Imagine you are strolling through a tranquil forest in early summer. The sun is dappling through the branches above, the smell of earth, moss and leaves forming a cool blanket all around you. Gradually, you reach the edge of the wooded area and emerge into a bright morning in the beautiful Northern Irish countryside.
Under your feet grows a carpet of fresh green clover. By your side a stream of crystal clear water flows over ancient stones. The air is filled with the heady aromas of the season – from the floral, creamy scent of elderflower, whose pale blooms cover the bushes around you, to a hint of apple blossom coming from somewhere you can’t quite place.
As you walk, the meadows give way to more formal, flower-filled gardens. Beyond them, you can see the calm exterior of a large country house, looking as though it might have sprung from the earth itself, its windows glinting in the sun.
If this fanciful amble is making you pine for the peace of the Irish countryside, then solace may be nearer than you think. For if you were to wander a little further in the scene we have set, you would come across the glorious sight of a gin still – the very still that produced the Shortcross Gin found in our March Gin of the Month boxes.
One sip of this delicious gin will bring to life the landscape of the Rademon Estate’s woods, meadows and gardens, with their floral scents, lush countryside and clear waters. Indeed, the bottle is filled with the natural fruits of the estate – the wild clover, apples, elderflowers and berries included in the botanicals, and the pure spring water used to create the gin’s base.
But it’s not just nature that’s to thank for this fabulous gin – there is also the crucial matter of the small but dedicated team, centred around husband and wife David and Fiona Boyd-Armstrong.
REDISCOVERING A LOST ART
When the couple met on a night out in famed Belfast indie music venue Auntie Annie’s, Fiona was working as a quantity surveyor and David in engineering. But the pair had a shared love of fine food and drink, a passion that they began seriously to pursue following their marriage in 2011.
Fiona and David knew they wanted to start their own business and also that the obvious choice, given their interests, would be a food and drink business.
For Fiona, the idea of opening a distillery had been in the back of her mind for a while. “I’ve always had a very keen interest in distilling, in bringing the lost art of distilling back to Northern Ireland.”
Up until the beginning of the last century, Irish distilling has flourished for nearly 300 years, with at times thousands of (often illegal) stills working across the country. In 1885 there were 28 legal distillers in Ireland, producing vast amounts of what was at that time the most popular, and arguably the finest, spirit in the world – Irish whiskey.
This vibrant industry was set into serious decline in the early years of the 20th century through a combination of numerous factors, including a trade war with Great Britain and Prohibition in the US, which shut down two of the main markets for Irish spirits. These lean years killed off most of the smaller producers and saw the bigger ones merging to survive, meaning that by the mid-1970s, there were just two distilleries in the whole of Ireland, both owned by the same company.
Very gradually, a step at a time, the industry managed to bring itself back from the edge of extinction through the 1990s and 2000s. In the last few years, echoing the growth of the craft movement seen elsewhere, more and more independent distilleries have opened in Ireland – albeit overwhelmingly in the South and almost exclusively producing whiskey.
It is against this backdrop that Shortcross Gin can lay claim to being the first – and to date only – gin distillery in Northern Ireland, something of which David and Fiona are rightly proud. “It’s great to bring distilling to this part of County Down,” says David.
A PASSIONATE JOURNEY
While the distillery is certainly firmly rooted in the region, the journey to its establishment took the couple far and wide. First, they both travelled to London, to train at the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in London, which David describes as “great fun – we met some fantastic people who we’re still friends with, but importantly it was time to learn all about the theory and practice of distilling.”
With this theoretical knowledge absorbed, Fiona and David wanted to get their hands dirty and gain some real life distilling experience, so they embarked on an extraordinary gin journey that took them around the world.
“It was while we were still working in our full time jobs,” recalls Fiona “so every weekend, every holiday we’d pack a backpack and go off visiting various distilleries across the world and do hands-on training at the distillery. So, the likes of North America, Asia, Europe – just so many!”
