Tuesday 26 March 2019

When his dad died and his son was diagnosed with cancer, this gin maker took a year out and changed his life

Instead of drinking gin like everyone else these days, why not get out there and make some yourself? In the latest instalment of his Change Your Career series, Pat Fitzpatrick catches up with a man who left a successful TV career in his 50s to start a micro-distillery in west Waterford, and he finds out what's involved if you'd like to make booze for a living.

Photography by Daragh McSweeney
Photography by Daragh McSweeney

You might remember Peter Mulryan as a presenter on Youngline in 1984. I remember, 30 years later, when he told me was leaving his successful television career to focus on his new venture, Blackwater Distillery.

In the intervening years, he had worked as a producer in the UK with Channel 4 and the BBC, before returning to RTE Cork in 1999. I met him while working on The Today Show, where I got to know him a little and like him a lot. So I made encouraging noises when he announced his career change, rather than telling him the truth, which is that I thought he was foaming-at-the-mouth bonkers. Next thing I know, he's winning awards all round, and one of his company's creations, Boyle's Gin, is on the shelves in Aldi.

So how did he do it? How did someone with no experience of distilling or starting up a business get this thing up and flying so quickly?

I meet Peter in Ballyduff, a sleepy T-junction village in west Waterford on the banks of the river Blackwater. It's going to be a little less sleepy now that his new distillery has opened on the site of an old hardware shop, following an investment of over a million euro. The first thing I spot is he hasn't given up wearing brightly coloured Converse. I try to rib him about it, because I think they're too try-hard for a man in his 50s, but he doesn't take the bait. There's a bit of the quiet punk about him, a cordial 'couldn't give a fuck about your set notions', which must come in handy if you decide to ditch a winning career to make gin, of all things. You can't run a bar in Ireland these days without a gin menu, but a few short years ago it was still associated with golf-club bores.

The big change for Peter came as he turned 50, when his dad died and his son was diagnosed with cancer. He took a year out to help his son, who has thankfully recovered, and decided he wanted to do something new with his life.

It was strange timing, considering he'd just won a prestigious Prix Europa award for his radio documentary Message in a Bottle, and was clearly at the top of his game. But 50 is a funny age when it comes to making life decisions; something you might have postponed at 40 takes on an urgency when you're fewer than 20 years from retirement. The thought of playing pitch-and-putt every Thursday morning for the rest of your life can do strange things to a man.

The gin didn't come out of nowhere for Peter; it's not like when Homer Simpson spotted an ad on a billboard and drove home to tell the family that he was off to clown college. Peter had always been interested in whiskey, having written a few books on the topic. So why didn't he make whiskey on day one?

He points out that whiskey takes time, it evaporates at 2pc every year, and you have to wait three years before any product is ready. In short, as he puts it, it's a shit business plan.

Gin is ready in a couple of days - you'll find recipes on the internet that include nothing more than a bottle of vodka and some juniper berries. More importantly, he had his finger on the pulse of distilling trends, which told him that gin was already big in America, and it was only a matter of time before fashion-conscious drinkers started looking for it here. So Blackwater Distillery was born.

His timing was spot-on. While others were trying to get on the second wave of craft beers, he was looking to hop on the first one for gin. There weren't any craft distilleries he could approach in Ireland, so he travelled around a few in Scotland and hoovered up knowledge from people who had been around the block.

The next step was to come up with some provenance, a reason to make gin in the Blackwater Valley. When you decide to make craft anything - beer, pizza, gelato - it has to have an origin story to make it more authentic. A lot of these stories are bullshit - completely made up, or tacked together from other stories after an afternoon of lazy googling.

But Peter didn't have far to look for a decent story about his gin. For starters, gin as we know it is down to an Irish man, Aeneas Coffey, who invented a new type of still - the continuous, or column, still - in the early 1800s. It also made sense to distil gin on this stretch of the Blackwater Valley, running south-east from Mallow in north Cork to Cappoquin in west Waterford. This is a peculiarly Anglo-Irish part of the world, with a string of great houses, as they're known, dotted along the river, where some of the families have lived in the same place for 800 years. (When we brought the kids to see Lismore Castle a few days after meeting Peter, there was an Irish kid in the playground wearing an English cricket top. You don't get that everywhere.)

Canny decision

Gin, as Peter put it, is the drink of an empire, flavoured with spices and berries brought back from the colonies, many of them shipped upriver to the great houses along the Blackwater Valley. He said even when you include the local factor, the demand for his gin around here is stronger than in other parts of Ireland. In short, this is gin country.

He had his story, he had his recipe, now he needed money. At this point, he made a canny decision and chose to locate his distillery in Cappoquin, away from the crowd. That's in west Waterford, an area which is much quieter than neighbouring Cork when it comes to small food and drink start-ups. So the Local Enterprise Office in Dungarvan was able to dedicate time and resources to help turn his idea into a business plan, along with around 40k in grant money to help get the project off the ground.

