Kilkenny family firm in high spirits as it revives farm distilling tradition
Award-winning Ballykeefe Distillery is wowing connoisseurs and tourists
Patience is always a virtue if you're in the business of making spirits, but it took some 25 years before one Kilkenny farmer felt ready to achieve his vision for a startup that has revived a 200-year-old tradition of Irish family farm distilleries.
Ballykeefe Distillery is a gin, vodka, poitin and whiskey maker located on the outskirts of Kilkenny city that has been running away with awards - not just for its products, but for its commitment to sustainability and minimal environmental impact.
Although established only in 2016 by farmer Morgan Ging, the idea had been distilling in his head for a long time ever since his father first considered the idea some 25 years ago of converting the malting barley they grew on their farm into whiskey. However, they quickly came up against the main obstacle. "We tried hard now but there was no way we could get a licence to distil; it was just kind of a closed shop," he says.
However, it may have been just as well at the time. "In a way it was a good thing that we didn't get it then because the revival of Irish whiskey and the growth in it wasn't there 25 years ago. So it would have been a very difficult struggle."
It was only when he saw how the artisan Dingle Distillery managed to get started up in 2012 that he talked to his wife, Anne, about seriously moving away from increasingly unprofitable tillage and beef farming to distilling.
But a key part of Ging's vision was to have a single estate whiskey distillery. "About 200 years ago there were over 200-odd distilleries in Ireland between legal and illegal and they were all based on family farms," he says. "The farmers would grow grain and then feed the by-product back to the animals on the farm. We're the only ones doing that at the moment."
For Ging, having a setup that means all the raw materials remain at the farm and that nothing has to be sent out for recycling makes perfect sense - economically and environmentally.
"We have the animals on the farm and we always grew the malting barley. So it was just a perfect match."
As well as the relaxations on licensing laws, there is support for the tourism potential of artisan breweries and distillers.
Indeed, Kilkenny County Council were very supportive of the idea of developing a Ballykeeffe distillery tour. And after a year in operation, Ballykeefe was already ranking as the top tourist experience in Ireland for distillery tours on TripAdvisor and as one of the top places to visit in Kilkenny, says Ging.
"You come to visit the distillery, and the animals are just 10 metres from the distillery door. They're the most photographed animals in the country at this stage with the tourists."
They didn't feel anywhere near as much love in terms of financial support or grants, however. They had enough in personal funds to build the distillery, but found the process of support for small startups off-puttingly bureaucratic. Ging says he would like to see more practical and simple incentives, such as relief on the first few years of employer PRSI when taking on new full-time staff rather than "the convoluted incentives of salary support they currently have". He also would like to see a reduced rate of duty for artisan distilleries as they have done for breweries.
To underline this point further, they were excited by the new Breweries and Distillery Act that was passed last summer, which allows firms like Ballykeefe to sell bottles directly to people touring the distillery. A survey last summer of its distillery tour visitors showed that 40pc of them would buy bottles if they had the opportunity, so it was a bit of no-brainer.
However, instead of this licence simply being added to the firm's spirit-manufacturing licence, from which it is currently allowed to sell a minimum of 12 bottles in a single transaction, it has been forced to go through a protracted and expensive legal process to get an entirely new licence to be allowed to sell one bottle at a time.
Despite all this, Ging and his family's vision and hard work has already borne fruit with a business that employs five full-time staff working on sales, tours, social media, graphic design and finance.
Its cabinet of awards is already overflowing with national and international accolades, including a bronze medal for its gin at the 2018 World Spirit Awards in San Francisco, best Irish Vodka at the 2018 Irish Whiskey Awards along with a gold medal for its poitin, which also achieved Master Class in this year's Global Spirits Masters in London.
As well as being a farmer, Ging is a qualified mechanical fitter, which is a good trade to have if you are in distilling. But a big factor in the award-winning quality of its white spirits is master distiller Jamie Baggott, who Ging describes as the "most decorated distiller in the world on spirits".
"He was here with us for a long time. I learned from him all the different notes and changes that come through in the distribution process. I was very good up to that point but now I own it with Jamie and it's as good as anyone's."
Ballykeefe is aiming squarely at the premium end of the spirits market, but it seems to be finding great traction with discerning whiskey enthusiasts who like the brand's authenticity in that what is sold is made only on the farm, says Ging. "It's not price-sensitive at all. It's about the quality of your product and how true your story is."
As well as at home, the sustainability story has opened up a lot of doors for them in the US, where they are hoping to break into selected markets in 2019. The brand has distributors in Germany and the UK, and they are looking at Australia next year, while the Chinese market is figuring in the longer-term crystal ball.
But it means the world to the Ging family that they have won both strong commercial and moral support in their home town of Kilkenny. Just last month they came away from the Kilkenny Chamber awards with the Best Food and Drink gong as well as an award for Sustainability. "We were extremely chuffed to win those two in our hometown, among your peers; it's very important to us." Ging has an long and unbroken lineage in farming, while his wife Anne also comes from a farming family. As well as a love of the land, they are heavily involved in the local community and the firm is the main sponsor of the local camogie and hurling teams as well as the local amphitheatre.
But the greatest pleasure Ging derives from the business is having his whole family involved, and spoke of a evening on the farm during the Savour Kilkenny food festival in October when he, his wife and all four kids were up late preparing bottles of Ballykeefe Sloe Gin and Irish Moonshine whiskey for the festival the next day.
"And the best part of it was at 10 past 12, we were in the kitchen and we were all sitting around a table having toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and a great chat. It just brings the whole family together and a huge sense of pride. And I was just so chuffed that we're doing something here, a family business that everyone is enjoying being part of it. It was really, really special."
Sunday Indo Business