And The Brand Played On
How The Pogues Stayed Sober Enough to Make Their Own Whiskey
Spider Stacy, co-founder of The Pogues, talks about the band's whiskey brand, why he himself gave up alcohol, Shane MacGowan’s excesses, and the uncertain future of the band.
Well, it was only a matter of blurry, inebriated time before there was a branded Pogues whiskey.
The Celtic punk band’s hard-drinking, drug-abusing frontman Shane MacGowan is legendary for his many substances of abuse. On their albums and in their videos, his voice is a distinctive, scarred, and beautiful brogue, his limbs rubbery, his eyelids half shut.
Their songs include “Streams of Whiskey,” “Whiskey, You’re the Devil,” and of course, the now-classic “Fairytale of New York,” which—as sung by MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl—begins in a “drunk tank” and follows a couple’s rancor-strewn relationship, MacGowan in full-on slurring mode as the “bells rung out on Christmas Day.” Their albums included Rum, Sodomy, and The Lash. MacGowan himself was fired from the band in 1991—not directly, it has been said, for his alcohol consumption but more his general unreliability, which was not helped by the booze and drugs, obviously.
The band, which had originally formed in 1982, broke up in 1996, then re-formed when MacGowan returned to the fold in 2001, and they have played sporadically since—the last time in August 2014 at a Brittany festival.
The idea for The Pogues whiskey came not from the band, but from West Cork Distillers, based in Skibbereen, Ireland, whose co-founder John O’Connell insists that the band’s onetime mind-boggling alcohol intake was not the inspiration behind approaching them.
He says that, rather, West Cork Distillery is one of three independent Irish whiskey distilleries, and their left-field, original, romantic spirit matches the spirit of the songs and distinction of The Pogues.
“They’re not run-of-the-mill, clean fellas,” says O’Connell, “and certain aspects of their behavior are not perfect or ideal. They’re human, and their songs are about love and tragedy, and fellas who aspire to the pinnacle but don’t always reach it.
“We did not associate with The Pogues for their notoriety.
“The Pogues are independent. They’ve never aligned themselves to political opinions and endorsements. They play brilliant music, and have a bit of fun sometimes. There is tremendous affection for them. We have had enquiries about the whiskey from America, Britain, Finland, Germany, everywhere.”
Peter “Spider” Stacy, the band’s co-founder and himself a 17-year teetotaler, laughed on the phone from his home in New Orleans when we consider the band’s new product.
“If anybody was going to release a whiskey, it had to be us surely,” the 56-year-old Stacy said. “We are the soul of whiskey. We are whiskey. We control whiskey. We command whiskey. If the sea was made of whiskey and we had been on the beach with King Canute and his Danish counselors, we would just have scoffed it, and it would have stopped just like that. Yes, haha, we had mastery over alcohol.”
So, how could Stacy put his name to crafting a whiskey he couldn’t taste?
“Memory is a very powerful thing, and I have a good memory, surprisingly.”
It was MacGowan who introduced Stacy to whiskey after their first gig supporting Elvis Costello, and specifically a “hot toddy” (of whiskey, warm water, lemon studded with cloves, and sugar). MacGowan’s favorite whiskey (presumably now his second-favorite brand after his own) is Tullamore Dew.
O’Connell said the company dreamt up the idea six months ago. The result is contained in a stark black bottle, with the Irish flag at its base.
“All the Pogues other than myself tasted it, drank it, and approved it,” said Stacy. “The distillers sent out three or four rounds of samples. It was very, very funny: All these emails were going back and forth between band members.
“People were getting mixed up with samples, and getting into quite heated arguments about…‘No, no, this one is definitely more peaty than the last one.’ They were all talking like real whiskey connoisseurs using all the jargon. I let Gary Powell from The Libertines taste mine because I am an awful name-dropper. He liked it indiscriminately. He liked it all.”
O’Connell said the end result is a 50 percent malt, 50 percent grain whiskey with “citrus, a lingering sweetness, and nutmeg undertones.”
MacGowan in particular had “a very good nose,” O’Connell said. “He was very astute.”
What is the taste of The Pogues whiskey, I asked Stacy.
“Eventually, the one we went for has, I am led to believe,” Stacy’s voice went very hoity-toity, “a smooth peatiness.” He laughed. “There ya go.”
Next, O’Connell said, if the whiskey proves successful there may come a Pogues-branded single malt, a Pogues potcheen (sometimes called Ireland’s moonshine, and illegal until 1997), and perhaps a Pogues rum—named in lieu of the eponymous album.
