'When I told my dad I wanted to make gin he thought I was crazy... but that just brought out my entrepreneurial spirit'
Co Down business woman Fiona Boyd-Armstrong tells how reading an old book in her family home led to her leaving her career as a surveyor to follow her dream of starting her own distillery
As the narrow roads twist and turn through the Tolkienesque landscape, snaking their way deeper into the Co Down countryside, time stands still and it's easy to let your imagination run wild. But, disappointingly, instead of hobbits or goblins the only creature to cross my path is a stray cat.
I'm on my way to meet Fiona Boyd-Armstrong who, along with husband David, lives and works on the Rademon estate near Crossgar. The couple are best known for the creation of the Rademon Estate Distillery where in 2013 they launched their first small batch craft gin under the Shortcross label. Now, six years later, the award winning drink has fans as far away as Australia. Encouraged by their success, the couple are keen to share their other Rademon tipple - single malt Irish whiskey.
As the security gates open and a huge, copper still, gleaming from behind a curtain of glass looms into view, it feels as though I've moved from one fantasy movie set to another. But once inside the visitor's centre, a brand new space that houses a bar and a little shop selling artisanal products, such as soap and jam, normality is restored.
A few minutes later, Fiona, tall and stylish, arrives and, with introductions out of the way, she tells what its like to live and work on one of Ireland's oldest estates and why it takes the head, the heart as well as the tail to make a perfect gin.
But first, what inspired her to trade a successful career as a surveyor and set up a distillery in the grounds of the family home?
"We have a library here at the house and its crammed full of books," she begins. "I just happened one day to pick up a book about the lost art of distilling in Ireland and from then on I was hooked.
"I don't know why but you know how it is when you read something and just can't put it down? I was completely fascinated and started looking into how many such distilleries there are in Ireland. At the time, there were only four."
As it turned out not everyone was convinced by Fiona's idea.
"I suggested it to my dad who thought it was crazy and he told me to go back to work," she laughs. "But the dream had already taken hold in my mind. I think, the negative response brought out the entrepreneurial spirit in me."
As the eldest daughter of Frank Boyd, a well-known property developer - regularly cited as one of Northern Ireland's wealthiest businessmen, and Rose Boyd, a respected horse-breeder, the entrepreneur spirit is probably in her DNA.
"My parents bought the estate around 20 years ago and continue to live in the main house. David and I live on the estate. We all love it here, it's so beautiful," says Fiona.
"My mum's pride and joy is the walled garden, where she looks after a variety of rare plants and fruits. She loves it and won't let anyone else near it."
Unlike some of Northern Ireland's country estates, there isn't a lot of detailed information about early occupants. The name Rademon, refers to 'Rath Deamain' meaning Deamain's Ringfort. Deamain was a Gaelic chieftain in the ruling tribe of east Ulster during the Middle Ages. The original house on the estate was built by the Johnston family around 1667.
The five-bay, three storeys over a basement with single-storey wings property must have been an impressive sight. In 1805, daughter and heiress Mabel Johnston married landowner and politician William Sharman, who adopted both his wife's name and the Crawford family's coat of arms. William was known for his radical political views and his support for Catholic emancipation and tenants' rights. Down through the centuries, Rademon estate has entertained most of Northern Ireland's creme de la creme.
From wealthy landowners to high profile politicians, all have found a welcome within its walls. But the most notable visit occurred in August 1961 when Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and the royal children, took time from their official visit to the province, to dine with the then owners of the estate, Lieutenant Commander James Osborne King and his wife, the Honourable Mrs Elizabeth Osborne King.
The Queen and Mrs King had been friends from childhood. Indeed, 15 years previously, during her solo visit to the province, the then Princess Elizabeth had agreed to act as godmother to the couple's eldest daughter, Elizabeth Lavinia Sarah King.
Details of the conversation during the royal family's visit to the country manor remain a mystery. But it's reasonable to assume that the fire that gutted Rademon house a few years earlier, resulting in a major redesign by London architect Claud Phillimore, was among the topics of discussion.
When Fiona Boyd married David Armstrong in 2011, they followed Sharman-Crawford's example and took each other's name. How did they meet?
"We met in Auntie Annie's in Belfast in 2006. Dave was drinking beer and I was enjoying a gin," she laughs. "At the time, he was employed as a technology manager at Thales, the aeronautical and defence company, working on missiles. I was a surveyor. So we both had established careers.
"I think, at first, we seemed too different to make a match. To people who don't know me, I can come across as quite quiet and reserved, but I can also be very headstrong and if I get an idea I just go for it. Dave on the other hand, is probably more methodical and all about formula, but that's not to say he can't come up with some crazy notions.
"I remember when I told my sister I was going out with him, she couldn't understand why because we appeared to have nothing in common. I'd already shared my idea for a small batch distillery with Dave and he agreed it was worth pursuing.
"So, five years later when we got married here on the estate we decided to start the process of making our dream come true and embarked on two years of research."
With practically zero knowledge, I'm fascinated to learn more about the art of distilling. As Fiona warms to her subject, the slight reservation of earlier vanishes.
"Well, you can't just Google the answers," she tells me.
"We had to go out and learn our trade so we spent a lot of weekends taking courses and getting as much knowledge as much as possible.
"Of course, we didn't tell anyone what we were doing, so, as far as friends and family were concerned, we were simply off gallivanting. We travelled from Seattle to Seoul in Korea and then back to Ireland and packed in as many tours and courses as possible.
"We were impressed by the passion of the people we met. I'd say one of our most enjoyable courses was held at the University of Michigan."
It might seem strange, but the first thing potential distillers have to learn is how to 'taste' their product.
