The Modern Marco Polo of Irish Spirits – An Interview with PJ Rigney
PJ Rigney is a pioneer and a spearhead of the Irish craft spirits industry. He describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur” and he has created over 20 international drinks during his more than 30 years of experience.
Across the different decades his career has encompassed so far, he has always been able to distil and infuse the flavours of the times into something authentic yet incredibly marketable. In the eighties, he created the Sheridan’s Irish liqueur brand while managing the Baileys business in the Americas and Australasia.
In the late nineties, he launched Boru Vodka, a premium Irish spirit inspired by visionary king Brian Boru. Around that time he also founded Castle Brands which developed a range of spirits brands before successfully exiting in 2005 through an Initial Public Offering on the AMEX (NY, USA) with a valuation of + $100 million.
Nowadays cream liqueurs and vodka have yielded the bar’s spotlight to this decade’s “it” drink, gin, and PJ Rigney has again been ahead of the curve. In 2014, he founded The Shed Distillery in Leitrim (the first in Connacht in 101 years), and his Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin has become one of the most highly praised and recognisable brands in its category.
With Irish whiskey promising to be the next big thing, it’s no surprise he has launched his own, which he introduced just a few days ago on the 21st of December a.k.a. Winter Solstice. The whiskey might have seen the world for the first time on the darkest day of the year, but its future seems incredibly bright.
A Thirst for Innovation
“During my time with Baileys I had the opportunity to develop a new Irish brand” he recalls, recognising that while he loved the “business side of the industry”, his curiosity about the brand’s journey soon became a stronger passion. He got the opportunity to craft his first brand with Sheridan’s Irish Cream Liqueur which “remains one of Ireland’s most successful export brands to this very day” and in the process of doing so, his calling was made clear.
This became one of my favourite parts of the business, creating exciting new brands from the initial concept right up to the final product that would appear on shelf.”
After a long career developing brands for other companies, he decided it was time to set up his own distillery, somewhere where he could “innovate and take risks.” A range of travel-inspired, exotic, unusual and small-batch premium spirits from which Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin is the first, will in time sprout from PJ’s stills and imagination.
Like a modern day Marco Polo, PJ explored China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Africa and Europe discovering unique botanicals along the way. “I was particularly inspired by the spice markets in India where I came across shahi tukra, the small powerful cardamom seed and I was struck by its both sweet and savoury flavours.”
Other ingredients that captured his imagination included “Kaffir limes from Cambodia, Chinese lemons and gunpowder tea from China, Orris root from the mountainous regions of Morocco, as well as juniper berries from Macedonia.” He eventually compiled a dozen botanicals and experimented until the balance was right.
One of the biggest sources of inspiration PJ recalls among all his incursions into “terra incognita” are “the tiny green pellets of gunpowder tea which are probably what started the whole curious journey.” Another moment which captivated him was the time he attended a Moroccan tea ceremony: “I noticed the small, rolled, green leaves, brought from the Orient since the Tang dynasty of the 7th Century. I knew I needed to add them to my recipe back in The Shed Distillery. So I set off to their source: the eastern province of Zejiang, China, and discovered many an interesting botanical along the way.”
As the marketing savvy producer he is, an equally striking packaging was deemed as important. Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin’s distinctive bright blue bottle was the result of a series of influences. Again, travelling, as well as a carefully crafted fusion of luxury and modernity, but also a nod to gin’s origins: “the apothecary-style brings to life the history of gin and its medicinal purposes, also the sense of experimentation which is what modern gin is all about.”
The Shed Distillery, the Jewel of Drumshanbo
“The local community was fundamental to the decision to build The Shed Distillery in Drumshanbo.” It’s a town steeped in history and tradition, located in the North West of Ireland in Co. Leitrim, on the edge of Lough Allen lake at the foot of Sliabh An Iarainn mountains with approximately 800 inhabitants. “Wild and rugged, it has the perfect natural ingredients to inspire freedom of thought and experimentation.”
PJ credits father and son team, Noel and Fergal McPartland from the local Community Council for making the process very simple. After the closure of businesses in the area, a company willing to move to and invest in Drumshanbo was great news. They employ 18 full time people and work with local suppliers, in fact, apart from Head Distiller Brian Taft, who is originally from the US, the team is entirely local.
The team is incredible – they have great passion and pride for The Shed Distillery and the brands, which is essential to the gin, as it is all slow-distilled by hand.
PJ points out that the team takes great pride in the quality of the gin that carries their town’s name on the label and he mentions that very soon, a new visitor centre will bring even more visitors (and business) to the area.
The new Visitor Experience at The Shed Distillery of PJ Rigney will open later this year, and as well as sharing the process of slow-distilling premier spirits and liqueurs, the new experience will feature a café, a botanical glasshouse and herb garden. He’s working with local architect Thomas G. Flynn, who is directing the building project and local suppliers and contractors are prioritised.
Speaking about his reasons to open a visitor centre, PJ explains that “consumers now want to see behind the brand, see the medieval copper pot stills, touch and feel the botanicals – ultimately they want to know that the story and the brands are authentic.” On top of that, he highlights the creation of employment in the area, adding that once it’s fully up and running, the centre will bring up employee numbers to 30 people.
On Leading Ireland’s Gin Boom
Last year, PJ Rigney was chosen as chair of a new group of Ireland’s gin producers. “As Chair of the Irish gin producers group, recently launched by The Irish Spirits Association, I am working with fellow distillers to support the creation of a legally-recognised standard for Irish gin.”
He celebrates the “exciting times the category is experiencing and adds that “authenticity, superior quality and true innovation” are key to brand’s survival. PJ is convinced that “Ireland can be a leader in the premium gin market, but it is crucial that we maintain the highest of standards to enhance and protect this reputation.”
Regarding Irish gin’s unique selling points PJ acknowledges that “the country’s renowned whiskey heritage has paved the way for premium Irish gins.” He considers the rise of new boutique distilleries a “game-changer” and credits quality and high standards for helping up Irish gin’s reputation internationally.
How Does PJ Drinks his Gin?
We couldn’t finish the interview without asking PJ about his favourite way to drink gin. “With a large wedge of red grapefruit, ice and premium tonic water. As we vapour- infuse fresh citrus fruits during the distillation process, we actually extract the oils from the zest of the lemons, limes and grapefruit. The grapefruit serve really opens the palate to the citrus fruits within resulting in a really refreshing drink.”
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.