Chemical engineer and distiller Katherine Condon describes the importance of possessing technical, creative and communication skills, while also having a good nose for judging whiskey; and says that Henry Ford, 'the man who put the world on wheels', and Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer, are among her engineering heroes.

Condon joined Irish Distillers in 2014 as part of the Graduate Distiller Programme. Upon successful completion of the programme, she was appointed distiller at the Micro Distillery in Midleton, Irish Distillers’ hub for innovation and experimentation with new distillate styles.

From there she moved to the main distillery as a process technologist and, most recently, production supervisor. During her time with Irish Distillers, Condon has played a vital role in the production of many new innovations, including the Method and Madness range.  

She graduated with a degree in Process and Chemical Engineering from University College Cork in 2014.

1) When did you first become interested in engineering/technology? 

I really enjoyed maths, chemistry and biology in secondary school. From there I sought out my transition year work placement at a local mechanic. I was always intrigued by how machinery worked and even as a child I always questioned how things worked. Combining all these aspects led me to an engineering course in UCC.

2) Who were the mentors who helped you on your way?

I had very good teachers in secondary school. They were great mentors for me and supported my love of maths and science. At third level the staff in the Process Engineering Department in University College Cork were fantastic. There were only 13 students in my year, so we were almost like family and the lecturers and lab technicians always looked out for us.

3) Your engineer hero?  

Henry Ford. He is known as the “man who put the world on wheels” and his father comes from the same village as me – Ballinascarthy (a little biased, I know)!

4) An engineer/technologist you wish was better known? 

Ada Lovelace, she is recognised to be the first computer programmer, back in the early 1800s. It is so important to celebrate her achievements and the achievements of other women in STEM.

5) Elaborate on engineering/technology and the distillery sector – is chemical engineering integral to the process, and how important is 'smart' tech? 

Chemical engineering gave me a fantastic start in Irish Distillers. I gained a good understanding of mechanical engineering during my university course, which is also important when you are working with pumps, pipes, and pot stills.

The chemical aspect of this course helps you to understand the basis of distillation – which is the bread and butter of process engineering. Process and chemical engineering teaches you how to deal with problems, by not providing the solution directly – it teaches you how to troubleshoot and problem solve – so even outside of the distillery, it is a great skill to have.

Technology and 'smart' tech play a pivotal role at Irish Distillers, especially from a sustainability point of view. We constantly strive to be more energy efficient and we use technologies such as Mechanical Vapour Recompression (MVRs) and Thermal Vapour Recompression (TVRs) to recover heat. We use liquid ring vacuum pumps to flash off vapour for cooling, while then recovering the heat from flashed vapour to make hot water.

I am proud that at Midleton Distillery we have been prepared to trial and implement innovative new technologies that have never been used in the industry before, helping us to use resources such as energy and water more efficiently and ultimately reduce our environmental impact.

6) What specific skills are required to be a distiller?

Good technical skills are vital to understanding how every process parameter can affect the flavour profile of the distillate.

Creative skills are important too, as innovation breathes fresh life into the brands and helps to grow our portfolio of whiskey. The Jameson Family motto, which is found on every bottle of Jameson is 'Sine Metu' meaning 'without fear', and we definitely take this approach when it comes to innovation.

Additionally, good communication and presentation skills are helpful when you are meeting with consumers or conducting whiskey tastings. Last but not least, a good judge of character is important – for the whiskey that is!

A good judge of whiskey character

7) Though the process of distilling a bottle of whiskey in 1920 may be quite different from how it is done in 2020, presumably the taste or end product is still the same?

We are so lucky that Midleton Distillery is steeped in history and heritage. We have an archive onsite and even have recipe books which belonged to John Jameson 2nd – so we know our roots, the historic mash bills and the characters of our founding fathers.

Maintaining the distillate quality is paramount for us. Today, the grounds of Midleton Distillery may look different to the historic Old Midleton Distillery site but we have always retained the same spirit of craftsmanship.

It is great to be part of an industry that respects the traditions of old. Today, sustainability and reducing our environmental impact is at the forefront of everything we do, meaning that we will be able to continue to produce quality whiskey into the future.  

8) What are your favourite engineering/technology feats?

  • Ardnacrusha dam – I always think it amazing that in the 1930s, the power of the River Shannon was harnessed to provide electricity to 80% of Ireland. Although it only supplies 2% of Ireland’s electricity now, at the time it was the largest hydroelectric station in the world.
  • Beehive huts on Skellig Michael – the huts were built by a technique called 'drystone architecture', which uses no cement, yet creates a watertight structure. These huts are still standing today and date back as far as the 13th century.
  • International Space Station – right from its construction (weighting 391,000Kgs) to the research and data it's currently collecting. The ISS is one of my favourite pages on Instagram.

9) What is the most important trend in your sector right now?

Innovation has long been a very important trend. In our world, great ideas come about when we come together – from collaborating with local beer producers to sourcing new casks and ingredients for our whiskey. Our continued dedication to innovation has allowed us to penetrate markets and grow Irish whiskey sales across our portfolio.

10) If you could, is there any one measure you would introduce to help improve the gender balance within the profession?

The visibility of female role models plays a significant part in inspiring other women to pursue similar careers, as well as proving that success in typically male-dominated industries is achievable.

I am lucky to be one of a number of skilled female professionals within our operations at Irish Distillers. Many women have kick-started their careers as graduates, before progressing to senior roles across our operations in Dublin and Cork which has been hugely encouraging for me. If I were to suggest anything, it would be to ensure that there are always female role models visible which will, in turn, inspire other young women to pursue a career in STEM.

11) What book is on your bedside table? 

The Boy, the Mole the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy. It’s a book for all ages.

12) What is the one piece of advice you would give to somebody starting out in the profession?

Starting a new job, especially just out of college or university, can be daunting. My advice is to take the time to learn as much as you can and absorb all the new information as best you can.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and pay close attention to the answers. It is a challenging but rewarding time; seize the opportunity to learn and grow as a new professional.

13) What is your favourite film? 

This is a tough one, as I enjoy lots of different genres of film, but I do love Cinema Paradiso. The music score for this film is one of my all-time favourites; composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone. The film is a nostalgic love letter to the power of movies.

14) If you weren’t in your current role, what might you have become? 

My mother has long been using essential oils for personal and home use, so from a young age I have been exposed to different fragrances. We would often blend different oils to make different aromas. If I wasn’t in my current role, I would be in a role, distilling plants to extract essential oils…but it’s fair to say, I hope to always be working with the art of distillation.  

15) What is a typical day for you?

No two days are the same. I work very closely with the quality team and master distiller Kevin O’Gorman, nosing all distillates that are produced at the distillery.

I work with the projects team to ensure any new equipment has no negative effect on the quality of the spirit. I am also involved in innovation. It is very exciting to see what products will be brought to market each year. Tracking distillery performance and working with the team to optimise the plant is also a big part of my daily routine.

16) What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Treat others as you would like to be treated.

17) What do you do to relax?

I like to meet up with my friends and family and listen to good music.