It must have been one of the most frustrating aspects of being a craft drinks maker: you work hard to create a product you’re really proud of, you spend a lot of money turning your distillery or brewery into a place people will want to visit, you start running tours, and then, when visitors have had an entertaining look around and ask to buy one of your products, you have to say no.
Why? Well, it’s that recurring irritation, our outdated licensing laws, rearing its head again. Long-standing legislation stipulated that if a distillery sold a bottle of spirits, that meant it was an off-licence, therefore it needed a full drinks licence. And as regular readers of this page will recall, one of those will set you back something in the region of £110,000 - plus VAT and legal fees, of course. And that requires the kind of deep pockets most fledgling drinks businesses just don’t have.
Or at least, that was the case until recently. Just a few weeks ago, Fermanagh’s Boatyard Distillery became the first craft spirits producer to avail of a change in the law that means they can at last sell a bottle of their gin to a visitor touring the distillery.
“We’ve been going since 2016 and our distillery is in a very rural location,” says founder Joe McGirr. “Sometimes visitors travel a very long way to come here and having to say no to them when they asked to buy one of our products on-site has been incredibly difficult. Naturally you want to sell what you produce, and having to refuse a sale sent out a very negative message.”
Now here’s where you have to suppress your astonishment. Stormont actually stepped in and made some changes to the law. Yes, really. It took around seven years of lobbying to do it, navigating around hiccups in devolution and procedural hold-ups (Joe cites Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey as one of the leading figures in keeping it on track) but finally the legislation was given Royal Assent last October and largely came into force on April 6.
It was this same legislation that allowed pubs to have normal opening hours on Good Friday, but most significantly for small distilleries like Boatyard, it also meant they could apply for a Local Producers’ Licence to sell from their premises instead of having to make the huge outlay for a full pub licence.
“As a small business we just couldn’t afford to buy a licence on the open market,” says Joe. So when the opportunity to sign up for the new licence arose, Boatyard was first in the queue. A court date was arranged for the end of April and they engaged a barrister to present the case, while an architect and Joe himself gave evidence at the hearing. Following their submissions, the Local Producers’ Licence was granted for the cost of legal representation and court fees - still expensive, but nowhere near the £110,000 needed for a full drinks licence.
“We were over the moon,” says Joe. “Afterwards, a lot of other small distilleries started getting in touch to find out how it’s done. From the responses I got, I expect there will be a big uptake in these licences and that will be good for the craft distillery business as a whole.”
The new legislation also gives producers the opportunity to sell direct to the public at food and drink fairs like Balmoral Show – something they couldn’t do before. “Up until now we’d only been able to give out free samples,” says Joe, “and then when people asked to buy something we couldn’t sell it to them. Now with the new licence that’s all changed.”
And there’s more good news for craft drinks producers when another part of the legislation comes into force next month. The new permission will enable small operations like Boatyard not only to sell bottles that visitors can take home but also to serve individual drinks from their range in an on-site tap room. This could lead to the opening of tasting bars by enterprising small producers eager to showcase their wares and provide opportunities for distilleries and breweries to host private functions. For Boatyard to avail of this new opportunity, all they’ll need to do is obtain an amendment to their existing Local Producers’ Licence.
Before the recent changes, Joe said the system that prevented small drinks producers from selling what they made in the place where they made it was “crazy and archaic”. Now, however, the shackles are off and our craft distilleries and breweries have been given a real boost. Similar legislation was introduced in the Republic a few years ago but uptake was reportedly poor because of the expense involved, and it seems our MLAs have learnt from that. Perhaps one thing these new laws show in their own small way is that, despite its faults and its fights, Stormont can sometimes really make a difference.
BELFAST MIXOLOGIST JORDEN’S RECIPE IS COCKTAIL WINNER
Mixologist Jorden Wint (above) was the winner of Coole Swan’s inaugural summer cocktail competition at House in Belfast recently. Her Flor De Manzana cocktail, combining the popular cream liqueur with a homemade apple syrup and a single malt whiskey, was inspired by the Pina Colada. “I’m allergic to fresh pineapple and have an aversion to coconut, so it gave me the opportunity to incorporate local products,” she says. “Where the Caribbean has pineapples and rum, we have apples and whiskey. And substituting Coole Swan Irish Cream for the coconut milk was the icing on the cake.”
PODERI DAL NESPOLI SANGIOVESE
An easy to drink Italian organic wine with a bright red colour and violet highlights, this has a rich bouquet of red fruits typical of the Sangiovese from the Bidente Valley. A wine for every occasion with a fresh, fruity taste. Enjoy with pasta and ragù or tomato sauce, roasted white meat or partially matured cheeses. RRP £9.99, available from Biesty’s Cellar, Ballymoney; The Grange, Holywood; Carlisle’s Fine Wines, Ballynahinch; Donard Wines, Newcastle; Magee’s, Crossgar; Madigan’s Court, Belfast.