Starting a drinks business from scratch is no easy task.
he industry has probably never been more competitive than it is now and even the smallest off-licence in the corner of a petrol station in Ballyneverheardofit will have shelves groaning with a mind-boggling array of ‘craft’ and ‘artisan’ drinks all trying to tempt you.
The most direct way into the business is make beer, cider or gin because all of these can be produced relatively quickly, and that’s why you’ll see more of these products from a local source than anything else in your little petrol station off-licence. Whiskey takes longer to get onto the shelves because no spirit can adopt the name until it’s been aged for at least three years. And as for wine, well, if you fancy growing vines in the soggy terroir of Northern Ireland, good luck to you.
Some start making alcoholic drinks because they have an unquenchable passion for the process. Some have worked in the industry for years as employees and fancy having a go for themselves. Others just find they’ve got a knack for it. Gareth Irvine of Co Down’s Copeland Distillery is refreshingly upfront about his motive. “I wanted to be my own boss,” he says.
When Copeland started out in 2016, the gin market was still in the early fission of the atomic shockwave it was to spread throughout the drinks industry. “Gin was really starting to take off at that time,” says Gareth.
Copeland’s launch into gin’s ground zero was financed through crowdfunding, whereby the fledgling company makes a pitch on specialist websites and investors offer to chip in if they think the project is a goer. “Few people had really heard of crowdfunding back then,” says Gareth, who has a degree in Business Management from Ulster University. “But within seven weeks we had raised £30,000.”
The distillery proposal had caught the eye of 390 people who came up with sums ranging from £50 to £500, and with the finance in place, the company set up its first operation in a 600 square feet shed in a business park in Saintfield.
Products quickly followed, including their Copeland classic gin and the popular rhubarb and blackberry flavoured gin. So too did a move to bigger premises in Donaghadee. Conversion of the town’s old Regal Cinema, built in 1912, and an empty warehouse gave Copeland a new home 10 times the size of their former base.
For any young company trying to increase its presence in a crowded market, expansion is essential, and right from the start Copeland have been busy making regular additions to their range, such as a navy strength gin with a whopping 57% alcohol, a gin commemorating Donaghadee’s Sir Samuel Kelly lifeboat, which brought ashore the survivors of the 1953 Princess Victoria disaster, and a couple of rums, one of them as powerful as the navy gin.
“Right from the start it was always the plan to produce a range of spirits,” says Gareth. “I’m a firm believer that the more you have to offer, the further you’ll go.”
The latest offering to be released is their first whiskey, a blend of grain whiskey with two malts christened Merchants’ Quay after a historic landing stage in Donaghadee harbour. Copeland’s own whiskey is still sitting quietly in casks giving the angels their share and won’t be ready until 2024, so this blend has been created in partnership with the Great Northern Distillery in Dundalk — formerly the home of the Harp lager brewery until production was moved to Dublin about eight years ago.
Another product is due for release in the autumn and when the Donaghadee whiskey is matured it will be marketed under a new name. With their spirits currently flying out to places as diverse as Estonia and Abu Dhabi, and plans in hand to expand into the US and Chinese markets, the folk at Copeland have a lot to be proud of in just five years of production.
Reflecting on how far the company has come, Gareth gives a wry laugh and says: “It’s been the longest five years ever.”