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A Day in the Life: Distiller Eoin Holmes

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A HOME FROM HOME When Eoin Holmes is not distilling, he takes time out to fish down the road from the Loch Measc distillery. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

There is always an early start in our house. I’d be up and about at 6.30am, getting the two eldest ready for school in Louisburgh. We live out the Leenane Road in Westport, between Knappagh and Farnaught, so I then have to drop my two younger children to school in Holy Trinity in Westport.
While the kids are readying themselves, I usually check my emails and make a plan for the day ahead, and I can tell you, no two days are the same.
Myself and my business partner, Dominic Hennigan, always touch base early in the morning, usually asking each other ‘Where are you?, ‘What are you doing today?, ‘What needs to be planned?’
Invariably, one of us will always be at the distillery and the other, a lot of the time, will be on the road.
The building where our distillery is located is an old factory which is located up in a beautiful place called Killateeaun in Tourmakeady, up behind the well-known Maire Luke’s Restaurant and Bar.
My background is I worked in the music industry first, and then I moved into the film side of things, and into television drama production. I produced the likes of The Clinic, Paths to Freedom and Bachelor’s Walk. When we moved west six years ago, I was on the look out for something new to do.
Eventually, myself and Dominic came up with the idea of a whiskey distillery and the more and more we talked, the more we realised that this idea was the perfect fit for this part of the world.
Traditionally, cultural, historically, there has always been some form of distilling in Mayo and the west of Ireland. There was quiet a large distillery located in Westport once upon a time and we all know of the ‘unofficial’ distilling that took place in the hills and valleys of the county.

Perfect location
We looked everywhere for the perfect location, but the minute we saw the factory site in Killateeaun, we knew, this was it. We now work in what is one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland.
You often hear people moaning about their daily commute, well, I am proud to say my daily commute is the highlight of my day. I drive from the back of Lankhill, up over the Partry mountains, down into the back of Tourmakeady, and every day I get the same thrill when I come up over the mountain and I can see stretched out before me Lough Carra, Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, and the plains of Mayo and Galway. And on the way home, I come over the mountain to see the Reek, Mweelrea and Clew Bay. It certainly does add a joy to my daily routine.
We have been absolutely flat out for the last two months since we have officially been licensed. The gin has been received incredibly well, the vodka is doing very nicely, and I am extremely pleased so far with the results of the whiskey we are making.
It took us about a year and a half from finding the building to actually occupying it. The building was owned by Údarás, who were brilliant to deal with. They were positive and gave us every help. They could have thought they were dealing with two mad fellas who wanted to put a distillery on the side of a mountain in Mayo, but they were nothing but enthusiastic.
We had a lot of work to do, developing the building, finding all the equipment, doing all the licensing, and plenty of research also. We visited distilleries in Scotland, the States, France and around the country.
Once we cracked the technical side of things, we then had to focus on the quality of the spirit we are making, and I think we cracked it.
I know one of the most terrifying moments for myself and Dominic was when we actually brought the gin to the shops and pubs, and people began tasting it in front of us. It was like watching your child performing at the school concert, you just really want everyone to love it as much as you do yourself. But thankfully, the reaction has been brilliant.
The distillery itself is a busy place. We have four people working there flat out at the moment. We have four separate stills. We have a big whiskey still, which holds 1,000 litres; right down to a small 10 litre still, which we use for vodka and test distilling.
The stills we use are of an ancient design, they go back to the dawning of distilling, a thousand years or more. They are hand-made copper stills, they are beautiful to look at, we got them made and developed and built to our specification. So between ordering them and getting them delivered, it took between six and eight months.
With regard to the whiskey, by law in both Ireland, and indeed Scotland, your new made spirit must remain in the wooden casks for a minimum of three years. We make our whiskey on site from malt, barley, yeast and water.
I like to say that we are distillery equivalent of Mescan Beer. We have the same type of ethos.
We’ll never be making thousands and thousands of bottles, but our process does allow us to be up close and personal with our product. Every drop that we make is carefully attended to and is minded, if a batch is not good enough, it doesn’t make it to the shelf.
We have tours also going on in the distillery seven days a week and they have been very successful. This morning, when I was out there, there was a tour of guys from Chicago and they loved the place.

Local ingredients
One of the things that makes our gin so special is the local ingredients. You have to have the juniper berry, coriander and angelica root ingredients, but the key to our gin is that we have fusia, honeysuckle and elderflower, that we pick ourselves from around Lough Mask. We forage the wild flowers ourselves and they go into the still first thing in the morning. It really does import a nice sweet, floral taste.
‘Terroir’ is a word I don’t use often, but that is what we are trying to do, we want the gin to reflect where it came from. When you open the bottle and you smell it, there is a waft of summer hedgerow along the shores of Lough Mask on a late summer evening.
We know it’s a competitive market but pricing comes down to a number of factors. One of the products is a hand-crafted premium gin, there is no way we can make this on the cheap, we are not mass producers, and people understand that. Secondly, we went to the trade and tried to develop a price that was fair, competitive, but most importantly, allows our partners to participate in it.
We sell it into bars and off-licences at a price, they work out what price they are selling it at. We consider the places that stock our product partners of us, so we put up a price that reflects the quality of the gin, reflects the special nature of it, but also allows everybody to do okay out of it.
We didn’t want to price ourselves out of the market, so we are happy with the pricing as it stands. That’s the feedback we are getting.
There is an awful lot of really, really, good quality artisan food and drink in Mayo now, they are all confident and robust in their flavours and their taste, and the quality of what they do. People are becoming more and more aware of what they are eating and drinking, and supporting local businesses, and keeping the economy going.
After lunch, I often head off on the road distributing or selling, I feel face to face we can get the message across how special our product is.
Yesterday evening I had to take another delivery over to Ireland West Airport Knock.
It is doing incredibly well up there, it seems like people see a gin that is actually made in Mayo as a fantastic gift for people when they are flying out.
Later in the evening then, I look back on the day gone by, do a bit of a stock take, a bit of social media, and then a bit of relaxation, before we start all over again. But I love it, no two days are the same. You’re meeting different people, you’re learning all the time. In five years time, I hope we are a sustainable business, creating employment on the shores of Lough Mask. That’s the goal.

In conversation with Michael Duffy

Factfile
Name: Eoin Holmes
Age: Less than 54!
From: Born in Silicon Valley in California, moved to east coast of Ireland as a six month old, and moved to Westport six years ago.
Occupation: Distiller

Quickfire questions

If money was no object, what would you do?
I take my long suffering, and extremely patient wife on a wonderful holiday, and I would spend some money getting the bodywork of my Land Rover repaired.

Tell us something about yourself we don’t know?
When I was small, I started kindergarten in Aalborg in Denmark.

First hero?
It would have to my Dad.

Best advice you ever got?
Listen to all advice, but don’t necessarily take it.

What makes you nervous?
Quickfire questions!

Most prized possession?
A limited edition numbered print from David Bowie.

What do you miss most about being a child?  
Being carefree.

Most famous person you met?
David Bowie.

Favourite Song?
Will the Wolf Survive - Los Lobos

Favourite place in the world?
Sitting out in my handmade wooden boat floating down Lough Mask, looking out on Maamtrasna.

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