Gerry White sets sights on the US with his top-end gin Jawbox
Just nine months ago the first batch of Belfast pub manager Gerry White's Jawbox gin left the distillery. Now, it's on the shelves of almost 180 Marks and Spencer stores across the UK and Ireland, as well as Tesco and Sainsbury's in Northern Ireland - with the US now firmly in his sights.
And the gin brand is also now in talks to sell the top-end craft spirit in another major UK supermarket chain.
Gerry, Drinksology and the Echlinville Distillery are already eyeing up a new, larger still, to produce the award-winning spirit to meet burgeoning demand.
The John Hewitt bar boss has been working with Co Down's Echlinville in Kircubbin to produce Jawbox, and the new brand has been created in collaboration with distributor Drinksology.
He said the US is next on the agenda, and once production is increased, that will be its main export market.
"America is what we are going to concentrate on," he said.
However, the US is a tough market to get into, but Gerry says he's confident the gin will do well.
It's already championed by restaurateurs such as Michael Deane and Niall McKenna.
"It was February 22 when we launched it at the Linenhall Library," he said. "The support from the home ground, from the hospitality industry here, has been unbelievable from the offset.
"You have the likes of Michael Deane, who names it on his menus, and Niall McKenna. When you get that sort of support, it's unbelievable. People must be enjoying it - it's selling, and it's selling at an unbelievable rate - you are talking about pallets. It's way above what our expectations would have been at this stage.
"It's at the point where we are looking into producing a bigger pot still at Echlinville. It's because the production at the minute is at the absolute max. We are going way over and above where we thought we would be."
Jawbox is being sold across dozens of bars in Northern Ireland, the Republic, and throughout the UK.
Hastings Hotels, which includes the Europa and Culloden hotels, sells the spirit, along with the five-star Merchant.
It's also being sold at Belfast International Airport, alongside other top Northern Ireland spirits such as Shortcross Gin and Ruby Blue.
For Gerry, it's been a six-year labour of love, from finalising the recipe and designing the branding.
He's thrown his weight and years working in the pub trade behind Jawbox, helping to design everything from the Victorian-style medicine bottle, branding, history, and recipe, with its heart firmly in Belfast.
He saw the meteoric rise in popularity of craft beer in Northern Ireland, and believed there was also a market for top-end gin.
"We do an awful lot in Scotland, and Scotland is coming down with really amazing craft gins. We have made our mark there."
Jawbox has also found a place alongside honeycomb - a cocktail combination crafted by Belfast bar Muriel's.
The Echlinville distillery is also producing award-winning spirits, with its Dunville's 10-year single malt walking away with a top gong at the World Whiskies Awards.
Gerry said the quality of the product, and the branding, are what have been driving the company's surge in the premium drinks market.
"The branding has made it noticeable, and caught people's eye. But it's the quality of the product," he said.
"Graeme Millar, the master distiller, is an outstanding guy and an absolute genius.
"He was as passionate from the offset as I was. So, although the branding and everything has got us on to the shelves, it's the quality of the liquid that's getting all the resales."
And despite a raft of new Northern Ireland-made gins coming on to the market, including Shortcross, Boatyard and Copeland, Gerry says he believes there could be a further 10 years of expansion in the market.
Beef retailers are in a stew over drop in sales
Retail expenditure on beef during the 12 weeks ending October 2016 totalled £448.8m in the UK, latest figures show.
But the spend was down 5.7% on the same time the year before, when consumer spending on beef in the UK reached £475.9m.
That’s according to analysis by the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) in Northern Ireland of the latest available data from Kantar Worldpanel.
The LMC says the decrease in the average retail price of beef from £7.91/kg over the year will have been a key driver behind the decrease in the value of UK retail beef sales.
Meanwhile, the volume of retail beef sales has remained relatively steady, with volume sales totalling 59,240 tonnes during the latest 12 week period, a 1.5% fall from the corresponding period in 2015 when volume sales totalled 60,142 tonnes.
Sales of beef marinades recorded the most notable increase, up by 6.2% from a year earlier levels, while sales of frying/grilling steaks rose 5.6%.
Stewing beef sales recorded an 8% decline, while sales of mince decreased marginally during the 12 week period.
Retail sales of processed beef have also recorded a mixed performance during the 12 weeks to the end of October 9, 2016 when compared to the levels of the year before.
Lack of chefs may lead to festive crisis
UK recruitment agencies are warning of a shortage of chefs for restaurants and hospitality firms over Christmas because of a lack of skilled staff.
A study by the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC) found that most hospitality recruitment agencies reported an increased demand for chefs in the past three years.
Research among 46 agencies revealed that more than nine out of 10 believed there were not enough trained chefs in the UK to meet demand, with almost as many predicting that demand will continue to increase.
Potential changes to immigration policies could make the skills shortage even worse, commented REC.
Chief executive Kevin Green said: "As we approach the festive season the shortage of chefs is causing real headaches for restaurants.
"Training and progression needs to be improved so that more people are encouraged to become chefs.
"That's a longer term fix, but there's an immediate skills crisis which needs to be addressed.
"Any restrictions on access to chefs from the EU, such as a salary threshold for work visas, will only exacerbate the problem."
Mr Green added: "Without a supply of chefs to meet growing demand, restaurants, bars and hotels will have to pay more for their staff and it's likely that these costs will be passed on to the customer.
"We may even see restaurants close their doors if they can't remain competitive and profitable."
Food giant Greencore acquires US firm
Iirish convenience food firm Greencore is to acquire US-based Peacock Foods in a massive $747.5m (£597m) deal.
Peacock is strongly positioned in the frozen breakfast sandwiches, kids' chilled meal kits and salad kits markets in America and generates around $1bn (£0.8m) in revenue.
The deal, which is funded by a mix of a rights issue and new debt facilities of around €232m (£200m), will improve Greencore's market and channel position in the US.
Greencore chief executive Patrick Coveney said the deal would "transform" the company's US business.
"We believe Peacock's success is built on the same fundamental strategy and values that drive Greencore, making products that consumers love, building deep, long-standing relationships with customers, investing in high quality manufacturing capacity, food safety capability and, most importantly, people," he said.
Greencore's new US division, which will include Peacock after completion of the deal, will be headed up by Chris Kirke.
Peacock CEO Tom Sampson will be appointed as a senior advisor to help with customer transition over the next two years.
Mr Sampson said the company was "thrilled" to be joining Greencore. "We have been particularly struck by the similarities in the way we run our business and our mutual long-term commitment to the US convenience food market.
"We are excited by the opportunity that we now have to leverage Greencore's expertise."