Justin Green – Bretha’s Revenge
Hi Justin! For those who don’t know anything about Bertha as a gin or you guys as a distillery, perhaps it makes more sense to start with the bigger picture – How big and what is Ballyvolane House generally?
Ballyvolane House is a historic Irish country house built in 1728 and it is my home and where I grew up. The house is filled with family heirlooms, portraits and antiques and the ambience is unstuffy and slightly out of time. The house is stylish, homely and has heaps of character and it is run in an unstuffy and relaxed manner but you get all the attention to detail you would expect in a top-notch hotel. The distillery is located in an old cattle shed in the farmyard with is rather fitting as we are making gin from milk. Ballyvolane also translates from Gaelic as ‘the place of leaping heifers’.
Has food and drink been a huge part of the offering from the start?
My parents were farming the place when I was a boy and they diversified into tourism in the 1980’s which is when they opened the house to paying guests. My mother passed away in 2004 and that was when I moved back home with my wife Jenny. Food and drink are always central to the Ballyvolane experience. We have always employed a farm-to-fork ethos and we grow an abundance of vegetables and fruit in the walled-garden and we keep rare-breed pigs and poultry.
Where possible we source our ingredients from local artisan producers and it’s not just the ambience in the house that is authentic, the food is too. We offer salmon fishing on the river Blackwater during the summer and run a driven game shoot in winter. I have always had a deep interest and respect for the environment and countryside. I love the house and the place purrs like a cat when it is full of people having fun.
When did the idea of expanding the estate’s food and drink offering into distilling happen and why gin?
Our tourism and weddings business is confined to summer months and we always struggled to make ends-meet during the winter months. Ireland is a glorious place to live but it is a little island off a little island off the mainland of Europe and the domestic population is not sufficient to sustain a year-round tourism business. We are always looking for opportunities that would compliment the house and having observed the rise and rise of premium gin in the UK over the past ten years, I felt it might be worth looking at. I contacted one of my best and oldest school friends Antony Jackson who was running his own wine business and suggested the idea to him. He booked us flights to London where we visited distilleries, cocktail bars and met drinks industry people and in short, we had an epiphany and Bertha was born.
That was back in 2014/15 if we remember rightly, so you’ve been up and running for around five years, steadily growing – what’s the operation like today?
We started out with one 100 litre working capacity copper still then added another soon afterwards. In 2018 we went shopping for a new bigger gin still in Germany and ordered a 550 litre capacity still from Carl. We have had a few teething problems and we are working on our recipe to adapt it to a 500 litre batch. The Carl still will allow us to increase our production significantly and it’s much more efficient on time and yield. We added a labelling machine in 2019 which as been a brilliant addition.
There are four of us working in the distillery, myself and Antony doing the distilling, sales, marketing and admin. Andrew helps with labelling, bottling and packing. Elizabeth is our book-keeper. We distill three days per week and do all our own bottling, labelling and packing on site. Distillers in Ireland tend to be export focussed due to the small indigenous population and we are putting a lot of energy into the North America at the moment. We are already exporting to ten countries around the world and we will be targeting more for 2020.
Using a Whey spirit as a base is still – despite the mad amount of gins out there – really unusual. What does it bring to the flavour profile?
We are delighted with our whey base spirit. We were the first gin distillery to use it in Europe and it works for us. The base spirit is important in gin and the whey brings texture and has a lovely, luscious and rich mouth-feel. The flavours come from our botanicals and the richness of the whey carries the spices botanicals incredibly well. Another reason we are using whey spirit is because it is Irish. We were unable to source any Irish grain spirit as it is used exclusively in the whiskey industry and not available commercially. The only grain spirit available to us was imported from Bordeaux. It’s good quality but it’s not Irish and we wanted to use as many local ingredients as possible, especially as so many of the traditional botanicals used in gin are imported.
The whey base spirit is produced down the road from where we live and it is derived from cows milk produced by local farmers in Co. Cork. We wanted to employ a farm-to-fork approach where possible in our gin making and we ended up with a grass-to-glass ethos instead!
Did you always know the kind of flavour profile you were looking for or was it based on trial and error – what was your process like to get started?
We initially set out to make a floral style gin as this was what we liked ourselves at the time. However, we found that the delicate florals got lost in the whey alcohol and we experimented with more fragrant spice botanicals such as cardamon, cumin, cinnamon and cloves. It was a marriage made in heaven and the whey carries these fragrant spices incredibly well. We spent nine months developing our recipe and I recall we ran nineteen different permutations of our recipe until we found the one we use now. The most important tenet was and always will be is flavour.
You use some botanicals that you forage from the estate, how variable are they over the seasons and how have you gone about creating a consistent spirit?
During the development of our recipe we consulted with a local foraging expert Andrew Malcolm and we discussed using locally foraged botanicals to substitute some of the more traditional gin botanicals. Initially we used Sweet Woodruff which has an almond and vanilla quality to it and it grows in areas of the woods. Unfortunately, it is not abundant and the flower is seasonal. We stopped using it as we couldn’t collect sufficient quantities.
We use Alexanders which is a peppery seed that ripens in mid-July. We forage for Alexanders on the coast which is around half an hour’s drive from mid-July until November. Alexanders have lovely high pepper notes that add a degree of complexity to Bertha that we really enjoy. Alexanders were introduced to Britain by the Romans and blew across the Irish sea and are only found on the east coast of the country. We will be releasing Crab Apple Bertha next autumn and some of the crab apples we use grown in the gardens here at Ballyvolane House. Another important ingredient is water which we draw from our own well.
What’s the gin market like for Gin in Ireland and where do you see yourself in that mix?
The gin market is busy in Ireland and pretty saturated now. When we launched in 2015, there were only five other Irish premium craft gins on the market. We engaged Host & Company, a leading PR firm in Dublin to help launch Bertha’s Revenge Gin and we gained a good profile early on. Our Irish sales have levelled in 2019 due to so much increased competition. We are fortunate to have a loyal fan base domestically and we do work hard to maintain our profile. We were expecting this and we have been applying our effort into gaining traction in our export markets.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing the category over the next 18 months? Presumably Brexit has been a permanent thorn in planning anything…
Brexit will continue to present challenges. Our UK sales dipped during the first half of 2019 but picked up in the second half. Brexit is and will continue to affect consumer confidence in the UK and this is worrying. Also Brexit will cause wild currency fluctuations and this is a concern as we do source many of our raw materials from the UK. Tariffs will be an issue too post Brexit. We are looking at sourcing raw materials in the EU. The recent tariffs imposed by the US on goods from the EU is also a major concern for us. So far, gin has escaped but for how long…
Increased competition in the gin sector continues a pace and we are developing some new lines and fruit infusions for 2020. We are enjoying our gin journey enormously and we are looking forward to breaking into new markets in 2020. We are also really looking forward to taking part at Junipalooza 2020.
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