The dancefloor of Auntie Annie’s indie club in Belfast seems like an unlikely setting for the start of a Northern Irish distilling success story, but it was there in 2006 where David Armstrong and Fiona Boyd first locked eyes. David, an aerospace engineer, and Fiona, a property surveyor, connected immediately over their shared love for all things food and drink, but it was Fiona who dreamed of starting a distillery, as David explains: “The idea for the distillery belongs wholly to Fiona. Fiona had been reading about the lost distilleries of Ireland, I think it was the Townsend book, around the time her family took on Rademon Estate and at that time she had mentioned to her father about building a distillery. He immediately dismissed the idea, told her she was crazy and to keep doing what she knew.
“But Fiona, just like her father [Northern Ireland property developer Frank Boyd], knows her mind and some years later when we got married in 2011 we both knew we wanted to own and manage our own business. We are both so passionate about food and drink, the food scene on the island of Ireland and, locally for us in County Down, is world class. Ideally, we would have loved a vineyard in France but as we live in County Down and not Bordeaux, Fiona again suggested a distillery and I naively said yes.
“From 2011 to 2013 during every holiday and weekend we travelled the world doing distilling classes and visiting distilleries; we ordered our first still in January 2013, it arrived summer 2013, then we undertook recipe development whilst continuing in our day jobs, eventually we both left our jobs in 2014 and we launched Shortcross Gin in April 2014, so we celebrated eight years as a distillery this April.”
If that makes it all sound easy, it isn’t; while many distilleries built on the island of Ireland in the past decade use sourced stock as a revenue generator, Rademon opted not to.
“To be honest, if you asked me in 2014 to go out and source an Irish whiskey I don’t feel I would have been the right person to do it. We always believed that you need to learn your trade, this is important for me personally having served an apprenticeship, so we focused on learning how to make and understand our own whiskey in the first instance. We are at heart a craft distillery – we only sell what we produce, and that is an important ethos for us.”
Fortunate then that their gin was such a success, winning multiple awards and spreading out to sizable markets such as the US and Canada. The distillery even produced a special limited edition gin with a royal touch – Hillsborough Castle and Gardens Shortcross edition features rose petals handpicked from Queen Elizabeth II’s Granville Rose Garden at Hillsborough Castle – the queen’s official residence in Northern Ireland. Shortcross is also the official gin of Royal Down Racecourse (Fiona’s mother Rose is well known in equestrian circles as the co-owner of the legendary Hurricane Fly).
But their gins aren’t simply a money-spinnner for Rademon while they wait for the whiskey to mature.
“Gin has become a byword by the media as a means to an end for new distilleries, we would love to invite those people to come and work at the distillery for the day to see the effort that goes into creating Shortcross Gin. We love gin and to make a great gin you need to be passionate about it.
“The skills we have learnt from gin have been key to creating our whiskey, namely the ability to nose and taste flavours and put them all together.”
As the gin became a success in its own right, they started to look into making whiskey.
“In 2014 we were in the US and visiting distilleries when we had the realisation that to grow the distillery we would need to look at other categories. Now, one thing about both of us is that we believe you should only make what you love, and over the previous two years I had started to get into whiskey, particularly malt whiskey, following a tasting of Connemara Turf Mór at Belfast International Airport. That tasting blew my mind and I was determined that we should make malt whiskey and with that, some with plenty of smoke too. We began distilling whiskey in our 450-litre copper pot still in 2015 and filled our first casks in August 2015 and continue to do so today.”
The inaugural Rademon Estate Distillery whiskey was released late last year – Shortcross Irish Whiskey, a double-distilled, five-year-old single malt, matured fully in Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux Red Wine casks before being finished in chinquapin oak – the first time this cask combination was used in Irish whiskey. It takes a patient person to wait to the five-year mark when it could legally be sold at three, but David felt it was worth it (and there was the small matter of a global pandemic).
“If Covid hadn’t arrived, we would have done something in 2020 but having the space to let things mature a little longer has allowed us to craft a release we can really be proud of. Personally, we thought the five-year mark, well actually it’s almost six years, was a good point to release this. The balance was just there in the whiskey and we knew it was good, so Fiona and I knew it was the right time to go for it. You have to believe in yourself and the liquid, bringing together the joy of seven years’ hard work of getting to this huge moment in time of releasing your very own whiskey.”
