A pressing need for space and the potential presented by consumers’ growing interest in craft spirits has led to an exciting expansion for the Hughes Craft Distillery,
The growth in tourism here is leading to fresh opportunities locally for craft producers who might previously have looked only to export markets in the drive for volume sales.
One such producer is the Dromore-based craft distiller, RubyBlue, owned by Barbara and Stuart Hughes. For the last eight years, they’ve been building momentum in markets around the world with their artisan fruit liqueur and potato vodka spirit ranges.
But now, following a £200,000 investment, the couple have embarked on an expansive new phase in the brand’s development with the opening of a cosy gastropub, gin school and visitor centre in the village of Moira.
The StillHouse opened its doors in January following extensive refurbishment of the main street premises, which was formerly occupied by The Four Trees bar. And speaking to LCN this month, Barbara Hughes revealed that by the end of March, the new venue had already attracted more than 17000 visitors.
“We’re just so delighted to have found a home for our distillery,” said Barbara. “This has allowed us to increase our capacity and meet demand for the RubyBlue brand and we’re able to showcase some of Northern Ireland’s wonderful produce via the creative food that our head chef, Dave McClelland and his team are producing in the main bar.”
Barbara and Stuart’s entire bottling and distilling operations will be relocated to The StillHouse from their current location in Lisburn, as soon as a few last-minute improvements at the new site are complete.
The RubyBlue brand has its roots in a 2010 decision by Barbara and Stuart to seek a better work/life balance:
“I used to work for Rich Sauces n Newtownards, Stuart work for Nestle and we have three children,” says Barbara. “The only conversations that we were having were on hands-free in our cars. It got to the point where we decided we didn’t want to do that anymore.”
Their micro-distillery began life in the kitchen of their family home in 2011 when they began producing small batches of natural fruit liqueurs which, back then, were branded ‘Booze Berries’:
“It was a hand-made process and it took us three months to do each bottle,” recalls Barbara. “There aren’t many who would have the patience for that in the drinks trade these days, everything is about margins, not taste.”
There are now four varieties in the re-named RubyBlue fruit liqueurs range and two flavours in the potato vodka line which the couple launched four years ago:
“Liqueurs are a slow category, we’re used to seeing them in cocktails and sometimes the older generation will sip them at Christmas, so we were struggling for volume in our home market,” says Barbara. “We really needed something that was more mainstream. We did initially produce a gin but there were many others doing this already, some of them with big financial backing, while we had re-mortgaged our house to start our business. We were thinking, what can we do that’s completely different.”
They did briefly consider making poitin, but their own market research told them that despite being legal, that was a product which some customers still weren’t comfortable with.
Then they considered potato vodka:
“Potatoes are something that Ireland is famous for and some of the best vodka in the world is made from them,” explained Barbara. “This is a completely clean, gluten-free spirit that’s very easy for people to digest.”
Last year, RubyBlue produced 16 individual batches of potato vodka and around 3000 bottles of fruit liqueur and with the new facilities now established at Moira, those production figures are set to grow dramatically in the next few years.
Barbara says that the move into the new premises at Moira are a result not only of the growth in sales, but also a response to interest from locals and visitors who wanted to see where the artisan products were made.
“We moved into the unit at Lisburn in 2015, but tourism is really growing here and people were already asking us if they could see where the product was made. We had also outgrown the size of the unit in Lisburn and we realised that there was a big opportunity for us to capitalise on tourism growth.
“We also wanted a stronger local footprint and with Brexit happening, we wanted to future-proof ourselves and we wanted somewhere nice to be home to our business.”
The Four Trees was one of the pubs which Barbara and Stuart were already supplying with product. Initially, they were interested only in a building at the back of the premises but eventually, they made an offer for the entire business.
As well as a refurbished gastropub at the front, they now have a second, separate bar at the rear, complete with a roaring real fire, which is used for cocktail masterclasses, training and by visitors touring The StillHouse.
The entire distilling operation, which is currently still based at Lisburn, will be transferred to Moira once the premises is approved for bonded storage, which Barbara anticipates will happen within the next few weeks.
And there is a sizeable beer garden attached to the bar and the couple intend to make good use of this space once the better weather arrives.
Despite challenges presented by financing the project and by the need to source skilled staff – they’ve gone from 15 to 30 employees in recent weeks – Barbara says that she has confidence in their new venture’s potential:
“I do think that craft spirits has a future, it’s here to say,” she added. “People are interested now in how things are made and how they taste, they are not going to go back to accepting sub-standard product.
“Tourism is also growing. That’s something we never had a name for in the past but now we have 100 cruise ships a year putting in just a few miles from here and they are hungry for things that visitors can do.
Within three years, she says that The StillHouse will be one of the best pubs there are outside Belfast and that there won’t be anyone in Ireland who hasn’t heard of it:
“With three kids, working 20 hours a day, it’s been tough, but if you get the foundations right, you can have a great business and one hell of an experience for people to come to.”