The gentle hum of buzzing bumblebees in the orchard of Ringlestown House is a calming and hypnotic sound. And yet, these orange and black beauties are some of the hardest working insects around.
In the orchard at the foot of the hill of Tara, there are over 6,500 apple trees to pollinate and these bees have an order to fill-making honey for one of the newest gins on the market, Silks Gin.
Developed by Boann Distillery in Drogheda, Silks Gin is the passion project of Sally-Anne Cooney and her mother Marie. And there is a lot more family involved in the background.
“Dad’s retirement project was a distillery,” laughs Sally-Anne. “He was talking about it for years.” But this wasn’t just a pipe dream. Pat and Marie Cooney were involved in the drinks industry their whole lives, setting up the Gleesons Group when they married 46 years ago.
Marie reflects: “Pat and I went down to Borrisoleigh in Co Tipperary in 1975 to look at this wholesale bottling company. It had 16 employees and two broken-down trucks but we could see the potential.”
When the couple sold it in 2012, they had built a company of 800 employees with an annual turnover of €350m. Much of their success was down to the fact that they established Tipperary Water, so you can see why Pat Cooney had aspirations to buy a distillery in his retirement years, rather than playing golf.
“I asked him would he not retire happily,” says Marie, “But it has been a new lease of life for all of us.”
A family project
“All of us” includes four of their five children who are involved in the company – Peter works on exports, Patrick on sales, James is the accountant and Sally-Anne has led the Silks Gin project. Celeste, the only member of the family not working in the company is a fashion stylist in London.
Sally-Anne explains how the gin project came about.
“The distillery is in a beautiful building in Drogheda. It was bought in 2014 and when we were selecting our whiskey stills, we went with a company called Green Engineering because as the name suggests they are very much into sustainability. They are using technology to progress the distilling process because its quite a consumptive process, using a lot of energy and heat.
“They make some of the most energy-efficient pot stills in the world but choosing a whiskey still isn’t just selecting one off the shelf.
“We went to Sienna in Italy to develop it. We spent days and days talking about whiskey and whilst I love the whiskey business, I’m also a big fan of gin. They had just commissioned a small kit that we decided to add to the portfolio and that was when the gin project became my baby.”
It was a project that was years in the making but the time allowed Sally-Anne to really develop the concept and flavours.
“We stumbled upon The Whistler. Dad is a whistler and it really embodied his personality and the personality of the whiskey and it just felt right. Finally, we were able to move on with our lives.
“And I knew then with the gin, it had to be the same. It had to feel right, the flavours had to tell the story of us as a family, of our local providence. And for me, it always kept coming back to the homeplace in Kilmessan and the farm, the nature and the bees in the orchard.”
Those buzzy bees caught Marie and Sally-Anne’s attention long before Silks Gin was even an idea.
Marie explains: “Sally-Anne and I took a beekeeping course in 2011 with the Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations because we knew we needed more bees to pollinate the apples. We had a friend who asked us if she could keep her bees in the orchard which I was delighted with but when she moved away, I knew I had to get my own swarm. So a neighbour who is a beekeeper helped us source one.”
However, the venture nearly didn’t happen. “He rang me up and said, ‘Put on your suit, bring down your groove box and smoker, I have a swarm hanging on the gate.’ We dropped it into a cardboard box and we were just about to put it into the groove box when thankfully, he saw the queen had dropped to the bottom of gate. Once we popped her in, they all followed and that was really the start of our apiary.
“Now we have five hives in the orchard. Sal gives me a hand with the bees as does another local man called Michael Harte. This summer he was assisting me with bringing another young queen to fruition, laying eggs and moving her into a nook and then a box.”
As a result of the bees, Marie says the orchard has quite literally blossomed. “The apple trees have flourished as a result, you can see by the tonnage each year. Last year was a tough year as we had a late frost and we lost about 5% of our apples but this year has been much better. I could never have imagined back in 2011 just how impactful our orchard would become. Now Peter is saying, ‘Mum I need honey for the whiskey’ and Sal is saying, ‘Mum I need honey for the gin.’”
The botanicals of home
Bringing it back to the gin, Sally-Anne says: “The bees and the orchard just had to be part of the story and the taste of the gin. We wanted the botanicals from our homeplace to really add that unique taste.
“So we have the classical gin botanicals – juniper, coriander, angelica, cassia and cardamon which give a really good backbone structure and then we added in our signature botanicals from the orchard – our honey, apple blossoms, elderflower and the hawthorn flower.
“To complement that, we have some Irish apple, sweet orange and a little bit of grapefruit to balance the honey. We added in chamomile and then some sage, which is a little left field but apples and sage always compliment each out and it added a herbaceous note to the floral.”
The 14 botanicals are then macerated for 24 hours before slowly distilling in a 500-litre copper pot still in the distillery in Drogheda. Instead of cucumber, lemons or lime, Silks Gin’s signature serve is a slice of Irish red apple.
Marie adds: “It’s this really lovely natural circle with the bees pollinating the apple blossoms leading to this floral gin.”
While the homeplace adds this unique taste, its not without its challenges. Sally-Anne says: “It’s very much dictated by the seasons – we pick the apples and make the honey. There is a very short window to capture the apple blossom.
“Last year, thankfully we had a three-week window as I was collecting them myself, but this year, I had some help as they only lasted less than two weeks. You can’t collect them if they are wet and one gust of wind and they are gone. We dry the apple blossom in front of the pot stills so I am down on my hands and knees laying out the apple blossom in single layers but the taste is so worth it.”
Even though it’s a very local taste, Silks Gin is already travelling far beyond the homeplace.
Sally-Anne says: “When the Gleesons Group was sold, one part of the business that we retained was our Irish cream liquor, Mary’s Cream Liquor, which is an export product so we had those links with distributors. So even though it was only launched this summer, it’s already on sale in America, Denmark, Slovakia, Belgium, Luxemburg and we’re rolling out across other European countries in the coming months.
“And we’re lucky because the Irish gin market has become so strong in recent years, it really has been a case of a rising tide lifts all boats. People in other countries will try different Irish gins because they know the quality is there. We really wanted to create an excellent gin and contribute to that story.”
The family-run Boann Distillery started distilling in December 2019 and laid down its first casks on the Winter Solstice of that year and this stock is currently maturing in bond. This Boann Single Pot Still new make spirit has been awarded “World’s Best Newmake” in the 2021 World Whiskies Awards.
While the team at Boann wait for their own whiskey to mature they have released the “The Whistler” range of sourced whiskey which is hand picked, matured in bond, cask finished and blended by the team. The Whistler range is available nationwide and on boanndistillery.ie.