Prohibition drinks firm owner rejects CSI to delve into wine imports
Felicia Matheson, from Co Down, tells John Mulgrew what inspired her to set up drinks firm Prohibition
Newcastle woman Felicia Matheson could have ended up in the rather more macabre profession of crime scene investigation had she continued to pursue her original career path.
But instead of taking on a life of probing around crime scenes after studying a Masters in forensics, she turned a love of good wine and specialist training in her craft towards meeting the ever-growing demand for beer in Northern Ireland.
As we sit in the cosy surroundings of Holohan's, located on the Belfast Barge, Ms Matheson talks about setting up the aptly named drinks distribution firm Prohibition two years ago - on the 80th anniversary of the end of the era in the US.
A former pupil at St Mary's Grammar School in Kilkeel, Ms Matheson moved on from a scientific background, studying natural science at university before her Masters.
The 33-year-old developed a love of beer, setting up her own specialist import drinks business in 2013.
"The bug came from travelling around the world, hitting all seven continents before I was 30," she said.
"We found that every place you went had its own beer. I found that interesting. And I was thinking, why can't we get that over here?"
And following a stint in an off-licence chain after her year of travelling, she took on the role of manager and then worked her way through wine training courses - becoming one of very few people here to earn a diploma in wine.
As I tuck into a rich and gamey flat iron steak, Felicia - who opts for the hake - tells me about taking over running the Crushed Grape in Fermanagh, and beginning an early foray into wine imports. But that soon turned to expanding the range of beer on offer.
After selling some of Co Fermanagh's own craft beers, she moved on to other breweries across Northern Ireland, and then made the jump to setting up her own import business.
But given Northern Ireland's somewhat tricky licensing laws, it was initially a difficult step moving into wholesale beer and spirit sales.
"I found bigger companies were able to open up and buy beer from wherever they wanted," she said. "It was time consuming and unclear. Every time I wanted to add on a new brewery it took me 45 working days."
That's now been lifted, and the firm now represents around 18 different breweries from across the UK and Ireland, as well as Europe and the US. And sales have now equalled the huge increase in demand, with her beers now being sold into more than 115 bars, restaurants and stores across Northern Ireland.
Felicia's partner Michael, a building contractor, has helped her along the way - including building pop-up bars for events.
She said business is now double what it was when things first kicked off two years ago.
And as we finish off with a couple of espressos, Felicia unveils the latest plans in the pipeline - having wine on tap. The concept of bringing top quality vino by the glass is already a growing market, but still very much in its infancy here.
In next week's Working Lunch, Joris Minne dines with Caroline Mawhinney and Jennifer Barr, joint managing directors of White Room Interiors