Sunday 23 September 2018

Gin couple mix it up with launch of malt whiskey

Northern Ireland's first gin distillery is shrugging off Brexit and still expanding, writes Fearghal O'Connor

Fiona and David Boyd-Armstrong unveil one of two new state-of-the-art new copper stills at Rademon Estate Distillery in Crossgar, Co Down, as they prepare to launch a whiskey brand. Photo: Geoff Telford Photography
Fiona and David Boyd-Armstrong unveil one of two new state-of-the-art new copper stills at Rademon Estate Distillery in Crossgar, Co Down, as they prepare to launch a whiskey brand. Photo: Geoff Telford Photography

Fearghal O'Connor

Rademon Estate Distillery is shrugging off the threat of Brexit and preparing to take a whole new direction later this year with the launch of a single malt Irish whiskey.

The Crossgar, Co Down-based team, led by wife and husband Fiona and David Boyd-Armstrong, has already made a big splash in just four years with Shortcross Gin, Northern Ireland's first modern gin.

The pair have just finished a major €2.8m expansion of their craft distillery, bringing total investment at Rademon to over €4m.

That expansion, which has trebled production capacity, saw the addition of two new copper stills increasing production capacity to over 50,000 litres of alcohol per annum, marking the completion of a 20-month investment programme. Like other Northern businesses, the couple are waiting anxiously for politicians to "stop showboating" on Brexit and "get on with making some decisions".

"We just don't know what it will mean," said David, who is Rademon's head distiller.

"Although we're a small business, we have a supply chain of up to 75 suppliers, both locally and across Europe. If tariffs come in, are we looking at having to remodel that whole supply chain? But we can't even look at it realistically until we know the cards we are dealt.

"We focus on what we can control. We can't control Brexit. I didn't want it to happen. It's happening. We just have to get on with it."

In the meantime, on the back of the ongoing growth in the Irish whiskey category, Rademon has also increased both its brewing and distilling capacity by over 500pc, as it continues production of its new Single Malt Irish Whiskey, with a new 1,750-litre capacity still dedicated to whiskey production. For now, the whiskey is stored in huge oak barrels at the facility until it is ready to bottle, with the first batch due in about three months, according to David.

"Why did we decide to do a single malt whiskey? Simple. Because I like it so much," he said. "But we are still extremely enthusiastic about gin. We definitely have not hit peak gin."

For the couple, the premium gin they have created from a blend of botanical ingredients, will always have a special place.

Juniper berries, cardamom and cinnamon are imported but the key flavours that the pair believe make their gin stand out are the apple, clover and elderflower that are grown on the estate.

"I just think it is the most fantastic spirit," said David. "The flavours in gin are amazing and it is this wonderful, aromatic and flavoursome spirit that allows you to create beautiful drinks. A whole new audience is realising this and that is what is allowing us to grow."

Shortcross has a fascinating back story.

Fiona's family moved to the 500-acre Rademon estate, which has a long history stretching back to the 1600s, when her father, Frank Boyd, bought it. Boyd, a high profile property developer, is regularly cited as one of the North's richest business people.

In 2010 his debts were transferred to Nama and subsequently sold to Cerberus as part of the so-called Project Eagle deal. In 2015 Boyd reached a deal to buy back the quarter of a billion pound property portfolio from Cerberus.

When the couple met, Fiona, now managing director at Rademon, was working as a property surveyor and David was an engineer working in the defence industry, building missile guidance systems at the Short's plant in nearby Belfast.

Fiona had long had an ambition to use the natural bounty of the estate to establish a business.

"For many years I had the idea to build something on the estate that made use of the natural bounty we have here," she said.

"Our first idea was, well we love wine, we love food, why not have a vineyard," said David. "But, hey, it's Co Down, not Bordeaux, it's just not going to work. Then Fiona said 'well, we love gin, let's build a distillery. So we literally spent every weekend and every holiday of the first two years of our marriage travelling everywhere, from Seattle to Seoul, learning about the drinks industry."

Without a distribution deal in the early days, news of Northern Ireland's first gin initially spread through word of mouth and social media. Since then, they have added new warehouses and a visitor centre, complete with gin bar.

"We have built a firm foundation upon which to grow," said Fiona. "We had to first learn the processes of distilling and we do absolutely everything here ourselves - bottling, packing, labelling. We don't just stick a label on a bottle that is supplied to us by a third-party distiller."

The addition of the newest still - which the couple claim is the most advanced in use in Ireland - adds capacity of 1,071 litres. The distillery is significantly increasing production of Shortcross Gin to meet growing demand in the UK, France, Spain, Germany, Scandinavia, North America, the Middle East and Australia, and also to increase available volumes of Rademon's new whiskey.

"Growth has exceeded what we anticipated and sales are going up every month," said David.

"If you asked us back then if we were going to have three copper pot stills, a visitor centre, a cask room full of whiskey and 10 staff I would have thought you were crazy.

"It has been a lot of hard work and some tears along the way but plenty of smiles and laughs too."

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