This gave him the credibility when he went looking for other investors. When I ask him where the rest of the money came from, he says, "That's what aunts and uncles are for", adding that he also raised money from friends and colleagues. I've heard from other people that it's standard practice in these kind of start-ups, but I'm not sure if I'd have the guts to mix business with my personal life. If nothing else, you could suddenly find your Uncle Jim turns into an activist shareholder after reading a copy of The Economist.

The new distillery in Ballyduff is an impressive testament to his vision. But I wanted to see where it all started, so Peter drove me along the Blackwater towards the original distillery in Cappoquin, which was still in operation on the day that I visited. He had warned me it wasn't that impressive, just two adjacent little concrete units at the arse-end of an industrial estate, just outside the village. His description was spot-on - it looked like a place you'd go to buy tyres. His business partner and fellow director, Kieran Curtin, was already there, distilling a batch in a smallish still, the gin dripping out of a pipe into a large container. He was in charge of quality control, intercepting the odd drop with his finger and rubbing it onto his tongue. I tried one drop and felt a bit pissed. (The gin is 70pc proof at this point, they add water next to take it down to 40pc.)

I think Peter is wrong about Cappoquin. I think this is the most impressive thing I've seen all day. Here you have two middle-aged guys and two concrete sheds. Along with the still, they have a large bag of botanicals, a mix of dried berries and spices made to their recipe; and a bottling machine they bought when orders started to ramp up. This is Blackwater Distillery, really: an idea turned into a brand.

They make nice gin, too. I took a bottle away with me and we got stuck into some very moreish G&Ts at home later, until I started imagining I was Jacob Rees-Mogg and kept saying, "Now listen up, Paddy" to my wife, who eventually told me to shut up and stop drinking gin.

To be honest, I'm racked with envy that Peter and Kieran managed to pull this off, and wonder if I should make a gin myself. It turns out I'm too late. Peter explains the way this works. I could have the best gin in Ireland and it would probably fail because it would be next to impossible to find a route to market. The wholesalers and retailers have enough Irish craft gins on their list now. We're probably approaching peak gin, and the trick is to figure out what's next. I ask Peter what's next.

Irish whisky, he tells me. And no, that isn't a typo. According to the archivist at Irish Distillers, the 'e' in Irish whiskey was put in there by Dublin distilleries in the 19th Century to distinguish their product from what they considered was the inferior whisky that was made in other parts of the country. When John Power & Son, John Jameson & Son and Cork Distilleries Company came together in 1966 to form Irish Distillers, they kept the 'e' in the name to distinguish it from product made elsewhere, such as Scotch.

Peter and Kieran are going to put this in reverse and use the 'whisky' spelling for their new creations in Ballyduff, to distinguish themselves from the big boys in the Irish market. They've hired a distiller from the States, John Wilcox, because that's where the cutting edge in whisky is right now. As Peter put it, "They're doing some mad shit over there" - which doesn't work all the time, but when it does, it's outstanding.

So now you know. If you missed the craft beer, craft cider and craft gin craze, it seems like whisky is going to be next, with or without an 'e'. But then by the time you read this, it will be probably be too late, and judging by what Peter told me about whisky, you'll need to know what you're at if you want to compete with the established brands. It looks like it's getting harder for an amateur to build a brand in the craft booze industry.

That's a shame. Of all the career changes I've looked at recently, craft gin is the one that appeals the most. I love the simplicity of the process, running my hands through the dried botanicals while a batch of fresh gin simmers away in the background.

I also like the way it fits into rural Ireland. Ballyduff felt a bit too quiet when I was there - the billboard by the bridge advertises the local lotto jackpot as barely over five grand, which is on the low side for rural raffles. Strolling around the town, Peter points out a lot of idle buildings where something used to be. But now he's putting a distillery and visitor centre where a hardware shop once was, and suddenly a shuttered pub is re-opening its doors, and there's a new cafe opening across the road.

I'm not suggesting this as a solution to the decline of rural Ireland. We've enough problems with booze without opening a distillery at every crossroads. But with tourism booming, a small and scalable craft food or drink place is a perfect way to drag people off the beaten track. All it takes is a mention on one of those lists called '50 Hidden Gems You Can Boast to Your Friends about Finding', and your business is on the map.

You'll need guts. It's probably not a bad thing if you're man in his 50s who doesn't give a shit what people think about your trainers. It's definitely not a bad thing if you've worked in some kind of project manager role - as Peter says, years of managing budgets and allocating resources as a TV producer served him well when it came to steering his business through the early years. It might also help if your aunts and uncles have a few bob. Then all you need is good timing and dash of good luck, and you might just have a 50pc chance of making it work. But listen up, Paddy, it seems like a great way to make a living.

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