See more of the story

Among the challenges of launching a new product amid a pandemic and some of the worst supply chain shortages in recent memory, one snag Kieran Folliard could not have predicted was that there would be too much glue.

Folliard sat on a stool in the atrium of the Food Building, his northeast Minneapolis emporium of artisanal-everything, and struggled to open a bottle of his new whiskey, Red Locks. The paper sealing the cap was pasted on to the glass with abandon, or so he thought.

He sawed at it with someone's keys. He sliced it with a knife from the restaurant that bears his name, Kieran's Kitchen Northeast. No luck.

Then, Red Locks' brand manager, Alex Capper, noticed something. Folliard hadn't removed the plastic covering that was holding the paper seal in place. Getting into that liquid gold went a lot quicker after that.

"The old guy couldn't open the bottle," Folliard said, laughing, in his signature brogue.

That old guy isn't so old — he's 66. And with his latest project, a new whiskey blended in Ireland, he's continuing his seemingly lifelong endeavor to reinvent himself.

An entrepreneurial path

The Ireland-born serial entrepreneur is known in the Twin Cities as much for his effervescent personality as he is for the many businesses he planted here. He was pivotal in establishing the area's Irish pub scene with his portfolio of restaurants — Kieran's Irish Pub (yes, he's that Kieran), the Local, the Liffey and the since renamed Cooper.

In 2011, due to Minnesota liquor laws, he had to exit his first businesses in order to expand his second, the whiskey brand 2 Gingers, named for two significant redheads in Folliard's family. (State law prevents ownership of both a distillery arm and retail outlet, such as a bar.)

He subsequently sold 2 Gingers to the liquor giant Beam Suntory, and stayed on with the company as an ambassador until the end of last year.

In the meantime, he launched the Food Building, an ambitious production facility for some of the finest food makers in Minnesota — Alemar Cheese Co., Red Table Meat Co., Baker's Field Flour & Bread. Then he opened his namesake cafe (117 14th Av. NE., Mpls.), which incorporates the building's bounty into fresh-as-can-be dishes. He's currently collaborating with the inventive bar consultant Marco Zappia and his collective 3Leche to build a fermentation lab that turns scraps from those food producers into new products, which would close the waste gap.

Amid all of this, Folliard has launched another whiskey. Red Locks — again, a reference to hair or, he says, roots — is now making its way onto liquor store shelves and behind the bars at Irish pubs around the Twin Cities.

Smooth like whiskey

Distilled in Ireland by Noel Sweeney, who also worked with Folliard on 2 Gingers, Red Locks is designed to appeal to an American palate. The blend is softer and richer than other whiskeys, slightly sweet, and because it's aged in a variety of casks — including sherry, rye and, unusually, virgin oak — it has hints of vanilla, honey, citrus, rich fruits and a touch of that unadulterated wood. Sweeney described it as "Christmassy," like a fruitcake.

As far as brown liquors go, there's nothing too assertive about it. It goes with anything. To put it simply, it's smooth, like Folliard himself.

"Kieran's the smoothest guy in town," said Tim McCormick, the owner of McCormick's Pub and Restaurant in Wayzata. "It's like the words and the music all come together with Kieran, and the words and the music come together with this whiskey."

In a way, Red Locks is an ode to Folliard's keen ability to make his own music, again and again. And Folliard veers into motivational speaker territory when talking about it.

"I always wanted to create a brand that really stood for the idea of encouraging and motivating individuals to act on their dreams and their ideas," Folliard said. "The emotional benefits of acting on your ideas far surpasses the safety of not acting on the ideas."

Putting that message onto a spirit, as opposed to a food brand, made sense to Folliard. After all, whiskey is just the liquid encouragement some people need. "You know, I never had any good ideas over a cup of coffee," he quipped.

Working with Sweeney, the master distiller, made sense, too. Their working relationship goes back about 15 years, and Sweeney grew up just 10 miles from Folliard's hometown in County Mayo.

"With his expertise and experience and passion for the business, this has been his whole life," Folliard said of Sweeney. "It was him and me going back and forth and coming together in terms of a blend, and it is quite a complex blend. We want to have a foundational brand that really stands for something."

Sweeney said their collaboration was seamless, despite being an ocean apart for most of the product's development. Folliard's personality certainly helped, he said. "He's a very flamboyant character, easy to speak with, and he's very driven about what he wants to do," Sweeney said. "He's very knowledgeable and he's got great experience in the industry. And I think he's very charismatic."

But even Folliard has been rattled by the pandemic, and the bumps in the road that led to Red Locks — such as packaging shortages and the inability to fly back and forth to Ireland — have become a part of the message, too. This venture, for Folliard, is as much about the effort as the end result.

"I think there is an element, culturally, in the Irish of self-deprecation. And if you have that self-deprecation, it keeps you very grounded. Don't put anybody on a pedestal, and start with yourself," Folliard said. "That feeds back into the idea of the warts and all. Because that's reality. No perfect product gets launched."

Even the heavily glued seal becomes a selling point, said Capper. "Our bottle is really hard to get open," she said, "but the juice is worth the squeeze."

Stiff competition

Among those who have had an early sip, there's a consensus that the whiskey — competitively priced around $25 for a 750ml bottle — is punching above its weight.

"It tasted like a premium Irish whiskey," McCormick said. "It totally blew me away."

Joel McLay, owner of the distributor Small Lot Wine & Spirits, took on Red Locks as the first spirit in its portfolio.

"The product itself is superior, and far more complex than other products in the same price category," McLay said. "It's an excellent expression of what Kieran was going to do next."

To start, Red Locks' Founders Edition is only available in Minnesota, but McLay expects its reach to widen, given Folliard's track record.

The expectations are high, even in a crowded field of whiskeys with local connections. And with 2 Gingers still out there, Folliard's insatiable pursuit of his dreams has made him a competitor against himself.

Like self-deprecation, Folliard says it's just another Irish trait.

"Competitiveness is another thing. We do like to fight our own corner, for sure," he said. "But it can be fun."