Castle Brands’ Alejandra Peña talks Knappogue Castle whiskey, New York City and more

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Alejandra Peña / Photo: Flash Rosenberg

Alejandra Peña / Photo: Gabi Porter
Alejandra Peña / Photo: Gabi Porter

Named after Knappogue Castle, a 15th century castle in western Ireland, Knappogue Castle Single Malt Whiskey is one of Castle Brands’ most popular offerings. Restored by Mark Edwin Andrews II upon purchasing it in 1966, Knappogue Castle’s legacy is now overseen by Mark Andrews III. Knappogue Castle’s renowned vintage offerings include its 12-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey, its Oloroso Sherry-infused 14-Year Old Twin Wood Irish Whiskey, its 16-Year Old Twin Wood Irish Whiskey, and its 1951 Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey; the 1951 edition is 80 proof and retails for $1,600.

Alejandra Peña, Senior Vice President of Marketing, joined the Castle Brands team in September 2011. Prior to that, she was the Marketing Vice President for Liqueurs and Spirits at Rémy Cointreau USA beyond other marketing roles in the wine and spirits industry. Before being involved with these marketing positions within the world of alcohol, Alejandra received her B.S. degree in Electronic Engineering — with honors, of course — from Simon Bolivar University in Caracas, Venezuela, and her MBA degree in International Economics and Management from Milan’s Bocconi University. She is impressively trilingual, although her Q&A with Downtown was kept to English aside from a phrase in Gaelic.

Knappogue Castle can be followed on www.knappoguewhiskey.com, beyond keeping a page on Facebook. Its parent company, Castle Brands, is on Twitter.

K14 Yr Bottle Shot 2015

Where did the Knappogue Castle name come from?

Alejandra Peña: Knappogue Castle Single Malt Irish Whiskey is named after a majestic castle that stands in County Clare, Ireland, originally built in 1467. The castle was purchased in the 1960s by Mark Edwin Andrews, who also began buying casks of fine pot still whiskey and single malts from top distilleries in Ireland. The casks were further aged and bottled under the Knappogue Castle label. His last bottling, a 1951 vintage aged 36 years, is revered by connoisseurs as the oldest and rarest commercially available Irish whiskey on the planet. The work Knappogue (pronounced “nah’pogue”) translates to “hill of the kiss” in Gaelic.

What do you feel makes Knappogue Castle different from other whiskeys?

AP: Knappogue is one of the few Irish single malts available in the marketplace. In a time where age statements on whiskey are disappearing, we are proud to state that our whiskey is aged for 12 years in bourbon barrels. We have been doing interesting wood finishes since we started with Knappogue 1951. Two good examples are our special editions of Knappogue Castle, Twin Wood 16-year-old and 14-year-old, both aged in two types of wood, bourbon & sherry casks.

Is Knappogue Castle entirely made in Ireland? Is Irish water important to the overall process?

AP: Absolutely, our whiskey is entirely made in Ireland. The Irish water, along a delicate distillation process influenced by moist and a temperate climate, yields the distinct flavor of our whiskey.

What are some of its sister brands at Castle Brands?

AP: Our Castle Brands portfolio includes Gosling’s Rum and Gosling’s Ginger Beer, Jefferson’s Bourbons, Pallini Limoncello, Gozio Amaretto, Tierras Tequila, and four other Irish Brands: Clontarf Irish Whiskey, Brady’s Irish Cream, Celtic Honey Liqueur, and Boru Irish Vodka.

Are there plans to introduce more brands or varieties to the Castle portfolio?

AP: We are focusing on building our current portfolio at the moment and while we are not actively-searching for new brands, we remain open-minded to new opportunities that may cross our way.

Do you have a favorite of the Knappogue Castle varieties?

AP: I love the robustness of Knappogue Castle 14 Year Old and the complexity of the Knappogue 16 Year Old. However, the 12 Year Old is my go-to-single malt. It is so delicious neat, but it also mixes very well with a variety of ingredients for a wide range of cocktails.

How did you first get involved professionally with spirits and the overall industry? I mean, didn’t you study Electronic Engineering in college?

AP: I always loved marketing, even when I worked as an Electronic Engineer. I completed my MBA in International Business at Bocconi University, in Milan, Italy and when I moved to New York, and I was determined to find a job with a company that would allow me to work between Italy and the U.S. I had the opportunity then to work with the Italian Trade Commission in the Food and Wine Department, assisting Italian companies in building distribution in the US. That’s how I met people from the wine business, which led me to my marketing position with Banfi Vintners and the start of my career in wine and spirits.

What do you wish more people knew about your job?

AP: That it is not only about going to cool events and drinking. Our industry is highly-regulated and, in the U.S. market alone, we have to deal with 50 separate states that are basically like 50 different countries. So our job requires a great deal of due diligence and creativity to make our promotions compliant in as many markets as possible.

Were you always a whiskey drinker? Did you start out as a beer or wine drinker?

AP: I was raised in Venezuela, a very strong whiskey market. So in my early days I enjoyed whiskey. But I also loved beer, which is highly consumed as a refreshing beverage in our hot climate. My appreciation for wine started later, when I moved to Italy.

Do you have a favorite bar in New York City?

AP: I have many favorite bars in New York City. So many, that I’m not sure where to start. However, I can tell you right away that my favorite bar in Rome is Jerry Thomas Speakeasy.

Any idea what was the first bar in New York to carry Knappogue Castle?

AP: Oh, Knappogue Castle has been around for quite a few years, so I’m not sure which bar was the first to carry it. Luckily, today many of the best bars in New York carry Knappogue, including Up & Up, The Dead Rabbit, Vintry, Pouring Ribbons, Fraunces Tavern, Brandy Library, Porchlight, and many more.

What’s coming up for Knappogue Castle? Any events or promotions?

AP: We just launched a new packaging in the spring. So we are working on several promotions and events in select whiskey markets — with top-notch bartenders and cocktail bars — to introduce the new image of the brand and build awareness.

When not busy with work, how do you like to spend your free time?

AP: I love spending time with my husband and two kids. I also enjoy traveling, reading, and dancing.

Finally, Alejandra, any last words for the kids?

AP: Remember to hydrate, there is plenty of free water everywhere!