In the course of these adventures, the direction that they wanted to take with their own distilling became crystallised. “What really struck us was the people who were really behind the craft movement in the Americas,” explains Fiona, “and how they were really focusing on creating something very special – their passion behind it.”
This same passion is undoubtedly evident in Fiona and David – as well as the rest of the Shortcross team. Everything about their gin, from the ingredients, to the distilling process, to the design of the bottles, has been meticulously crafted to create a product of impeccable quality.
At the heart of the gin is, of course, the Rademon Estate itself – lush with the natural botanicals and mineral-rich spring water that come together to create the spirit.
“We wanted to try to capture the aromas and flavours of the forests and gardens at Rademon in a bottle,” explains David. “We wanted to take the best of what’s available to us – or to use that lovely French wine-making term, we wanted to use the terroir available to us.”
That harnessing of natural resources is combined with some impressive engineering, in the form of Shortcross’ unusual and advanced combination of distilling equipment – a set-up that gets the distilling geeks out there quite excited! David explains: “Central to everything that we do, is a 450 litre copper pot still with two enrichment columns, which were supplied bespoke to us by Carl [the oldest family of still makers in Germany].”
Each of these special enrichment columns house seven individual bubble plates, which means the distillers can closely control the level of reflux in the distillation process. This allows them to create a uniquely smooth and aromatic spirit.
“It’s a classic gin but with a modern twist,” David tells us “And the twist is really we’re not a London Dry style of gin – we’re much more floral, much more fragrant and aromatic and we’ve really got an exceptionally smooth and sweet finish to the gin.”
The process used for their signature gin is the same used for the special, one-off batch of Wild Clover Gin in our March Gin of the Month boxes, in which the botanical mix has been tweaked to emphasise the beautiful taste and aroma of the Rademon-foraged clover. We like to think the extra clover makes this batch extra-lucky - there must be a few four-leafed ones in there, surely?).
Such a premium spirit deserves an equally premium presentation, and Shortcross has taken no shortcuts when it comes to branding and design either.
Just as the gin’s ingredients reflect the landscape in which it is made, the name ‘Shortcross’ also has a local heritage. “It comes from the local village where we are in County Down, Crossgar, which in Gaelic translates as ‘the short cross’,” Fiona tells us.
This sense of history and regional connectedness runs through into the timeless design of the gin label itself, which features the Short Cross penny. This was, as Fiona explains, “the first coin to be minted in Dublin by Henry III as a way of exporting Irish silver.”
Each bottle of Shortcross is hand bottled, wax-dipped and signed – meaning every single one is as unique as the gin itself.
SPIRIT OF EXCELLENCE
Fiona and David’s passion, their focus on quality and attention to detail, has already won the hearts of local drinkers and international gin aficionados alike.
In 2015, Shortcross Gin won a silver medal at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine and Spirits Competition, as well as seeing its foreign exports grow steadily. “To see Shortcross exported across Europe has been fantastic,” says David.
In Northern Ireland, Fiona and David are proud to be leading the craft gin revolution. “I think we’ve opened up people to what craft gin, craft spirits are all about, and the quality that they bring, and the new flavours,” explains David.
“We all become stymied at times at the choices available to us, so it’s great to be able to open up a whole category to people that would not traditionally have been interested in gin as a spirit.”
The team’s success only looks set to grow throughout 2016 and beyond. Shortcross recently began production of their first Irish malt whiskey, which is set to come to market in late 2018 or early 2019.
The distillery is also about to open Ireland’s first gin visitor’s centre. David reveals that they’re “looking forward to being able to give people the full Shortcross sensory experience here at the distillery at Rademon.” You can find out more about this exciting project – and how you can get involved – later in the magazine.
Whatever new and exciting adventures the Shortcross team embark on next, you can be sure of one crucial thing: that they will continue to produce wonderful gin.
“We love gin,” enthuses David. “We’re both gin fanatics. It’s the most fun, the most interesting, the most diverse of the spirits, we believe. It’s just fantastic, not only to be able to produce but to be able to enjoy when it’s done right.”
We can all raise a glass to that.