This year will see the development of a €4 million whiskey distillery and visitor’s centre in the town of Lahardane, Co Mayo. Ahead of the official opening of the first whiskey distillery to operate in County Mayo in over a century, Dr. Paul Davis, Managing Director of Nephin Whiskey Company, took time out to tell us about his experiences in setting up this highly-anticipated venture.
Can you give a brief description of your working background and the process of setting up a whiskey distillery and visitors centre?
Myself and my wife Jude both completed degrees in Biotechnology, in fact we met during our college years. I worked for Dow Chemicals and Cadbury’s before joining Coca Cola Bottlers as Supply Chain Manager. I consulted for a number of years thereafter and most of my projects involved assisting Scottish Distilleries with their operations and international supply chains. I had a love of whiskey, but these years also left me with a love of the industry and, in particular, the small community-based distilleries of Scotland. I completed an MBA and PhD and started a career in academia, founding the Masters in Strategic Procurement programme in DCU. I have also been working recently with the Health Service Executive in an advisory role.
Jude, meanwhile, had spent the years since college working in brewing beers and chocolate manufacturing before joining Chivers and spending 13 years as Technical & Quality Manager. She was responsible for all product development, packaging development, food labelling and legislative compliance within Chivers.
With Jude leaving work and my workload becoming more suitable for some remote working, we bought a small house in Lahardane, Co. Mayo, where we had spent many summers with the family and I had spent many years unsuccessfully fishing on Lough Conn. We found ourselves spending more and more time in Lahardane and were warmly welcomed into the community, not as outsiders but as a part of village life.
I realised that Lahardane was the perfect place to make a very special whiskey – it has crystal clear water coming from Nephin and is surrounded by bog. Using turf in the malting of barley is associated now with Scotch Whiskey but would have been an Irish tradition long before it was Scottish. It has died out here over the centuries but we’re going to revive that.
I knew that Jude had the skills to set up and manage a world-class production operation and I would ensure that the craft and tradition, that I had witnessed so often in Scotland, would be a core part of the new distillery. We teamed up with Mark Quick, whom I had met while he was running a procurement software company. He had since sold that company and when I told him of the idea he jumped into action. He grew up in Attymass, a village on the opposite side of Lough Conn from Lahardane. Mark approached the Mayo Local Enterprise Office and they became immediate supporters of the project, assisting through contacts, advice and grant funding.
We identified a location right in the middle of the village but back from the street that had 2 buildings on the main street which would make a perfect visitor centre, a large building at the rear which could be converted to a distillery, and it even had an old stone granary from the 1800s, which would be ideal for maturation and as a showcase for guests. We came to a lease agreement with the landowner and enrolled the services of Vincent Coleman, who we knew as an awardwinning restoration specialist architect in Ballina. He drafted plans to transform the site with a particular emphasis on restoring the old architecture to it’s original splendour.
We spoke to everyone in the community about the idea of making whiskey and there was an unbelievably positive and active response – not only did they support the idea but so many people have offered help in all sorts of ways. An Taoiseach Enda Kenny visited and commented that the project was visionary and the first thing that struck him was how much the local community were behind it.
What drew you to Lahardane in Mayo for setting up your business?
We fell in love with Lahardane (or Lahardaun – both spellings are correct!!) after moving there. It’s a beautiful location between Lough Conn and the majestic Nephin and has a really close knit community life with plenty of craic going on too. As I mentioned, the water is perfect for making whiskey, there’s lots of turf to peat the barley and there’s a great craft tradition in the area. Many of the pikes used in 1798 would have been forged in Lahardane. While we’re not making pikes, we will be training local young interns to make casks – another tradition that has largely died out but that we intend to revive through our master cooper. There is also a long and proud tradition of making spirit in the area – but we’re not allowed to talk about that!!
What have been the biggest challenges?
There have been challenges every day since we started – unexpected things always crop up, but we’ve a great team who always deal with them effectively and keep focused on the end goal. Closing funding is always a challenge – we’ve been extremely lucky that some entrepreneurs backed us in the early days and followed through on their commitments. The Local Enterprise Office grant funding was also important as it showed that the project had been through their due diligence process. It’s getting easier now as the project is more advanced and we have more interested parties than investments available, so it’s just about finding the people who will commit now.
What lessons have you learnt along the way?
One of the things that has stood out is that when you’re doing something for the right reasons and in the right way, people will get behind it – the community, the authorities and supporters all over the world. We set up a facility on our website where people can reserve one of the first numbered, collector editions bottles made in the distillery and people from all over the world have reserved these.
They get a beautiful wax sealed certifi cate of ownership, but don’t get the bottle of Whiskey for four years. The response to this, showed us how interested people were in the way we were doing things – putting family, community, sustainability, tradition and authenticity back into an industry dominated by foreign-owned multinationals. People had a choice between joining our Clann and waiting for four years for a bottle of Nephin Whiskey or buying 6 bottles of a standard whiskey for the same price. I’m determined to embed these values in everything the distillery does.
What impact do you belief the whiskey distillery and visitors centre will have on the local community?
Nephin Whiskey will rejuvenate the village of Lahardane. Physically, we will be restoring two buildings that face onto the main street. We will have at least 18 jobs in the distillery and will hopefully grow that number in years to come. this will give a sustainable basis to the local economy and opportunities to local young people who typically move away from the village. We will attract up to 40,000 visitors per year to the distillery so that will create a large opportunity for other businesses to tap into the market – offering something for the guests to do after they have toured the distillery – whether that’s food, accommodation or other activities.
How did you source your funding?
All our funding has been raised from private individuals who have links to Lahardane, Mayo or certainly Ireland. We have a unique proposition where we have offered investors shares in the distillery, but also two casks of whiskey every single year. two casks of whiskey is 400 litres at cask strength (up to 750 bottles) so there’s a signifi cant value, which is like an annual dividend. The good news is that they don’t have to drink it all – they have the option to instruct us to sell them and take the cash, they can instruct us to store them (the value appreciates as the whiskey matures) or they can bottle some at any time under their own signature and label and give as corporate gifts or to friends. We have a few remaining investments available at €150,000 that involve shares and the casks described above and some smaller investments open at €25,000 for shares only. EIIS tax relief is available, so it’s a great opportunity for people to reduce their tax bills and get involved in something unique.
Is there anything the county council or local government could do to make it easier for your business to operate?
The county council have been incredibly supportive and helpful in getting this project off the ground. There has been a concerted effort by many arms of the council to assist suitable businesses to set up and grow in Mayo. The initiatives aimed at developing tourism and facilitating co-operation between tourism businesses to maximise the overall collective benefit have been excellent. We are looking forward to co-operating closely in a three-way partnership between the distillery, the community and local government for decades to come and that legacy will continue with the Nephin distillery centuries after we’re gone.