If someone were to talk about a Head Distiller in the drinks industry, you'd probably think of some serious-looking old guy with elbow patches on his tweed jacket and 40-odd years of sniffing and sampling under his ever-tightening belt.
It may come as something of a surprise, therefore, to learn that the Head Distiller at one of our most highly acclaimed local producers - Boatyard Gin in Co Fermanagh - is just 27 years old and as recently as 2018 was pasting labels on bottles in a summer job at the distillery.
Orlaith Kelm is very modest about her role at Boatyard, but also very serious about her responsibilities in making sure that every bottle leaving the distillery on the shores of Lough Erne is of the same high standard fans around the world have come to expect.
Boatyard Gin is the realisation of a long-held dream by founder Joe McGirr, who spent 10 years with Glenmorangie in Scotland before launching his own spirit from a converted boat shed at Tully Bay in 2016. Using a range of organic botanicals and sweet gale harvested on the family farm, he created a unique and highly flavoursome 'Double Gin' using a specialised process. Other products followed, including an Old Tom gin, created with the addition of Pedro Ximenez sherry, and a vodka distilled exclusively for the Savoy Hotel in London.
Orlaith, who lives in nearby Belleek, was doing a sport-related Masters degree when she got her first job at Boatyard three years ago. "It was just something to pass the summer, packaging and labelling bottles. I loved watching the rest of them making the gin and somehow it just took off from there," she says.
"By the end of the summer, Joe told me, 'There's a job here if you want it.' He wants everyone who works at Boatyard to grow, and I just moved up very quickly."
In 2019 Orlaith became Head Distiller and since then she's been overseeing the production and taking a leading role in creating new gins for an expanding market.
'It's a job you learn by doing'
One of her most important tasks at Boatyard is getting the 'cut' of the gin just right. With every distillation, liquid is boiled off and the steam it produces is condensed back into liquid by cooling. In broad terms, the first portion of the liquid that appears isn't used and neither is the end portion, it's the middle portion that will eventually go into the bottle. The decision on which portion of the condensed liquid to keep is known as the 'cut' and knowing exactly when to start and stop the cut is one of the rare skills that Joe recognised when he made Orlaith Head Distiller.
"It's a job you learn by doing," says Orlaith. "You are constantly testing. Each batch is around 1,000 bottles and you have to ensure consistency in every one."
Two recent products that Orlaith has been heavily involved with are Sloe Boat Gin and Winter Solstice Gin. To make Sloe Boat, wild-harvested sloes were steeped in the gin for six months, giving it a deep ruby colour. "Honeysuckle was in bloom at the time, so we added that for sweetness," says Orlaith. Winter Solstice was intended for the Christmas market and so they experimented with one of the season's most recognisable flavours - if you look on the back of the bottle you'll find that the gin is 33% Christmas pudding.
And lest you're in any doubt about what an important role Orlaith plays in all of this, her signature now appears on some of Boatyard's bottles. With typical modesty she jokes: "Joe asked for my signature one day - if I'd known what he was going to do with it I'd never have signed!"
Boatyard Gin is widely available in off-licences. A full range of their products is also available online at irishmalts.com