From Kinsale and Clonakilty in West Cork to Donegal via Dublin City, gin producers are cropping up across the country eyeing an ever-increasingly popular market, writes Olivia Kelleher.
While overall alcohol consumption continues to fall in Ireland, gin has become increasingly popular.
According to Nielsen, 2017 saw a 44.3% increase in total gin sales in Ireland (Irish gin and international gin). There was a 40.5% increase in on-trade (bar) gin sales and a 47.2% increase in off-trade gin sales.
While the figures for 2018 have yet to be compiled, 2017 was a breakthrough year for Irish gin.
Exports more than trebled and 130,000 cases of Irish gin were sold around the world.
In response to this growth, the Irish Spirits Association (ISA) created an Irish Gin Working Group to create this strategy for further growth.
The new strategy identifies the main target markets for Irish gin.
While Ireland will remain the most important market, Irish gin producers have identified the UK, Spain, Germany, US, and Canada as the priority export markets.
The industry wants to develop world-leading standards for Irish gin. This involves creating an Irish gin standard for quality and authenticity that will be enforced on a national and international level.
The ISA will also work with producers to develop and promote a recognised gold standard logo for Irish distilled gin.
Secondly, producers will promote Irish gin worldwide, starting with the five key target markets.
Thirdly, the industry aims to help sustain a vibrant home market for gin.
For example, the ISA will actively support in the development and expansion of gin fairs and gin trails throughout Ireland.
Finally, the industry will support the viability of Irish gin producers.
This involves working with state agencies to support the growth of these companies as well as development into new areas such as, for example, the creation of visitor centres.
Pat Rigney, chair of the Irish gin working group in the ISA and founder of the Shed Distillery in Leitrim, said the industry is ambitious, and our goals are increasingly global.
“Irish gin is already regarded as a world leader in terms of quality and authenticity.
"As sales begin to increase at home and abroad, we want to ensure that we can take advantage of this positive growth trajectory by developing world-leading, consumer-focused standards, building on Ireland’s reputation for great food and drink.
“Export-growth is vital, and we have identified five priority international markets that we wish to target for growth with the support of Government and statutory partners.
“Export growth will support job creation through Ireland and help deliver on the Government’s FoodWise 2025 targets.”
Michael Scully from Clonakilty Distillery in West Cork said with Irish gin, “we are able to offer consumers something different, with products that focus on quality and authenticity.
“This continued focus on high standards will allow the industry to continue growing.
“At Clonakilty we are delighted to launch our new Minke Gin which is inspired by the Minke whale, that swims wild off our Atlantic Ocean coastline.
"Our lead botanical is Rock samphire, which is sustainably harvested by hand from our West Cork seashore.
"The base spirit is derived from whey, produced from our eighth generation family farm.”
Donegal entrepreneur Laura Bonner says the name of her gin is “100% cheeky and memorable”.
“The name is a stepping stone and now people are remembering it because it’s really good. We are thrilled.”
The gin has been on the market for nine months.
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Laura, who has a business partner, Tom Russell, says that they had been working on the project for a few years but now that it is operational it is non-stop.
“We have been doing long-haul flights every two to three weeks. We had no idea it was going to take off as well as it did.
“We were a bit nervous because the gin market is so saturated. There are so many competitors out there that we really weren’t too sure how it was going to go. Now we are standing on our own.”
Ms Bonner has a background in property and worked her way up the corporate ladder in the UK.
Tom, she laughs, was “sick of listening” to her talking about her dream of having her very own gin.
“The target market is Asia, so I will be out there a lot,” she says.
Laura’s grandfather, Philip McClenaghan, was a potato farmer and poitín-maker. Laura put an illustration of him on the label of her gin.
“The reason I put my grandfather on was pure respect. Every time we do a bottle, I always think about my grandfather.
"When people pick a bottle off the shelf I turn to them straight away and say ‘this is my grandad’.
"I am super proud and I am sure he would be absolutely delighted with it.”
Ms Bonner says she has spent all her life savings on trying to build up a brand.
“When people say ‘I am not too sure I like it’ I feel like ‘are you saying my child is ugly?’ It is so great walking in to a bar and seeing my gin behind the shelf.
“I was home in a pub for my nephew’s 18th. I went to a nightclub, even though I am far too old.
"I went into the toilets and these young girls said ‘Oh my God we know you. You are such an inspiration.’
“It was probably the proudest moment that I have had.”
Kinsale has a reputation for excellence, so when businessmen Ernest Cantillon and Tom Riordan were looking for a name synonymous with all that is good about Cork, the town was their first port of call.
Tom Riordan owns The Raven pub in Cork and Ernest is equally busy with his businesses Electric Bar & Restaurant and Sober Lane pub in the city.
The pair are long-time friends. Ernest said they noticed the growth in gin sales with Bombay Sapphire.
“About five years ago, other customers were coming in and saying: ‘Have you any other gins?’
