Lough Mask Distillery owner Eoin Holmes sums up they way in which Covid-19 has laid waste to even the best-laid business plans: “I’d like to see anybody who a year-and-a-half ago had a beautifully laid out business plan in which the word ‘pandemic’ appears!”
Having worked for a time in the music and television industries, Eoin moved to the west of Ireland a number of years ago. In 2018, he set up a distillery in an Údarás na Gaeltachta facility on the shores of Lough Mask. There, he produces premium-quality gin and vodka.
Despite being rattled by the pandemic, Eoin remains upbeat and deeply passionate about the products brewed in his distillery by the Mask.
“For very small craft distilleries like mine the impact has been quite severe,” Eoin told The Mayo News. “Most of our customers are closed, so we’re having a great deal of difficulty selling Loch Measc Gin and Loch Measc Vodka.”
Prior to the first shutdown of hospitality, things had been going from strength to strength for Lough Mask distillery.
Many local restaurants, shops and hotels had their locally-produced products stocked on their shelves. The distillery also generated income through tours and an online shop, which helped sustain between four and five full-time jobs.
Just prior to the first lockdown, it had just sent their first international export when it had it’s a pallet of Lough Mask Gin to the UK. While the wares from the distillery are still supplied in a number of local supermarkets, the closure of hospitality and near-closure of airports has hit them hard.
Eoin explains: “In places like Ashford Castle and Ballynahinch Castle we were the best-selling vodkas in the place, which gives you an idea of how premium our product is, but also how proud we were to be selling something of this quality in their outlets.
“We’re available on the east coast in some places. Quite a few of the pubs in Mayo and Galway stocked us, all the hotels in the area supported us … we are suffering hand-in-hand with the customers that owned hotels and pubs and restaurants.”
He adds: “From our point of view there’s a very symbiotic relationship between our business and their business. Luckily for us we do have the ability to sell Loch Measc Gin and Vodca online through our website, so we’ve been able to adapt to that and adjust our business. We did very well over Christmas with that, and we continue to sell gin and vodka all over the country.”
Plenty of plans
While Eoin concedes that his business is currently ‘in survival mode’, his enthusiasm has not been dampened.
One of his biggest ambitions is to begin brewing whiskey at the distillery in addition to gin and vodka. A recent appearance on Neven Maguire’s television programme and a Great Taste award provide further buds of optimism. He also has a number of other ideas which he doesn’t want to disclose for the time being.
“We get inquiries every day,” he says. “We had one today from Germany. We get inquiries and emails from America … one thing we’d be looking for in the not-too-distant future is a European distribution partner.”
Eoin is also adamant the the ‘shop local’ message is resonating more strongly with consumers than ever before.
“The most important thing for us is that there is a genuine pride in a lot of people around Mayo and Galway in the product that we’re making. An awful lot of people say to me how delighted they are to have a local premium product that they can give as a gift and treat people when we were allowed visit each other,” he says.
When Lough Mask Distillery eventually does start brewing whiskey, Eoin insists that his priority will be quality over quantity.
“It’s not our intention ever to be a producer of bulk whiskey. Our view was always to produced small batches of extremely high-quality, hand-crafted single-malt whiskey.
“It’s not our ambition that you’ll be reading in The Financial Times about Lough Mask Distillery producing hundreds of millions of gallons of whiskey a year.
“We would much rather stay at a more local and more sustainable level, in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, and having a little bit of what makes this taste special to people who care about that.”
While hesitant to speculate about what the summer might bring, Eoin says: “For the moment I’m confident that people who are confident enough to come to the west of Ireland this year won’t just want to look at it, climb it, and swim in it. They’ll want to taste it, eat it and drink it as well.”