They say that Lough Erne was formed where a great goddess drowned – and, indeed, these Northern Irish waters are divinely beautiful. So, too, is the spectacular gin distilled on its shores. Meet Boatyard Double Gin.
Joe McGirr grew up gathering turf from his family’s bog in Northern Ireland. It was a task that could only be done on dry days; there, in the sunshine, he had the perfect vantage point to see the splendour of Fermanagh – a beautiful part of the world with a glittering lake as its splendid centrepiece.
The second largest lake system in Northern Ireland, Lough Erne, to Joe, is easily one of the most beautiful places in the world. Blue waters shimmer in the verdant landscape; the medieval town of Enniskillen stands like a steward on an island between the upper and lower sections of the lake.
The purported home of the ancient Érnai people, myths have blossomed here. Through the Annals of Ulster, written on one of the lake’s many islands, history has unfolded here. And now that Joe has returned to Northern Ireland after successful adventures in the spirits industries of London and Scotland, beautiful spirits are made right on the shore.
“I wanted to create a distillery, not just a gin brand,’” Joe explains. “We wanted to bring a sense of place to our spirits. I wanted to capture and bottle the essence of Fermanagh.”
At Boatyard Distillery, nestled in an old boat repair shop on the water, Joe and his tiny team of five do just that.
Home and Away
When he first entered the world of drinks, Joe was a wine man. He spent years honing his palate by taking classes with the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, before a big Scottish whiskey brand brought him on board to write intricate tasting notes for hundreds of whiskies every year.
But then, like a bolt from the blue, Joe discovered gin.
“I found it incredible that there was no limit on the number or volume of botanicals that could be used in gin,” he says.
As he explains, “In the whiskey industry, it was more about the subtleties of the spirit, since it can only be made with three ingredients. With gin, the differences were huge and the spirits were so much more varied. It captured me right from the start.”
It wasn’t until an old friend found success as a gin distiller that Joe started taking his new hobby seriously as a business proposition. Darren Rook, the man behind the London Distillery Company, had built his own distillery in central London and was beginning to attract attention for his gins. Over late night cocktails, talk turned to the business of distilling – and Darren, who knew how much Joe loved Fermanagh, wondered aloud why he didn’t open a distillery there.
“I was brought up on a farm outside Enniskillen, north west Ireland,” says Joe, “and I loved the idea of starting a distillery business in the area I was raised. The idea that I could take my experience from Scotland and London and bring it back to Fermanagh was the first thing that excited me.”
After a two-year stint at The London Distillery Company, where Joe learned the ins and outs of running a distillery, he packed his bags and headed home. It was time for a distillery to open its doors in Fermanagh for the first time in more than a century.
By the Lake
Armed with his finely tuned palate and hard-won knowledge of how to make premium spirits, Joe had one goal when he stepped off the plane back home in Northern Ireland: to make a gin that captured the spirit of County Fermanagh. But he still didn’t have a distillery.
With 30 percent of its land blanketed in streams and lakes, water is central to life in this Northern Irish county. But it’s Lough Erne that takes centre stage.
In truth just a widening of the River Erne, the Lough is split into a larger upper section and slightly smaller lower section; at the junction of the two is Enniskillen, the largest town in the County, and where Joe grew up. When Joe was looking for the perfect spot to build his distillery, he couldn’t get the lake out of his mind.
“The site that we found was magical,” he says warmly, “and the essence of Fermanagh.”
After hunting for the perfect building, Joe stumbled across a stone boathouse that had fallen out of use. Right on the shores of the lower lough, the views are incredible – and the space was perfect to be remade into a distillery.
Joe set out to transform the two buildings – one a glass fronted, disused reception area overlooking the water, and the second a large shed where boats could come in straight off the lake – into a state-of-the-art home for a line of spectacular spirits.
“Because of our proximity to the water, we had to undergo a very rigorous planning application process,” Joe says. “We had everything from ecology studies on the water to consultants from far off lands coming in to convince the planning authority that we weren’t setting out to create three-eyed fish!”
But so far, it’s been worth it. Five people now spend their days at Boatyard Distillery, making spectacular liquids that capture the spirit of Lough Erne. While they have official job titles – distiller, trainee distiller, sales ambassador, financial controller and founder – the realities of a such a small team make such distinctions irrelevant. Everyone mucks in when it comes to distilling, bottling, labelling and packing.
“There’s not much room for anything else at this early stage in the life of Boatyard,” laughs Joe.
