Master distiller Darren Nugent is looking forward to sampling his Cuban-style spiced rum, vodka and gin to trade buyers at the influential Fine Food North show at Harrogate, the biggest event of its kind for artisan and smaller producers in the north of England.
He produces the craft spirits at a distillery he’s built close to his home in Carrickmore, a village near Omagh.
“Taking part in Fine Food North will be the first time the spirits will be available to buyers in the area,” he says.
“I am really confident that the products, especially the rum, will appeal to buyers attending this important event because there aren’t many distilleries in Britain yet producing rum,” adds Darren, better known as the brewer of the Pokertree craft beers and ales.
Darren is part of a seven-strong presentation of local products within the Food NI pavilion at Harrogate, an initiative assisted by Invest NI.
The other local companies taking part are Armagh Cider, Craigavon; Glenarm Shorthorn Beef, Glenarm; Holmes Bakery, Portadown; Natural Umber, Dungannon; Noisy Nuts, Ballygowan; and Tom and Ollie, Broughshane.
In addition to these companies, Burren Balsamics, Richill, and Irish Black Butter, Portrush, have individual stands at the show, which attracts buyers from across the UK. All are Food NI members.
Darren has already won business with retailers and bars in Northern Ireland for the spirits, especially his rum, vodka gin, the first two products he developed on top of the beers he began brewing in 2013.
He distributes the beers throughout Ireland and the network of trade contacts he’s developed is helping him market the new spirits.
“The show will enable me to start work on developing a profile and position in a huge market in which demand for premium spirits is growing very strongly. It will also provide essential feedback from the industry about my spirits,” he says.
His interest in rum is based on his passion for Cuba, especially Havana, the Caribbean island’s historic and quirky capital. He diversified into spirits to grow the brewing business and to be able to offer employment in Carrickmore and other parts of Tyrone.
He explains: “The scope for growth in craft brewing is limited. It’s grown rapidly in the past decade and has become intensely competitive. We certainly have a good range of ales and stout which are popular, especially in Northern Ireland and parts of the Republic of Ireland.
“I saw an opportunity, however, to grow the business faster by investing in distilling spirits, especially rum, vodka and gin.
“The processes are similar, and I decided that the business would benefit substantially by distilling Northern Ireland’s very first Cuban style rum. While I’ve introduced spirits I will still continue to brew and develop Pokertree beers,” he adds.
Darren continues: “My extensive market research indicated a growing demand for premium and different spirits offering new taste profiles and the sort of provenance and heritage that we can offer in Carrickmore.
“All our spirits are distilled on-site here. They are all made entirely from scratch using completely traceable ingredients,” he continues.
He has three expensive copper pot stills and associated condensing columns in the distillery. “I opted to invest in three separate stills for the rum, gin and vodka because I wanted to focus on the purity of each spirit and not try to produce all of them on one. This is also why we’ve chosen the ‘Purity of Spirit’ strapline for the range of spirits.”
Each spirit is handcrafted in small batches using fresh water from the distillery’s own artesian well and are then filtered over volcanic rocks found in the depths around the distillery.
“Using volcanic rocks reflects our commitment to the locality. Carrickmore is the Irish for big rock and is partly built on ancient rock formations dating back millions of years,” Darren adds
Creating the three spirits has been “a steep learning curve,” he continues. “Rum is a complicated spirit that I’ve been researching for several years.
“There are very specific rules and techniques involved in its production. We distil the rum from the finest molasses from Central America using a purpose-built ‘Doubler’ copper column still, unique in the British Isles.
“The doubler process distils the spirit twice. Our focus on authenticity is carried forward in our use of rum yeasts.
“Our first rum is a spirit aged in bourbon barrels and featuring Caribbean spices to produce a spiced rum that’s whiskey casked and has very distinctive flavours and taste.
“Our vodka is also distilled in-house in a dedicated hand-made still from the finest wheat, rye and barley blends. It is distilled up to 10 times to create an exceptionally clean and unique spirit – perfect to sip or as a great base for cocktails.
“The gin is made from our own base spirit with the infusion of the finest botanicals sourced from around the world,” he says.
The launch at Harrogate is an integral part of an extensive marketing campaign to drive sales of the new spirits across the UK and Ireland.