The unstoppable rise of Irish gin
Gin production is booming across Eire and Northern Ireland. Ella Buchan investigates this juniper revolution.
Listoke Gin School
Saturday 12 March 2022
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Around a decade ago, you could count the number of gin distilleries in Eire and Northern Ireland on one hand and without using your thumb. Today, according to industry body Drinks Ireland, there are around 35 of them. That’s just the centres dedicated primarily to producing gin. There are roughly 100 Irish gins on the market in total.
Gin has been the spirit success story of the past few years, arguably thanks at least in part to those fancy balloon or “copa” glasses. But how has it grown so exponentially, and from almost nothing, on the Emerald Isle in particular?
It started, suggests Paul Jackson, editor of The Gin Guide, with whiskey. Or, at least, it started while the brown stuff was ageing in barrel; producing gin is almost always a quicker process, so canny distillers saw a way to maximise profits.
“Several Irish distilleries are currently maturing whiskey and focusing on distilling gin in the meantime, which has proved to be a highly effective model for a number of Scottish distilleries in particular,” says Paul. “It’s a perfect way to combine the traditional and contemporary sides of Irish spirits.”
These pioneers, and others quick to spot how popular gin was becoming elsewhere, sparked what can now legitimately be described as a boom. “We now see a wealth of Irish distilleries and a very healthy and exciting industry developing,” Paul adds. “Several distilleries, such as West Cork Distillers, are producing gins for a wide range of brands who outsource their production, and this will see the number of gin businesses continue to soar.”
Vincent McGovern, head of spirits for Drinks Ireland, confirms that gin sales in Ireland tripled between 2014 and 2019, with Irish-distilled gin accounting for “roughly one-third” of those sales. The category dipped by around 6.6% during 2020, primarily because on-trade sales were largely halted by the pandemic.
“The growth in the number of Irish distilleries has directly contributed to the growth in sales of Irish gin,” says Vincent. “I think it’s linked to the gin boom that took place in the UK. Gin went through a renaissance over there with significant new brands coming to the market. Inevitably some of those started showing up in Ireland. Responding to that, entrepreneurial people started setting up Irish gin distilleries and one thing led to another.”
One such entrepreneur is Joe McGirr. Joe, who spent a decade working at The Glenmorangie Company in Scotland, returned to his native Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, to open The Boatyard Distillery in 2016. The distillery stands on a disused boatyard on the banks of Lough Erne right by the dairy farm where Joe grew up.
Their Boatyard Double Gin owes its unique blend of zest, earth and smoke to organic and locally sourced botanicals including sweet gale grown on his father’s old bog land. “It’s where I spent my childhood. We would cut turf, spread it and “clamp” (stack it up) by hand,” says Joe. “I never thought I’d use it in gin! Now we are very protective of our family bog.”
The flowering plant is also known as bog-myrtle was commonly used by brewers in the 11th century, later becoming known as “the poor man’s flavouring”. For Joe the plant, which they harvest between May and first frost, “has this beautiful aromatic flavour”. “There’s eucalyptus and a touch of tea,” he adds. “It just gives that little bit of an earthy quality, yet it’s very delicate.”
The malleability of gin, the way it carries different aromas with ease, and the sense of terroir imbued by local and regional botanicals: these are the qualities that drew Joe in. “One of the reasons I love gin is the opportunity for creative freedom. It can really belong to you and the place.”
It’s the same for other distilleries: each tends to draw from its surroundings, infusing gins with botanicals from elderberry to quince to produce a bottle that carries the land within it. Gunpowder Gin – one of the best known, made in Drumshanbo, County Leitrim – blends local meadowsweet with green tea powder imported from China. Kinsale Gin, distilled in the colourful coastal town just outside Cork, uses 21 local, hand-picked botanicals including elderflower and elderberries.