The Pogues, of course, have long been considered one of the world’s booziest bands.
“It was a bit of an albatross in the old days,” Stacy said. “There was a time when it was all people seemed to want to talk about. At the same time we did rather make our own bed in that respect, so I guess we learned to lie in it.
“It is what it is. It would be foolish to try to pretend otherwise. I really liked Irish whiskey, and was actually quite fussy about single malts.”
And his favorite drink? “I was very keen on tequila and grapefruit juice.” A muffled voice was his wife, Louise, correcting Stacy. “Treble tequila and grapefruit juice, my wife says.”
Stacy can recall only one Pogues bar brawl. The band was in Stockholm and a group of men attacked them. “We kind of came off best. Because they were so drunk, they were hitting each other,” recalls Stacy. “It only became apparent halfway through that we were the intended targets of this concerted action.”
Did Stacy give up the sauce because he felt he was an alcoholic?
“Yeah. It was not a good idea for me to continue. I’d taken it to excess. Too much of a good thing. I think it’s a process: You realize your life is slipping away from you. You’re no longer in charge of your life, and something else is making the decisions. And if you’re fortunate enough to have that realization, then that equips you to go on and do something about it. It’s one of those things that is easy but still incredibly different, plainly, for a lot of people.”
Stacy likened drinking as much as he did to being “the eye of the hurricane. Everything else around you is fucking crazy. You’re the cause of it, the calm center.”
Attending Alcoholics Anonymous proved a turning point.
“I found AA very helpful,” Stacy said. “I’ve seen a lot of people knocking it for rather suspect reasons. I rather wonder if people criticize it because it’s telling them uncomfortable truths. I found it very helpful and very funny. I used to go to meetings in King’s Cross [a once-rough part of London, now much gentrified]. You’d get street drinkers, coming out with the most horrific but hilarious stories.”
Stacy said he found giving up booze “pretty straightforward, I was aware it had to be done.” He attended AA for 12 years, then stopped. “I know people who have been sober for 34 years and still go. I would say that people should go for as long as they feel they need to,” he said.
His sybaritic bandmates, MacGowan included, were pleased he had made “the right decision,” as he put it.
“While The Pogues might be the most likely band to launch a whiskey, drink was never the thing that actually defined us—but it did feature prominently,” Stacy said.
“Drink was an angle about the band that people really played up. If that’s the way people write about you, that becomes people’s perception of you. It’s not something we did anything to dispel, and in many ways we are responsible for that. If you know the subject matter of the songs, and the way we presented ourselves, people were putting two and two together and coming up with four-ish.”
Some have said it’s a medical miracle that MacGowan’s body has survived the substance onslaught he has put it through, which has run the gamut of alcohol to drugs including heroin, LSD, and Valium. MacGowan has talked openly about this abuse.
“Yeah, he certainly has got a pretty durable constitution,” Stacy said dryly. “I’m wary of saying that’s something to be held up as admired. There is a little bit of danger that people will think it’s cool, doing whatever, burning candles from all sorts of ends and never having consequences from that.
“There are some people who can inflict all sorts of punishment on their bodies and stay standing, but most of us can’t.” He laughed. “So drink responsibly, folks!”
Did he try to dissuade MacGowan from his excesses? “That wouldn’t have been my place. Shane is a grown man. He knows his own mind and knows what he wants to do. I’m not saying he’s falling apart, or anything like that. I get why people say that, and looking at him how you could think that.”
Stacy paused, and laughed. “In fairness to Shane, he’s very good at drinking. And that’s the bottom line: Shane is probably much better at drinking than most other people.
“He can do more of it for longer with it having less apparent effect, which I have seen many friends and people try to keep up with. I’ve seen people attempt to beat him at drinking. They are even funnier than the ones who try to keep up.”
What happens to them?
Stacy let out a gale of laughter. “Miserable abject failure on the part of the young gunslinger. They hit the floor pretty fucking hard.”
When I asked about the clean-living rock bands of today, working on their abs and eating vegan, Stacy laughed and said he was going back on all his admonitions, and recommend “gin over the gym.”
He did not, he emphasized, want to “paint Shane as a sickly ill individual. He’s not even the illest Pogue. Shane is on really good form at the moment. I saw him just after Christmas in Dublin.”
What does Stacy imbibe in place of alcohol? “Coffee. Like a maniac. Barq’s root beer. Tonic water.” The latter he likes especially because he still likes going to bars, and it’s one of the few soft drinks “they serve in an adult glass and without a straw.”
