Character of Cork: Passion for blending cultures and spirits

Born and raised in India and a proud Corkonian now, craft spirit producer, entrepreneur and visual storyteller Bhagya Barrett talks about being co-founder of Rebel City Distillery, her love for all things business, and her passion project.
Character of Cork: Passion for blending cultures and spirits

Co-founder and Marketing Director of Rebel City Distillery Bhagya Barrett.

CO-FOUNDER and marketing director of Rebel City Distillery Bhagya Barrett, who has an engineering degree in IT, moved to Ireland in October 2013 to pursue an MBA after working in the IT industry for 15 years in several various roles. She built a career here as an IT program manager but then moved to a very different field.

She ventured out into the drinks industry, taking with her logical, planning, managing, and decision-making skills, as well as interpersonal skills and being sensitive and open to different cultures.

“Rebel City Distillery was set up by my husband Robert Barrett and I in June 2020. We are in Marina Commercial Park right beside Marina Market in the old Ford Factory building. The idea for a distillery had been in our heads for several years and in 2019 we decided to chase our dream and put that plan into motion.

“My husband Robert is a distiller by trade and I have an MBA which gave us the confidence to go ahead and pursue our dreams. We both always wanted to set up something of our own and our shared love for quality craft spirits was the key decision-making factor to going ahead and doing something we enjoy and love.

“We make Maharani Gin. It’s an Irish gin with an Indian influence. My husband is a proud Corkonian and I am from Kerala, South India. As a multicultural family, we enjoy celebrating both Irish and Indian festivals at home. So, when we decided to craft our first spirit we wanted to celebrate that cultural diversity.

“Signature Botanicals for Maharani Gin are sourced from a women’s co-op in my home state Kerala and we distill our gin right in the heart of Cork city at our distillery. We also launched Ireland’s only Absinthe into the market last summer and opened the distillery for tours in June 2022.”

She says she was always interested in setting up her own business but says that knowing what sort of business was the question which she had been conflicted with.

“Should it be in the tech sector or something which I really enjoy and also that people can enjoy and have a bit of fun with? After meeting my husband Robert in 2015, there is no looking back. I remember when I said to my parents that we are opening a distillery they were taken aback a bit. It was a surprise, that switching from the tech world to the drinks world was something that they hadn’t expected at all. I am glad we went ahead with our intuition and went ahead with what we wanted to do.”

Speaking about the importance of supporting local businesses, she says: “Small producers, including us, usually don’t have a huge team behind to go around for marketing or sales.

“We make, market, and sell all by ourselves as resources are quite tight and constrained. Also, the market is quite tough. The market share is quite dominated by big players. So, as a small producer, you are at a bigger risk.

“It’s important for locals to get behind small producers who create quality produce. There are many ways you can support local producers, even a simple reshare of social media posts can go a long way.”

Sharing her proudest moments to date, she says their flagship Maharani Gin winning five awards in its first year has been one of the biggest achievements, as well as the distillery currently being within the Top 15 things to in Cork on Tripadvisor and being shortlisted as the Top 3 emerging companies in Cork in 2023 by Cork Chambers.

On a personal level, she says bringing her parents to Ireland for the first time in 2019, which was her mother’s first time on a plane, made her “extremely happy”. She hopes to bring them back this summer to show them the distillery for the first time.

Speaking about what is next for the business, she says they are currently working on launching a spirit school which is expected to open in early summer this year.

Speaking about her passion project ColoursOfCork, she says: “Covid definitely has impacted people’s lives in many ways. I was constantly worried about my family back home and the thought of not being able to go home if something happened pushed me into a really dark space mentally.

“I struggled to function normally and even get out of bed. In October 2020 I decided to seek help and started my journey into healing. ColoursOfCork was a project which I started in 2021.

“It’s an Instagram page that is clicked and curated by me which showcases all the vibrant colours of Cork which I spot during my walks, biking or travels around Cork. Today, it’s a community of more than 2,000 people who have an interest in colours and also love colours.”

Sharing the best piece of advice she has received, she says: “My mother always used to say a financially independent woman always has decision-making power. Her advice has influenced me and has been one of the key driving forces in building a career of my own.

“Recent advice which helps me a lot is to accept when some days are bad. Some days are bad and some days are good so make the best when you have good days. It helps me give a good perspective on how to live mindfully.”

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