Award-winning Listoke 1777 is distilled in County Louth with water drawn from the Boyne Valley. (Listoke also has a Gin School where people can learn the entire process from selecting the botanicals to bottling, which hints at how popular the gin scene has become here.) And at Micil Distillery, which specialises in the heritage spirit poitín, they hand-pick botanicals from bogs, hedgerows and around the seashore of Connemar.
“It could be a crowded market but having that story and sense of place creates some amazing gins,” adds Joe. “Ireland is still very rural so you have botanicals unique to each area.”
Small-batch Monastic Gin, sold by That Boutique-y Gin Company, is made in the village of Blackwater, County Wexford and each bottle is packed with aromas from botanicals plucked and pulled from the distillery’s monastic garden. The gin is a heady swirl of flowers and fruit, citrus and woody spice, based on what monks in the area might have used in the 12th century onwards. Juniper grew wild in the hills, native angelica and dandelion roots were plentiful, and wild roses and elderflowers carpeted the woodland floor.
That’s the thing: Irish gin may be in the midst of a major growth spurt but its roots have been there, albeit dormant, for centuries. The last boom period was in the 18th century, coinciding with the period when it was so popular in Britain (and especially London) that Parliament passed several acts in an attempt to control consumption and the spirit was dubbed “mother’s ruin” (because women hooked on the stuff allegedly mistreated their children and turned to prostitution).
In Ireland, it seems, it was a rather more civilised affair. Joe, who is also producing Ireland’s first-known Old Tom Gin at Boatyard, believes his is the first legal distillery in County Fermanagh since the late 19th century, though the area has a gin-soaked history. “I found an old photo from the 1800s of a ‘Gin Palace’,” he says. “It looked very well to-do and upmarket.”
The oldest commercial gin in Ireland is Cork Dry Gin, produced at Watercourse Distillery from around 1793 and, since 1975, produced by Irish Distillers (makers of Jameson whiskey) in Midleton, County Cork.
Whiskey took over as the favoured Irish spirit and there’s still around a third more of it produced, with vodka eclipsing both when it comes to production and consumption. The Gin Guide’s Paul believes it will continue to boom, though, thanks to the history, the creativity of distillers, and the sense of place in each bottle.
“Looking ahead to 2022 and onwards there is huge potential for the Irish gin industry to regroup and continue its wonderful growth,” he says. “What’s special about the Irish gin industry is the combination of heritage and history, the variety of landscapes and therefore the variety of botanicals and richness of inspiration, and the spirit, creativity and passion of the distillers.
“For example, Jackford Gin and Muff Gin use a potato base spirit for an element of heritage, 3 Sq. Miles Gin showcases the botanicals of Cape Clear Island by using fuchsia, honeysuckle and kelp foraged on the island, and Method & Madness Gin is produced at Irish Distillers, which is best known as the home of Jameson.
“Irish mixers are also taking similar approaches, such as Poachers Irish Mixers from County Wexford who use Irish rosemary and thyme in several of their tonic waters.”
Now, gin has grown into much more than a stopgap while whiskey matures. Ireland’s diverse landscapes, and the stories distillers and their heritage have to tell, mean there’s myriad possibilities for styles of Irish gin and their flavour notes.
Paul, who has a section dedicated to Irish gins in the guide, sees huge potential in terms of tourism, too, and that will in turn continue to feed the boom. “Gin tourism is a very exciting opportunity in Ireland with distilleries becoming hotspots for visitors to popular destinations and tourist routes around the country,” he says. “Naturally, supply will meet the demand for gin and we can expect to see more events, venues and retailers giving more focus to gin, as well as more distilleries and gin brands of course.
“There are opportunities for books, festivals, tourist routes and more, all dedicated to Irish gin. There are certainly exciting times ahead for Irish gin if the industry can maintain its authenticity and continue to showcase Ireland's heritage, landscapes and botanicals.”
Boatyard is the only distillery in County Fermanagh – for now. “Nearly every county in Ireland and Northern Ireland has [a distillery] now,” says Joe. “There’s probably well over 100 gins on the market now. It’s a huge revival, and it helps to put Ireland on the map.”
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