How distilling gin from cow’s milk has been a tonic for one family business
Bertha’s Revenge Gin is adding much-needed cheer to a Cork farm enterprise
Anthony Jackson and Justin Green with their whey-based Bertha’s Revenge Gin at Ballyvolane House in Cork
Justin Green grew up farming at Ballyvolane House in Cork. Following training in hospitality, his career included positions in five-star hotels in Hong-Kong, Indonesia, Dubai and the UK. However, Green returned to Ballyvolane House in 2004 when his mother became ill and his father needed help with the business.
“My parents had opened the house to paying guests in the 1980s and they were founding members of Hidden Ireland,” Green says. “When my mother became ill, my father looked after her so I took over running the business as it was then. But our hand was forced in 2008 when the hospitality industry just fell off a cliff and the recession hit. We had to look at diversifying.”
Initially Green thought that using the farm produce in a restaurant might help them stay in business. “In 2008 we took a punt on a restaurant in Lismore called O’Brien’s Chop House. We used most of our produce from the farm. The idea of farm to fork is very important to what we do in Ballyvolane and we wanted to keep that philosophy in the Chop House.” Unfortunately, the restaurant was forced to close in 2012 as the fixed costs were too much to sustain.
“It was such a pity to have to close it,” Green says. “I still get people talking to me about how much they enjoyed eating there.”
“In 2010, in another effort to stay afloat, we went to the bank and said we have some outbuildings that we think we could develop for the wedding market but we need some money to get going. Locally the banks wanted to back us but we kept getting declined by the head office in Dublin.”
Eventually the banks agreed and Green says having 20 weddings booked with deposits paid was what got them the funding they needed. “Opening to the wedding market saved us. From 2011, we have been able to host weddings as well as keep the house and farm running.”
Green, who now has his own family, says he realised that in order to really secure their future at Ballyvolane they needed to access the international market. “We suffer from extreme seasonality in the Irish marketplace and, let’s face it, there’s nothing like a bit of debt to get you up in the morning.”
Always keeping an eye out for an opportunity, he had been looking at the resurgence in gin. His friend Anthony Jackson was in the wine business, and Green asked him if he wanted to look into gin distilling. The pair did some research and, on a trip to London, met with Charles Maxwell, a well- known gin distiller there. “This was a great meeting for us. We needed to bring something unique to the gin market and Charles suggested distilling gin made with whey,” Green says.
On their return Green approached a local farmer and they began distilling gin using whey in an old cattle shed on the Ballyvolane House farm. “We loved the luscious taste of it and being able to use local produce was very important to us. The whey we use now comes from Carbery in west Cork. And so, Bertha’s Revenge Gin was born.”
The name Bertha’s Revenge Gin comes from Bertha, the name of the oldest cow that ever lived. She was an Irish Droimeann cow, originally owned by a man called Jerome O’Leary. She is in the Guinness book of records for living to the age of 38 (she died in 1993) and for having 39 calves – another record. However, Bertha lives on, as she has been stuffed and preserved and is now owned by George Kelly from Killorglin.
“We approached George and asked if we could use the name and he was delighted – but he refuses to sell her to me,” Green says. “Bertha did make an appearance at our launch, though.”
“It will take us a few more years to really get Bertha’s Revenge Gin well known internationally, but we are already in the UK and Luxembourg and we had meetings in November in New York and Chicago about getting into those markets. I think it’s really the way we can secure our future and continue to live and work in Ballyvolane House, which we love.”
Green’s father is still helping out in Ballyvolane House. “My father is 83 and he looks after the gardens. I think he is delighted and amazed at how the business has developed,” says Green.