An equally hard worker is Doc Brown, a unique still situated where once boaters had stopped for rest and refreshment. Named after the mad scientist in Back to the Future (“It looks a little like the flux capacitor, and not a normal still,” laughs Joe), its unusually tall design is the secret to Joe’s ultra-smooth spirits.
The tall column triggers reflux, which means that the spirit has a long way to climb.
Joe explains: “This process of making the spirit work hard before it gets to the very top of our still means that all of the spirits we make here have a very delicate and balanced flavour profile. All of the harsh flavours sit at the bottom of the pot and don’t make it into our gin.”
But Doc Brown isn’t the only unusual feature of Boatyard Distillery. The whole space has been designed to honour the local area and Joe’s own family.
“When you come here there is very much a family vibe,” says, Joe, who’s recently opened the distillery for tours. “For example, almost all of the equipment you see in the distillery has been created or made by either my Dad, brother or nephew, and each item has a story.”
From a tasting table made out of a 200-year-old tree – which had blown down before being converted into a focal point of the distillery – to the milk tanks in which Joe aerates and macerates his gin (a nod to the dairy farm on which Joe and his siblings grew up) on every wall and in every corner, the Boatyard Distillery tells the story of Fermanagh.
And so does the beautiful spirit in your May Gin of the Month box.
Flavour of Fermanagh
Joe may not have had a distillery when he first came back to County Fermanagh, but he did have a flavour profile in mind for the gin he wanted to create.
“I’m an evangelist of juniper-forward gins,” he says. “I wanted to encapsulate a classic-style gin with a backdrop flavour of where the family home is.”
It took 52 distillations to get right, but Joe and his team have more than managed to accomplish their goal.
The gin in your May Gin of the Month box is made using eight organic botanicals. Cassia bark lends the gin a spicy note, while liquorice root adds a touch of sweetness and orris root, a subtle perfume. Angelica root acts as the fixative in Boatyard Double Gin, binding all of the flavours together. Coriander seed and unwaxed lemon peel add a citrusy kick, all to enhance the star of the show: organic juniper, sourced from Tuscany.
Going organic wasn’t always the plan, Joe says, but tough competition for juniper from big players led him to explore the possibility – and, once he tried it, the quality couldn’t be beaten.
“As the other larger brands had little or no interest in organically certified juniper we knew this would work well for us. There’s a small premium to pay, but the quality difference is considerable.”
These classic gin botanicals are joined by sweet gale, a local plant that surrounded Joe all throughout his childhood, while he harvested turf from the hills of Fermanagh. Joe was passionate about finding a way to bring his home into the bottle; it was Susanne Masters, a botanist, who took the Boatyard Gin team foraging and suggested it as a botanical.
Joe says, “The trick to sweet gale is to pick it early in the morning, and not after rain – no mean feat in Ireland! As kids our family spent every summer in this bog harvesting turf by hand, so it has a lot of affinity with our upbringing.”
These days, Joe’s whole family gets involved in foraging fresh sweet gale for Boatyard Gin, yet another way in which this gin is truly a labour of love.
All of these botanicals meet in an organic wheat spirit, in which they macerate for 18 hours to achieve the amazing flavour of the finished product.
It’s a pride that Joe and his team take in everything they create; from their Old Tom Gin, the first product of its kind to be produced in Ireland, to their vodka, every bottle of which – thanks to Joe’s painstaking ‘Seed to Sip’ ethos – can be traced back to the very farm where the wheat that became the spirit was grown.
Joe’s distilling process is a little bit different, as well. Taking inspiration from Dutch gin distillers, his team uses a method called the ‘double contact method’ – hence ‘Double Gin’ on the label. By using additional juniper in the vapour column, Joe and his team are able to force the finished gin to take on more juniper flavour. And, in addition, they don’t chill filter the gin, leaving as much juniper oil in the liquid as possible.
“This adds loads of flavour, but also a light cloudiness when mixed with other soft drinks,” says Joe. “As distillers, when we see a gin with this we get excited as it means more juniper flavour – the way gin was intended.”
Supercharged with flavour so that its profile stands up in G&Ts and American-style cocktails alike, Joe and his team still prefer to drink their Boatyard Double Gin in a classic Martini, with a twist of lemon. With every sip, he’s reminded of the remarkable achievement that his team has made.
“Getting to produce award winning spirits in this rural area where we were brought up is fantastic,” he smiles. “We are the first legal distillery in Fermanagh in over 120 years, and for us to be able to revive this tradition is fantastic.”