Master blender Alex Thomas is well on the way to realising her ambition to create a globally successful Irish single malt whiskey.
One of the world’s few female whiskey blenders, Alex has created The Sexton Irish Single Malt Whiskey at an established distillery near her home in Coleraine.
Alex, who was born near Ballymoney, has already seen The Sexton become among the most successful whiskey launches in the US, the world’s biggest market for the historic brown spirit.
She learned her craft at Old Bushmills Distillery under the expert mentoring of master distiller Colum Egan and Helen Mulholland, the master blender, and is deeply appreciative of the knowledge and experience they imparted.
“I learned a huge amount about the craft of whiskey distilling, its history and traditions from Colum and Helen during my time with Old Bushmills,” Alex says. “It’s a tremendous and stimulating place to work. I love working there and get a real buzz every time I enter the complex.
“Colum and Helen remain great sounding boards for ideas and are close friends. I guess it’s because we are all passionate about Irish whiskey and its global potential,” Alex continues. “Colum encouraged me to believe in myself and to do whatever it takes to fulfil my dream of creating a whiskey that people would enjoy. The Sexton is the realisation of that dream.”
Alex honed her distilling skills at Bushmills over 16 years and qualified as a master blender in 2012 before being chosen by Proximo Spirits, the New York-based drinks giant, to create a new Irish single malt aimed initially at the strategically important US marketplace. Proximo’s relationship with Bushmills follows the acquisition of distillery for Mexico’s tequila market leader Jose Cuervo.
While Alex uses the facilities at Bushmills to craft her distinctive malt, she has been given full creative freedom to make her whiskey as she wishes and has complete control throughout the entire production. The Sexton is owned by Proximo.
“It was a great honour to be tasked by Proximo to create a different single malt,” Alex continues. “My objective was to develop a whiskey that everyone could enjoy and that paid homage to those who came before us. I wanted it to be approachable for those who thought whiskey was not for them and memorable enough for whiskey lovers to enjoy the experience. In addition, my aim was to produce a whiskey that would represent the changing face of Ireland – capturing the heritage and provenance of the past and the optimism and creativity of the future.”
Reviews from respected whiskey reviewers indicate that Alex has achieved her objectives especially in terms of taste.
She remembers her father and grandfather having “a special bottle of single malt that would have been opened to celebrate an important family occasion”. “More often it was opened when someone in our family had passed away. I remember everyone coming together to celebrate the life of a loved one who had passed,” adds Alex.
Tradition also underpins the brand. “The name Sexton means custodian of sacred objects, or more simply put, the caretaker of precious things,” she explains. “What better name for the whiskey?”
The Sexton, which is triple distilled in copper pot stills like Bushmills to a recipe created by Alex, was launched in 2017 and is now being rolled out internationally. It’s a measure of the extent of her meticulous control and outstanding professionalism that she even sourced the barley from Irish growers.
The Sexton is crafted using 100 percent Irish malted barley for a supremely smooth single malt. The spirit is then matured in oak barrels - selected by Alex in France - and air dried for a minimum of 16 months, then toasted from the inside and seasoned with Oloroso for two years before being shipped to the distillery.
“An influence in my choice Oloroso sherry casks - from the Antonio Paez Lobato family in Jerez - came from helping my grandmother make her delicious fruit cakes in which sherry was her secret ingredient,” she laughs. The choice was also influenced by a post in a timber business before joining Bushmills.
Her extensive role at The Sexton also extended to the unique design of the squat black hexagonal bottle, a striking presentation that reflects the Giant’s Causeway stones.
She also knew the whiskey had to stand out in a competitive market. “When I started in the industry there were only three Irish whiskey distilleries. Now there are over a dozen. I knew that the whiskey had to be exceptional and that the branding needed to be bold and to make a statement,” she adds.
Alex has certainly succeeded on both counts with The Sexton.
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