“We could see it was growing. We also did our homework on whiskey, which is something that will come to fruition for us next year.”
Tom went back to college and got a diploma in food science to help with distilling.
He spent a lot of time with a forager in Kinsale to see what ingredients were natural to the area.
The pair were interested in using sea wood, but nothing worked in the taste profile.
Ernest says it took 67 batches to get the right taste.
“What he would do every night then is bring it in to the customers in The Raven and say: ‘What about this?’
"It was good that he had the same focus group. They loved it!”
Tom and Ernest brought out 100 bottles in Christmas 2015 and it has grown from there.
“There was great satisfaction for us in making something. We always wanted to make something.
"Gin is on-trend now, but if it stops being popular we can export.
"That is something you cannot do in a pub. You are at the mercy of a traffic plan with a pub. Or the Beast from the East.”
Ernest says the Kinsale name resonates with the Irish diaspora.
“The big thrill for me was when I saw our gin in duty-free.
"Or if someone is on holiday in the Canaries or someplace and they send you a picture of it. That’s amazing.”
Entrepreneur Patrick Shelley of Ornabrak Gin hails from a luxury goods background having held senior positions with LVMH (Moët, Hennessy, Louis Vuitton) in France, UK, Germany, Austria, South East Asia, and Russia.
His brief has been representing some of the world’s top wine and spirits brands, where excellence is the only standard.
The Tipperary man is the founder of Origin Spirts, which produces the award-winning Kalak vodka range.
Earlier this year, he launched Ornabrak single-malt gin.
It is four times copper-pot distilled and then distilled a fifth time with five carefully selected botanicals to create a complex and floral single-malt gin.
The name “Ornabrak” is derived from the Irish “eorna braiche”, meaning “malted barley”.
Patrick said the product was meticulously crafted following 36 distillation trials over 12 months, and with input from some of the world’s best bartenders.
Starting with an initial palate of almost 30 botanicals, this was carefully narrowed down to just five which were selected to best complement the complex and unusual Irish single-malt base spirit.
It is malted in Cork before being milled, mashed, fermented and copper-pot distilled in Skibbereen, West Cork.
Patrick says that many gin brands will argue that as 75% of your G&T is tonic, you should ensure you use only the best.
“We agree, but like to highlight that if 95% of your gin is made from base spirit, ensure the latter is also the best!
"For us, provenance is key, as international consumers are becoming increasingly discerning, particularly with respect to the authenticity and transparency of the brands they consume with more demand for ‘farm to bottle’ products.”
Patrick also produces Kalak Peat Cask Single Malt Vodka, having set up his company five years ago.
He says he is proud that they have created three products in a handful of years.
He says he is particularly thrilled with the Ornabrak gin bottle as it “packs a punch”.
The Ornabrak bottle was inspired by vintage apothecary and perfume bottles, and the label by Victorian botanical illustrations.
Each botanical was custom illustrated for Ornabrak by one of Ireland’s leading botanical artists, Lynn Stringer.
Lynn is a former gold medal winner at Bloom, has exhibited her works at the Royal Horticultural Society’s botanical art show in London and has provided illustrations to the acclaimed Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.
The Shed Distillery, founded by Pat Rigney in 2014, is the first facility of its kind in Connacht for more than a century.
Creating employment in Leitrim is dear to Pat’s heart, as he has a family link to the area.
“My parents met in Drumshambo. My dad was a bookkeeper and my mother was the auditor. Hence they met and got married.”
Pat has created about 20 brands over the years including “Sheridan Liqueur, for my sins!”.
His background is in brand creation and this is his fourth start-up.
This year, the distillery launched their own special Sausage Tree Pure Irish Vodka.
He says opening the distillery in Drumshanbo was historic.
“It started with one guy. Today we have 28 working at the distillery and of that, about 21 were on the Live Register.
Pat maintains there is a major urban/rural divide in Ireland, with Dublin having full employment.
“Rural Ireland needs things like this,” he says.
“At the moment there is a bit of a split in the country. When you go to rural parts of Ireland, you may as well be going to a different country. We need investment like this.”
Pat is putting a visitor experience centre out to tender next year.
“That should bring at least another 20 jobs, but more than that, our aim is to make it a destination to pull people to Drumshambo.
"Drumshanbo will benefit, but so will Leitrim.
"We are working closely with other attractions in the area. You need to create this thing called a ‘cluster’.
"We are not on the main drag, so we need to something really special and remarkable.”
Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin was launched to the market in 2015 and was served to 600 dignitaries and guests, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, at a special reception in Washington DC.
Pat says the drinks industry is “tough and competitive and not for the faint-hearted”.
Bonac Irish Gin is run by father and son team Gavin and Michael Clifford with the product being distilled in Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow.
The duo launched the gin in November 2016 after Michael, who is in his 20s, had spent time working in bars in the Accabonac Harbour in East Hampton.
The pair had an interest in developing a product and started visiting distilleries.
