IN week two of our Spirited Women series, I spoke to two women working in two very different drinks businesses.
Katherine Condon, a process and chemical engineer originally from Ballinascarthy, has built a successful career as a distiller at Irish Distillers in Midleton. Terra Brookins is a U.S native who settled in Baltimore and is working her dream job as head brewer at West Cork Brewing Company.
Katherine Condon, Irish Distillers
During Katherine’s final year studying process and chemical engineering at UCC, she visited the storied Midleton campus where some truly great Irish whiskeys are produced.
Katherine was hooked, and in 2014 joined Irish Distillers’ graduate programme. From there, she held an important role in design, installation and commissioning of the on-site micro-distillery and was involved in the team to develop the Method & Madness range of boutique spirits.
In 2020, Katherine was appointed distiller at the main distillery in Midleton. I asked how that first visit ultimately set her on a career in distilling.
“I fell in love with the grounds, the story, and everything that happens behind the gates of Midleton distillery.
"The place is steeped in history and heritage; our master cooper is fifth generation of master coopers; there’s all this knowledge passed down through generations to make amazing products with this local feel and a global reach.
“The graduate programme could really challenge and enhance my engineering and technical skills. We were watching installation and commissioning of the world’s largest pot stills - something you don’t see every day. To get that experience and exposure as a young engineer really intrigued me.”
After completing the graduate programme, Katherine was appointed distiller at the on-campus micro-distillery, Method & Madness – micro by Irish Distiller standards, says Katherine…
“It’s micro in relation to the volume produced in the main distillery, but it’s still quite a sizeable distillery. Managing that was a fantastic foundation for me; it’s like its own little organisation with operations, health and safety, environmental and energy aspects to manage. It gave me great experience for when I stepped up into the main distillery.”
The micro-distillery is an innovation hub allowing Katherine to test and question the how and why of production. She was part of the team that created and launched the micro-distillery’s signature range, Method & Madness. It’s also part of the Heritage Centre and put Katherine in direct contact with members of the public.
“Meeting the public gave me great insight into the marketing perspective and what’s important to the consumer – what they like, don’t like, getting that feedback, and that’s important for me in my role today.”
Engineers are enquiring and curious people; Katherine’s thirst for knowledge is evident in how she relishes every opportunity to always learn more – and not just about the craft of distilling, and is awe about the position she now holds as distiller in the main distillery.
“It’s an absolute honour to be a distiller for Irish Distillers. We say we are makers of the world’s most enjoyed whiskeys, and when I look at the brands that Irish Distillers produce - Jameson, Powers, Red Breast, Spot range, Method & Madness - they are exported to 130 markets worldwide, 70 of which are experiencing double or triple-digit growth. It’s a fantastic time to be involved in Irish whiskey.”
It’s a fantastic time for women in whiskey too. Much has changed since Katherine first joined the graduate programme.
“The industry has adapted and broadened its horizons to allow more women into the category, but women are more involved in science and STEM now; a balance of both have driven it. Personally speaking, being a woman is not something that defines my role. I work with fantastic women here; I’m lucky to work beside women in senior roles at Irish Distillers. The newly appointed General Manager of the distillery is a woman, our Quality Manager is a woman, and when I started with Irish Distillers in 2014, the CEO was a woman. It’s not as big a deal as it would have been in the past.
“If we look at who is drinking our whiskey, if we are to grow the category for women and men, we must educate on our brands, and on the craft, work and passion that goes into making these drinks. By doing that, you create advocacy.”
Katherine advocates for more women to seek out careers in STEM, because, for all her love of distilling, at the heart of it all is a driving passion for engineering.
“I work with MTU who organise a day for young women in secondary school interested in STEM subjects to come to the distillery and see that, in the future, this is where they could work.
“If you have a passion you’ve identified from a young age, follow it and work hard at it. Our work is so important because it makes up such a big part of our lives. Follow what you’re passionate about. Identify your skills and what you enjoy. Get that right from the start and you’ll have an enjoyable journey.”
Terra Brookins – West Cork Brewing Company
Terra really loves beverages. Just as well she does because, since 2020, she’s been the head brewer at West Cork Brewing Co, a boutique brewery in Baltimore.
