Ed O’Flaherty on distilling a passion into business

Podcast Ep 53: To many Ed O’Flaherty is one half of a hugely successful partnership at dental practice Seapoint Clinic. However, he is also a successful entrepreneur in the drinks business.

Trinity graduate Dr Ed O’Flaherty worked at a dental practice in London before establishing Seapoint Clinic in south Dublin with his business partner Dr Tom Linehan. Today Seapoint is a top provider of cosmetic and implant dentistry with a staff of 40 engaged in state-of-the-art dental work involving technology including CT scans and imaging.

But what few people realise about O’Flaherty is that he is also an entrepreneur in the drinks industry.

“It’s tough. I think people need to be aware how difficult it is to establish a brand, it’s not all fun and games or just a hobby”

He got involved in distilling and was a founder of the Dublin Whiskey Company in 2012, which became Dublin Liberties Distillery, when sold to Quintessential Brands.

He is currently a director of Rascals Brewing Company, a craft brewery, visitor centre and taproom in Inchicore, Dublin.

Reflecting on the success of the Seapoint Clinic, O’Flaherty explained that he and Linehan wanted to change the perception of dentistry and oral care, making the experience enjoyable and welcoming for patients. “I always hated doctors’ offices where you went in and there was a grump receptionist with a face like thunder – and, you know, you’re nervous enough anyway. So, everyone we have is a smiley person and that’s a really key, important part of our success and that we’ve had a really good team over the years.”

After graduating from Trinity, O’Flaherty worked in London for a year and a half before returning and working in a number of Dublin practices. “They were nice but I thought I can do better than this and so I went and bought my first practice in 2003. I joined forces with Tom in 2006 and we opened in 2007 in Seapoint. There was a progression over time of learning the trade and what works and what doesn’t, what patients want and what they don’t. And it evolved over time and to be fair it is still evolving to this day. We are always trying to learn new things and see what people are looking for.”

We think therefore we drink

 

“It was lovely to see some of these old distilleries but sad that no one was distilling anymore”

Having built up a successful business, the decision to cultivate a hobby in the form of a love of Irish whiskey into another string of successful businesses came naturally to O’Flaherty.

“I used to go for drives on Sundays with my dad and we’d drive around all these lovely towns in Ireland and we’d see these beautiful buildings. We’d be driving through Kilbeggan and you’d see the old distillery, and you’d drive to Monasterevin and you’d see the old distillery there too. And it was bittersweet. It was lovely to see some of these old distilleries but sad that no one was distilling anymore. As I got older, I learned that we lost our industry not because we made bad whiskey but because of politics, international trade problems and prohibition.

“So, when I got older I got involved in Dingle Distillery as an investor through an EIS scheme. And I loved it straight away. I met with Oliver Hughes and I was amazed by his passion. He died a couple of years ago, but he was an unbelievable pioneer in brewing and distilling in Ireland. And so, I fell in love with the project.”

“We went from a small unit in an industrial estate to a really popular destination in Inchicore”

One day while hiking with a friend the idea was sparked to set up their own distillery in Dublin.

“Dublin was the centre of Irish whiskey distilling 100 years ago and we came across the most perfect building in the Liberties which was the centre of whiskey distilling in Dublin. The building dated from 1591 and was an old mill and tannery with a lot of history, just around the corner from St Patrick’s Cathedral. So, from a tourism point of view it had a lot of heritage and we bought the building and that’s how we got into it.”

They hired whiskey expert Dr Jim Swan as a consultant. “He gave us a clear plan of what we needed to do. His whole thing was about optimising every stage from the initial grain selection to the barrel selection to the steel design, to be as good as it could be. He designed custom stills for us and put in place the framework for us to make fantastic whiskey.”

As O’Flaherty notes, “whiskey is a business for the next generation.” And so, after successfully getting Dublin Whiskey Company up and running he sold it to Quintessential Brands which has continued to operate it as Dublin Liberties Distillery. “Circumstances changed for me with the birth of our firstborn and I wanted to take some chips off the table. Quintessential did an amazing job, better than we could have done on our own. It made sense for them to take over when there was intense competition from two doors away [Teelings Distillery]. For me trying to compete while working as a dentist wouldn’t have worked. It needed international skills to take care of it.”

Brewing up a storm

But O’Flaherty wasn’t finished with the drinks business just yet. “There’s an ecosystem in the brewing business that didn’t exist a few years ago and the quality has gone through the roof. Rascals was a really good beer and probably the best we’d tasted, we said ‘Let’s get involved in this one.’

“We went from a small unit in an industrial estate to a really popular destination in Inchicore.”

He said the business has gone from strength to strength even in lockdown, with a thriving pizza takeaway augmenting the business of people buying mini kegs. “I was really amazed at how well we did last year. People went online and supported their local business. We sponsor St Pat’s Athletic and they’ve been really good to us. It’s been really lovely to work with the local businesses in the area.”

O’Flaherty believes there is room for growth in the craft beer business. “In terms of the overall beer market, it is only 5pc of the market, whereas in America craft beer is 10pc of the market. There is plenty of room to grow if people can support it. A big problem is pubs because the big players have bought the taps. You can’t get near the taps. So from that perspective lockdown hasn’t been that bad for us.

“Hopefully when things return to normal people will vote with their feet and will look for pubs that have a little more of an interesting mix. That’s why we’ve done well in lockdown, people are looking for quality.”

Asked his advice for budding entrepreneurs who may want to turn a hobby or passion for drinks or food into a passion, O’Flaherty recommends not giving up the day job. “If you can do it alongside what you’re currently doing, that’s the safest route. It takes a long time to make money from a new venture, probably five years to get momentum from anything you do, especially in the drinks business.

“In terms of spirits like gins and vodkas it takes time to build a brand and the first year is an absolute slog. It’s tough. I think people need to be aware how difficult it is to establish a brand, it’s not all fun and games or just a hobby,” O’Flaherty concluded.

“It needs to be more than that, where it is sustainable and you’re happy to work at it and put the donkey work in for a good period of time. But obviously the rewards are there if you do that. There’s nothing nicer than working on a project that interests you as well.”

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 26 March 2021