'When we said that we were creating a gin, people thought we were crazy, but we had a vision...'
David Boyd-Armstrong, managing director of Rademon Estate Distillery, is in high spirits as he talks whiskey plans with Emma Deighan
When co-founder of Rademon Estate Distillery David Boyd-Armstrong married his partner Fiona in 2011 the groundwork for Northern Ireland's first premium gin in over a century began.
But it could have been very different for the makers of the Shortcross tipple if it wasn't for the unreliable climate here.
"We always wanted to have our own business," says David. "Our first idea was a vineyard but I thought 'hey, we live in Co Down, not Bordeaux'."
And it was a wise realisation for the former engineer who spent many of his previous working years in the defence industry.
Since its inception in 2014, when the first small batch of Shortcross gin left the Crossgar estate, the company has trebled its output, grown its workforce from two to 10, and now has a presence in some of the most respected restaurants here, the multiples and exclusive off-sales outlets.
It's also stocked in Duty Free outlets across all of the UK's airports and graces the shelves in the upmarket Fortnum & Mason in London.
And the signature line of Shortcross gin is expanding to welcome other spirits, hints David, which will sit alongside its exclusive limited edition Cask Aged Shortcross.
David says his wife Fiona had the idea of her own drinks company well before they met, but as a pair and after 24 months of research to explore their joint passion for gin, their business was created.
"We spent two years travelling. Every holiday and every weekend was about travelling to find out more about spirit-making," he says.
"We travelled to Seattle, Korea and all over the world, and fell in love with craft distilling."
It was a big move for the Boyd-Armstrongs, who had no experience in the drinks trade.
David was an engineer, who had spent 14 years studying at Bifhe and Ulster University, while Fiona was a property surveyor. The former Newtownbreda High School pupil had worked at Thales Air Defence in east Belfast after serving as an apprentice at aerospace manufacturer Bombardier.
But he says the couple's lack of knowledge of the drinks industry was a good thing.
"We are very hands-on people and coming from outside was a blessing, and we have been able to put our own slant on it," he says.
And with a £500,000 investment, Shortcross was born.
Back then, in a statement, the couple said: "We are seeking to revive a distilling tradition that stretches back over two centuries to a period when many larger towns in Northern Ireland had distilleries producing gin."
And before anyone can say David and Fiona rode on the crest of the gin wave, David is quick to inform me they were a little "ahead of our time" in starting to make their own.
"When we told people that we wanted to create a gin they thought we were crazy. Many people saw gin as an old person's drink," he says.
Gin has long distanced itself from its former reputation and the statistics confirm that transformation from stuffy to trendy. Shortcross is also joined by other Northern Ireland spirits such as Jawbox and Copeland.
Figures from the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) show that gin is still riding that wave of popularity as it increased its volume by 27% last year, selling 9.5 million more bottles in 2017 than it did the year before.
"It's the most fantastically fun spirit to distil," says David.
He and Fiona forage the ingredients which go into the gin, including juniper, apple, elderflower, elderberries and wild clover, all plucked from the estate.
"When we were developing Shortcross it took six months of an awful lot of fun," David says.
"We had a vision and didn't let anyone taste it until it was ready, and what we created was Northern Ireland's first gin.
"We think it's the best gin in the world but we weren't sure that everyone else would."
His fears were ill-founded when two of Belfast's most high profile restaurants, James Street South and OX, signed up to the brand after their first taste.
And it was that encouragement from day one that David believes catapulted Shortcross to success.
"It was April 12, 2014, I can remember it clearly," he recalls.
"Immediately it was 'bang, we now have a local Irish gin' and that support allowed us to grow.
"We have been taken aback. We wanted to do something different, offer a taste and aroma with a unique flavour profile that reminds us of the forests at Rademon in the height of the summer.
"We didn't even have cardboard boxes with the first batch and today we still walk into places and we can't believe we are on the shelves there."
Growth has been fast-paced for the couple and in line with buoyant business has come significant investment.
