Meet Cork’s 'spirited' women working in the brewing and distilling business

In a new three part series, KATE RYAN talks to women working in the brewing and distilling business in Cork about their passions for the industry
Meet Cork’s 'spirited' women working in the brewing and distilling business

Adriane Almeida, Clonakilty Distillery.

IN this new three-part WOW! series, called ‘Spirited Women’, I talk to Cork-based female brewers and distillers to discover what sparks their passion and drive for creating craft beer, wine and spirits, and how the industry has evolved to create exciting opportunities for women to build successful careers.

This week, we feature Adriane Almeida, quality manager and trainee distiller at Clonakilty Distillery. We also catch up with Bhagya Barrett, co-founder of Rebel City Distillery.

Adriane Almeida – Clonakilty Distillery

Adriane Almeida, 29, originally of Guarapuava, Paraná State in south Brazil, joined Clonakilty Distillery as Quality Manager and trainee Distiller in 2021.

This is Adriane’s second time in Ireland after studying for her postgraduate in brewing and distilling in MTU in 2013, and she admits she has fallen in love with the country.

While studying for her undergraduate degree in Food Engineering, Adriane developed a fascination for the process of beverage production, particularly alcohol. Now she is living in Ireland and working in a distillery crafting Irish whiskey - a dream come true.

“The production of spirits, wine and beer caught my attention because you have usually the same ingredients but with their own characteristics, and after the process of brewing, distilling, or fermenting they create all these different products - the smallest change, and you’ll get different flavours.

“People looked at me weirdly when I said I wanted to work in the alcohol industry, but it’s the biochemistry behind the process that is fascinating. 

"There are so many small things happening along the way that could go very wrong, but get it right and you’ll make a very nice product. It’s quite rewarding.”

Adriane Almeida – Clonakilty Distillery
Adriane Almeida – Clonakilty Distillery

Adriane came to Clonakilty Distillery after reaching out to head distiller, Paul Corbett, looking to gain more knowledge from within the industry itself.

“I was working in a dairy but wanted to work in the spirits industry. I was settled but not satisfied in my work, so it was time for me to pursue what I wanted to do.

“I was living in Skibbereen and always passed by Clonakilty Distillery. They were growing, and even though it was new, they had won a lot of awards.

“I got in touch with Paul, and he agreed to show me the distillery, how good it was to be a distiller, and what he liked about it. He asked me for my CV, I came for an interview, visited the distillery, and I was offered the job!

“I really liked the story of the distillery too, how they grow their own barley and use it to make their whiskey and gin.

"Helen [Scully, the distilleries co-founder with her husband Michael] created the gin recipe and oversees that side of the business.”

Irish whiskey has a long and storied past steeped in tradition, and this was an important factor in why Adriane wanted to work in a whiskey distillery.

“I find the tradition and heritage behind Irish whiskey fascinating and there are lots of ways to innovate within the rules: we have our gentle cut, which is different to some other distilleries; we managed our whiskey from grain to glass with our own barley, and we have a lot of room to innovate because we aim for quality over quantity, experimenting with different grains and casks.”

“I remember in Brazil, Irish whiskey always had this reputation as this traditional drink in Ireland and a high-quality product, so to be here now contributing to that part of tradition is very rewarding for me. 

"I find that Irish whiskey without the tradition would be just another product, but with tradition and story it makes whiskey an experience and not just a drink.”

As more craft distilleries and breweries are established in Ireland, there are more roles and opportunity than ever for women to make their mark in an industry that has long been dominated by men. Despite this, Adriane hasn’t seen or experienced any gender bias when it comes to seeking out a career.

“If you’re a woman and want to work with distilling, I’m a firm believer that there’s no better time than now. There is a history of women who have succeeded amazingly in the whiskey industry – for example, Helen Mulholland in Bushmills has an incredible career there as Master Blender and was the first woman to be inducted into the International Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame. That’s a great example of how women can succeed in this industry.

“I always felt very welcomed, I never felt as though I was treated any differently than my male colleagues. It’s always been such a great environment to work in with a huge sense of community and I don’t think that, within the industry anyway, women and men are treated any differently.

“It’s always very rewarding when I tell people I work in a distillery, I get such a buzz!

“Coming from a different country, I thought this was such a distant world to me, but here I am now in a distillery in the heart of West Cork and making a product that I am very proud to be a part of. It’s quite an achievement.

