From Ireland to India, the emerald hills of China to the aromatic markets of Morocco, Patrick J. Rigney spent half a lifetime exploring the remarkable world around him. But it was once he settled back in Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim, that his curiosity and creativity coalesced into the brilliant blue bottle of gin in March's Gin of the Month box. Meet the curious mind behind Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin.
Nestled in the rolling hills of County Leitrim, Ireland, sits a little town with a very mysterious resident: the Drumshanbo Jackalope.
The mythological progeny of two creatures – the jackrabbit (which is in fact a hare) and the American antelope (whose proper name is a ‘pronghorn’) – this quite literally incredible creature looks like a rabbit with horns wedged between its long, velvety ears.
Conceived in a lightning storm, it is said to appear at will in the wilds near Drumshanbo – and every once in a while, a curious traveller by the name of PJ Rigney sees a flash as it bolts past his distillery. And then, in a flurry of feet and antlers, it’s gone.
“Two disparate cultures and traditions brought together in a singular flash of inspiration,” PJ muses. “It’s little wonder that the Jackalope has come to symbolise all that’s remarkable about Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin!”
For PJ Rigney, the curious mind behind Gunpowder Irish Gin, travelling had become a way of life.
A serial entrepreneur with more than 30 years in the drinks industry under his belt, he’d worked for some of the world’s most famous and recognisable brands. His career had taken him around the world and back – but from early on, he knew that he wanted something more.
“I loved the business side of the industry,” he says, “but I was always curious about the journey behind the brands, from the sourcing to the creation of the recipe.”
Slowly but surely, as he explored less common climes, he built up a knowledge of the world’s most incredible flavours and aromas. He started keeping mental notes of the herbs, flowers and spices that would someday form the basis of his most personal project yet: Drumshanbo Irish Gunpowder Gin.
But it was in Morocco that PJ discovered the one botanical that would set his gin apart from all others: gunpowder green tea. An ancient type of Chinese tea, which is dried and hand-rolled into tiny pellets, it was given its English name by soldiers who immediately noticed how similar it looked to the explosives they handled day-to-day.
This unusual tea forms an integral part of the Moroccan tea ceremony, a complex ritual that sees gunpowder tea mixed with mint, then brewed and shared. Whether to close a business deal or welcome a guest into the home, this ritual is a hugely important part of life in Morocco. As PJ explains, “This ceremony is at the heart of all social gatherings, and it was a great honour for me to be invited.”
As he sipped his tea, he was instantly fascinated by its beauty and bright, bold and slightly spicy flavour.
“These tiny green pellets are probably what started the whole curious journey for me,” he says. “So I set off to find their source: the eastern province of Zejiang, China, and discovered many an interesting botanical along the way.”
His journey took him across many continents – and what he found was a bounty of incredible flavours. From the dark juniper berries of Macedonia to the coriander seed of Romania, the kaffir limes of Cambodia and the bright grapefruit of Indonesia, PJ was uncovering a wealth of beautiful botanicals.
“Most of the botanicals I would go on to use were discovered during my journeys to the Far East, Asia and Africa and across Europe over the past two decades,” he explains. “I was particularly inspired by the spice markets in India, where I came across shahi tukra – the small, powerful cardamom seed – and I was struck by its simultaneously sweet and savoury flavours.”
With this incredible catalogue of scents and flavours in his mind, he decided it was time to strike out on his own. The countryside of his native Ireland was calling, and an idea was weighing on his mind.
“I had developed more than 20 brands,” PJ says. “I finally decided it was time to fulfil my dream and build my own distillery.”
Home Sweet Home
When PJ decided to build a distillery of his own, he went into the project with a clear idea of what he was hoping to achieve. “The vision was always to create super-premium Irish gin in small batches, filled with curiosity, using the finest botanicals and inspired by my travels across the world,” he says. But there was one little problem: after decades of travelling, where in the world would he finally call home?
“I knew exactly what I wanted,” PJ explains. “I was determined not to rush it, and to find the perfect location in the heart of rural Ireland where I could experiment freely – somewhere I could constantly innovate and take risks.”
After undertaking a long search, PJ zeroed in on one little town in County Leitrim. Called Drumshanbo – Druim-Sean-Bhothi, or ‘ridge of the old huts’ in Irish – it’s overlooked by Sliabh an Iarainn, the Iron Mountain. But the housing collapse of 2007 and the death of traditional industries had brought the town to a low ebb. Its residents were looking for a new opportunity, and PJ was the perfect person to make it happen.
