The craft industry has never been stronger and many large companies are jumping on the bandwagon with their versions of “artisanal” products. It can be difficult for new consumers to tell the difference between masquerading, mass produced drinks and authentic small batch products but the distinction has never been more important as the Irish market becomes increasingly discerning and demanding when it comes to small scale and local production.
One such operation is Ballyvolane Spirits in Cork where Antony Jackson and Justin Green create Bertha’s Revenge, the milk gin that is fast becoming a favourite among critics and consumers alike. Justin’s family own and operate Ballyvolane House as a luxury country guest house and it provides an assortment of activities for guests including fishing, glamping, manicured gardens and the adjacent farm. The family wanted to expand and diversify their operations further but had no interest in turning into a large soulless facility. Antony explains that their options were limited because of space, “they wanted to retain the features and keep it as a family home so they were looking at ways of adding to the business and keeping the fabric of Ballyvolane intact”.
The idea of a small scale food or drink product seemed ideal for the Green family and as Justin pondered his new project, the idea of gin kept coming back to him. Friends from their school days, Justin and Antony started discussing the possible venture. Antony’s background in wine gave them an idea about the drinks business and they started from there. To get a deeper insight to the industry they went to London in October 2014 where they immersed themselves in the drinks scene. “It was that trip that really galvanised us. The cocktail culture over there is extraordinary, for gin and cocktails in particular, and it was amazing just to discover the passion that people have; both consumers and producers and people in the trade.”
Justin and Antony met Charles Maxwell, head of the renowned Thames Distillers, who set them on their path to finding a great quality base spirit for their gin. All white spirits are based on ethanol made from wheat and grains but Bertha’s Revenge is a milk gin, based on an ethanol created from distilling whey. The Carbery group in Cork has been researching methods and developing ways to use the by-products of their cheese making process since the 1970s and they introduced Justin and Antony to distilled whey ethanol.
The whey is fermented and distilled twice so they get a high quality ethanol for their base. Quality was always a priority for the guys as any products were going to be associated with the premium Ballyvolane brand and they couldn’t risk damaging it. They wanted to create something that had the same spirit of Ballyvolane and their ethos of local sourcing.
In terms of everything they serve, they find and source the ingredients for the kitchen as locally as possible, they grow their own vegetables, so we wanted to try and keep it as local as possible. Obviously we aren’t going to get exotic botanicals like lemon and orange growing in Cork but the whey alcohol is produced down the road, we’re using our own spring water and we’re growing and foraging some of our botanicals so it is different.
As with any new product, a certain amount of experimenting is to be expected. Initially Antony and Justin wanted to create a classic gin with floral notes but those either got lost along the distillation process or turned out a bit ‘cabbagey’. They took a punt and turned East for inspiration, adding their favourite spices. “We found that the whey alcohol carries warm Eastern spice particularly well, lovely spices like cardamom and cumin and cloves. The whey alcohol and maybe our method for distillation led us down that spicy path but we’re happy with it, it is unique. It’s not to everybody’s taste but it is really really nice gin.”
Another happy coincidence the guys discovered is that why alcohol lends a smoothness to the gin so Bertha’s Revenge is missing that burn in the throat that other white spirits leave you when taken neat. “We find that on good runs you get this lovely smooth roundness at the back of the palate, a bit like a really nice aged whiskey. So as well as traditional gin and tonic or a gin cocktail, this is actually quite nice on its own with a bit of water as a sipping gin so we’ve really pushed in that direction too.”
The importance of the sipping aspect of the gin reflects the demand in the market for premium, good quality spirits. As they are being treated to a more refined manner of consumption, the Irish consumer is demanding quality and provenance from their drinks and are not happy anymore to settle for whatever is sitting on the shelf. “From an Irish perspective, people are taking a real interest in where their food and their drink is coming from, everything from day to bread to what they drink when they go out. We can connect with them, which is really important for us. We found that you have to, people want to shy away from yellow pack options and the mass produced options.”
