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New Irish firm aims to revolutionise soft drinks to cater for grown-up tastes


John McGee and Riva O’Malley of Black Castle who produce craft sodas in Wicklow which they see as having a huge export potential. Photo: Tony Gavin

John McGee and Riva O’Malley of Black Castle who produce craft sodas in Wicklow which they see as having a huge export potential. Photo: Tony Gavin

John McGee and Riva O’Malley of Black Castle who produce craft sodas in Wicklow which they see as having a huge export potential. Photo: Tony Gavin

Wicklow couple John McGee and Riva O'Malley are on a mission to revolutionise minerals and mixers.

"Our aim is to bring something different to the soft drinks market in Ireland," John said. "We noticed that there was a lack of great quality soft drinks available that offered something unique and fresh to the adult consumer, so we set out to create our own range of grown-up craft soft drinks."

The couple came up with the idea for Black Castle drinks, which takes its name from the castle overlooking their native town of Wicklow, while living in London.

"The idea began in 2013," Riva said. "I was working in visual marketing and John was managing a pub in East London. We both wanted to come back home to Ireland and we needed a plan. We had seen a lot of creative companies and startups in London and we were surrounded by this 'get up and go' attitude, while the food and drinks industry there was really inspiring and booming too."

Through his work in the pub industry, John was familiar with the trend of premium soft drinks and craft beers.

"We saw a gap there because there was nothing in terms of high-end, premium soft drinks that were Irish and had a nice Irish story, so with that in mind we started doing our research while we were still living over in London. We began talking to a lot of industry professionals and all signs were pointing to it working," Riva said.

John and Riva began to develop recipes for their craft sodas in their kitchen.

"We do a spiced red lemonade and that was actually the first one we created at home," Riva said. "Red lemonade is so Irish, but we wanted a grown-up version of it with natural colours and we used lots of nice spices to make it interesting."

The couple moved back to Ireland and launched their first range of craft sodas, which include spiced red lemonade, fiery ginger beer and berry bramble sting, in March 2015.

"We spent about a year doing our research and testing recipes," Riva said. "We worked with the Local Enterprise office who gave us an innovation voucher, which helped us to develop the three recipes that we launched with for large scale and we also worked with St Angela's catering college in Sligo to up-scale and source our ingredients and determine the nutritional information of the products."

"We don't really have food backgrounds so that skill an expertise was what we needed at that point and it was great to have that backing," Riva adds.

Black Castle sodas are made with natural ingredients.

"One of the big issues out there at the moment is the demonization of sugar," John said. "We steer away from any sort of artificial sweeteners. The sugar we use is very high quality muscovado sugar and we keep the levels quite low, so our drinks are a much lower sugar alternative to the likes of those you'll get from the bigger mineral companies."

"It has always been really important to us, even though we wanted to scale up, to use natural ingredients. So, for example, the colour we use in our red lemonade is from paprika extract," Riva adds.

Black Castle drinks is run out of a shared kitchen in Bray, called Newmarket Kitchen, a commercial kitchen space designed for caterers, small food businesses and other independent chefs.

"We concentrated initially on trade - the pubs and cafes - we weren't so much in retail at that point apart from a few specialist off licences and wine shops," John said. "We targeted places that we felt were a good fit for us."

"We knew our target market and who we wanted to sell to and we were very keen on getting it into influential places, so we were quite specific in how we targeted it initially and as a result of being in those places we started getting calls from a lot of other places who wanted to stock it," John added.

Black Castle's range is now stocked in Avoca, SuperValu, Fallon and Byrne, as well as a number of key tourist attractions such as the Guinness Open Gate Brewery and the Teeling Distillery.

"This year we took part in the Food Academy, which is for startup food companies to get you on the road to retail and it is run by the Local Enterprise office with SuperValu and that has given us a kick-start for retail," John said. "So in September we went into a lot of local SuperValu stores and we will hopefully be going into a lot more stores nationwide."

Having forged strong links with both the drinks trade and retailers, John and Riva are continuing to explore other potential avenues for Black Castle.

"Another area we feel Black Castle would be very strong in is with high-end hotel chains, we think they will appreciate a premium Irish-made product," Riva said.

"Our drinks are adult soft drinks, so they are aimed at people who maybe are not looking for an alcoholic drink, but they want something that is interesting.

"We are also a premium mixer, so with Irish whiskeys becoming incredibly popular and prominent internationally and a lot of Irish gins emerging now as well; there is a great space for us as a premium Irish mixer to complement these."

The high-end mixer market is an area, which Black Castle hopes to expand into in the near future.

"We have some developments already in the pipeline with that," Riva said. "As you develop, you become more commercially minded and you start to see different opportunities out there.

"We see a huge potential for export in our products and Irish exports, especially within the food industry are very well respected throughout the world, so that is a huge benefit. So we have our sights set on getting into the UK market to begin with."

John and Riva were nominated as 'Best Startup' in Ireland's Young Entrepreneur Competition, which is run by the Local Enterprise offices across Ireland, and as runner-up in their category Black Castle was awarded €5,000 in investment funding.


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