Gavin says he was inspired by the strength of the craft drinks industry in the States.
“I emigrated from Ireland after going to college here. I spent a number of years living in the States in New York and I was really spurred on by the whole American craft drinks movement.
“Obviously they are a little bit ahead of the curve than we are. I was working in bars like all Irish lads do when they go to New York. It kind of inspired me and pushed me on.”
Gavin called his father weekly and the idea began to germinate for a business of their own.
“I often had the Sunday evening phone calls with my dad and it was something we talked about for a long time over there.
Michael Clifford runs a tax consulting business which Gavin says is “handy” in terms of looking at the whole excise issue.
“I look after distillation, sales and marketing and between the two of us we put in the hard labour required to bottle every single bottle ourselves.
"We could do with an extra few hours in the day and an extra few days in the week."
It took the pair the best part of a year to get the flavour right.
Gavin is particularly grateful to Bord Bia stressing that the quality of our food and drink really precedes us.
“There is great work done by Bord Bia. I would love to sending stuff back to the US where a lot of our ideas were honed.
"It’s a massive market but there is a lot of red tape and restriction.”
Dublin City Gin founders, husband-and-wife team Sheila Cooney and Jim O’Connor, have spent their whole lives using their imaginations.
Jim is a former creative director with a CV that includes working for Disney and RTÉ, while Sheila is a visual merchandiser by profession.
They have lived in various continents having what Jim terms their “duty-free babies” along the way.
They moved into the gin scene two years ago having returned home to Ireland for family reasons.
Jim said that he had a craving for a life outside of Disney.
“I wanted to do a product outside of Disney. But never alcohol. We didn’t deliberately do alcohol. But I always say that Mickey Mouse drove me to drink!
“Our friends were always asking us every trip home to bring back a Dublin gin. It was as simple as that.
"One evening over a cocktail it kind of clicked that there wasn’t any Dublin gin.”
Jim started his career as a production designer serving as Millennium designer for Dublin and then he and Sheila “upped and got married” and the travelling began.
Jim joined Disney in Hong Kong.
He says they say they are essentially a start-up as this is effectively their first year.
“So it is really me and Sheila knocking on doors trying to get folks to give it a shot.
“We are in some of the major hotels. Genuine craft industry only produces a small amount.
"There is much more love and attention goes into a craft than the big operations.”
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Jim says that it is very important that the founder of a company be accessible.
“It is very important that you can call the founder,” he says. “We are very open. A lot of people talk the talk and tell the stories.
“Everyone has a brand story. They all sound great. But you have to be genuine and authentic.”
What began as a three-person start-up in 2012, before the boom in spirit sales, now employs 20 people, producing whiskey, vodka and gin.
Dingle Whiskey Distillery’s business director, Elliot Hughes, says their gin sales are “going up and up” because it is huge with every demographic.
“It is big with women. It is big with men... it is big across all age groups. It is not Jagermeister. People are broadening their palettes. They are happy to have a couple of gins before dinner.
“You see men who are out for pints changing to a gin. People are changing their drinking habits.”
Mr Hughes says he doesn’t anticipate any massive drop in the gin consumption.
“I don’t think gin sales will plummet. It is still miles behind vodka in overall consumption.
Dingle Whiskey Distillery is predominantly in the Irish and European market, but they now also have a distributor in the US.
Mr Hughes says the whiskey industry was a risky move for them because, on average, you don’t see returns for about seven years.
“With hindsight, what an amazing idea gin was at the time. It is a London dry gin. It is doing a lot better than we could ever have predicted.”
Hughes says half of their botanicals are ones you would see in the vast majority of gins.
They also have six locally grown botanicals.
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Hughes adds that getting your product in the right places is the key to growth because people want to know what they are drinking before they buy a whole gin.
“People don’t go in a buy gin without having tried it first. It is important to be able to say: ‘Look at that bar, they are stocking our product.’
"It allows more people to taste it and then you see it on off-licence shelves. It is going very well.”
Justin Green, one of the co-founders of Bertha’s Revenge gin, grew up in Ballyvolane House in Castlelyons, Co Cork.
His father was a dairy farmer and he had a “great upbringing”.
“I grew up feeding calves and driving tractors. So I always had a great appreciation for the countryside and food.
“I worked in hotels in Asia. In the meantime, my parents had opened up Ballyvolane House as a guest house.
"I came back in 2003 with my wife and my newborn baby and took over. We operated the house as a guest house.”
They were very busy in the summer, but the winters were dead.
He and business partner Antony Jackson opted to develop a milk gin with distilled whey ethanol.
“We decided to create something that would reflect really well on the house. We wanted to create something that we could export all over the world.”
Justin sees plenty of opportunity for growth of their product in the coming years.
“In America, the gin craze only kicked off six months ago. There are lots of markets that haven’t really taken off yet — South America, India.
"There are plenty of opportunities to grow.
“Being authentic gives us the edge on the big brands. It’s going really well for us so far.”