Obviously there was a lot of excitement for whiskey lovers – this was a release that was a long time coming – and then it won Best New Irish Whiskey at the Irish Whiskey Awards last year.
“To win the award was mind blowing. I was also known to have shed a tear that evening, it was the culmination of seven years hard work to put our very own Shortcross whiskey out there, that I single handedly worked on from mashing in, fermenting, distilling and filling the casks. We entered the awards without anyone having tasted it or giving us a nod that we were on the right path. We were overwhelmed by the positive response and support we received following the award.”
But along with the giddy highs, there was the reaction to the price – stg£300 – in the whiskey community.
“There was a small collective of negativity on social media, that just did not give up and became so vitriolic. I don’t think you could ever please these people and that says more about them than it does about us. Our first ever release was a small, limited release of less than 700 bottles, 656 in total. Two casks. It was a momentous and historic moment, Shortcross was the first Irish whiskey to be wholly distilled and released by a new Irish whiskey distillery in Northern Ireland since the 1920s and the first new Irish whiskey to be released outside of the Old Bushmills Distillery since the closure of Old Comber and Coleraine distilleries. It breaks the chain of Bushmills-only releases and that is something really important in the rebirth of the industry in Northern Ireland.”
But while the first release was limited and had a pricetag to reflect that, their next release is both affordable, available, and intriguing, as David explains.
“We like to do things a little differently so our second release is something completely different – Shortcross Rye & Malt Irish Whiskey. This coincided with a couple of things that happened in 2017 and then ultimately ended up with us visiting rye whiskey distilleries in Maryland, which is the birthplace of American Rye whiskey.
“When we got back to the distillery we began to explore how we could create a rye-influenced Irish whiskey, after many iterations and failings along the way we found that the best way for what we wanted to achieve this was to use malted rye rather than raw rye to amplify the fruit notes and tame the spice.
“The whiskey starts life with a mash bill of 30% to 50% malted rye and the remainder malted barley. The wash is fermented for 140 to 160 hours, allowing time for a secondary fermentation to kick in. This helps create flavour from the very start of the process, through distillation and on to maturation. We then double distil the spirit on our 450L and 1,750L copper pot stills, with the 450L being one of the smallest stills used for whiskey on the island of Ireland.
“For maturation we used a combination of first fill ex-bourbon casks and also virgin chinkapin oak casks, which create rich flavours of fudge, stem ginger and spice.
“It’s a great whiskey and one we are seriously proud of. We can’t wait now to see it in the wild and in the hands of whiskey drinkers.”
Thanks to the generosity of Rademon, a bottle of it is now in the hands of this whiskey drinker. So what to think: All of the above, nutmeg, spice, hints of mace and whispers of aniseed; heather and manuka honey. Sweet, smooth, spicy. For a first release it holds excellent promise, although that is probably damning it with faint praise. But it is an important whiskey, for all the historic and cultural reasons listed above.
There are distilleries all over the island of Ireland that get a lot of attention – some spend a fortune on PR, some are controversial, some are just loud. There are others who are quiet. This, for me, has been part of the intrigue with Rademon – a distillery that is just quietly working away, with no fuss. The fact they never released a sourced whiskey just adds to their mystique; no resurrected brand from the days of yore, no press releases spoofing on about heritage, just a distillery quietly making gin and whiskey – new, fresh, interesting. The fact they opted to release a rye and malt whiskey as their first widely available release shows a confidence – they also have a peated 50PPM whiskey so they don’t seem overly concerned with creating a potentially polarising product.
The rye and malt more than lives up to my expectations – it’s an interesting, easy drinker, but more importantly it is something new; this isn’t some murkily rebranded West Cork Distillers/Great Northern/Bushmills/Cooley whiskey that somehow, no matter the finish, always tastes more or less the same. This is a new sensation – a new Irish whiskey, a new Northern Irish whiskey, and one that was worth the wait.
- Rademon Estate Distillery’s Shortcross Rye & Malt Whiskey is available from their webshop – 46%, non-chill filtered and all natural colour, it is priced at stg£65.