Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Distilling Shortcross Gin 'not as complicated as it looks' - owners

David and Fiona Boyd-Armstrong, in true entrepreneurial spirit, have built a distillery on the family estate near Crossgar to brew their own gin. Una Brankin raises a glass to them.

Proof positive: David Boyd-Armstrong in front of his enormous gin still
Labelled with love: Fiona and David Boyd-Armstrong
Fiona and David Boyd-Armstrong bottling their ShortCross gin

The Boyd-Armstrongs' enormous bespoke still is like something out of Doc's lab in Back To The Future, but much less likely to blow up – unless the alcohol vapour is left unattended. A huge contraption with a swan's neck funnel and tall 'enrichment' columns, it's made mostly of high-shine copper which busy co-owner David (33) hasn't time to polish today.

"It's not as complicated as it looks," he says, explaining the ShortCross Gin distilling process. "But it takes a lot of hard work. As a result we don't get away very often – there's always a risk of explosion because of the alcohol vapour. It's a 24/7 process but we love it."

The former engineer from east Belfast – the Armstrong in the couple's double-barrelled name – opened the Rademon Estate Distillery, the first and only craft gin distillery here – in 2012 with his wife Fiona Boyd, daughter of well-known property developer and Rademon Estate owner Frank Boyd, who made the 2010 Rich List.

Tall, warm and glamorous, Fiona (33) still works part-time as quantity surveyor. It was her idea to make a craft gin that would reflect the aromas and flavours lurking in the woodlands surrounding the imposing 1667 Rademon House and grounds, where her mother Rose breeds horses.

So she and David went foraging and from their gatherings chose elderberries, fresh apples and – most importantly – wild clover, their gin's unique ingredient.

So she and David went foraging and from their gatherings chose elderberries, fresh apples and – most importantly – wild clover, their gin's unique ingredient.

They mixed their home-grown botanicals with imported juniper, coriander, lemon orange, cassia (cinnamon) and Rademon spring water from their own well, added a wheat spirit base, and after much experimentation, produced ShortCross Premium Gin, the first craft tipple of its kind to be made in Northern Ireland.

"I was quite emotional when the first batch left – so much went into each bottle and they're all uniquely numbered, so there were tears!" admits Fiona.

A sort of empty nest syndrome?

"Yes – instead of building a house and producing kids, we built a distillery and produce small batches of gin!"

I met the innovative couple in the distillery beyond Rademon House and the olde-worlde courtyard, where private tenants pay around £900 a month for the two-bed townhouses.

I'd driven to the stables, thinking the old stone walls there would have housed the distillery, but was directed to a modern tin-roofed building around the corner. It's cool inside on the day of my visit and I accept a cup of tea to warm up before sampling the gin.

"You should have been here last week – it was 30 degrees in here," David remarks.

He's the more intense half of the couple but the sunny-natured Fiona can make him laugh. They met in 2006 at Auntie Annie's indie disco in Belfast. David was into good quality beers; Fiona liked a G&T and preferred the more expensive brands.

"Coming up to the age of 30 I was looking for an idea and read about distilling, and got enthralled," she says, in a softly spoken but definitely not snooty voice.

"Everybody thought we were crazy, but we started to research and travelled around visiting craft producers as opposed to big brands.

"We wanted to create something special and unique, with some ingredients we could hand-pick here in the forest.

"We also wanted to revive the distilling tradition here that started over two centuries ago – many larger towns in Northern Ireland had distilleries producing gin then."

Ye olde gin back then would not have been as classy or expensive as ShortCross.

The brand's Crossgar-based distributor, James Nicholson Wines Merchant, sells it on-line for £34.99 a bottle, or £209.94 for a case of 12.

As always, you get what you pay for, and I, for one, can confirm it's as smooth and light and "long" on the tongue as they say, and tangy, too.

And at 46%, it is definitely to be sipped, not gulped. Gordon's Gin, for example, sits at the UK minimum alcohol level of 37.5%. The US minimum is a whopping 48%.

"The strength of the spirit is increased to bring out the flavour and improve the smoothness," David explains.

"As it heats, the alcohol separates from the water and all the botanicals and oils blend with the alcohol compound. As it heats the concoction smells like petrol – not very nice – but the aromas emerge after distilling."

Lovely fragrances they are too: "It's like working in a perfumery at times here," laughs Fiona.

She has laid out varying sizes of glass jars filled with the botanicals on a table, with shortbread and chocolate biscuits for tea-time. The biggest jar contains the primary ingredient: juniper, an endangered species.

David says: "You can only get the male variety of juniper here – you need both male and female for the gin, so we had to import it from Europe. It's a good balance between sweet and peppery.

"Coriander and cinnamon give it a nice bouquet and spice, and we really liked the smell of wild clover. It's extremely unique and really reflects the forest environment here.

"As a result our gin is quite floral and oily, and sweeter than, say, London Gin, which is very dry. Bombay Gin is more subtle. Dingle Gin isn't as aromatic, but it's very good."

