“We always said there were three characters in this story – us, and the island.”

It’s 10:30am on a Sunday morning and, along with a hot cup of tea, I’m drinking vermouth (don’t worry, I brought along my driver – ahem – husband). But it’s not just any vermouth – and I’m not in a bar or a distillery.

I am sitting in Anna and Orla Snook-O’Carroll’s warm, cosy kitchen on Valentia Island, Co Kerry. It is a wet and windy day.

Our car’s windshield wipers died a sad death before we reached Cahersiveen and, if we’re honest, the day has not gotten off to the best start. But as we cross the bridge over to the island, the sun starts peeking through the clouds. The aforementioned hot tea (and vermouth) is warming, as is the conversation with Orla and Anna, who have welcomed us into their home like old friends.

These enterprising women are the makers and founders of Valentia Island Vermouth, Ireland’s first-ever vermouth brand.

What is vermouth?

Vermouth is a type of fortified wine which is flavoured with a variety of botanicals, but most distinctly wormwood. It is a key ingredient in some of our most classic cocktails – the Manhattan (which uses sweet vermouth, bitters and whiskey), the martini (gin and dry vermouth) and the Negroni (gin, vermouth “rosso”, Campari and orange peel). Vermouth is made in varying levels of sweetness, starting from extra-dry and working its way up. It has medicinal qualities and has been consumed since Roman times. It is often used as a digestif or aperitif, before or after meals.

The island and the house

Anna and Orla first met in Bristol while attending art school. Four years ago, they were married at the Valentia Island Lighthouse. As Anna is from the UK and Orla grew up in Wicklow, we ask where their grá for Co Kerry came from. “I’m from Wicklow, but my parents are from Kerry, so that’s what brought us here,” Orla explains. “My sister and I have been coming here since I was like six weeks old. Anna and I are together about 11 years, so we’d be over visiting my parents all the time. Then, we bought this little house – the most beautiful house in the world – and we just love it. There’s something special about this island.”

\ Philip Doyle

“It’s a haven,” Anna adds. “We moved here from Bristol on the 1st of November, four years ago – so we just celebrated our fourth year here. There’s a whole story on the bottle - it’s not just a pretty illustration; it tells a story about us.”

Art inside and outside

The labels on the Valentia Island Vermouth bottles are beautifully designed, with elaborate artwork – but, as Anna says, they aren’t just pretty pictures. They tell the story of their island lives.

Their vermouth is made with 20 different botanicals, which they forage locally. It first went to shelf in 2021, after the couple spent the previous 1.5 years perfecting their recipe. Orla explains the significance of the bottle’s artwork: “Since Anna and I met in art school, we always said there had to be art both inside and outside the bottle.

“The lighthouse is there, which is where we were married, and on the two mermaids’ tails there’s a secret little A for Anna in one and a secret little O for Orla in the other - and we’re both holding different botanicals.

“It’s a secret recipe, but if you know your plants it’s all there on the bottle!”

Culinary art

While Orla and Anna both have backgrounds in art, they also spent years working in hospitality. Anna’s background is in catering, which helped immensely while they were developing their vermouth. She says their passion for the spirit began after she attended a vermouth tasting several years ago.

“[Before then,] my idea of vermouth would have been that dusty bottle of Martini in the back of the cupboard,” she says. “I just couldn’t believe [the flavour], and the vermouth we were tasting was coming from all over the world. I came back really excited, and from then on we were exploring vermouth as much as possible. Then, we moved here with the idea of – ‘why don’t we make our own?’

“The product is literally borne from the island. If we hadn’t moved here – if we’d moved to Cork or something – it wouldn’t have happened,” she adds.

The couple currently distil their vermouth in the nearby Skelligs 6 Distillery, but hope to create a distillery of their own in the not-too-distant future.

\ Philip Doyle

“Our plan is to build a distillery on the island with a visitors’ centre, creating jobs on the island. We don’t want our product sent off to be bottled somewhere else.”

Anna and Orla both feel completely welcomed and supported by their adopted community.

“We were welcomed with open arms when we arrived,” Orla says. “Likewise, when we started making the vermouth, the community really kind of scooped that up, too – they have been super supportive.”

Serving suggestions

As we chat, we are sipping the vermouth in small sherry glasses. After, we try it in Orla’s favourite drink. This is also how they encourage new customers to try it: with a splash of tonic and a slice of orange, over ice (a Valentia & Tonic, with Orange).

“It’s quite light, but it’s bitter and sweet,” Orla says. “The first notes you get – that’s the sweetness – and that’s from the caramel, which Anna makes.

“Then the bitterness – we call it bitter sweet magic – that’s all the botanicals. If you’re getting any vanilla or coconut, that’s the gorse. If we were to bring vanilla in it would have been coming from Madagascar, but we’re able to pick the gorse from our overgrown garden.”

Where to buy

Like all other food businesses, Anna and Orla are currently experiencing production cost increases. Currently, the price per bottle is €35 but that is set to rise to €38-39 per bottle in January.

You can find Valentia Island Vermouth in select SuperValu stores and in independent shops.

You can also buy online at the Celtic Whiskey Shop.


Food Works

Food Works is a collaborative programme from Bord Bia, Teagasc and Enterprise Ireland. It is designed to help small Irish food businesses accelerate. This is for early-stage food and drink companies (ideally less than four years in business). Orla and Anna took part in the Food Works’ 2022 programme and tell Irish Country Living they “can’t say enough” about how it has helped them plan for the future.

“It feels kind of expensive [for a small business],” Orla says. “It’s like €3,000, so you have to take a deep breath and say, ‘OK – is this worth it?’ We were told by other people who have done it that it was very worthwhile. You’re basically set up with consultants who are at the top of their game, and the idea is that you have a business plan that’s investment ready by the end of the nine months – and then you also pitch to investors at the end of the nine months.”

The course is tailored to your business. Orla and Anna were paired with supermarket buyers, export specialists and those who could advise them in terms of scalability. Bord Bia conducted market research to help identify who their target market is. Participating businesses also have access to an Enterprise Ireland grant (worth €40,000) and are advised where the investment might make the most impact.

\ Philip Doyle

“Irish people now understand gin because of the gin and tonic craze, so we found our target market is someone who’s a foodie, who experimented with cocktails over lockdown, who had friends over to their house and can now make all-Irish martinis, Negronis and Manhattans – and they could never do that before.

“[In food service] we’re in a lot of higher-end places,” she continues. “Aimsir, Adare Manor, Kai – a lot of those type of restaurants or bars have taken us on, and we found that the person on the street is buying it to try something new. That person might have heard our story, they like the bottle and then they love [the product] and buy it for someone else – that’s something the Bord Bia survey found; it’s very ‘giftable’.”

Orla and Anna are making a trip to the US to meet with potential distributors in Washington DC and New York. Some of the best news they received through their Food Works involvement is that their business can be scaled fairly quickly and easily.

“We know that the 7,000 bottles per year will have to turn into that amount per month, but now we have a plan to scale to up to a million bottles [per year],” Orla says. “We have a plan.”

The Food Works programme for 2023 is now accepting applications until 2 December. You can apply online at foodworksireland.ie

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