Vodka and gin get DIY treatment at Co Down distillery

GRAEME COUSINS talks to a mother of three who has seen her drinks business outgrow her kitchen and find a new home in a former stagecoach house in Moira

My arm has never been hard to twist when it comes to indulging in a sup of hard liquor.

Inside the spirit school at Hughes Craft Distillery

Inside the spirit school at Hughes Craft Distillery

So when I received an invite to Northern Ireland’s newest distillery, my response was, ‘Where, when and what time should I book my taxi home?’

The answer was Hughes Craft Distillery in Moira, the time was last Thursday at 4pm, and the pleasant surprise was I was getting a lift back to Belfast when I had finished talking and drinking (arguably my two best skills).

But this is more than just a story about a new enterprise in the hospitality sector, a tale of the latest drinks’ craze, somewhere extra for foodies to tick off their checklist.

Yes, it’s all of those things, but above all it’s the story of how a family have devoted their lives to getting their dream off the ground.

Owners Stuart and Barbara Hughes

Owners Stuart and Barbara Hughes

Husband and wife Stuart and Barbara Hughes gave up their jobs in the food manufacturing industry to kickstart their foray into the world of spirits nearly 10 years ago.

Barbara said: “We were both out on the road a lot. Sometimes the only time we got to speak to each other was hands free in the car.

“We worked hard, at least we thought we did. Until we started our own business we had no idea there was a whole new level to hard work.”

They began by making their own liqueurs using real fruit in the kitchen of their Dromore home.

The Still House in Moira

The Still House in Moira

Barbara said: “We chose the name RubyBlue because the berries in the bottles looked like rubies. Through our branding we wanted to make it look like we were a big company to compete with the big boys even though it was only me and Stuart producing it in our kitchen.

“In hindsight we should have celebrated the fact this was locally and handmade. Five years down the line craft beer and spirits caught on here and we realised that we’d missed a trick.”

Barbara said they had liquidising in the business before the humble spud helped them crack the market: “We weren’t making the money we made when we resigned from our jobs, we had to start making money or ditch this.

“We needed a product that was more mainstream. We thought, ‘what is Ireland famous for?’ The potato was one of the things that came up.

“We originally looked at poteen, but believe it or not poteen isn’t normally made with potatoes although at times it could have been.

“It’s legal now but it has that fear factor – people saying it could make you go blind.

“Then we looked at vodka – it’s never legally been made from potatoes in Ireland before. When you distill from potatoes you only get a third of the yield so it automatically makes it more expensive, but the flavour difference, the smoothness and the purity is so much improved.”

And so RubyBlue potato vodka was born and the rest is history. Awards started to roll in – gold at The Global Vodka Masters and silver at The New York World Wine & Spirits Competition – and the wheels were started in motion to expand as they began exporting to countries like Russia, Finland and Australia.

Barbara said: “We’d moved from our kitchen into Lisburn Entreprise Centre. We had Lonely Planet (travel guide) on the phone asking to shoot a video at our place. Our product is hand made, we use real fruit, beautiful ingredients, but when you walk into what is almost a warehouse it doesn’t give the right impression.

“We knew we needed somewhere where people could come and be interactive with us.”

This prompted the move to a 200-year-old coach house in Moira (the former home of the Four Trees) and a huge increase in working hours for Stuart and Barbara.

Barbara said: “We’re on the go from six thirty in the morning until two the following morning. We haven’t have a full day off for 18 months.

“Last weekend we did manage to get to get most of Saturday off which was lovely. We’re trying to get better at that because we need more time with our family. We knew when we started on this road we’d be missing sports days, time with our kids, but we just wanted to do something for ourselves.”

Since establishing the Still House around a year ago activity on site has increased exponentially.

As well as being a bar/restaurant boasting live music, the venue has an on site small batch distillery.

It is a licensed wedding venue that can be hired for private parties and will soon have a new 100 litre still that can be used by bartenders and restaurants to create their own signature spirits.

Last but by no means least Barbara and Stuart have set up NI’s first spirit school.

Going back to school is something most adults dread, but it’s highly likely that ‘mature students’ will leave their lesson at Hughes Craft Distillery with a smile on their face.

Drinks enthusiasts are led through the process of distilling their own gin, vodka or flavoured liqueur at the school using one of 10 copper stills at a cost of £80 for a session lasting around 150 minutes.

If you want to share your still with a second person they can join the fun for an extra £30.

Those taking part will concoct their own spirit by choosing from a vast array of botanicals or bring their own if they wish.

After some welcome cocktails the class begins with the preparation of the recipe.

As the distilling process takes places canapes are served along with another drink while guests learn a bit about the history of Hughes Craft Distillery.

Once distilled, the spirits are bottled in 700ml bottles and labelled, with an award going to the most original name.

Barbara said: “We haven’t had anyone who has made a gin that’s undrinkable yet. Before you start you have to develop your recipe, if I saw something on there that could be too strong I’d recommend them to cut it back or try something else instead.

“The spirit base we’re using is part potato, part barley – it gives it a really nice base to start redistilling.

“The prep is the longest part of the process – coming up with the recipe. It can be anywhere between 20 and 40 minutes in the stills. It comes out of the still around 70%(ABV) so it has to be blended down to around 40 to 44%(ABV) using Irish spring water.

She said: “We’ve had couples, hen parties, corporate bookings. The people taking part range from about 25 up to late 60s.

“[A spirit school] is a fairly new thing. There’s one in Drogheda, two in London and one in Scotland. We’re the first in Northern Ireland.

“It’s difficult to get a licence for because home distilling is illegal in many countries including the UK and Ireland. We’ve taken care of all the licensing, legalities, duties and taxes within the cost of the experience.”