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    The Boatyard Distillery

    Located on the idyllic banks of Lower Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, the Boatyard Distillery takes the business of sustainability seriously

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    Aoife Carrigy | Images by Thérèse Aherne
    County Fermanagh
    County Fermanagh
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    It’s not every bottle of gin that proudly features a pair of Massy Ferguson tractors on its label. But look closely at any handsome bottle from Boatyard Distillery’s range of handcrafted gins and field-to-glass vodka, and you’ll spot this nod to distillery owner Joe McGirr’s connection to his native Fermanagh and its people – his people.

    Those intricate labels are a visual feast of evocative imagery, each with its own story to share. Boating knots represent the Lough Erne waterway that this distillery sits ashore, and that connects the lake-filled county Fermanagh to the Atlantic via Donegal to the west and to the Shannon via Cavan to the south. Stems of sweet gale depict the aromatic shrub, known locally as bog myrtle. This grows wild on the McGirr family farm and surrounding bogs and wetlands, riversides and islands, and is used as a key botanical in Boatyard’s various gins.

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    Boatyard Distillery's selection of gins, County Fermanagh

    You could easily miss those tractors at first glance – and indeed the organic certification and B Corp certification on the back label, too. No matter: behind the bar at the distillery’s visitor centre, overlooking lovely Lough Erne Lower, you’ll find a second eye-catching nod to the McGirr’s farming heritage and the impressive sustainability drive to which it has led.

    Above that bar hang three large glass vessels, each like an inverted bell. Joe's parents once used these Alfa Laval milking parlour jars to collect fresh milk directly from the udders of their dairy cattle. Today, they contain lashings of the flagship Boatyard Distillery Double Gin, ready for the whole lot of tippling and tasting that takes place here seven days a week between the public and private tours.

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    Boatyard Distillery owner Joe McGirr, County Fermanagh

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    Boatyard Distillery, County Fermanagh

    We’ve cut out glass completely from the tour operation,” Joe says, “and it makes a big difference to our carbon footprint.” With tours most days, sometimes two tours a day, “it all adds up”.

    Distillery host Stanley Vaughan is the affable guide on those tours. A veteran of the local hospitality industry, Stanley has worked in some nearby jewels – and it shows. He has the polish you’d expect from neighbouring Lough Erne Resort five-star hotel, spa and golf resort, and the charm of celebrity chef Neven Maguire’s beloved MacNean House and Restaurant on the Cavan-Fermanagh border below Cuilcagh Mountain Park.

    “I wish I could spin you a story about how Joe’s great great grandfather was distilling here 240 years ago,” Stanley jokes, “but we’re not centuries old: we’re very young.” That youthfulness has made Boatyard nimble in embracing the changes the distilling industry needs to future-proof itself.

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    Stanley Vaughan, Boatyard Distillery, County Fermanagh

    Boatyard Distillery was conceived in 2013 when Joe dreamed it up as a route home. Having worked in Scotland’s whisky distilling community since he left Fermanagh at 18, he “always had a draw to get back”. After a ten-year tenure at The Glenmorangie Company, and while working at London’s first whisky distillery in over 100 years (London Distillery), Joe started to dream of bringing his skills back home.

    The international craft gin boom was seeing double-digit growth in the production and sales of gin in the UK, but there was no distillery in his native county. He’d have to create one himself – and in turn, create jobs for talented Fermanagh locals so they might have the choice to stay.

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    Boatyard Distillery, County Fermanagh

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    Boatyard Distillery, County Fermanagh

    Joe found an abandoned boathouse on the shores of Lower Lough Erne, and set out to transform it into a working distillery and a unique visitor centre that can be visited by boat as well as by car. Boatyard Distillery may not be built on generations of distilling traditions and expertise, but it was built with the can-do resourcefulness of farming people.

    “That farming background means we’re all very practical,” Joe says, “so at the start, when things needed building or forming and shaping, a lot of stuff was made by my late dad or other family members.”

    When his father decided to slow things down on the farm and switch from dairy to beef production, Joe repurposed the large stainless steel tanks from milk storage to gin storage; likewise the milking parlour jars. Those jars behind the bar now also act as an eco-refill station. Loyal locals and regulars staying at nearby holiday homes hold onto those beautifully labelled bottles and bring them back for a reduced-price top-up.

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    Boatyard Distillery, County Fermanagh

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    Boatyard Distillery, County Fermanagh

    The resulting reduction of glass usage is among several smart steps towards carbon neutrality that production assistant and sustainability officer Rebecca McGorty is proud of fostering. “It’s had a really positive impact,” says Rebecca, a young local graduate of food development and nutrition who came to the distillery for some industry experience after university. “I fell in here,” she says, “and I haven’t left!”

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    Rebecca McGorty, Boatyard Distillery, County Fermanagh

    Like all Boatyard staff – including another young local woman Órlaith Kelm, who is now head distiller – Rebecca joined the ranks as a bottle labeller. With her background in food science, she quickly became an integral part of forging the business’s future. Rebecca has a lot to be proud of: in 2023, Boatyard Distillery became the first Irish distillery to achieve B Corp status, a prestigious holistic sustainability certification which awards businesses based on objective measures regarding environmental impact, community engagement and employment conditions.

    As sustainability officer, Rebecca’s role was to oversee the intensive two-year B Corp certification process. “I was relatively new to the company so my challenge was to find out the relevant information from across the whole business, which meant torturing everyone else,” she laughs. “But it means that I now have a great overview.”

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    Boatyard Distillery, County Fermanagh

    “Rebecca has been an exceptional leader in terms of our sustainability journey,” says Joe, who admits that “we didn’t set out to be a sustainable distillery” – not initially at least. “It was always more about practicality before sustainability. Why not give our spent grain to the family farm next door? Why not make a chocolate bar with our spent botanicals?”

    Today you’ll find Boatyard Double Gin sold in the likes of Harrods and on some of the best cocktail lists in the world. Hawksmoor steakhouses use it in their much-admired martinis. You’ll also find it in local pubs like the thatch-roofed Linnet Inn in rural Boho and the Victorian jewel that is Blakes of the Hollow in Enniskillen town, where it stars in a dedicated gin and tonic menu.

    Blakes’s manager Mark Edwards is a huge fan of what Joe has created. Mark also runs the Enniskillen Taste Experience food and drink tours, which always feature a Boatyard gin and tonic, and he sometimes brings private tours to the distillery by boat in partnership with Erne Water Taxis.

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    Blakes of the Hollow, County Fermanagh

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    Boatyard Distillery, County Fermanagh

    At Blakes, those handsome Boatyard bottles stand out in a back bar full of handsome bottles. Mark and his team refill the bottles from 2.8 litre eco-pouches which they can post directly back to the distillery. Introduced by Boatyard to help cut down carbon emissions related to glass production and transport, these weigh just 50g empty compared to the 1.5kg of a fully finished glass bottle.

    When you combine “why not” with “can do”, and harness the energy, skills and enthusiasm of a local community, a whole lot can be achieved. As Mark says, “Joe moved back to Fermanagh and he wanted to create a world-class gin – and that’s exactly what he’s done.”