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Spirited revival in drinks world

RubyBlue - Stuart and Barbara Hughes, the entrepreneurs behind the new RubyBlue premium vodka

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Northern Ireland drinks industry has seen some spirited arrivals over the past year, the most recent being the launch of Ruby Blue Potato Vodka by Hughes Craft Distillery in Lisburn, a new spirit already on sale at Dublin International Airport and on the Ocado retail website.

 

Ruby Blue Vodka follows the equally successful launch last year of Shortcross Gin by Rademon Craft Distillery in Crossgar and the revival of the historic Dunville Irish Whiskey brand by Echlinville Distillery in the tiny village of Kircubbin, home of Shane Braniff, the entrepreneur behind the project.

 

Braniff, of course, has enjoyed success with the quirky Feckin' brand using whiskey sourced from a supplier in the Republic. He's currently maturing the first whiskey distilled on site and plans a single malt for export, The Echlinville. Braniff's Dunville VR whiskey recently won endorsement in the shape of a major award in an international whiskey competition. Dunville VR, once a market leader in the early decades of the 20th century, was chosen as the Best Irish Single Malt under 12 and 15 years.

 

Dunville VR was acclaimed as having “fresh green apples on the nose, with some green grass and tropical chews. Softer and sweeter on the palate, with bubblegum, apple Jolly Ranchers and some spiced custard”.

 

The whiskey, relaunched earlier this year after over 80 years out of production, also had “complex citrus notes with a little confected sweetness. Sweet tropical fruit up front with a winey finish like a dry Riesling, leading to integrated wood”. Production ceased when the distillery producing it closed in 1936.

 

Braniff says: “We are delighted to have won this important award. It’s the first time we entered the awards. The success will be immensely important as we seek to grow sales of Dunville VR. It re-establishes the pedigree of this historic whiskey.”

 

There was a time when Old Bushmills in Co Antrim was our only working distillery, a status held since the mid 1930s when drinks business such as the Royal Irish Distillery in Belfast closed in the wake of Prohibition in the US, once the biggest market for Irish whiskey. Today, in addition to Echlinville, three other whiskey distilleries are either already underway or being planned. Planning approval has also been agreed for a whiskey project in Portaferry.

 

Belfast Distillery Company (BDC) is converting a wing at the historic Crumlin Road gaol and is selling Danny Boy and Titanic brands using whiskey bought from another distiller. BDC is also planning to rejuvenate another old Belfast 'sipping' whiskey, McConnells.

 

In Londonderry, Niche Drinks, long a specialist in Irish cream liqueurs including St Brendan's, aims to build a state-of-the art distllery at Campsie.

 

But much of the interest locally has been created in the white spirits category by Shortcross Gin and Ruby Blue Vodka. Both have been developed by husband and wife teams - David and Fiona Boyd-Armstrong at Rademon and Stuart and Barbara Hughes at Ruby Blue. There's even talk of a rum business being planned in Co. Down.

 

Since overtaking whisky in 2007, vodka has been the No 1 spirit in the UK, with 108 million bottles a year sold and sales estimated at £2.2 billion in tough economic conditions. This market is being driven increasingly by premium vodkas like Ruby Blue.

 

The Hughes are better known as the couple behind Boozeberries, the unique blend of berries and grain spirit. What they've set out to do is the create a strong contender in the dynamic premium vodka market.

 

"We've used our longstanding experience in distilling our very successful range of RubyBlue berry liqueurs to create a distinctive potato vodka. It made sense to us to take potatoes, so long a dietary staple in Ireland, to handcraft small batch vodka that offers super-premium quality with a unique flavour," Barbara Hughes says.

 

"We are leveraging the successful RubyBlue brand from our award winning range of existing spirits to create awareness of the new vodka and drive sales particularly outside Northern Ireland. Our liqueurs, previously known as Boozeberries, are already selling in key markets such as Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East, Turkey and Australia. This provides a network to help in developing the vodka business."

 

What RubyBlue Vodka and Shortcross Gin have in common is that both can be enjoyed 'neat' or with mixers or as the key ingredient in a range of cocktails.

 

The major challenge facing the local whiskey distilleries in the extent of competition currently developing on the island of Ireland. Over 20 small scale distilleries are planned in an industry dominated by Jameson. Another start-up launched by John Teeling, once the owner of Cooley at Carlingford and popular brands like Kilbeggan is now making a significant impact in the US with his own whiskies.

 

The key factor in rise of new whiskey distilleries is the rapid growth of the category which is expected to continue. Between 2009-2014 Irish whiskey grew by 10 per cent and was driven by Jameson, which accounted for 70 per cent of all Irish whiskey growth globally, particularly among younger consumers in the US.

 

The spirit, once virtually dormant here - apart from Bushmills - has become a vibrant and innovation-driven sector.