It was New Year’s Eve 1993, the anticipation of a new year crisp in the air. Writer Turtle Banbury was on his way to a 21st birthday party in the Kingdom of Kerry when he encountered a traffic jam in the town of Blackwater.

A traffic jam of Massey Fergusons all heading to a wake, a wake the town had never seen before – celebrating the life of Bertha the cow.

Big Bertha was 48 years old at the time of her death – the oldest cow in the world. Not only that, she had 39 calves – another world record.

Bunbury, a man who loves a good story, abandoned his plans and had a few drinks with the locals, chatting to Jerome O’Leary, Bertha’s owner.

Bunbury would later go on to write about Big Bertha while the cow itself was sent to the taxidermist, never to be forgotten.

In 2014, 21 years later, a good friend of Turtle’s, Justin Green of Ballyvolane House, had an idea to supplement the income of his family’s old period house in north Cork with gin, but not any old gin, the very first Irish milk gin; an innovative product with a depth of flavour that delivered a luscious mouth feel.

Antony Jackson and Justin Green pictured at Ballyvolane House where Bertha’s Revenge Gin is distilled. \ Claire-Jeanne Nash

Antony Jackson and Justin Green pictured at Ballyvolane House where Bertha’s Revenge Gin is distilled. \ Claire-Jeanne Nash

It deserved a great name, something that symbolised the commitment to dairy farming in Ballyvolane.

Turtle’s stories of Bertha immediately came to mind. His business partner Anthony suggested the edgier title of Bertha’s Revenge. Justin and Anthony were to bring Bertha back in spirit.

Ballyvolane House

Standing on the grounds of Ballyvolane House on a sunny Friday evening, sipping a refreshing glass of Bertha herself, Justin laughs and says: “It’s all true, I promise. The name was the easy part though.”

Bertha’s Revenge itself was an idea born out of necessity. Ballyvolane House is immensely beautiful, with picturesque gardens and a house dating back to 1728 that still retains many of its original qualities.

It isn’t cheap to maintain though and gin was the innovative idea that would help keep the place alive.

My wife Jenny and I were looking at different opportunities that would supplement the seasonal income of Ballyvolane House.

"My grandfather bought the house in the 1950s. At that time, it had no heating or electricity, they were constantly re-investing.

"My father’s passion was the farm but in the 1980s, it wasn’t making enough money to maintain the running costs of the house so my parents diversified.

"They opened the house as a B&B and became one of the founding members of Hidden Ireland. They really were natural hosts and that kept the show on the road for a long time.”

Moving Home

Justin, one of three children, was a hotelier at heart and travelled the world working in hotels, from Indonesia to Hong Kong, where he met Jenny.

Bertha’s Revenge Gin. \ Claire-Jeanne Nash

Bertha’s Revenge Gin. \ Claire-Jeanne Nash

When they moved back to this side of the world, he worked in Babington House in Somerset, gaining experience in the old country house type of hotel. However, when Justin’s mother passed away in 2003, he and Jenny returned home.

“Ballyvolane House was really where Jenny and I saw a future for our family and things were going well until the recession hit. In 2008, business fell off a cliff, we were down 60% in two years and things were only getting worse.”

Wedding Celebrations

So Justin and Jenny, like his parents before him, again had to diversify. This time, it was weddings.

“In 2011, we converted one of the barns into a really funky wedding venue. That saved our bacon, we wouldn’t be here today without them.”

It certainly is a different wedding venue. A beautiful wooded area covered with bluebells and huge towering mature trees sets the scene for an intimate outdoor ceremony, while during the drinks reception, guests can enjoy the tiered gardens.

The wedding venue itself feels cosy with an authentic feel that you just can’t get in a big hotel.

“Ballyvolane House has always been more house party than hotel,” says Justin. “In the main house, guests dine together in the dining room, our bar is an honesty bar where you pour yourself a drink and sign your room number.

"We wanted to have that feeling in our wedding venue as well. We now host about 20 weddings a year.”

Gin Creation

You can see though that Justin is a man who constantly has an idea going, which is where Bertha and the gin comes in.

“Weddings are great, and we love that we have created such a unique wedding offering. However, they’re still seasonal. What could we add that gave us a consistent revenue stream?

"I could see the whole gin phenomenon exploding in the UK and so I rang up an old school friend of mine working in the wine industry and said do you want to look at the whole gin thing?"

Antony Jackson and Justin Green pictured at Ballyvolane House where Bertha’s Revenge Gin is distilled. \ Claire-Jeanne Nash

This is where Anthony Jackson comes in. Anthony says: “We did research, flew to London and visited all the trendy cocktail bars and interviewed bartenders to get their view on life.

The amount of gin companies in the UK was rising steadily but in Ireland, there was still only a few at that time: Dingle Gin, Shortcross, Glendalough and Blackwater, and Hyde Bank in Kilkenny.

Justin adds: “That trip for us was like an epiphany, it just made so much sense. We could create a business that would reflect well on the house, our farm-to-glass ethos, our quality ethos and send it all around the world creating a consistent income.”

Milk Magic

Becoming master distillers was no easy journey but both credit the success to the taste of the product and the quality of the ingredients.

Anthony says: “The milk gin was really the magic. Most gin makers use a base neutral spirit, usually derived from grain, wheat or barley in this part of the world.

"To our dismay, we found that UK and Irish gin distillers were using French neutral grain spirit because it wasn’t possible to get an Irish one, it was all being used in the whiskey industry.

Bertha’s Revenge Gin in production. \ Claire-Jeanne Nash

“This wasn’t sitting well with us so when we met Charles Maxwell in London who is head distiller for Thames Distillery, he told us about the whey alcohol being produced in Cork.

"We rang Carbery, got a sample and absolutely loved it. What it brings to the party is texture. It is very luxurious, with a silky smooth mouth feel. It is rich in texture and carries our heavy spices very well.”

Add in some local botanicals such as elderflower and sweet woodruff along with alexanders. Fuse with exotic flavours of cinnamon, cumin, cardamom and sweet citrus and Bertha’s Revenge came to life.

The Future of Bertha

In its third year of production, Bertha’s revenge is now being exported to 12 countries and Justin and Anthony have just gotten a new still, meaning they can increase production and meet bigger orders.

With the gooseberry and rhubarb growing in the garden, there is a good chance we will see flavoured gins in the future as well as a summer Pimms cup.

However, it’s not only about sunny summer flavours. Bertha’s Revenge also won a Blas na hÉireann award for its sloe gin.

Antony Jackson and Justin Green pictured at Ballyvolane House where Bertha’s Revenge Gin is distilled. \ Claire-Jeanne Nash

Justin says: “My grandparents have been making sloe gin here in Ballyvolane House since the 1950s. I’ve been making it all my life, so it was really special to us when we won the award.

"We forage for sloes in the area and leave them in the gin barrels for six months. A neighbour of ours designed a spindle which does a very gentle maceration, infusing the fruit beautifully.

"We also don’t add our sugar at the start, we add it depending on taste. This gives a really smooth gin that has the spiciness of the sloes.

"We serve it up with our local cheese port instead of port – it really is the ultimate Ballyvolane House welcome.”

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