In this week's Spirited Women series, I spoke to Maudeline Black, co-founder of Blacks of Kinsale, on ten years in the industry and creating a new vision for the next decade, and to Kate Dempsey, co-founder of Kinsale Mead, on resurrecting a 200-year-old drinking tradition and the problem with Irish honey.
Maudeline Black - Blacks of Kinsale
Ten years ago, Maudeline bought a home brew kit for her husband, Sam Black. Fast forward to 2022, and Blacks of Kinsale are Ireland’s first co-located brewery and distillery. Works are due to commence on a new location alongside the River Bandon at a site that was previously used to manufacture t-shirts and TVRs.
Blacks enjoys a loyal following and buckets of awards for its beers, whiskey, gin and rum, but as a small business, Maudeline’s work is multi-faceted - and there is still time for tasting!
“My role today at Blacks means I look after marketing, HR, PR, bookkeeping, product development and I fall in wherever else I’m needed. My favourite thing is product development!
“We have a dedicated team that look after the brewing, but I am still involved in the gin side. I created the recipe for our first gin, so whenever we make gins for anybody else, I’m involved in developing new recipes and test every batch before it goes out.”
Ballymaloe Garden Gin and a gin designed for the Blue Haven Hotel in Kinsale are two of the recipes with Maudeline’s stamp of approval.
Blacks of Kinsale have never shied away from firsts: Ireland’s first co-located brewery and distillery, and the first in Ireland to produce a rum. But what drives innovation at Blacks?
“It all really comes down to a passion for the business and the industry itself. There’s huge excitement involved in producing new and fun products and using unusual ingredients.
"We’ve always made what we like to drink ourselves, so we see ourselves as customers too, and experience and quality are really important to us.
“In the distillery, we use our beer to age barrels that we refill with our whiskey and age for six months. We aged our 8-year-old whiskey in American maple syrup barrels, too - yeah, that is a phenomenal whiskey!
“We have the same approach with our beers, using unusual hops to keep flavours fun and interesting; and, because we’re a small company, we can innovate quickly.”
In February came news that planning permission had been granted for a new development on an old site which will house a state-of-the-art brewery and distillery, visitors’ centre and headquarters.
“The site is so special, we’re over the moon to receive the final grant. The site overlooks the estuary where the Bandon River meets the sea and Kinsale harbour. We have loads of space for growth, we’re really excited.
“It’s so important to us to offer a specific tourist experience to the locals and visitors to Kinsale. We’ve always been asked to do it and we’ve done what we could, but this is just so much more special.
“While it doesn’t have architectural importance, it has historical importance to the area. We’re keeping the footprint of the existing building, re-cladding it, and adding a glass-fronted extension that overlooks the water and where the visitors’ centre will be. There will be a platform area to the front where people can sit outside, look back, and see the production hall and whiskey stills.”
The distillery may be Blacks, but there will be an emphasis on green, too.
“We’re focused on sustainability, as members of Origin Green, and where we can we’ll reuse and recycle water used in the brewing and distilling process.”
Works on creating the new location for Blacks is due to commence this summer, and Maudeline is optimistic for a grand opening by the end of summer, 2023.
“It’ll be brilliant to have everything together in one place, and great for the town too. I feel like we’ve had ten great years in Kinsale and it’s time to give something back.”
More women than ever are joining the industry and building hugely successful careers.
“Across the industry - across all industries - women are creating a more important role for themselves. I think a lot of that is to do with us being amazing multi-taskers, which is imperative in small companies. We adapt fast to change, and we’re not threatened by change.
“I feel like the brewing and distilling industry has grown so much in the past ten years - back then it was just the macro breweries and big-name distilleries with just two or three in Ireland. Now, with so many microbreweries and distilleries, that has created more opportunities for women - which is great because ten years ago, women wouldn’t have considered this a career.
“I support women joining the industry, and it would be great to see more. I know we’ve come a long way but there’s still loads of opportunity there for women. If you’re interested in brewing or distilling, take a course with a science background, and take the chance - it’s a great business to be involved in!”
For more, see www.blacksbrewery.com
Kate Dempsey - Kinsale Mead
The ancient, fermented honey drink, mead, has a history in Ireland that stretches further back than Irish whiskey. From The Great Mead Hall of Tara to medieval tales of St Gobnait, St Brigid, and St Molaga, all cloaked in honey folklore.
