Two deep-sea fishermen and a food scientist have turned a passion for whiskey into an award-winning enterprise with ambitions to expand in the next year, says Sean Gallagher
'"Drombeg fits into the market niche currently occupied by Baileys, Malibu, Peach Snaps and Pimms," explains John. "While Lough Hyne competes against the likes of Southern Comfort, Irish Mist and Captain Morgan."
Their traditional Irish whiskey brand, Kennedy, competes with the likes of Jameson, Powers and Bushmills.'
IT was Michelangelo who said that "the greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark".
Not so for childhood friends John O'Connell and cousins Gerard and Denis McCarthy, who come from the fishing village of Union Hall, in picturesque west Cork.
From an early age, these three men set their hearts on becoming successful entrepreneurs. What's more, they wanted to go into business together.
Their dream came true in 2008 when they set up West Cork Distillers Ltd and have now become the country's only Irish-owned and independent distillery, following the recent sale of John Teeling's Cooley Distillery to American firm Jim Beam, for more than €70m.
Like many entrepreneurs who had their first taste of work in various part-time jobs as teenagers, mine was working in a neighbour's bar in my home village of Ballyhaise, in Co Cavan. With that background, I was really looking forward to getting a close look at how whiskey was made from scratch.
When I arrived in Union Hall, I was given a quick tour of their purpose-built facility together with a crash course in whiskey-making.
"Fermentation," John O'Connell explained to me, "is where water and yeast are added to malted barley and heated to make the alcohol. This is then distilled by heating the mix to about 80 degrees until the alcohol turns into a vapour and rises into the still where it is condensed and collected.
"It's then matured or aged in oak casks, which have previously been used to store either bourbon or sherry. It is this part of the process that helps give the whiskey its distinctive flavour".
I wanted to find out what products they were currently making in west Cork.
"Drombeg fits into the market niche currently occupied by Baileys, Malibu, Peach Snaps and Pimms," explained John. "While Lough Hyne competes against the likes of Southern Comfort, Irish Mist and Captain Morgan."
Their traditional Irish whiskey brand -- Kennedy -- competes with the likes of traditional giants of the Irish whiskey market Jameson, Powers and Bushmills.
Having sampled the products, I was shown to where they had just taken possession of their new bottling and labelling machine. It was in full swing, putting the finishing touches to more than 1,400 bottles per hour.
I wondered aloud about the lads' target market.
"We are targeting 25- to 40- year-olds, both male and female," said John. "We have chosen the off-licence channel as our main route to market because this segment has been growing rapidly."
It is a considerable achievement that the business has already placed product in Supervalu, Tesco, Dunnes and BWG stores throughout Ireland. In addition, they have already secured distribution agreements in the UK, USA, Germany, Australia, Norway, Hong Kong and China.
Still, I suggest that starting a distillery is not for the faint-hearted. Surely there are easier products to make?
Gerard explained: "A few years ago the three of us began having Saturday morning brainstorming sessions. We wanted to focus on a quality product, in a growing market and be export focused."
John took up the story.
"All three of us had a fascination with Irish whiskey and we were regular consumers," he said with a smile. "Whiskey sales worldwide are growing at a rapid rate -- and Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit category across the globe, at almost 15 per cent per year," he emphasised. "In the US Irish whiskey sales grew by 24 per cent in 2011."
It's a compelling argument.
Gerard and Denis both went into deep-sea fishing after leaving school. While the men loved the industry, it was a hard lifestyle -- and one which became even harder once both got married. The environment became even more challenging with the introduction of fishing quotas by Brussels. Dramatic increases in operating costs, not least the rise in the cost of diesel, made it increasingly harder to make a living and the men were forced to think of an alternative future.
John O'Connell had chosen a different route. He completed a PhD in food science in University College Cork and then went on to gain considerable experience working in the UK and Europe with leading brands such as Unilever. A position with the Kerry Group brought him back to Ireland and for the next 10 years he built up a vast amount of experience in the food sector.
"Everyone needs a bit of help at the beginning," said Gerard. Once they decided on the idea, they asked Barry Walsh, former master blender with Irish Distillers, to help them and all three are quick to acknowledge his advice and encouragement.
They have much praise also for Deirdre O'Mahony and West Cork County Enterprise Board who showed significant faith in the business in the early days. And there's special praise too for Barry and Fizwilliam Distributors who provided them with an instant route to the Irish market and for the local retailers who gave them their first break.
They believe their unique maturation process, developed by John and based on proprietary "infusion technology", a method that gives their whiskey an older taste than its actual age, will be a big advantage in taking on other brands.
"The feedback we got after attending the Ultimate Beverage Challenge in the US was a watershed moment for us," said Denis.
"When our product outscored other established whiskey brands, things changed for us. Up to that point, fishing had been our business and making whiskey, our hobby. After that it became the opposite."
So far the business has received an impressive list of awards including two gold medals at the recent 2012 Great Taste Awards, in London, for both Kennedy and Lough Hyne brands.
Currently they are looking to acquire larger premises in order to meet growing export orders. Employment is now up to eight, between full-time and part-time staff and this is likely to rise to 20 within the next 12 months. Turnover this year will reach the million euro mark and projections envisage this rising to €4m in 2013.
For the two fishermen and the food scientist, it has been smooth sailing to date but something tells me the voyage is about to get a whole lot more interesting.
"Think big," said John, when I ask him what advice he has for other budding entrepreneurs. "Think big and don't be afraid to aim for the sky."
Maybe the three whiskey makers from Union Hall have been reading their Michelangelo after all.