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How Boatyard Distillery chose to set out its global ambitions

How Boatyard Distillery chose to set out its global ambitions

Already making a name for itself on the Irish and UK bar scene, Joe McGirr’s Boatyard Distillery has got expansion plans, new product lines and a commitment to be carbon neutral by 2023 which includes its own chocolate bars made with spent botanicals. Douglas Blyde met up with McGirr and the Boatyard team to hear the plans at a boozy brunch held at Homeboy Bar’s newest venue at London’s Embassy Gardens.

Douglas Blyde
12th December 2021by Douglas Blyde
posted in Tasting: Spirits,

“So many Irish distilleries fund their whisky with gin – but we’re all about gin,” McGirr said.

Last week I set a course for what will hopefully become an annual tradition: a boozy Irish Monday brunch at Homeboy in London’s Embassy Gardens the motto of which is ‘Modern Irish Hospitality’. There, in the vicinity of Darby’s, which is another Irish-influenced bar/restaurant, the USA embassy and the brand-new Oxeye, which was setting up to host the 50 Best Bars afterparty in its vibrant galleries the following night, I discovered the origins of Ireland’s Boatyard Distillery which has ambitions to “step out into the global sphere” according to its commercial director Declan McGurk.

Boatyard Distillery’s HQ located in a disused boatyard

Located on the banks of Lough Erne, north-west Ireland, Boatyard became the first legal distillery to operate in County Fermanagh since 1890 when, following three years of planning delays and HMRC bonded spirit approval, copper still Érainn was fired up in 2016.

The distillery represents a return to the roots of Joe McGirr, who was raised on a local dairy farm in Enniskillen before studying wine in Edinburgh. There, in ‘Auld Reekie’, McGirr discovered his calling was for spirits not wine. He went on to work a variety of roles at The Scotch Whisky Society, then as chief operating officer at the London Distillery, which was the capital’s first whisky distillery since Lea Valley closed in 1903.

Boatyard’s head distiller Órlaith Kelm

McGirr discovered the disused boatyard which would become his distillery’s HQ in 2013, located as it is near county town Enniskillen which sits between the two lakes that form the Lough. To bring a taste of this location to the Boatyard ‘state of the nation’ event in London, black pudding and black bacon from O’Doherty’s Fine Meats of Enniskillen were thoughtfully served to guests, including luminary bartenders such as Peter Dorelli, who opted for the vegetarian option alongside a piercingly fresh gin martini.

Cocktails were freely dispensed at the event including the Fine Irish Milk Punch featuring rich, ever-so-slightly banana scented Boatyard Vodka, crème de menthe, crème de cacao, matcha, milk and lemon, and a Red Snapper which is a take on a Bloody Mary starring Boatyard Double Gin. The brunch also saw the launch of Boatyard’s Sloe Boat Gin, served in a signature Charlie Chaplin cocktail with apricot brandy and lime.

Commercial director Declan McGurk addressing press at Homeboy

In combination with commercial director, Declan McGurk, whose seven-year tenure at The Savoy saw the hotel’s American Bar awarded World’s Best Bar in 2017 by World’s 50 Best Bars, McGirr announced at the event that Boatyard’s mission is to take this Irish gin to a global stage. McGurk himself it transpired has strong ties with County Fermanagh, with his parents living close to the distillery, while his grandfather, Eddie Duffy, was a regional hero for contributing to the local traditional Irish music scene.

While accepting a top-up of bacon, black pudding and potato cake, McGirr mentioned that he “fought the temptation” borne of his whisky background to also make Boatyard a dark spirits distillery. “So many Irish distilleries fund their whisky with gin – but we’re all about gin,” he said.

Describing himself as ‘a purist’, McGirr lists the ingredients of his gin on its distinctive labels which are exquisitely printed using a 1960s German Heidelberg letterpress. These include sweet gale (also known as bog-myrtle) which is harvested four times a year at the family farm, alongside juniper from Arezzo.

The core gin, sloe gin and ‘seed-to-sip’ Irish Wheat Vodka is distilled by head distiller (and Gimlet cocktail fan) Órlaith Kelm who harks from nearby Belleek. Kelm first joined the business in 2018 as a labeller before realising her talents better concerned the heads, hearts, and tails of scooping spirits. McGirr’s siblings are also in the business, with sisters, Teresa and Marie respectively working on the distilling team and writing the poetry on bottle labels, while brother Brian tends the land which gives rise to botanicals.

Spent botanicals are used to help make this chocolate bar

Boatyard is committed to being carbon neutral by 2023 “at the latest”; it sends spent botanicals from distillation to make a bean-to-bar chocolate bar under its own brand, The Proper Chocolate Company; cows at the McGirr family farm are fed spent grain from vodka production; the former barrels for Old Tom Gin are upcycled into furniture; and business cards are created from recycled coffee cups.

Coinciding with the event was the three-year anniversary of the first Homeboy venue at 108 Essex Road, Islington. Announced by its co-owner with Ciarán Smith, Aaron Wall, and validating that dictum of ‘Modern Irish Hospitality’, the first 150 guests through its doors that night would receive a complimentary Irish coffee.

At the Homeboy event, December 2021. Douglas Blyde, former Savoy bartender Peter Dorelli, commercial director Declan McGurk, founder Joe McGirr (left-right)

Boatyard is distributed by Speciality Brands which is a supplier partner of The Buyer. Click here to discover more about them. For more information on Boatyard Distillery, including its full drinks range, chocolate and clothing line click here.