Belfast Telegraph

Distillery chief finds the perfect match

Establishing a base in Leitrim with a firm family connection has helped Pat Rigney, the maker of Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin, enjoy soaring sales, writes Ailish O'Hora

Pat Rigney and his wife Denise at The Shed Distillery in Drumshanbo
Pat Rigney and his wife Denise at The Shed Distillery in Drumshanbo

Drumshanbo in Co Leitrim was selected by drinks industry veteran Pat Rigney as the home for The Shed Distillery back in 2013 for personal as well as business reasons, and there's a touch of romance to the tale.

For it was at the former Arigna Mine, close to the town, where his parents met back in the 1950s - his mother Mary was the bookkeeper at the mine while his Dad, Seamus, was the auditor.

The Shed's flagship brand is Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin, which is now a household name within the gin fraternity in Ireland and stocked in over 30 international markets at high-end establishments like the George V hotel in Paris and by retailers including Selfridges and Cunard.

Prince Albert of Monaco and Count Carl Von Hardenberg of the German drinks dynasty are the proud owners of two of the first-ever casks of whiskey distilled in Drumshanbo.

The distinctive blue gin bottle and its unique ingredients, including Gunpowder Tea, has also made quite the impact in its relatively short life with consumers.

Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin hit a milestone last year, selling over 100,000 cases for the first time.

But it's clear from serial entrepreneur Mr Rigney, who has spent three decades in the drinks industry, that The Shed Distillery was more about giving something back and creating a legacy industry than it was about making money.

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Sure, he says, the company has to be profitable, which it is. But for him, the distillery at the former Laird's Jam site in Leitrim was just different.

"I remember arriving in Drumshanbo on a dark and rainy day in December 2013. The country was worn out after the economic crash - I don't call it a recession, it was a crash.

"The factory had already been leased to the community to create jobs. I believe in karma and I really hit it off with the guys in Drumshanbo and loved the location," he says

"We were looking for somewhere special to locate the business, where we could develop a community partnership on a main street and where we could create a remarkable brand."

Then there was the family history with the place, which also played into the choice of location, and a year later the distillery took off with whiskey production.

"We started off distilling whiskey, what we call Premier Grand Cru, the top end of the market, and we have been distilling it since just after the winter solstice in 2014. Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin then came in 2015 and Sausage Tree Pure Irish Vodka in 2016," he adds.

Romance aside, it wasn't an easy ride getting the distillery business up and running given what the country had been through economically.

The investment community was risk-averse even when it came to a drinks industry veteran with his credentials.

The fact that as executive director at Bailey's he had created the Sheridan's brand - the coffee-layered liqueur - and that he is also credited with bringing the former to the international market wasn't enough to convince the banks.

"We started The Shed Distillery off with nothing. We had no sales, I couldn't get funding. I got rejected by the bank and had to go to another one to get the bond. Perhaps it's a reflection of the way things were at the time. It's still pretty risk-averse out there now and challenging for anyone trying to raise money.

"When you've an early-stage business it's much easier to raise money - but not when you're starting off from scratch. Fortunately, I was able to put a very strong team together locally in Drumshanbo.

"On the technical side, I was very lucky to get to know distiller Brian Taff, who is now the head distiller at The Shed Distillery.

"Many of the team were unemployed when we started off and have since learned a whole new skills set. I have to say key was the support from Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia - they were both brilliant."

Rigney was also co-founder of the Boru Vodka brand and later sold out of that business through a flotation. He says The Shed Distillery, which is majority owned by Rigney and his family, started off with €1m, with €275,000 coming from Enterprise Ireland and the rest from Mr Rigney and his family.

It was a hard slog, he admits but he credits the team in Drumshanbo with much of the success.

The Shed had sales of €7m last year and it is expected that this figure will grow by 10% to 15% this year.

It is expected to grow staff numbers to 50 in the next couple of years from current figure of 28 full-time employees in Leitrim currently, with thanks largely in part to its flagship brand - Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin.

While getting the capital together to finance the business may have been difficult initially, Mr Rigney also admitted there was an element of luck to the timing of the launch as the gin industry was in the midst of a global renaissance at the time.

"Gin in Ireland, in particular, had traditionally been seen as old-fashioned. But in the UK and France it was taking off, we were lucky with the timing. It's also a tribute to how Irish people have embraced the brand.

"Abroad, the community brand is seen as an interesting concept too," he says.

Building relationships as well as brands has been key for growth too and Mr Rigney added that the company deals with a lot of other family firms while marketing the brand abroad.

"Whether it's airports or top hotels, bars and retailers - they are searching for high-quality brands that have something new. The market is changing, too. They seek you out as much as you seek them out.

"We have a brilliant importer in France, for example, called La Maison du Whisky and they would have presented the brand. I got to know them at a trade show in Dusseldorf, which was a Bord Bia event. Getting to know these partners is basically like speed-dating.

"The show would have about 500 gins at it and they would maybe pick only two or three of them. We built up the business in a sensible way and it's all about building brands that are best in class - they have to be when you are selling abroad.

"Ireland's is a small market and it's an extremely competitive market, but we are doing well. We have a great team working with our partners. I call them the Spitfire pilots - they are up and running within weeks and they work very closely with our partners. It's also about building trust.

Looking to the future, there will be the launch of the whiskey brand later this year, launching in new markets abroad and the launch of a €1.5m visitor centre at Drumshanbo.

Launching into the new markets like Hong Kong and Rome is key to the longevity of the business. "That for me is a very significant moment as we develop our travel retail business. It shows that the brand has longevity and has a broad church of consumers and that's important in the long-term for the business. We are there because they seek quality."

Back in Drumshanbo, the construction phase of the €1.5m visitor centre is just around the corner.

"We're just about to go out to tender for the construction phase of our visitor centre. It's part of the bigger picture. We expect to grow employment levels to 50 within two years in Leitrim as we also develop the visitor centre.

"At that stage you are really contributing to the community, you have a destination and a platform to further build your brands. We are also part of the Hidden Heartlands tourism offering, and will be working closely with Ireland West (Knock Airport) and Waterways Ireland too.

"I think what we have in Leitrim is unique. I call it extreme resourcefulness. The Meitheal (an Irish expression meaning teamwork) is alive and well in Drumshanbo. I mean it's completely different to Dublin, which works well in a different way too.

"For example, we were bringing in big equipment into the distillery on one or two occasions and were having difficulties and one of the local farmers lent us his machinery in the end."

In addition to The Shed Distillery, which is 90% owned by Mr Rigney and his family, and a stake in Dalcassian Wines, a wine and spirit distribution business, he has his fingers in a number of other pies.

He's on the advisory boards to the Prince of Baden, the biggest landowner in Germany and drinks firm Hardenberg Wilthen, where he supports its business interests in the US and Europe.

He is also an investor in Ovelle Pharmaceuticals, the maker of the Elave skincare range, as well as a number of other firms.

But the favourite child is clearly The Shed Distillery and this is obvious from his attitude towards the visitor centre which he admits is a risky venture.

"Are we going to make big money from it? No. But it will support our brand, create employment and it's the right thing to do," Mr Rigney adds.

Belfast Telegraph