Antony says consumers are now requesting their favourite spirits by name in bars and creating dialogue at that level which leads to awareness and success. He puts the success of Bertha’s Revenge down to that customer loyalty and brand recognition. “If you get a product that 1. has got a quirky name with a cow on the front of it 2. has a genuine story behind it and 3. we’re producing Bertha’s in a 125 litre still, it’s tiny, we are genuinely very small batch so people really engage with that and it’s quirky, it’s fun.”
The brand is quirky indeed, not many spirits have a picture of a famous cow on the front of the bottle. They guys adopted Bertha as their mascot because their gin has strong dairy connections. Ballyvolane translates to ‘place of the leaping heifer’ and used to be operated as a dairy farm, they are using whey from cows milk and they are distilling their gin in an old cattle shed. It was a mutual friend, Turtle Bunbury, who told the guys about Bertha.
The oldest cow in the world, Bertha passed away in 1993 after a long life and 38 calves. Bunbury is a journalist and historian who happened to be passing the Blackwaterstown Inn in Co. Kerry where Bertha’s wake was taking place on New Year’s Eve 1993. Bertha was quite the celebrity in Kerry due to her longevity and she regularly took part in special occasions and the St. Patrick’s Day parades. She was even known to get involved in fundraisers for cancer charities and to honour her charitable efforts the guys are planning to donate part of their proceeds to various organisations over the coming years. Antony says he and Justin can see how much her community loved her. “We just loved that story, we loved the fact that she connected so much, she was a strong individual and a wonderful character and we thought let’s bring Bertha back in spirit, literally! It’s a nice catchy name.”
Antony and Justin tracked down Bertha’s owner George who had given her the pride of place in his model farm; Bertha now sits on a little patch of AstroTurf in the cowshed. With George’s permission, the guys started the process of registering their product and creating the Bertha’s Revenge brand. Not just a namesake, Antony and Justin feel very connected to Bertha, who even made an appearance at the official launch in the Mansion House last December.
Antony is quick to praise all those who have been involved in the success of Bertha’s Revenge so far. Ally Alpine of the Celtic Whiskey Shop is a big supporter of the brand, giving the guys their first big order and assisting with distribution. The guys also received a lot of help and advice from Peter Mulryan of the Blackwater Distillery who ‘held their hands’ through the initial process. All that hard work has now paid off as the guys have a strong product and a unique brand that they are proud of, especially when you think if their budgetary restrictions.
The feedback so far has been really good and to be able to hold our head high in really good company with people who have been around a lot longer than us but also invested a lot more money in their equipment is great. We’ve got limited means, we haven’t got very deep pockets, so we’re delighted with what we’ve been able to produce, delighted with the quality. We didn’t rush into anything, we spent a lot of time, Justin and I, working on the design, on the labels, on the content. In this very competitive world of gin, you’ve got to be able to stand over it or there’s no point.
For Antony and Justin, the “artisan offering” that is now coming out of big distilleries just doesn’t compare to Bertha’s because a big marketing budget is not affecting consumers the way it used to. Now they are demanding a story and Bertha’s Revenge provides just that. The next move for Ballyvolane Spirits is to extend the story of Bertha with some new products like a Sloe Gin which has been infusing since last November. “We’re working on other fruit infusions like a damson gin and a rhubarb gin, we’re doing something with crab apples which is quite fun too. It’s quite important for us to have some sort of portfolio to go out into the market with, it’s not going to be huge, I’d say by the end of the year if we have three different options to show to the market we’d be delighted.”
Besides expanding the range, Antony and Justin are looking to expand their export operation. Now established nationwide, Bertha’s Revenge is available in Northern Ireland through Prohibition Drinks and are looking at avenues into the UK. A big profile event for them will be Junipalooza in East London in June where producers from Ireland and the UK get together and get geeky over gin. It’s a great opportunity for meeting distributors and on trade representatives.
With more adventurous plans already in the pipeline for expanding into America and Asia, Antony admits the process will have to develop and move up a gear. They have no plans to compromise on quality though and will remain as diligent about their craft as they have always been, partly for product control but also because they like it. “We’ve got dirt in our fingernails but it’s really good fun!”
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo