Thursday 19 September 2019

'I wasn't good in school... I was told I'd amount to nothing' - businesswoman whose product has won major award

Inspired by her family heritage, Laura Bonner (33) set up her own drinks company with business partner Tom Russell, and is soon to launch an Irish potato gin

That’s the spirit: Laura Bonner with her potato gin. Photo: Lorcan Doherty
That’s the spirit: Laura Bonner with her potato gin. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

When I was 19 I sent all my family an email. The subject was 'Muff Liquor Company'. I said I was going to make vodka.

I studied law after school and I hated it. I went to London to work in property. I started off in lettings and then I became a director in the UK for an Australian company.

My business partner, Tom Russell from Manchester, was willing to take a chance so I left my job and my apartment and moved back to Greencastle in Co Donegal, where I'm from, to concentrate on the business.

That was last December. People think I just woke up one day with this idea but this has been something I've been thinking of for a long time.

I wanted to set up a distilled spirits company and specifically producing a potato-based spirit.

My grandfather Philip McClenaghan was a well-known potato farmer in Greencastle. One of his many hobbies was to make a poitín with potatoes, so the idea of making a potato-based spirit, inspired by my grandfather and that could originate from Ireland just stuck with me.

Laura Bonner and business partner Tom Russell
Laura Bonner and business partner Tom Russell

Tom loved the idea and identified with the opportunity in the craft liquor market, so we took the plunge. It's not been easy, but it's been so fulfilling to create something from scratch, with family heritage at its heart.

Once the money was in place it was really easy, because everything about it is real.

We went for gin first because it had become so popular. Last month we went to the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America expo in Las Vegas and we won Spirit of the Year. That was a game-changer for us. We were only 13 weeks old at the time. We weren't even there for the awards ceremony as we'd left before the end and they said 'Come back, you've won Spirit of the Year'.

We had spoken to a lot of distilling companies and we thought 'let's build our brand first'. We now lease a still in west Cork and we get the gin made there with our own recipe.

We import the potato spirit base and then it's fermented with four types of Irish potatoes. Our main ingredients are mandarin, lemon, rosemary and elderflower and one 'secret' ingredient, which we have since disclosed as champagne essence.

We put all the ingredients into the still and we try to keep everything as natural as possible. The result of this is a fresh and vibrant gin that carries sweet notes and is quite smooth to drink.

The smoothness is the direct result of the potato base and is something that differentiates us from sharper-tasting distilled gins on the market at present.

Also, because we are using a potato base rather than a grain base, the benefit is that our gin is wheat-free and gluten-free, which is something that was important to us from the beginning of this process.

Our gin is completely different. Every gin has juniper in it but ours is not juniper-led. We've enough in it to make it a gin but ours is very smooth because of the potatoes.

The brand is visually very much inspired by the past. My grandfather kept journals of recipes for his poitín, food, and plans for things he would build around the farm. This old journal style is the basis of our brand and a lot of our visuals, and will be the main theme running through our physical and digital marketing.

These were the ideas Granda McClenaghan passed down through my family and it's something I want to make sure is at the centre of everything we do. That is the reason an illustration of him adorns the back of the bottle and I couldn't be prouder to have him as a representation of the ideas and values of this company.

With his name on the bottle, I wanted to make sure my family was proud of it. There were originally 36 first cousins - now there's 160 of us. We're all really close, we're a tribe.

My grandfather was one of nine. He was full of divilment. I always told him what I was going to do and I used to ask him how he made the poitín. Eventually he said 'fine' and he asked me to cut up some potatoes and steam them. Basically I just made him his dinner.

I used to go off up the hills with him when he was cutting turf. I wasn't good in school - I was told I was a social butterfly and would amount to nothing. I wasn't school-oriented whatsoever. I had no idea this was going to take off the way it did. We sold our first pallet before we even launched.

The name The Muff Liquor Company is something we believe makes us stand out from the completion. It is a bit cheeky but we want to be remembered as a good product that stands out in bars.

I'm splitting myself all over the place at the minute but the idea is to build a distillery in the border village of Muff in Donegal. We have drawings of what we'd like it to look like. It all depends on Brexit. Are we going to have a hard border?

Our vodka is ready and we are creating a Muff rum at the moment. I'd like to have a range of tonic waters. It's totally all-consuming at the minute and I cry from the stress of it some days.

My grandfather would be over the moon that he's on the back of the bottle. I'm like him - I just never give up. I'm stubborn when I really believe in something.

The Muff Liquour Company will have a pop-up bar at Bloom in the Park, which runs from May 31 to June 4.

In conversation with Kathy Donaghy

Irish Independent

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