Murtagh has seen 40-plus years in alcohol industry

Chemist from England began international career in 1959
By | May 01, 2002
John E. Murtagh is an independent consultant in alcohol production, with extensive experience in many countries around the world. He currently consults for clients in Europe, North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and Australasia, in the beverage, industrial and fuel-alcohol industries. His recent and current assignments include the relocation of distilleries, the establishment of new production plants, and the conversion of fuel-alcohol plants to produce high-quality neutral spirit for vodka and other purposes.

There are few professionals in the alcohol production industry that have had a more auspicious and lengthy career than Dr. John Murtagh.

From England, to South America, to Iran, Murtagh's life's work has taken him to the furthest reaches of the globe. After 40-plus years in the alcohol business, he is regarded as one of the industry's foremost production consultants. For the last 20 years, Murtagh and his wife have lived in the Shenandoah Valley of northern Virginia, an ocean's distance from where his interest in science began.

Early interest in chemistry

Murtagh was born in Surrey, England, in 1936. By the age of three, World War II had begun and, eventually, "bombs were falling" on Great Britain - something Murtagh still remembers. After the war, Murtagh said, life in Surrey returned to normal and the young Murtagh devoted himself to school, especially the study of chemistry and biology.

Through advanced placement at the University of Wales, Murtagh earned his B.S. (studying agricultural chemistry, biological chemistry, and botany - and graduating magna cum laude) in just three years.

"One of my professors recommended me for a position serving as a liaison at a House of Seagram rum distillery and sugar mill in Jamaica," Murtagh said. "I was recruited to work on the island."

To no surprise, 22-year-old Murtagh accepted the position and soon married his Irish wife in Jamaica, he said. The young couple stayed in Jamaica for nearly four years, during which time Murtagh served as a liaison with the Sugar Manufacturers Association for the research department of the company, and controlled all research and development projects on the island.

"It was quite a responsibility for a young man," Murtagh remembered.
Still with the House of Seagram, in 1963, the already successful Murtagh was asked one day by his boss, "How's your French?"

He was transferred to a whiskey, gin, rum and industrial alcohol distillery in a little French-speaking village in Montreal, Canada where he worked for six months.

"I took French lessons every night for a month or two to brush up on the language," he said. "I hadn't spoken French since my school days (in England) some ten years earlier."

Outside of speaking English, French would be the first of three languages Murtagh would have to learn during his career.

In Canada, John continued to build a strong foundation in the alcohol business with the House of Seagram, managing a whisky and gin distillery and bottling plant in Quebec from 1964 to 1966, a rum and industrial-alcohol distillery - along with a 1000-head cattle feedlot - in New Brunswick from 1966 to 1968, and managing the Special Assignments Section of the company's Research and Development Department in Montreal from 1968 to 1970.

Becoming involved with the science and practical use of microbial enzymes for grain saccharification during this time, Murtagh earned his M.S. from the University of Wales (while working and studying in Canada). After defending his dissertation at the University of Wales in 1970, he was invited to return to the university to conduct further research into the use of microbial enzymes in starch liquefaction and saccharification for grain-alcohol production. He accepted the invitation and completed his Ph.D on the subject in 1972.

Working on his own
Already earning a reputation as an expert alcohol production chemist and consultant, Murtagh ventured out on his own in 1972, moving his family to Ireland while he worked on assignments for clients in Europe and Asia.

In Iran during the revolution
In 1977, one of Murtagh's clients asked him to find someone to manage a beverage and industrial alcohol distillery in Iran (producing Smirnoff Vodka, Gilbey's Gin and other international brands). Murtagh ended up taking the position himself.

"It was right during the Iranian revolution," he said. "It was certainly dangerous at times."

Nevertheless, Murtagh was able to dramatically improve not only the efficiency and capacity of the plant, but the quality of the alcohol as well. In the end, however, the religious authorities took control and closed the alcohol plant. Murtagh was forced to take an emergency flight out of the country.

"Nothing really changed, however," Murtagh said. "The plant was reopened to produce 'surgical spirits,' and sold out the back door. Needless to say, people did not stop drinking vodka in Iran."

Moving to the U.S.
Safe at home in Ireland, Murtagh once again started up his independent consultancy, helping design and commission two new whey-alcohol distilleries for Carbery's in New Zealand (1980 and 1981) and in California (1985).

During the early 1980s, he was retained by Alltech Inc. (enzyme and yeast suppliers), working with T.P. Lyons, to visit most of the medium-sized ethanol plants operating in the United States, to provide technical assistance on all aspects of plant operations.

"At that time, I must say, many people really didn't know exactly what they were doing in the (U.S. fuel alcohol industry), and they were eager to learn," Murtagh said. "We would talk so much that we would literally forget to eat."

John was retained in 1985 by the State of New Mexico, and in 1987 by the State of Louisiana, to examine all the fuel-alcohol plants in those states, in order to compile data for economic-impact studies.

In 1987, John was asked to update and expand the plant details in a U.S. nationwide directory of ethanol plants. As a result of this assignment, he became very knowledgeable on sources of redundant equipment and he has served as a consultant for a major auction company, on the sale of more than thirty fuel-alcohol plants and whiskey distilleries.

"This was during the days when ethanol prices were not too good and plants were being shut down in states without decent incentive programs," he said.

From 1982 to 1997, John was a guest lecturer at the annual Alltech Alcohol School in Kentucky, covering subjects such as the production of neutral spirit and rum. He has also served as Chairman of the World Ethanol Conference in London, since its inception in 1998.

As as result of his assistance, several of his clients are producing some of the purest neutral spirits in the world. In 1995, he edited "The Alcohol Textbook" for Nottingham University Press, and contributed chapters on neutral spirit and rum production. In 1997, he completed the compilation and editing of the "Worldwide Directory of Distilleries", which was also published by Nottingham University Press.

Current Work
Other recent and current consulting assignments include solving fermentation and distillation problems, correcting equipment-design faults, conducting production-plant feasibility studies, project development, staff training, plant start-ups, performance testing, serving as an expert witness and conducting industry-privatization studies for foreign governments. Since 1990, he has been an arbitrator on the National Commercial Panel of the American Arbitration Association.

Notably, Murtagh was retained in 2001 by Abengoa S.A. of Spain, to perform due diligence studies on three U.S. Mid-Western fuel-ethanol plants, resulting in a $95 million acquisition.

On the industry
"The U.S. ethanol industry is really coming into it's own and obviously doing very well these days," Murtagh said. "I still believe in what the (U.S. ethanol industry) can achieve."

These days, Murtagh said, he is more focused on high quality neutral spirits than fuel-alcohol, but still engaged by the science of distilling alcohol. "Things have changed so much from the time I started (in 1959)," he said. "And it's all still very interesting to me."