West Cork Distillers: A distillery built on friendly foundations

Deirdre Bohane, Mast Distiller, West Cork Distillers

Built on a foundation of friendship and innovation, West Cork Distillers was established in 2003 by three lifelong friends, Denis McCarthy, Ger McCarthy and John O’Connell in the heart of West Cork at Union Hall.

Ger and Denis had been deep sea trawler men, while John was a research and development scientist, having worked for large blue-chip food and beverage companies.

The enterprise has grown substantially over the years, now producing six award-winning products for Lidl and exporting to 35 countries.

Currently employing 72, the business has grown substantially to meet the demand and now distills seven days a week. In 2013, WCD moved to a new larger premises in Skibbereen.

The company is primarily focused on producing high-quality Irish whiskey, which currently accounts for up to 95% of the business, while its Garnish Island Gin makes up the remaining 5%, and rising.

“Since childhood, I always had an interest in wildflowers and plants, and was introduced to growing fruits and vegetables from an early age,” Deirdre Bohane explains of her career journey.

“At home we always had flowers, herbs and vegetables in our garden as well as fruit trees from which jams, cordials and pies were made.”

Going on to study Science in Galway, she worked in Quality assurance for ten years in addition to a stint with the Irish Wheelchair Association.

“Then, one day out of the blue I got a phone call enquiring if I would be interested in working in Quality Assurance for West Cork Distillers. So in April 2016 I joined the then team of 26 people, just as the business was evolving at a rapid rate with plans already in place for expansion to a larger site.”

Each month the staff numbers were increasing, along with customer demand for product lines mainly consisting of whiskey and vodka.

“At that time, our CEO John O’Connell was also developing new products and would ask me to be present for tastings.

"I suppose he saw something in me which I was unaware of myself and persuaded me to take up the role of developing gin, which was starting to become popular as the gin phenomenon in Ireland was taking off and customer interest in having their own bespoke gins was increasing.

"Before I knew it, I had four to five projects on the go at all times,” she adds.

The company currently has shifts working 24-hour days, producing 700,000 bottles a week.

Amongst the recent awards won by the company are: Irish Quality Food and Drink Awards 2018; International Wine & Spirits Competition 2018; and the International Spirits Challenge Winners 2018.

Originally from the area, having grown up near Ballydehob, gone to secondary school in Schull Community College, and now married in Caheragh, just outside Skibbereen, Deirdre counts herself lucky to have forged a career within her native surroundings.

“Our West Cork location, in terms of being an unspoiled, scenic and quality place, has definitely helped in sourcing good quality ingredients for our products and, in particular, inspiring new innovations to ensure success in a growing market.”

The temperate climate in the West Cork and Kerry region lends itself to the abundance of a vast array of wildflowers, shrubs and trees - all of which is beneficial for foraging and subsequently developing new gin products for the market.

“The malt and barley that we use is also sourced locally. Our customers find this part of the world intriguing and love the fact that they can incorporate a piece of West Cork into their product,” she adds.

Deirdre believes people are more health conscious and possibly more money conscious also, choosing quality over quantity and are prepared to pay extra for premium products: “The premium gin and tonic is now seen as the optimum choice if you only want ‘the one’ over beer or wine.

"The more contemporary gins which accentuate new and unusual botanicals can be less juniper-forward and appeal to both traditional and non-traditional gin drinkers alike.

Given the multitude of gins now to choose from, with tonics to match, plus a choice of garnish and specific glassware to add more pizzazz, what’s not to like?

Memories of her summers spent with cousins in Glengarriff and the many day trips to Garnish Island all combined to inspire a gin designed and distilled to capture the floral, aromatic essences of hibiscus, iris, rosemary, lavender and thyme found in that iconic West Cork isle.

“West Cork Distillers aspires to maintain a competitive edge by trying to be ‘masters of our own destiny’," Deirdre explains of the ethos which is driving this expanding enterprise.

“All aspects of production are performed in-house and as such we are able to manage our costs. We also do quite a bit of contract manufacturing which reduces the overheads loading on our WCD branded products.”

The company’s commercial relationship with Lidl has been beneficial for both parties, now producing six award-winning products for and a business growing substantially to meet demand.

“We are now exporting our products to eleven Lidl markets including Germany, Belgium, UK, Poland, Czech Republic, Denmark, Portugal, France, Austria, Slovakia and Italy. It is effectively helping to expand the reach of our products into Europe.”

In these exciting times for the sector, she sees a continuation of the demand for quality products by the ever more knowledgeable and demanding consumer.

“There would not appear to be any signs that the growth in artisan spirits is going to abate. We do feel that that there will be some pressure on pricing in the future, but this would be a welcome development for the consumer,” she says.

We genuinely believe that the consumer should be able to buy premium quality spirits at fair and reasonable pricing and should not be paying for expense of marketing campaigns and over-inflated production costs.

Even though West Cork Distillers has grown very quickly over such a relatively short time, the company remains small enough that a great sense of common purpose and community still exists amongst all who work there.

“Even though we have grown substantially, the ethos remains the same. Everyone works together as a team with a can-do attitude that is associated with most rural areas, especially here in West Cork.

“The people working here are proud of West Cork Distillers and of all it has accomplished in such a short time.

"It is a great boost to Skibbereen and surrounding area, playing an important role in tourism, and, most importantly, employment.

"West Cork Distillers has secured over 70 jobs at the moment, and with the completion of our new distillery later this summer this figure will no doubt rise considerably.”

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