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Tuesday 24 April 2018

Three men and a dream of a new spirit

Three childhood friends have come up with a fine solution to the dilemma of what to drink, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

JUSTwhat is it about men in threes? Down through the centuries, we've had the Three Musketeers, Three Men in a Boat, Three Men in a Tub, Three Men And a Baby...

And continuing that tradition, right here in Ireland, in the pretty fishing village of Union Hall, west Cork, we have Three Men And a Distillery -- and it's really worth checking out!

John O'Connell, and cousins, Denis McCarthy and Gerard McCarthy, have recently launched their new Drombeg Premium Irish Spirit -- a brown spirit created in Union Hall using local spring water and utilising a proprietary oak wood maturation method.

"We felt there was a great demand for a low alcohol brown spirit -- and this is what inspired us to develop Drombeg which we have named after the nearby Drombeg stone circle," said John.

John, Denis and Gerard, are all thirtysomethings from Union Hall who went to school together and are great friends as well as business partners. I met John last week in The White Lady during the Kinsale Gourmet Festival where he was doing a tasting and he told me how the drink was born.

"We have all known one another since we were knee-high. After school, I went into the technical end of things, working for the Kerry Group and Unilever in the UK -- and the two lads went fishing," John explained.

"However, with the downturn in fishing, the increase in diesel prices and the decrease in fish prices, we started developing Drombeg in 2005 and got to the market earlier this year. It took an awful long time and a lot of work but when we thought we had got it right, that we were almost there, we engaged the services of Dr Barry Walsh, former master blender with Irish Distillers. Dr Walsh is also the recipient of the lifetime achievement award with Whisky Magazine, and he helped bring it the final five per cent of the way, and that was a great confidence-booster, getting his endorsement."

John pointed out that if a person wanted a brown spirit, before Drombeg, their choice was restricted to whiskey or brandy, which are almost 40 per cent volume which is very strong.

"If someone wanted a drink at 18 to 24 per cent, they were restricted to heavily sweetened fruit products or cream liqueurs. Our product is a brown spirit at the lower alcohol content of 22 per cent volume and, as such, is not sickly sweet as it has all the flavours coming from the maturation process rather than being laced with sugar.

"Women are finding it very enjoyable either straight or combined with ginger ale or lime juice," he said.

Having tasted Drombeg in Kinsale, I can see his point. I don't really drink spirits and if I go into a pub, I find myself struggling as I never enjoy wine in a pub either. I tend towards Campari.

Drombeg has a good clean light feel but with a depth of flavour from the oak used in the maturation process, giving it a distinct but not overpowering flavour.

Having embarked on their enterprise before the recession, the boys are still totally optimistic. "The recession has been a great challenge but if you can survive during the recession then you will be all the stronger when you come out of it," said John.

"Quality of life is the most important thing to us all, and particularly to Denis and Gerard, being fishermen with young families. They are fishing a bit, you can only fish 100 days a year and it is very hard. The diesel is so expensive, you burn most of it getting out to the area you are fishing in so, for the fishing trip to be economical, they have to stay out for over a week," he explained. "It was a long struggle to get Drombeg right. We have put a lot of our own resources into it, but we were also fortunate that, with my technical background, we were able to purchase very good second hand quality equipment," said John

"We were fortunate also to get some Enterprise Ireland funding but, once we got the endorsement of Dr Barry Walsh, we were confident to drive ahead. The man hours involved is really the thing. We did it all ourselves and we do now have some part-time workers," he said.

The trio, however, are totally hands on and doing tastings around the country.

"Our challenge is to give people affordable quality, but it can taste very good, and the packaging can be very nice, but unless you get the public awareness and brand awareness, you don't have a chance so that's why we put a huge emphasis on tastings and getting it out there."

John adds that without the support they have had from local shopkeepers in the Cork region, it would have been very difficult.

"Barry & Fitzwilliam are our distributors and they too have been very helpful," he added.

So think Irish and the small producer such as John, Denis and Gerard, when buying this autumn and Christmas. Drombeg Premium Irish Spirit is €14.99, an affordable present, and available from Supervalu, Centra, Spar in Naas and the Dublin area, Celtic Whiskey in Dawson Street, Dublin, and has a pilot listing in Dunne's Stores in Cork.


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