Fiona adds: "Its very important to develop a 'palate' which involves using the sense of smell as well as taste. Everyone has their own idea of what makes a good recipe. For me, when I'm doing a new 'taste', I like to refer to a memory or a flavour from the past.
"For example, the scent of Christmas might be a good one. You know how if you go out for a country walk in the winter and the scents of pine is sharp and clean.
"The same walk in summer smells different because the flowers are blooming and the scent of fruit is in the air.
"I want to be able to put those aromas in a bottle. Rademon is such a special place and we really want to capture the essence of it."
How would she describe the perfume of her home?
"So many beautiful things grow here," she smiles, and you can hear the passion in her voice as she lists the scents of the forest and gardens.
"There's the elderflower berries and the wild clover, which I believe is unique to Shortcross Gin. Then there's the apples from the walled garden - varieties like the Bath Beauty date back to the 19th century and are trained to grow against a wall.
"The spring water is clean and rich in minerals. I think the scents reflect the season but it's always nature at its best. This place is incredible. Visitors are always amazed by the beauty here."
Today's young gin lovers opt for flavourings that include large chunks of honeycomb. It seems a weird combination so I asked Fiona for her expert opinion.
"Everybody has their own preference, but I have to admit some of the current trends are a bit flamboyant," she chuckles. "For me the whole point is to enhance the flavour, not mask it.
"When we first started out, people didn't get the concept. They'd say, 'what gin from Crossgar?' Now, of course, they're our biggest supporters and send us pictures from around the world, wherever they see our gin.
“I think one of the best recipes, taken from our signature serve competition 2015/16, is to add frozen oranges, elderflower tonic water and a sprig of mint. Lovely!”
Whatever the enhancer, at 46% ABV Shortcross is a gin to be sipped and enjoyed.
While the distilling business is now flourishing, there have been problems along the way as Fiona explains: “Yes, we’ve had our challenges. When we first started out we were doing every single thing by hand, including applying tape and signing each individual bottle. As we’ve developed, we now have labels that come on a roll. It was a steep learning curve to say the least.
“On one occasion we had to borrow a cardboard box to make a delivery. We’ve also had the pumps fail and our distillery flooded an hour before our buyers were due. But you learn to cope and that’s what it’s all about.”
Life in a botanical playground sounds idyllic but does she ever miss the buzz of the city?
“I guess I do sometimes miss being with the girls in Belfast but then again, what could be better than waking up here, coming to work in a place you love.
“This is an opportunity for us to put our stamp on the gin market.
“Its also a chance for us to lay down a heritage for future generations. We travel a lot, even if it is a sort of busman’s holiday but we love it. Plus we’re always learning something new. I think everyday should be a learning day.”
I ask Fiona, if she ever finds time to relax. “Well, its not always easy,” she admits. “I mean the business is always going to be at the forefront of our minds. You know, when other people rely on you for a salary (they employ 10 staff members), that’s a lot of responsibility. Having said that, David and I have also made a commitment that this business has to be fun for us.
“We’ve made a lot of sacrifices so it’s essential to keep the fun element. When we aren’t working, we like to eat. We’re big foodies and as often as possible we like to go out to restaurants. One of our favourite places is the Smuggler’s Table in Killyleagh. We’ve been two weekends in a row!”
At this point David joins us and adds his little portion of history.
“The name Shortcross comes from the Gaelic translation for Crossgar,” he explains before presenting me with what appears to be a framed coin.
“This is the Shortcross penny,” he says pointing to the coin. “That’s one of the things that Sharman-Crawford instigated here on the estate. He used to pay tenants and workers with a token. It was Henry III who introduced the silver short-cross penny and we’ve incorporated it in our design as a bit of fun.”
Next, the couple, who are both in their late 30s and have no children, invite me to take a tour of the distillery that, with an overall investment of approximately £3.5m, now has a capacity to produce 50,000 litres of alcohol each year. I’m not sure what I had expected. Maybe the impressive copper still I’d seen on my arrival had conjured up images of some futuristic sci-fi lab.
In reality, the distillery, despite the recent expansion, has quite a homely feel. In one corner, two guys stand side by side, chatting quietly as they dip each bottle in wax.
The copper stills are beautiful pieces of equipment and the soft clink of bottles makes a soothing soundtrack. It’s obvious that Fiona and David are in their element as they show me round, stopping to point out wooden barrels.
“That’s our whiskey,” Fiona tells me. We’ve been putting it in barrels for three years.”
Why whiskey? “Because Dave likes whiskey and he said why not? At the time when we had the idea, nobody in Ireland was doing small scale whiskey.”
Like kids in a sweet shop they lead me to a little table. “Here we have, ‘the head, the heart and the tail’,” Fiona says pointing to the three containers. “The basic cycle of stilling can be divided into the head, heart and tail, also known as fractions,” David explains.
“Try that,” he says, holding the container filled with the head under my nose. I’m almost blown away by the pungent aroma.
Next comes the heart and it has a spicy, warm fragrance which, to me, is reminiscent of my granny’s Christmas cordial.
Finally, I try the tail. I can’t quite place the scent but its pleasantly sweet. I make the deduction, based on a sort of Goldilocks rationale, that first is too much, second not quite there and third is just right. But I can tell by their smiles, I’m wrong.
“The one we want is a blend of the head and tail. The heart is the perfect combination of both,” Fiona explains.
As well as whiskey and gin, the couple offer tours of the distillery while their new visitors’ centre is open for events. Whatever their plans for the future, it’s obvious that the couple have gotten to the heart of success.
For further information contact www.shortcrossgin.com