Oliver Hughes: pioneering founder of the Porterhouse and Dingle Distillery

‘A Porterhouse at Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street in New York was opened in 2011. The chain also includes tapas bars and Lillie’s Bordello’

 Oliver Hughes: May 20th, 1959-July 31st, 2016. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Oliver Hughes: May 20th, 1959-July 31st, 2016. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

Oliver Hughes who has died aged 57, was a pioneering entrepreneur in the drinks business. With his cousin Liam LaHart he founded a chain of pub-breweries in Dublin, Wicklow, London and New York. They concentrated on selling craft beers which were mostly brewed on the premises on which they were sold. They later expanded into distilling spirits and owning a night club.

As a law student in Hatfield College, Hertfordshire, Hughes had encountered the “real ale” movement which had been a reaction against the blandness and uniformity of the products offered by big British brewery chains. On his return to Ireland, along with his partner, he set up a small brewery, Harty’s, in Blessington, Co Wicklow, but after three years it failed. The beer sold but the publicans didn’t pay, he later complained.

Following this, Hughes took silk and practised criminal law at the Bar in Dublin for 10 years. But the brewing itch remained. In 1989, the cousins tried again, this time with the Porter House, an imposing if fading venue with a garden overlooking the promenade in Bray, Co Wicklow, once known for showing international football matches on TV with commentary in unfamiliar languages.

A “man with a van” was dispatched to Belgium and Germany to buy stock. Unfamiliar brands such as Erdinger and Herrnbrau were introduced to the Irish market, while local brands such as Galway Hooker were promoted. Porterhouse Central, complete with in-house brewery, followed in Temple Bar in 1996. It seemed doomed to fail, as it stocked neither Guinness nor Heineken products.

“We found out years later a book had been opened by other publicans on us surviving,” Hughes said. “Some said two days, others six months.”

Seasonal brews

Oliver was the only child of Brian and Lillian Hughes. His father was a barrister and the family moved from Drumcondra in Dublin to Fiji where Hughes snr sat as a magistrate. They later settled in England in Nottingham and Scunthorpe.

As a boy, Hughes spent summer holidays with cousins in Portnoe, Co Tipperary. As young men, LaHart and Hughes spent time in Hertfordshire, where Hughes was a student, attending rock and punk concerts and introducing their English friends to Irish music. Planxty and the Bothy Band were favourites and a lifelong love of popular music was nurtured. They “hung out” among the Irish community in Kilburn in north London and took part in “Troops Out” demonstrations and campaigned for the release of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four.

Enjoying a drink or two – some said more than that – the two young men also took notice of the success of David Bruce’s chain of Firkin-branded brew-pubs (the Fettler and Firkin in Paddington, for example) offering cask ales, and this inspired their first venture in Wicklow.

Premium spirits

Lillie’s Bordello

Having tackled the craft brewery end of the business, premium spirits came next. Multinational Pernod Ricard had the best-selling Jameson Irish whiskey brand, but this left a niche for smaller “artisan” spirits. A former sawmill in Dingle, Co Kerry was converted for whiskey production in 2012. It also has a still for the production of gin and vodka. The Dingle Distillery is due to start selling its own whiskey this year.

His secret, Hughes told this newspaper a few weeks before his death, was to watch what the big players were doing and avoid it. While there can be many definitions of craft beer, “the global multinational brewing beer doesn’t come within any of them”, he said.

The success in challenging the monopoly of the drinks multinationals is all the more remarkable when one considers the economic downturn in which much of it was achieved; it also doubtless encouraged others to take the same road.

Oliver Hughes is survived by his wife Helen (Stacey) and their children Elliot and Holly.