As for what The Pogues are up to, “At the moment not an awful lot,” Stacy said. He laughed wryly. “We’re releasing a brand of whiskey. As to what may or may not happen in the future, only time can tell. When we got back together in 2001, the initial idea was for that particular Christmas and a couple of festivals the following summer.
“But we didn’t do anything until Christmas 2004. It just went on year after year after that. Now it seems to have reached another stage in the cycle.”
He means the death from cancer of the band’s guitarist, Philip Chevron, in 2013. He was 56.
“He was ill for quite some time. We’d been together a long, long time, and when somebody dies, it’s like losing—I can safely speak for the others—a family member. That’s the only way I can really describe it. It’s been so close, such a sort of bond that developed, I can’t think of another way to describe it—a family member and a friend. And those two are not necessarily synonymous, far from it.
“I wouldn’t say that Phil’s death necessarily put a full stop, but it’s certainly caused a change in the band. Just a general sense we’re less inclined to do stuff.”
Stacy said he didn’t want to put words in the mouths of his other bandmates, but there was “a general sense that we have played together a long time. Maybe it’s just a feeling that it has to stop some time, and maybe this is the time. I don’t actually know what’s happening with The Pogues, but at the present moment—not a lot.”
Stacy himself is beginning a project called Poguetry in Motion, involving playing Pogues songs—with his tin whistle—with New Orleans bands, beginning with the Lost Bayou Ramblers, whose music figured in the acclaimed movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, which launched the career of Quvenzhané Wallis.
Are The Pogues over? “Absolutely not at all, but I don’t know what the future holds for The Pogues.”
Stacy knows what the band’s music means to its enduring fan base, and indeed younger people who have discovered it: He admits to being overwhelmed at meeting a twentysomething Chinese woman in a New York bar who told him, “How could you know what it was like in China hearing you?”
He also knows the impact of perhaps the band’s most famous song, “Fairytale of New York.” “People tell you it's their gran’s favorite song. It’s no longer ours, it has become a bit of a national treasure in Britain. It’s ‘that song,’ people know it as ‘Fairytale’ and don’t even know it’s by The Pogues. It’s transcended The Pogues.”
He laughs when I ask if the band had any idea it would become as big as it did. “I don’t think you can ever imagine that something you’re doing as you’re doing it is going to have that effect. I think you’d have to be really up yourself: ‘Hey, we’re creating a cult signifier here.’”
In later years, the line mentioning “faggot” as a term of abuse had a brief flowering of controversy around it.
“Yes, I do get what people are upset by,” Stacy said. “I see it, but I also see it in the context in which it’s used: two people having a row. I do see it differently now, living here in New Orleans. Down here you become more aware of the power words have to hurt people. So yeah, I do get why people might be upset by that.”
Stacy and Louise have lived in New Orleans for five years, having fallen in love with it after The Pogues appeared at the 2009 Voodoo Fest. They have found the city very welcoming.
“Somebody said not long after we arrived here that the best way to think about New Orleans is that it’s the northernmost city of the Caribbean rather than a Southern city in the U.S. I like the vibe very much.”
However, the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina makes tangible, he said, that “a lot of people are still suffering. I think there’s a lot of PTSD in New Orleans. It was a deeply traumatic event for many, many people. People live here, and their homes had been in their families for a long time.
“Katrina was a true catastrophe: I don’t think you can overstate it. The city is still recovering. It is not going to come back as it was before, inevitably it is going to be different. This kind of enforced, drastic change is a lot for any city to take on board—even one as resilient as New Orleans. But New Orleans is extraordinarily resilient—so, onwards.”
Stacy himself has appeared in the Katrina-themed drama Tremé, and would like to do more acting.
Aging, Stacy finds, is “a miserable affliction, but there’s fuck all you can do about that. I’ve had a sense of mortality since I was 5. I wasn’t quite prepared for how hitting 50 was going to hit me. It was like, ‘Fuck me, I’m 50, there’s no turning back.’
“You deal with it. If you don’t think like an old fart, hopefully you won’t turn into one. It’s just creeping decrepitude, or the fear of creeping decrepitude.”
Stacy is considering starting yoga, and he and Louise cycle around the city—but this shouldn't be considered exercise, he insists.
“Moisturize and drink coffee,” Stacy recommended as a farewell to a reporter. “And if you can, drink large quantities of Pogues whiskey, responsibly.”