“The local community was fundamental my decision to build The Shed Distillery in Drumshanbo,” he says. “The moment I arrived, I knew it was the perfect location, and the response from the people there consolidated my gut feeling.”
PJ was welcomed wholeheartedly into the community. He returned the warm welcome, and by the time The Shed Distillery was built he considered himself a fully-fledged resident and proud inhabitant of beautiful Drumshanbo.
“Apart from our head distiller, Brian Taft, the team at The Shed is entirely local. They have great passion and pride for The Shed Distillery, which is essential as it’s all slow-distilled by hand.”
Not only is the team from Drumshanbo, but PJ and Brian have taken their incredible surroundings and made them an integral ingredient in the beautiful bottle of gin in March's Gin of the Month box. “Drumshanbo is an inextricable ingredient in the gin, from the recipe right through to the packaging,” PJ says.
All of PJ’s exotic botanicals, sourced from the world’s most beautiful places, come together in a base of fresh water taken from neighbouring Lough Allen, combining beautifully with meadowsweet plucked straight from the hills and fields where the illusive Drumshanbo Jackalope is said to roam.
“This is no ordinary gin,” PJ says. “It’s the personification of all that’s wonderful about rural Ireland and encompasses the history and culture of Drumshanbo though the very passion and pride of the people creating it.”
Curious and Curiouser
So how did PJ manage to combine exotic botanicals with an Irish base? By building a state-of-the-art distillery – the first in Drumshanbo for 101 years – and filling it with people just as talented, curious and passionate about crafting beautiful craft sprits as he is.
In addition to the full team of Drumshanbo locals – whose hard work hand-cutting citrus fruit, hand-bottling and labelling is so much of what makes Gunpowder great – PJ works closely with Brian Taft, a talented head distiller who moved from America to Drumshanbo to help PJ develop the perfect recipe.
“Myself and our head distiller Brian Taft have worked extremely closely through every stage of the gin’s creation,” PJ says. “Endless ideas and recipes had been milling around in my head for a number of years. So when The Shed Distillery was built I knew we would start developing the initial concepts very quickly.”
With his team locked down and his distillery built, PJ stocked it with beautiful medieval copper stills and started experimenting. The Shed is filled to the gills with experiments and recipes, from vodka and single malt whiskey to Black Forest Gateau liqueur. But the crown jewel? Gunpowder Irish Gin, distilled for the first time on 21 December 2015 – the winter solstice.
After so many years of mulling over endless combinations of incredible botanicals, work in The Shed began in earnest. PJ says, “We finally honed in on 12 individual botanicals from across the world, and we kept distilling different blends until we felt we had the right one – fresh and rounded, with the perfect balance of citrus, juniper and spice.”
Not only was the recipe worked and reworked until it was perfect, but every single batch demands the full attention of PJ’s talented team, local assistant distillers who have been painstakingly trained in the art of distillation.
PJ explains: “The attention to detail carries through to every little detail of the distillation process, from hand-cutting the citrus fruits, to adjusting the temperature of the still, to regularly tasting each batch so that it’s cut at the optimum moment. We hand bottle at The Shed Distillery, and the local team is passionate about getting every element right.”
It’s a difference you can taste in every sip of Gunpowder. It’s a perfectly calibrated balance of flavours both unique and familiar – and they really start to shine in the perfect Gunpowder G&T. PJ’s personal favourite way to drink this beautiful gin is with premium tonic and a slice of grapefruit – and the Irish public agrees, voting that serve (with the addition of three raspberries and elderflower tonic) as the best Irish G&T.
“We vapour-infuse fresh citrus fruits during the distillation process,” he explains, “so we actually extract the oils from the zest of the lemons, limes and grapefruit.” A slice of grapefruit, he says, brings those incredible oils to the forefront and enhances the gin’s flavour.
But while what’s in the bottle is spectacular, it’s not the only thing that makes this gin stand out. The beautiful bottle – a brilliant blue, emblazoned with the famous Drumshanbo Jackalope – makes this a crowning jewel in any gin collection.
And, with so many amazing experiments on the go, this is only the first curious spirit to come out of Drumshanbo. As PJ says, “The reaction to Gunpowder has been overwhelming, and we’re so excited about what will happen next. We’ve very quickly seen that nothing is impossible at The Shed.”
So keep your eye on this talented team – because who knows where the curious mind of PJ Rigney will take gin lovers next.