Editor’s Note: Domer Diaries is the newest storytelling series from the Alumni Association where members of the Notre Dame family tell their stories in their own words. This week’s Domer Diaries comes from Tom Jensen ’82, co-founder and CEO of The Connacht Whiskey Company, who got his start in the spirits industry by managing Senior Bar while a student at Notre Dame.
Name: Tom Jensen
Class Year: 1982
Residence Hall: Grace Hall
Student Activities: Senior Bar Manager
Local Notre Dame club or affinity groups: Notre Dame Club of Ireland
What was your journey to Notre Dame?
Neither of my parents went to Notre Dame. They were both first generation immigrants. My mom came over from Ireland when she was 18-years-old and she lived on a small farm. And so going to college was something new in our family … I was influenced by growing up in the southwest side of Chicago. The parish priest would talk about Notre Dame games in his homily and it was a big Irish Catholic area. And I think it became a destination school. It was like something special. And I thought if I could go there, that would just chart a different course for the whole family. And so it was very exciting. It seemed like a dream school for me.
How did you come to manage Senior Bar, which is now Legends of Notre Dame?
I was in Grace Hall, which at the time was like 500 plus guys. We were poor and I needed to make money for my tuition. So I took a job running our food sales. At that time, there was no Domino's. Your food sales were your supply of snacks and pizzas and everything else. And when you have a captive audience of 500 guys, you can't imagine how much pizza they can eat! I managed that for a couple of years. And that really set me on the course to think, ‘Wow, I enjoyed this.’ It was fun. And then when I heard about Senior Bar and they were opening up interviews for it, I thought, what a natural, you know, from food sales to running the Senior bar club.
I interviewed and was lucky enough to become one of the four managers of Senior Bar. It was interesting because there were about 35 people. Students served as bartenders, did the ID's, security, everything. So it was completely student run and it was fascinating. We had one faculty advisor, Professor Ken Milani, and I was the one doing the books. I would come sit with him every month and we'd go through all the accounting and everything else. And talk about real world and real life experience, you know, because we were under the gun to make money. I guess in the past few years, it hadn't done very well. So, the University really was looking at us to turn it around. So our goal was to make it a lot of fun, embrace what it's supposed to be, but also do it with attention. And prove to the University that this is a great thing and that it should continue.
What was Senior Bar like during your time at Notre Dame? Do you have any fun memories or experiences of your time working there?
There were two types of community. There were football games and then the rest of the year. During football games, we had a big outdoor area and we'd bring in beer trucks from the local vendors with taps on it. We'd charge alumni to come in if they didn't have a bar card. If you had a bar card, you were guaranteed admission for life which was kind of the fun.
You'd have thousands of people on a football Saturday because things weren't like today—there weren't that many things around campus. So we were really kind of a destination for alumni to come and meet their friends. You’d run into athletes, celebrities … It was quite extraordinary. The people who would come by were just super nice and kind. They knew we were all students, so they would give crazy tips and help us out.
But then the rest of the year was just your fellow Senior students. On Wednesday nights, we would do 25 cent beer nights—it sounds crazy today, but back then it was pretty safe. It was more about us, the group, the camaraderie than anything else. Then we even did crazy things, like doing lunches on Fridays where we worked with the local sub shop and they'd bring in sandwiches and so you could come over to the bar on Saturday or on Friday afternoon and just have a casual lunch with everybody.
How did you get your start in the spirits industry?
I started with bourbon and I pulled together a good friend who was also a master distiller. And we started making bourbon in Philadelphia. We also made rye whiskey. And we were right in the heart of Philadelphia—right by Fishtown, Kensington area—a really cool, hipster community, and just a real fun place. While I was starting that, P.J. Stapleton ’78 called me up and said, “Hey, we're thinking of building an Irish whiskey distillery, but we don't know how to do it or what to do, but we think it'd be really cool.”
So we ended up pulling together ideas. We have about 15 or 16 Notre Dame investors that are part of building the distillery, and we found a spot in Western Ireland, in County Mayo that is just beautiful. It overlooks the river. It was just a perfect location for making whiskey.
What ties do you see between the Notre Dame community and Ireland?
The beauty of Ireland is much like the beauty of Notre Dame. From day one, if you walk in a pub, everybody wants to talk to you, everybody wants to know who you are … If you hang around long enough, they start playing their music and singing their songs, which you can join in if you want.
I think back to when I started at Notre Dame and that first week of orientation where you're meeting everybody and everybody wants to know your story. And in Ireland, everybody's curious. The Irish people are just so lovely and so welcoming and they just want to know you, but they also want you to know about them and they want you to know about Ireland.
There’s so many great Irish customs and great folklore … And one of them is meitheal, which is the idea that, if somebody has something that needs to get done, your neighbors will join in and help out. And, you know, it's just this wonderful embracing culture.