David, who has a "typical working class east Belfast background" and his wife recently injected £2.5m into Shortcross' operations which has allowed them to distil their first ever whiskey.
It's a single malt that's currently maturing in the Co Down estate and in six months the product will be just about ready to enter the market.
"The completion of this sizeable investment marks an important milestone for Rademon Estate Distillery," explains David.
"As we upscale our production to meet growing demand for Shortcross Gin, this is also an exciting time as we prepare to test the first batch of our new single malt Irish whiskey, with a view to release later this year or in early 2019."
The redevelopment also saw the addition of two new copper stills, which are considered to be the most advanced gin stills in use in Ireland.
With a capacity of 1,071 litres, the facility uses two 10-plate enrichment columns which will allow the distillery to produce "highly aromatic and flavoursome spirits".
Also, relatively new, is the tourism element of the business.
With that investment, Rademon now offers tours and is working alongside Tourism NI and Visit Belfast to make the estate's distillery a "destination".
They describe it as a "stylish, multi-purpose space comprising a bar, gift shop and events space with stunning views across the estate".
The completion of this phase of the development will open up new revenue streams through the provision of regular distillery tours and private events.
The new Visitors Experience Centre also forms part of the Irish Whiskey Association's Irish Whiskey Tourism Trail, which is seeking to increase visitor numbers to distilleries across the island of Ireland from 653,000 visitors in 2015 to 1.94 million visitors by 2025.
Visitors come from far and wide too, with an influx of American guests passing through but exposure to an international audience isn't new to David.
He's been exporting Shortcross to European, Scandinavian, American, Middle Eastern and Australian markets for quite some time - a goal that the couple had from the business's inception.
Development is always in the pipeline and rumour has it that Rademon may dip its toes in the vodka market.
"We've three stills now and that allows us to produce whiskey and gin. The bottom line is we are a distillery and can produce whatever spirit we want. That's the secret of being a distiller," says David, who wouldn't confirm the vodka speculation. "It could be rum or it could be vodka, who knows?"
Rademon has come a long way in four years and David believes it's the fact that both he and Fiona are first-born that has made them the grafters they are.
Both eldest children, he jokes that they created the business because they "just wanted to escape the noise".
But mixing family life with work has never been an issue. "We love it because we are able to indulge in things we love together; from running the business to distilling, it's fantastic to craft stuff that is your own, and we are hands-on people, it is so much fun.
"The positives always outweigh any negatives," David adds.
'We've come a long way since having two staff'
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. As a Shorts apprentice, I learned from an early age to only focus on what you can control and not be distracted by what is beyond that.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. I would say that you should make sure you enjoy what you do and always remember why you took the plunge.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. Making the decision to launch Northern Ireland’s first gin and whiskey back in 2012.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. I think I have my dream job and I simply cannot imagine doing anything else.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. A holiday…that’s something I haven’t had for a long time. The distillery keeps us both very busy.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. I love the outdoors and country sports. I go fishing when I can and I’m the proud owner of a springer spaniel that keeps me very entertained.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. That’s a simple one; I love football and I support Manchester United. I can’t wait to get the opportunity and go back across to Old Trafford and watch them play.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. Yes, football — badly.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. At the moment I am reading The Way of Whisky by Dave Broom, which is about Japanese whisky and the culture/people behind it.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. Always fun but always busy. My parents pushed us at school to do the best we could.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. I wish I had a crystal ball to be able to answer that one.
Q. How would you assess your time in business with your company Shortcross?
A. We have come a long way since 2013 when we started with one copper pot still and two staff members. Fast-forward to 2018, we now have three beautiful copper pot stills, 10 staff, a new visitor experience centre and a collection of international awards for Shortcross Gin. It’s been an unbelievable journey so far and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Q. How do you sum up working in the drinks industry?
A. It’s been a very steep learning curve. It’s an industry that’s very traditional in what it does but hopefully over time that will change. Personally, it’s a fascinating industry to be involved with and it’s exciting to see how diverse and fast-paced it is.