Resurrecting this ancient tradition of mead, Kate and Denis Dempsey launched Kinsale Mead in 2017 with Atlantic Dry Mead (white), and Wild Red Mead (red).
Since then, new expressions of mead have emerged from experiments with fruits, honeys, yeasts, and barrel-aging, the latter earning them a notable award from the Irish Food Writers’ Guild in 2021.
“We wanted Irish fruit that has always grown in Ireland in our two core meads. Blackcurrant was an easy choice because Wexford blackcurrants are fantastic and we wanted a lighter, fruitier mead that doesn’t need to be matured for as long; that was how our third mead, Summer Berries, came about.”
Fruits add flavour, but the key ingredient is honey - and lots of it. Honey is sourced from Valencia in Spain where bees collect nectar from the blossoms of orange trees.
Why not Irish honey?
“There’s very little Irish honey produced, we’re the third lowest in the EU after Malta and Luxembourg. We got in touch with a local beekeeper who produces honey from West Cork summer hedgerow blossoms. Hedgerows are very regional, think of it a bit like terroir in wine; hedgerows in Galway are very different to West Cork, those in Wicklow different again. If we had all the time and money in the world, we’d do lots of regional honey meads, but finding enough to make it feasible to make a small batch of mead is very tough.”
This West Cork wildflower honey went into their fourth mead, Wildflower Mead, produced in very limited quantities every year.
“The wildflower honey has flavours of hawthorn blossom, white blackberry blossom and walnut blossom. It’s about getting enough honey with a punchy enough flavour that will get through the other side of fermentation.”
Sustainability and biodiversity are key commitments at Kinsale Mead because without bees, there is no honey and therefore no mead. Kate and Denis teamed up with students studying permaculture at Kinsale College.
“We’re part of Origin Green, but the most impactful thing we’ve found is educating our visitors about all wild pollinators - not just honeybees. We have a bit of scrubland around the meadery we planted with bee-friendly plants, and we go bumblebee spotting to count how many bumblebees and wild pollinators there are as part of the all-Ireland pollinator plan.”
Mead is an old but new drink that, Kate says, requires effort to get ‘liquid on lips’, raising awareness that mead is here, produced locally in Ireland, and the best ways to drink and pair with food.
“It’s gradually just getting mead more recognised as a drink, liquid on lips has been important from the very beginning. We estimate we’ve given tastings to about 25,000 people between the meadery, shops, festivals, and Zoom tasting sessions during lockdown. Luckily, festivals are back this year.”
Barrel-aging in pre-seasoned barrels is a definite trend in the spirits and brewing industry. Kinsale Mead have also experimented, releasing three barrel-aged meads, two white and one red.
“I was in the U.S judging meads and came across barrel-aged meads for the first time, and thought they were really interesting. We spoke to mead makers and found an amazing guy in France who knows anything you need to know about barrels.
“We particularly wanted to get Wild Geese barrels, the Irish family founded vineyards in Bordeaux - Lynch and McCarthy. He sourced merlot barrels from Wild Geese wineries [for aging Wild Red Mead], then we said we wanted to try [aging] Atlantic Dry [white mead]. We told him about the taste profile, Denis and I suggested Sauterne and he suggested White Port.”
Are there challenges unique to women in this industry?
“We make all our mead here, so physically mead making can be quite demanding. Nearly all the sales reps are men, still, and I do get referred to as The Mead Lady; I guess in the drinks industry you’re more likely to be remembered because women are in the minority.”
What advice does Kate give to women considering a career in the industry? “Most craft drinks companies should be able to facilitate getting involved in all parts of the business. That’s very important - even if what you really want to do is sales or marketing, to know how the drink is made, why it’s made that way, to follow the whole process and know the stories behind it.
“Also, learn how to carry cases, protect your back, and wear comfortable shoes!”
Tours of Kinsale Mead take place Tuesday to Saturday at noon, 2pm and 4pm and cost €15 pp for one hour with tastings. Book online to ensure your place on a tour, or to purchase a bottle of mead. For more see www.kinsalemeadco.ie