing for a new in-house blending and cocktail experience, which will soon allow visitors to try their hand at creating their own blended whiskey.

“It’s to allow people to come along and see the art of the blend.”

A design for Two Stack's new in-house blending and cocktail experience.

Passion remains the key driver for the Two Stacks project and indeed the wider resurrection of Irish distilling.

“We’re three friends and a team of people that are very passionate about whiskey,” said Shane. “We would never put anything out to market that we don’t love drinking ourselves.

“I think it is a golden age of Irish whiskey. We’re going through a bit of a renaissance in terms of where we were and where we can go.

“There’s a lot of good people in the industry and in the community, and I think that’s the most exciting part of it.”