Bhagya Barrett, Rebel City Distillery.
Bhagya Barrett, Rebel City Distillery.

Bhagya Barrett – Rebel City Distillery

Bhagya is co-founder of Rebel City Distillery with her husband Robert.

Originally from Kerala in south-west India, her work has taken her all around the world and she now is embarking on a new chapter in Ireland with the first distillery to be established within the city bounds for nearly 50 years. In 2020, they launched their first spirit, Maharani Gin.

Bhagya and Robert invested a year and a half getting their business plan just right while scouting for the perfect location for their distillery.

“By mid-2019, we found a place in Marina Commercial Park; it was a very run-down building that had not been used since the ’80s [when it was the old Ford manufacturing hub], but Robert saw its potential, we both really loved it and decided this would be the place.”

The renovations have been sympathetic to the building’s old industrial past.

During renovations, they worked on their gin recipe, with Bhagya clear that spices synonymous with her home state, Kerala, played a central role.

“We knew we had to make a gin because it’s a spirit that utilises spices; and I come from India which is the land of spices, and Kerala is the land of spices even within India! I knew immediately we had to use nutmeg mace, one of our signature botanicals.”

Nutmeg mace is the spice that produces mace, a protective coating that is dried, and nutmeg, the seed. In Kerala it grows everywhere – with a nostalgic aroma and taste.

“Back home, there was a neighbour who had a nutmeg tree - the flowers are a beautiful fiery red - and I have this vivid memory of climbing up this tree and tasting it. We had to get nutmeg mace into our gin somehow!

“Nutmeg Mace gives a spicy finish to the gin, but we also wanted sweetness and a citrus element for the perfect balance. We chose cassia and cardamom for sweetness, and pomelo to give a unique flavour profile. Gin must have juniper, this is mandatory, so juniper is there but the flavour profile is more balanced with a spicy sweetness with a citrus finish.”

Bhagya Barrett, of Rebel City Distillery  with a representative from the Kerala Women’s Co-Operative.
Bhagya Barrett, of Rebel City Distillery  with a representative from the Kerala Women’s Co-Operative.

But where to source quality botanicals and spices? On one research visit to Kerala, Bhagya and Robert learned about a Keralan Women’s Co-operative specialising in producing high quality spices for export. 

"The co-operative consists of 100 people, mostly women, who are trained in sourcing and processing high quality spices. They work for themselves, and the money earned is their own too.

“We source our botanicals from the Western Ghats of India and the Wayanad Hill Station, a place that is a bit more untouched, not urbanised, and still connected back to traditional farming practices.

“We happened upon the women’s collective. Having grown up in a developing country, I understand how important it is for women to have financial independence, and in developing countries women need to have an extra push, and if you want to have a say you must have financial independence.

“I grew up listening to this from my mother, who always used to talk to me about the importance of financial independence for women. 

"When I saw the women running this spice collective who were sourcing quality spices from sustainable farmers, I thought it was the perfect blend. That is why our gin is called Maharani – it means Queen, a homage to where the spices come from.”

Bhagya speaks of her privilege; her parents ensured she had equal access to education as her brother, which enabled her to travel, gain experiences and succeed in her career. But her privilege has been hard-earned, and now she is using her position to advocate for other women who do not yet have that financial independence, voice and power.

“Today, I am in a position where I have a voice and that is very important. I have been working since 2007 after graduating from studying engineering; what I am enjoying now is a privilege which I have worked hard for and I’m happy I can bring that element and voice out for those women in Kerala - Rebel City Distillery and Maharani Gin is all about that.”

This spirit of collectivism is something Bhagya and Robert hope to replicate when opening a Visitors Experience later this year. There are also plans for a launch party in July, after a two-year delay in celebrations due to the Covid pandemic.

Despite launching during a global pandemic, Rebel City Distillery have managed to bag five awards for Maharani Gin in 2020 and 2021.

“We are very happy because it’s recognition for our hard work. Every part of our gin is hand done, from bottling to labelling; it’s a labour-intensive process and for a small craft company it means a lot.”

With launches into US and French markets imminent, there is no shortage of ambition from the Rebel City Distillery team. They are actively looking for investment.

Next week, in WOW! on June 22, in ‘Spirited Women’: Maudeline Black, of Blacks of Kinsale, and Kate Dempsey, of Kinsale Mead.

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