Ray Ryan hears why Ernest Cantillon, Tom O’Riordan and Clodagh O’Riordan believe their fledgling Kinsale Gin is set to grow and grow
Kinsale has enjoyed a reputation over many years for good food, gourmet dining and a diverse range of restaurants and pubs.
Now, it is set to add a new dimension to that story with the production of a new spirit with a ready-made name — Kinsale Gin — with flavours of the local countryside.
It is produced under the watchful eye of master distillers while the search continues for a perfect home in Kinsale.
Behind the move are three experienced and very successful business people, Ernest Cantillon, Tom O’Riordan, and his sister Clodagh O’Riordan, who had all noticed the growing popularity of gin.
Tom has owned several bars and is currently renovating The Raven in Cork City. Clodagh has extensive business experience and is studying for a distilling qualification. Ernest owns the Electric Bar and Restaurant and Sober Lane Bar, both in Cork city.
Ernest got his first bar job from Tom 15 years ago. They kept in touch with a loose plan to work together if the right project ever presented itself.
Ernest said: “We had spent our careers selling other people’s produce and one of the initial seeds of the business was a desire and curiosity to make something ourselves, to deliver a product from idea and ingredient through the journey to finished product.
“While we were green and little naive starting off, we knew it’s a lot easier to just sell other people’s products, but this was just an itch we had to scratch. The idea of a journey, an adventure, appealed to us,” Ernest added.
But they didn’t start off with the idea to create a gin. Selling alcohol was their comfort area, they said, a place where they had expertise and contacts.
The trio had access to a ready-made market research group in their customers, and they knew the suppliers.
“It was a somewhat natural fit. So, we decided to create an alcoholic beverage. Tom and Clodagh both live in Kinsale and really love the place. They bought into the character of the town and the culture and way of life.
“We felt that the values and imagery associated with Kinsale were aligned with the values, the culture and imagery we wanted to portray.”
Beer is a bulky product which makes the logistics side of it expensive and complicated. So they decided on a spirit. But whiskey takes a long time and a lot of money to make.
Tom and Ernest could see the gin movement gathering momentum from behind the bar counter as customers became increasingly curious and adventurous in their spirit tastes.
“We also spent a lot of time with foragers and with horticulturists exploring what potential ingredients were indigenous to Kinsale, and what else we could grow in the climate,” explained Ernest.
“The botanicals we found lent themselves to flavours that would be more suited for gin than another product like whiskey or rum. So, we had arrived at the decision to make a Kinsale inspired gin — hence the name.
“After literally 60 trial distillations, a recipe was agreed upon. Our gin is a London dry gin which means that the botanicals are distilled with the alcohol and nothing can be added after the distillation,” he said.
Tom and Ernest used friends and regular customers in their bars to judge the formula and tweak it accordingly. Clodagh oversees the botanicals that go into the gin.
Many are grown or foraged in Kinsale and West Cork. They are gathered seasonally and sensitively, leaving enough for the birds and future crops.
Bumblebee Farm and Peppermint Farm, both in Drimoleague, and Kevin O’Connell, from Forage and Find in Ballinspittle, also helped them expand their knowledge.
Global events had a big impact, however, as a few of the 20 botanicals they use are not indigenous to Ireland — such as vanilla, currently hard to source as most of it comes all the way from Madagascar, where the crop was devastated by a hurricane in 2015.
Ernest went on: “Once we had finalised the recipe, we brought a test batch of 100 bottles to market in the autumn of 2016 and launched the product fully in early 2017. While the journey hasn’t been without hiccups, and it was certainly a steep learning curve, we have been very fortunate.
“The initial batch was very well received and subsequent batches completely sold out. While this wasn’t ideal from a supply point of view, it heightened demand for the product, giving it a ‘hard to get’ exclusivity which really helped to fuel growth.
“Our fellow publicans were exceptionally supportive, “ said Ernest. “We have also been lucky enough to have some champions of gin, like the 1601 off-licence in Kinsale, who have really helped us connect with visitors and locals alike.”
Keeping up with demand for Kinsale Gin, a brand member of Love Irish Food, is an ongoing challenge but recent developments have given the business trio the confidence to ramp up their forecasts. They have just signed deals with Carry Out off licenses and SuperValu.
“We have just passed the 5,000 bottles mark which would be small to a lot of companies, but was a big milestone for us.
“We’ve had interest from American distributors and we are in negotiations with them.
“We created an online shop which has enabled gin lovers and homesick Kinsale diaspora from all over the world to get the product.
“We also teamed up with the superb Fever Tree tonic water to create Kinsale Gin gift boxes,” he said. “We have been overwhelmed by the demand, especially by the corporate gift market — a market that we wouldn’t have envisaged as being particularly lucrative for us initially.
“In the future, our goal is to open a visitor centre in Kinsale so we can share our journey with people. We are exploring a number of potentially suitable sites at the moment. We also have other spirit products in development which is exciting.”
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