The south of France might be known for its fragrant lavender fields and Bulgaria for its valley of roses. But if Karl Murray has his way?

“I plan on making Ireland an essential oil hub,” says the personable 28-year-old behind Kotanical; the first company in Ireland working with local farmers and growers to distill from natural, native sources for their therapeutic benefits.

Originally from Artane in north Dublin, Karl is one of the many young Irish men who decided to leave school at 16 to go into the building trade at the tail end of the Celtic Tiger.

By late 2007, early 2008, however, the work started to dry up.

“It really got bad when there were 50-year-old men on pushbikes following skips,” recalls Karl, who realised he needed to get out – and fast – if he was going to avoid the same trap.

Karl Murray from Kotanical photographed for Irish Country Living (photo: Philip Doyle

Karl Murray from Kotanical photographed for Irish Country Living. \ Philip Doyle

During the recession, Karl observes that young people in Ireland almost became an “endangered species”, with many of his friends getting on a plane to Australia. Even at the lowest point, however, he never wanted to leave home.

“I’m stubborn,” he smiles wryly. “I’m kind of like: ‘Ah, if I was meant to make it in another country, I would have been born there.’

“I think perception is a big thing. If people perceive things to be terrible, nothing can happen that is good.”

Taking a gamble

Returning to education to finish his Leaving Cert, Karl also began to train in the gym and took up martial arts. And – unlikely as it might sound – it was through Thai boxing that he first discovered essential oils and became hooked.

“I was reading books from 100 years ago on tea tree distillation, I swear,” he exclaims. “I was like a sponge.”

Armed with his newfound knowledge, Karl decided to set up a business with a friend making soap suitable for people undergoing radiotherapy, buying in the oils to make the blends.

While this business did not succeed, however, he saw the potential in distilling his own oils. He invested in his first copper pot still and began experimenting with everything from lavender grown in Wicklow to frankincense resin sourced from Oman, fine-tuning his process by trial and error.

Karl Murray from Kotanical. \ Philip Doyle

“Even just the wrong timing, you could end up having 100 kilos of herb and there’s no oil in it,” says Karl. “It’s gambling. It’s therapeutic gambling!”

Indeed, it has taken five years of “heartbreak” to get his product to market, but a real turning point was working with mentor Aoife Harrington, a design consultant, through Dublin City LEO, who helped him get his brand message on point.

“She was saying: ‘The oil is brilliant and the distilling is great, but with a poor brand, you will never portray any of this to people,’” he explains.

Taking inspiration from other high-end companies like Nespresso, Karl worked on getting the look and feel of Kotanical right, launching last year on social media.

“I didn’t ring anyone, I didn’t email anyone. I went on Facebook with a picture of the frankincense resin and put ‘Frankincense distilled in Ireland’ and I promoted it on Facebook,” he says.

“And before I knew it, I had hundreds of comments.”

Distilled with integrity

Today the Kotanical range offers a selection of 100% organic, pure, single essential oils, sourced either from growers themselves – as in the case of the cold pressed lemon or bergamot oils – or, most uniquely, Karl’s home-distilled frankincense and Irish peppermint oils, which are quality tested by an organic chemist.

While each oil has its own purpose, from skincare to sports massage, Karl explains that most people like to diffuse them for stress-relief.

“I think people are more into looking after themselves,” he says of their popularity. "People are like: ‘I’ll put on my diffuser and read a book.’"

In addition, he also has a selection of roll-on blends, which he describes as providing “aromatherapy on the go” formulated to stimulate the senses, whether it is to aid concentration or soothe stress.

Underlining everything, however, is his mission to “distill with integrity, develop with community, grow through honesty.”

A lot of people cut corners to boost profit, whereas I’m more about the enjoyment of the oil. That’s why I say distill with integrity. Do the right thing, even when no one is looking.

And going forward, this involves working with organic local growers and farmers to distil Irish ingredients.

So far, this has included planting 18,000 peppermint seeds in partnership with a grower in Malahide, as well as working with Bumblebee Flower Farm in west Cork to grow things like peppermint, geranium and yarrow.

Karl Murray from Kotanical photographed for Irish Country Living (photo: Philip Doyle)

He is also in the process of renting land to start his own farm in north county Dublin later this year, but is actively seeking other Irish growers to consider supplying Kotanical.

“And the thing is, my crops don’t need to be aesthetically pleasing. I need bulk. I don’t need three leaf peppermint, you know?” he says. “So that’s another thing. It’s kind of growing with them, because they can grow with me and as the company grows, they’re also growing themselves.”

Put your money where your mouth is

As well as supporting local, Karl is also committed to running as environmentally friendly a business as possible.

For instance, if customers send their bottles back for refill – or even the bottle of a competitor – they receive a 12% discount, while every order comes with wildflower seed paper to plant for the bees.

“My main emphasis is putting your money where your mouth is. I can’t stand businesses who go on about how great they are, but what’s their impact? How are they innovating? What are they providing really?” he argues.

If you’re buying from abroad, what do the bees get? The air miles and the oil. We need that link. Beauty business owners need to be more conscious of the choices we make.

At present, 95% of Kotanical sales are online in Ireland and the UK, but with customers as far away as America and India, Karl is in talks with an investor in e-commerce to help drive forward.

But to date, everything has been achieved through blood, sweat and tears.

“I haven’t borrowed once. I haven’t been on a plane in nine years,” he says of some of the sacrifices he has made, but believes in playing “the long game”.

Kotanical essential oils. \ Philip Doyle

“The biggest thing is people over-estimate themselves in the short period,” he reasons. “Whereas if you put a five-year plan in place, you’ll do way better than a six-month plan. That’s the way I think.”

As for advice for other start-ups, he says commit to your idea and make no excuses about it, but don’t take things too much to heart if they go wrong.

“A bit like a tree really; have roots- but they have to be flexible,” he says. “If something needs to change, it’s better to just change it. People hold onto things and it’s not part of your identity. You are a human being.”

He smiles, then adds: “And look after yourself. Use oil!”

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