While there are 110 distillers in Scotland here, only a handful exist here. And although the overall UK gin market experienced a small decline in sales between 2006 and 2011, premium gins are increasing in popularity, especially among younger consumers who are becoming much more adventurous and prepared to try new styles of established spirits.

Invest NI believed in the Boyd-Armstrongs to the tune of a £42,782 grant to help Rademon Drinks to explore export opportunities for their £500,000 overall project – £1k for every acre of the estate, in other words.

"This is a very innovative business initiative that's targeted at a niche sector of the global drinks market," says an Invest NI spokesman. "Premium craft spirits is presently showing good growth in Britain and further afield, especially among younger consumers."

Through the funding David and Fiona have also been able to receive design and technical assistance, recently employing a digital marketing assistant.

Feedback from social media exploded after the product launch in April.

"People here are becoming more aware of the quality of what they're eating and drinking," says David. "They're drinking not just for the effect but for the enjoyment and spending money to get what they enjoy.

"The popularity of cocktails has helped, too. And good wine merchants.

"That started in London four or five years ago and there's an unbelievable craft movement now in the States. We were at a Craft Exhibition in March in Seattle, Washington – it's quite like home, very green and rainy, food craft beer and spirits explosion in Seattle – all the bars promote the locals and keep the big brand spirits on the bottom shelves. They really promote it."

Lovingly made from start to finish, ShortCross Gin is produced in small batches of 200-300 bottles at a time. The name ShortCross comes from Crossgar itself and refers to the crossroads in the village.

The bottling and labelling have been crafted and perfected by hand.

Thick parchment paper is used for the labels and the brand stamp comes from a rough-edged copper coin from Kind Henry 111's Dublin mint – the couple has one framed and hanging in the distillery. Ever fastidious, they took their time in choosing the stubby bottle, which harks back to the Middle Ages.

Fiona says: "We had about 500 bottle shapes to choose from – you wouldn't believe the variety. We also travelled around a lot to research other craft producers. It was really exciting!"

"We even went to Poitin tasting once in London," adds David. "Alcohol levels of 47 - 90%. The sugar beet and malt type was OK – it tasted sweet like whiskey but the stuff made from potatoes was definitely not for me!"

Fiona laughs: "Gin's more reflective of us. We're passionate about food too by the way – as you can tell!" she says.

When I tell her about an in-law's two vineyards and wine variety in Slovenia, her expressive face lights up.

"It's so satisfying to produce your own craft product. It's our heritage too – they were making gin 100 years ago here.

"The difference is that our products are being pitched as superior products at the upper-end of the market, superior spirits, especially in terms of taste, and produced in small batches with tight quality controls. Therefore we command premium prices. It's hard work though!"

Do they ever worry about the investment risk?

David says: "It is risky but we've done our research and our homework. We had always wanted to create our own business and to work together.

"Fiona had always talked about how exciting it would be build a distillery and produce a premium Irish product, and from the moment of making that very first sale, the response has been phenomenal."

And he adds: "We kept it very quiet at the start and we've made mistakes, but we want to learn."

A Co Down estate with a rich history

  • The handsome mature trees and rolling parkland on the long avenue leading into Rademon Estate set the scene of life in a more refined era
  • The very grand three-storey Rademon House, just outside Crossgar, Co Down, was built on 544 acres by the Johnson family around 1667 and enlarged in in the mid-19th Century
  • Later used as a shooting lodge, the house was gutted by fire in the 1950s but was rebuilt and extended successfully by the esteemed architect and Kensington Estate owner Hon Claud Phillimore, who walled-in most of the building
  • A terraced garden lies on sloping lawns which descend to ornamental planting and a pond
  • There is also a part-walled garden, which lies in a sheltered spot, partially cultivated with a glass-house
  • There's an obelisk on top of a hill, in a field to the south of the house, which was erected in memory of William Sharman-Crawford MP, in 1864
  • The original farm buildings remain, as does an old bridge. There is a fine corn mill, house and outbuildings but the early 17th Century gate lodge no longer exists
  • Rademon Estate was eventually purchased by Lieutenant-Commander James Osborne King DSC DL RN; whose son James still lived there in 1999. It is now owned by property developer Frank Boyd. Mr Boyd is co-owner of William Ewart Properties

Where you can buy it ...

ShortCross Gin is being distributed exclusively by James Nicholson Wine Merchants (www.jnwine.com) and Prohibition Drinks NI (www.prohibitiondrinks.co.uk) and is now available in leading bars and restaurants across Northern Ireland including James Street South, Hadskis, James Street South Bar & Grill, Ox Belfast, Balloo House, The Parson's Nose, The Poacher's Pocket, Muriel's Cafe Bar and The John Hewitt and the Old Schoolhouse Inn, Comber.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Nightlife Galleries

More

Latest Food and Drink News

Latest Motoring News