By her own admission, it’s a job acquired by happy accident involving some very West Cork networking over a village shop counter, and the pure randomness of an all-American craft-beer lovin’ gal from San Diego ending up in the south-west of Ireland.
“I lived in San Diego for about 14 years. It’s a huge craft beer mecca; you can’t swing a cat without hitting a microbrewery. We do craft beer like the French do wine; it’s beer, it’s fun and great craic but it’s a real serious thing we’re into.
“Over the years, I developed my tastes for beers, but I never started making anything until I started coming to Ireland. I was back and forth a lot, one time I stopped by the Isle of Man for the beer festival there and tasted some hedgerow wines - they were delicious; I didn’t realise you could make booze from things in hedgerows!
“Back in Ireland, I started picking blackberries and rosehips and started fermenting anything I could get my hands on - carrots, parsnips, whatever. Some of it was so bad, but a lot of it was really, really, delicious.
"That really kicked me off with my adventures in fermentation and this crazy mad experimentation with everything.”
After getting married, Terra moved to Ireland permanently. It was a culture shock to relocate from downtown San Diego to living in a remote location 5km outside of the rural village of Baltimore, so she got herself a part time job in the local shop to get out and meet people.
Dominic Casey, co-founder of the brewery, was a regular customer.
“I’d pepper him with questions about the brewery, about fermentation, and had many conversations about how beer making is mostly cleaning!”
Eventually, Dominic was on the look-out for someone to work in the brewery and picked up the phone to Terra.
There’s one brew a week of approximately 350 litres of beer, maybe two in the summer. Currently, Terra is on her own mashing, brewing, fermenting, conditioning, bottling, and labelling. It’s a physical, full-on job, but there is always time for creativity.
The core range of beers are Sherkin Lass (a pale ale), Roaring Ruby (a red ale), and Stout X Stoutwest (a milk stout), but Terra has successfully made her mark with new beers – some seasonal, and some that are joining the ranks of resident beers. Beacon of Hops is a New England-style American Pale Ale that’s rivalling summertime favourite, Sherkin Lass, for the top spot.
“Beacon of Hops was the first beer I ever worked on with Stu Southern, who taught me how to brew. As I got used to the beer and how it ages, I changed the dry hopping and made into a place where it’s a really nice juicy flavour. But the lovely light malt profile that it sits in, that was Stu’s gem right there.”
Other new beers created by Terra have followed: Cape Haze, Christmas Pudding Porter, Barleywine, a Bitter. A beer she most proud of is Spice Island Red, a ginger-infused red ale that has proved so popular, it’s in the regular brewing rotation.
But if you thought it was all just about the beer, you’d be wrong. Those early days of brewing hedgerow hooch are coming back in more sophisticated ways as non-alcoholic sodas and hard seltzers offer something more refreshing, light and an alternative for anyone not into beer or heavy spirits.
“I just like beverages! I’m just a beverage person and I like options and I want things to try.
"I’m lucky enough where I have a facility where I get to be a mad scientist and make whatever I would like, so why not? I have no loyalty to any specific kind of beverage – I love them all, I will take them all and I will enjoy them all equally!”
For all the positivity, I hit a nerve when I ask about her experience in the industry.
“People within the industry have been amazing and wonderful, so much more supportive, helpful and accepting than I ever imagined. People outside it: when people look at me, I don’t think they think I drink beer much less make it. Sometimes it’s easier to just say I’m with the brewery rather than say I am the brewer. More than once I’ve been asked: ‘What do you mean, you’re a brewer? But who makes the beer? Who comes up with the recipe? Do you mean homebrew? So, you do the books? Isn’t it all just pushing buttons now? But do you get paid?’ That kind of stuff can be tricky, but at the end of the day, I get paid to make beer!
“Sometimes I get down about it, but then I’ll walk into a store, and I see a bottle of our beer on the shelf; sometimes I’ll turn it around and my handwriting is on the label. I remind myself of things like that. I’m very proud of what I do and I’m very excited to get to do it. Not everyone will like everything, but at the end of the day I get to do what I love. How many of us get to say that?
“I think the industry is ready for more women, and there’s still room to grow. There will be pushback and people who have all kinds of opinions I disagree with, but there certainly hasn’t been a better time in my lifetime. Go for it!”