The Big Interview: Derek Hardy, Hinch Distillery: I knew when they asked me to run firm, it had the making of a success story..."
Derek Hardy is a self-confessed history buff. It's a passion that served him well when it came to naming Northern Ireland's newest gin and whiskey brands, Ninth Wave and Hinch.
Derek is the managing director at the Hinch Distillery, a 30,000 sq ft facility and visitor experience with a bar, restaurant and function spaces.
It's being built at the moment and is due to open to the public in late spring 2020.
The brainchild of entrepreneur Dr Terry Cross - the man who founded west Belfast company Delta Print and Packaging before selling it on - the £15m development takes its name from its location.
"Terry was keen to locate the distillery in his estate between Belfast and Ballynahinch. We needed a good memorable name that was trademarkable and Hinch, which is short for Ballynahinch, does just that," says Derek.
"Ballynahinch is the anglicised version of the Irish Baile na hinse which means town of the island so technically Hinch means island."
It's Derek's penchant for ancient history, dating back to Celtic times, that inspired the name of the company's gin, Ninth Wave.
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"I'm a big history fan, in fact it's my favourite past-time, and it goes back to ancient times right up to current affairs," he says.
"When I looked back to Celtic religion and mythology that's when I came up with the Ninth Wave. It comes from the Celtic form of heaven, 'the other world'.
"Back then stories would be told of how to get to the other world where there is eternal peace and beauty. People believed they had to get over waves, the most challenging of which is the Ninth Wave."
Derek grew up in Glengormley where he attended Glengormley Primary School and later at Belfast Royal Academy. He then completed a degree in English Literature and Religious Philosophy at University of Ulster and says, referring to that course: "I'd no idea what I wanted to do."
The son of a policeman and a stay-at-home mum, Derek has two brothers. He is the middle child.
He refers to his childhood as the son of a policeman during the Troubles, as being "just what it was back then".
He adds: "We told people my dad was a civil servant, that's just what you did but there were a few moments when he just missed getting killed."
Derek's father served 35 years in the police force here, passing away 13 years ago.
"We had a great family life growing up," says Derek. "I played rugby and started the first American football team at university called the Belfast Blitzers."
A father of five, Derek's working life began when he completed a government course in sales and marketing after university.
He took a role at Unilever working specifically for Batchelors Foods and then moved on to SmithKline Beecham as an account manager.
His first move into the alcohol and beverage sector was with wine company Ernest and Julio Gallo where he spent four years. A stint at Ballygowan spring water followed.
"That was back in the days when people thought we were mad selling water but we were selling into the licensed and catering trade and that was good experience," he explains.
For 14 years Derek says he worked at a "major wine distribution company" at a senior level.
"We distributed wine with a deep interest in whiskey and we were distributors of Terry's wine collection Chateau de la Ligne."
Terry Cross rescued Château de La Ligne, a Bordeaux vineyard, over 20 years ago restoring it to its former glory.
He has been carrying on the tradition of the estate by producing a variety of classic Bordeaux wines.
A recommendation led Derek to meet up with Terry to discuss his vision for the Hinch Distillery. Accepting the managing director role was an easy decision, he says.
"I knew Terry had the will and vision and was an incredibly determined businessman in his own right and I knew if anyone could make it work, he could," he adds.
Terry had been working on the plan for years before approaching Derek. The businessman, who sold his successful packaging company in west Belfast to Finnish firm Huhtamaki in 2016 for £80m, had invested "a six figure sum" in maturing Irish whiskey from "the best distilleries here".
He is also well acquainted with the sales trends of Irish whiskey and gin around the world, making the move a well-informed one.
"Irish whiskey has nearly trebled its sales over the past 10 years. It's the fastest growing spirit in the world," Derek says.
"But that's also not an easy thing because others are thinking the same about launching new whiskeys so we knew we had to have a niche."
Hinch's selling point is its premium profile with a play on time, explains Derek.
"Quality wise it's a craft whiskey with bespoke bottle designs and the slogan 'the whiskey that understands time'," he says. "And it is all about time. We've launched a range known as the Time Collection. We've majored on age blends rather than single malts so we've three to 15-year-old whiskeys."
He adds the bottling and labelling is "deliberately different" veering away from the traditional green and brown tones associated with Irish whiskey brands.
Then there's the distillery's gin, which came after.
"Irish gin is doing incredibly well. It's quadrupled its value in recent years so we came up with that story of the Ninth Wave bringing Celtic imagery into the bottle."
Derek says taste tests with world gin award judges told them the make up of Ninth Wave gin "ticked every box".
And while the Hinch Distillery may have just launched, already its lines are making their mark globally.
"We do sell them in local independent off-licences here and in the on trade and that will grow. Distribution only really started six months ago and by the end of December we will be selling in 20 international markets. By the end of 2020 we plan to be selling in 35-40 markets," says Derek.
"We're lucky that way because we are incredibly well connected and well thought of and that has helped us push more quickly. We're lucky to have the right people."
There will be 42 staff employed at the distillery over the next five years.
They will help market the facility and products.
Among them is Belfast-born head distiller, Aaron Flaherty, who has over 15 years experience in the whiskey distilling business, including roles at Bushmills and Scotch Distillery sites.
Derek, Terry, Aaron and the rest of the team will gear up for a spring/summer launch and they're anticipating a positive reception.
Asked how the distillery experience will differ from those already opened around Northern Ireland, Derek says its design by Drinksology, the firm behind New York's Dead Rabbit and Blacktail bars, will prove a unique selling point.
"One of the key benefits is that we have been able to design and construct the way we wanted. From conception to bottling and distilling this is a holistic experience," he says.
"Other distilleries here offer the experience as a bolt on, ours will be built with that in mind.
"We also have a prime location in the country yet still we're close to Belfast and the environment is beautiful.
"The tour itself is experiential, not self-guided. There will be professional tour guides taking a group of 15-20 people around the distillery and there won't be much in the way of high visual gadgets.
"It will be all about storytelling, touching, feeling and tasting."
Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of the tour is its personal gin-making experience whereby visitors can blend their preferred botanicals to create their own gin, bottle it and take it home.
The distillery hopes the bar, restaurant and events spaces will make the facility a hospitality attraction, while the courtyard could potentially create a new concert venue.
It's an ambitious plan to hatch during a challenging time, but the project has also been backed with funding from economic development agency Invest NI.
And the backing of Terry Cross suggests that he has no fears of any threats from the current economic and political environment.
"Our business is genuinely 95-97% export-driven," Derek says.
"With Brexit, yes, we would worry but we have looked at reams of stuff on Brexit.
"We went to conferences, read the tariffs and it didn't look like it would impact us.
"The thing is, if Brexit happens we're going to be on a level playing field with everyone else."