A Day in the Life: Stephen Cope

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Factfile
Name: Stephen Cope
Age: 56
Lives: Navan
From: Mayo
Occupation: Owner of Grace O’Malley Spirits

I CAME up with the concept of the Grace O’Malley Whiskey back in 2007, when we took out a trademark on it. I remember being on an annual pilgrimage to Inishbofin that year and after reading Ann Chambers’ book about Grace O’Malley and I just loved the idea of it, I said this has to be a whiskey!
The following year there was the economic crash and it wasn’t a good year for business, so a lot of projects went on hold.
About three years ago, I decided I wanted to start it up again and I was working with a guy called Jeffrey Burns, who I grew up with in Ballina, and we said we’d have a go. Then Stefan Hansen and Hendrick Melle, from a Berlin based investment company that loves Ireland, came over, sat us down and said, ‘Listen, we want to take this to a whole different level internationally’.
I’ve had them out in Clare Island and Westport and they absolutely love it. We started off with a small thing, now they’re out there doing some major contracts with suppliers in the likes of the USA and Germany.
I was formerly the Managing Director of Lir Chocolates for 15 years, so I got huge exposure to selling to retailers and learned the retail model of how to do business. But I’ve always had a hobby and passion for spirits and whiskey. We actually used to make a lot of whiskey chocolates during my time working at Lir.

All in its own good time
The whiskey market is competitive and there are a number of challenges. One is that whiskey has to be prepared for a minimum of three years and most will be distilled for five years or longer. We have stock that is now 18 years old.
So when you’re planning to sell whiskey, you need to plan five years ahead, which is unusual, particularly when you consider the likes of non-alcoholic drinks can be prepared and produced in three months.
There’s a lot of things that go into the making of whiskey.  We’re working with a distilling company, Great Northern Distillery in Dundalk, the second largest in the country after Jameson. The barrel in which it is stored can affect the flavour anything from 60 to 80 percent, and you can come up with some creative versions of whiskey by playing around with the casks, which is a whole skill in itself.  The Leonard brothers from Foxford are making a big name for themselves in that industry, with Nephin Whiskey.
The reaction to the whiskey has been really good so far. Everyone loves the Grace O’Malley story in Ireland, of sailing up the Thames with a bottle of whiskey for the Queen, or landing in Howth. A story I like to tell is when Padraig Pearse came out of the GPO and was signing Oró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile, a song deep-rooted with the Grace O’Malley story.
A typical day for me right now varies quite a lot. I could be in the distillery with our cast master and blender, Paul Caris from Bordeaux, tasting whiskeys – it’s like heaven!
The next week you could be on a flight to New York or Moscow, London or Berlin and then I could be at home for two weeks doing video conferences and paperwork so it’s interesting.

Hibernation
Right now, due to Covid-19, we’re all in a bit of a shock and no company can say that we’re in control. It’s very important to remember that in the world of business right now, it’s not just about making money, the bottom line is our frontline staff are the most important and we need to stay in lockdown and look after them and our families. When this is all over, we will come through it and I think we’ll appreciate the real important things in life a bit more.
I’m old enough to have lived through two recessions, my parents would have left the west of Ireland when they didn’t even have toilets, so hardship is something we know.
I feel really sorry for the hospitality industry who have invested so much into their businesses and are suffering. We’re ok, because whether we don’t put the whiskey in the bottle or not, it’s not devaluing, so we’re not losing money, but not making it either. So it’s about keeping costs tight and hibernating in some ways, but keeping the brand alive and we’re still supplying the shops.
It’s challenging times, but we will get through it and we have to help each other out. I spent the day working on hand sanitiser for the Great Northern Distillery, who are producing it and we’re supplying it to different charities for free. It’s a simple thing, and I’m not trying to brag about it, but everyone is doing their bit in the business world right now, because it’s not just all about the bank balance.

In conversation with Ger Flanagan

Quickfire questions

If money was no object, what would you do all day?
I like what I do – but I would definitely spend more time in the west.

Tell us something about yourself we don’t know?
I tried to make Poitín in the early 80s following a chemistry class in St Muredach’s. It did not work but I have worked out since what we were doing wrong.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten?  
Turtle in Cuba – tastes like chicken.

Favourite place in the world?       
Murray’s Bar on Inishbofin, when there is good music on.

What makes you angry?      
Greed.

First hero?
Grace O’Malley!

Three things always in your fridge?  
Chocolate /fruit, for the Gin, and tonics and ice.

What makes you nervous?
My three children – often!

Favourite TV show?
Nationwide.

What do yo miss most about being a kid?     
The craic and buzz and sense of adventure.
         
Best advice you ever got?       
Go out for a meal or a drink with your wife once a week.

Describe yourself in three ways?    
Eager. Don’t take life too seriously. Enjoy life.

How do you unwind?           
On a boat anywhere off Mayo or Galway and sipping a pint of Guinness at the bar with a Grace O’Malley chaser – just the one!