LOCAL HEROES Siblings turned to the ocean to create a gin that’s quite the catch
John and Eileen Power have global ambitions for their Beara Distillery, writes Gabrielle Monaghan
ON a mild October week, the Power family is picking the purple-and-pink fuchsia flowers that colour the hedgerows on the wilds of the Beara peninsula. Foraging completed, they bring the slender arching stalks to their distillery outside the fishing village of Castletownbere and produce a distillate that will be stored in barrels throughout the winter. The fuchsia adds a floral aroma to Beara Ocean Gin, which is the brainchild of siblings John Power and Eileen Brennan (nee Power). The hand-crafted gin is the only one of its kind in the northern hemisphere to be distilled using saltwater.
The Beara Distillery only began trading in September 2017, yet the fledgling distillery has already secured a marketing boost after chatshow presenter and author Graham Norton, who has a holiday home near the village of Ahakista, posted photos of Beara Ocean Gin to his 337,000 followers on Instagram. The product is sold in Supervalu outlets, Irish airports, off-licence chains such as O’briens Wines and the Celtic Whiskey Shop, as well as bars and restaurants.
The new addition to Ireland’s small-batch gin revolution is all the more notable, given that John and Eileen are novices to the drinks industry.
“We had no experience apart from drinking it,” says John, who is the majority shareholder in the Beara Distillery and whose wife Valerie and adult children work part-time at the company.
While entering the sector has been a steep learning curve, both John and Eileen have entrepreneurial backgrounds. Eileen, who manages the Beara Distillery, had run a logistics business with her husband Ger Brennan, and John has been involved in aquaculture for more than 20 years, having owned fishing trawlers and fish farms.
His venture, Silver King Seafoods, was acquired by the Marine Harvest Group, a Norwegian seafood company and the world’s largest supplier of farmed Atlantic salmon.
After the sale, John stayed on as southwest operations manager for Marine Harvest Ireland.
Indeed, it was the region’s marine heritage that inspired Eileen and 55-year-old John to set up the distillery. John says: “My family background is in the fishing industry and most people in my age group in this area has a connection to the fishing industry in some shape or form.
“Dingle and Castletownbere are quite close because of the fishing industry. I have a sister who lives near Dingle and we know the people involved in the operations side of Dingle Gin through the fishing industry. Eileen and I were having a chat and decided that gin might be a good proposition for us, too.”
The siblings then spent 18 months researching botanicals for their own gin and visiting other gin distilleries around the world. “It wasn’t enough to produce a gin — it had to be a gin that showed the provenance of our area and our marine heritage,” John says.
“During our research, we found that nobody in Europe was using saltwater in gin to give it the kind of salty flavour that is popular now in rum and chocolate. There are companies now using seaweed as a botanical, but we are using a combination of both seaweed [sugar kelp from Ventry harbour in Kerry] and saltwater.”
When the pair attended a craft-distilling expo in London to research stills, master distiller and consultant Frank Deiter recommended they get help from Julia Nourney, an international spirits expert, to develop a recipe.
In August 2017, after the Powers secured their distillery licence, Julia travelled to Castletownbere and spent three weeks blending recipes until Beara came up with a gin that would reflect both the rugged beauty of the West Cork landscape and the Power family’s affinity with the ocean.
“There are several gins available in the market that are just a brand and are produced by a big distillery that does all the distillation, bottling, labelling and distribution,” says John. “But our gin is not production gin. We have a base gin, and the fuchsia is separate, the sugar kelp is separate, and so are the zests — we peel fresh lemons and limes rather than using dried peels. Then we blend it all together before cooling it down to 6C, cold-filtering it, and infusing the saltwater.”
The Powers had initially planned to build a purpose-built distillery in their homestead of Curryglass, about 7km away from Castletownbere. But the speed of the business’s progression meant John and Eileen had to set up instead at Castletownbere commercial park.
“We were going to build on our own land but, to be honest, it would have taken too long,” John says. “Two-and-a-half years ago, we had a chat about an idea for a distillery. But once we had ordered the equipment and applied for licences, the whole thing came together within just a year and there wasn’t time to build a distillery on a greenfield site.”
Beara Ocean Gin was first stocked by Murphy’s Supervalu in Castletownbere, after Eileen partic- ipated in the chain’s Food Academy programme, a collaboration with the Local Enterprise Office network and Bord Bia that nurtures small businesses to become a Supervalu supplier.
The distillery then progressed to supplying several Supervalu stores across Cork and Kerry and has since linked up with distributors such as Comans Beverages and J&C Kenny to supply bars and restaurants.
In February, the distillery launched Beara Pink Ocean Gin, one of the few artisan pink gins made in Ireland, adding rosewater and cranberries to give the gin its pink colour and floral undertones. The pink gin was originally intended to be a limited-edition release, but it proved so popular that John and Eileen decided to turn it into a permanent product.
“The combination of Beara Ocean Gin and Beara Pink Ocean Gin especially works in miniature form,” John says. “The mini 5cl bottle has become popular as wedding favours, and it’s available at airports in both singular form — so people can buy it between flights as it’s under 100ml — and in a twin-pack, with the pink and original gins in a little box.”
The shelves of Irish supermarkets, off-licences and bars may be groaning under the weight of local artisan gins. But the Beara Distillery is already hedging its bets by exporting abroad and by developing new products.
“We currently sell to Sweden, Poland, Germany, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Italy and France, although not in a big way,” John says. “We do sell a little bit in the UK, which is quite a funny market; apart from Brexit, the UK is also a flooded market. It’s been in the gin business for much longer than Ireland has and therefore has more premium gins.”
The distillery is set to emulate its Dingle rival by introducing branded vodka next year. Its main focus, though, will be on expanding distribution at home and abroad and on adding new markets.
In the meantime, fishing veteran John is refining his sales patter for the drinks industry.
“It’s a business where you’re always going to meet new potential customers if you do it right,” he says. “I can go away to a hotel for the weekend and come back with a new customer.” thebearadistillery.ie
Eileen Brennan, Valerie Power and John Power of the Beara Distillery in Co Cork, which got a marketing boost when Graham Norton posted photos of their Beara Ocean Gin on Instagram