Ballykeefe Distillery in Kilkenny is many things – it is about making long-held dreams come true but also diversification and reviving Irish farm distilling for a global market.
There is something endearing about arriving at Ballykeefe Distillery, a four-year-old business on a traditional family farm nestled discretely in the rolling farmlands outside Kilkenny city; arguably some of the best lands in Ireland.
It is a working beef and tillage farm, with all the sights, sounds and smells you would expect, but quite suddenly after ducking through a doorway you will find yourself walking amidst the hi-tech splendour of various barrels and stills. Make no mistake, this is a fully-fledged manufacturing operation using state-of-the-art technology at the same time imbued with traditional methods and instincts.
“It is lifelong learning. Whether you go to university or you develop it through your own skills, that is what life is about. This is one big learning curve and we met some amazing and brilliant people along the way”
Founded by Morgan Ging and his wife Anne, it is in many ways the culmination or the bringing to life of a dream held by Morgan and his father decades ago to one day produce whiskey and other spirits on their lands.
And sure enough, as we chat beneath a stained-glass window in the visitor centre depicting a farmer ploughing a field using three horses, while sampling some of the award-winning gins produced by Ballykeefe Distillery it is very clear that the whole enterprise is a labour of love. Indeed, the logo accurately depicts how Ging’s grandfather would have ploughed with three horses; the third horse being a horse in training.
Reaping the whirlwind
“This is a beef and tillage farm. Myself and Anne, when we got married, we bought this farm. Anne is from just down the road. I’ve been farming all my life with dad. We broke out on our own and started this place. With the downturn in farming, we decided to diversify. So, we diversified into the distillation business. We tried it 25 years ago on dad’s farm, when we were producing malt and barley for contract for Irish Distillers. And we looked at diversifying at that stage, but we were unsuccessful with licenses and then four years ago I decided to re-look at it. And hey presto, here we are today.”
Today, Ballykeefe Distillery is an award-winning producer of gins and vodkas with national and worldwide acclaim and by August next year it will have produced its very first triple-distilled whiskey after waiting the required three years and one day. Ballykeefe was a local supplier during last week’s National Enterprise Town Awards which were held at the nearby Lyrath Estate in Kilkenny.
Awards include Gold at the World Gin Awards 2019 for its dry gin as well as gold, silver and master at the Global Spirit Masters. Its poitín and vodka also won awards at the Irish Whiskey Awards in 2018.
“It’s been a whirlwind journey because you’re going from being a farmer to understanding building regulations, understanding safety regulations, anything to do with commercial you have to learn it very, very quickly. What I did was I employed people, brought them on board, gained that knowledge from them and moved on with it.”
The young distillery produces around 600 casks of whiskey a year and sells its produce to markets such as the US, France, Spain, the UK, Germany and Switzerland.
But despite the acclaim for its gins and other spirits, the overall ambition is to make Ballykeefe a renowned brand in terms of whiskey.
“Well, it’s all it’s all about whiskey,” Ging said. “The distillery was set up as a whiskey distillery with the three copper pot stills which was the old way the whiskey was produced, and I must say it was the best way of producing it. Triple distilled makes a very smooth spirit and we do what’s called a very high cut here. So our spirit is very keen.”
Ging said that Ballykeefe Distillery made a conscious decision at the start to produce its own spirit and not take any other spirit in as some drinks producers do.
“This will be our spirit in the bottle, made by us. We grow the barley ourselves on the farm and we have complete traceability. We brew it, ferment it and distil it on-site. We maturate it on site and in three years’ time we will bottle it on-site. All the by-products from the distillation process goes to the beef animals. We have a zero-waste policy here and therefore we have a low carbon footprint.”
Pure proof that dreams can become real
The emotion and pride is evident in Morgan’s voice when he says it is a dream come true for him and his 90-year-old father.
“We tried this 25 years ago and in a way I’m glad it didn’t happen then because it probably would not have worked. Irish whiskey hadn’t the momentum behind it as it has today. It is lifelong learning. Whether you go to university or you develop it through your own skills, that is what life is about and this is one big learning curve and we met some amazing and brilliant people along the way.”
Ging cites Dingle Distillery, which was established at the height of the recession, as an inspiration. “They didn’t take in anyone else’s product and they waited at least three years to have their own product in the market. We’re not in competition because the Irish whiskey market is so big and there is room for everyone.
“What is also fantastic is family farm distilleries existed in Ireland for hundreds of years and there is a history of distilling in the area. We are bringing that tradition back.
“They were family farms. They grew the barley and the malt and fed the by-products to their animals. So we’ve rejuvenated that tradition.
“To grow your own barley means you can have control over the whole process and we can say what’s in the bottle and we know exactly which field the grain came from, when we fermented it and more.”
Ging said Ballykeefe Distillery is also working on producing what could be the very first rye-based whiskey 100pc made in Ireland.
Crucially, the story of Ballykeefe Distillery is one about diversification and it also lends itself to a growing movement in Kilkenny where the farming ecosystem is selling produce directly to local hotels, restaurants and artisan food producers, cutting out the middlemen. As a case in point, Ging sells black angus beef from his farm to local restaurants and butchers.
“I think that farmers have to take back control of their destiny. Unless you can get into milk, which is the only show in town at the moment in terms of margins. But if your holding doesn’t suit that you seriously have to look at what you are doing because there doesn’t appear to be a future in beef production or tillage in Ireland at the moment.”
For Bank of Ireland’s branch manager for Kilkenny Deirdre Shine, Ballykeefe Distillery is a very unique concept combining a farm and distillery together to create a symbiotic process each benefitting the other. “The Gings commitment to sustainability has ensured that the farm and the distillery working together will secure the future of this business into the next generation.”
The restoration of local ecosystems or markets is a compelling trend. “It will come back to that because people will want to know where their food is coming from. Government could have a positive role to play in this,” Morgan said. “We need to look at carbon-neutral way of bringing Ireland into the 21st century and that requires proper grants for biodigesters and other things that farmers can do to reduce Ireland’s carbon footprint.”
Looking to the future, Ging is satisfied that his road to diversification by following a long-held family dream was the right one.
“We have five people employed here at the moment and, as it grows, those numbers will grow too.”
Written by John Kennedy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published: 11 November, 2019