Blánaid O’Hare gives IIBN an Interview and a Brief History of Listoke Distillery  & Multi Award Winning Listoke Gin

Listoke Distillery Limited was established in 2016. Blánaid O’Hare and James McKenna had just returned home to their native Co.Louth having spent a collective 20 years managing and owning bars in Manhattan. On the verge of buying a space to start their own family pub, they had a chance meeting with Bronagh Conlon. Bronagh who had previous involvement with the set-up of 2 distilleries was also attempting to open her own new business venture. She suggested to them they have a look at a distillery business model in the UK. The trio spent some time travelling to various distilleries and breweries across Ireland, the UK and Europe. The family “gastro pub” idea was quickly replaced, a distillery with a unique visitor experience was now the new family business concept.  Hence Listoke Distillery and Gin School was born.

“We started construction on the distillery and adjacent gin school in an old building in March 2016. We commissioned and licensed our 1st 50 litre still that April and we started experimenting with the recipe for Listoke Craft Irish Gin. Around May we had perfected the recipe that ultimately has become Listoke Craft Irish Gin. We started producing it in the 50 litre still to begin with, blending, bottling and labelling it all by hand ourselves. We then began the “shoe leather express” start of the process as I like to call it. We began giving samples to our family and friends, bars and restaurants and it turned out the recipe was a hit.  That’s when we invested in our 500 litre still so we could properly produce instead of just experiment.

The first Listoke Gin School was conducted on August 14th 2016. We had invited a few locals and friends. They loved it. Through our own networks, the local tourist boards and the Boyne Valley food series we started running about 2 gin schools a month.

In November 2016, we attended Whiskey Live Dublin, “what’s a gin doing at a whiskey event”?? We had the fortune this weekend of meeting the head buyer from Dublin Duty Free, she loved “Listoke Gin” and requested to stock it exclusively until February 2017.

In February 2017 we did a small PR launch with some of our best Irish publications. We had some of Ireland’s top food and drink journalists visit Listoke gin school. They enjoyed Listoke Gin School so immensely and their reviews were so positive that “Listoke Gin School” went viral. American Airlines tweeted about it, Vogue Italy ran a feature, and National Geographic Traveller gave it a full page spread. The timing was perfect, Listoke Gin’s exclusivity with DAA had ended so the liquid could go where it liked. Listoke Gin School went from 2 classes a month to 4 a week.

Listoke Distillery and Gin school started in a 1700 square foot barn in April 2016, it was quickly outgrown. By June 2018, the distillation of Listoke Craft Irish Gin and Listoke Gin school experience, expanded into a 7000 square foot unit, fit for production and the demands of operating a interactive visitor experience.

Back to Blanaid and James. When they started producing, what is now a multi award winning spirit, they always hoped to bring their Listoke Gin “creation” back to their favourite place, NYC. They had two reasons for this. Having seen first-hand what was happening in “gin” production across Europe, they knew their own, traditionally produced Listoke Gin, was far superior in quality and production. Surely liquid this good could do well in a Market such as New York. Secondary to this, they hoped their own network of good old friends and extended industry peers could and would get behind Listoke Liquid and hopefully maybe even be part of the Listoke story. So, In August 2018 having secured a New York distributor, they began pounding the pavements with the liquid. Since launching and gaining a strong market presence on trade in New York city, Listoke Gin has now launched in Wisconsin, Georgia, The Carolina’s and Tennessee. All with a 2 person team managing to manage 3 infants.  While Listoke has done well with Blanaid and James’ peers and extended network of bar operators, Listoke Liquid itself has been received with great excitement in the NY bar scene. Listoke has just become the pouring gin in the famous Bowery Hotel and has just been listed in the most visited tourist roof top bar in NYC, 230 5th. Not bad for a 3 person start up.

Follow Up Interview with Blánaid O’Hare

Give a brief description of Listoke Distillery.

Listoke Distillery Ltd. Is a small independent craft distillery where we distil Listoke Craft Irish Gin. However, there is also a second experiential element to the business where visitors can tour the distillery and subsequently distil their own bespoke bottle of Gin in the adjacent gin school.  

How did you get the idea/ concept for your business?

We had seen the distillery & gin school model in the UK and decided we could replicate it In Ireland, with a better, Irish twist.

Give a brief account of your education background.

I studied Law and German in NUI Cork. I have a degree in Social Science from NUI Maynooth. I also spent 15 years in the school of hard knocks on the LES in NYC.

Did you always know/ever think you would become an entrepreneur when you were younger?

Yes, I always knew I would end up working for myself, I had started with Law hoping someday I would have my own small practice. When I moved to New York I always hoped to eventually have my own bar or restaurant or something to do with the hospitality/ drinks industry.

Is entrepreneurship a common trait in your family?

Entrepreneurship is not a common trait in my family, I am probably the boldest in every sense.

Did you have prior knowledge of the industry before setting up your company?

Yes, I had prior knowledge of the industry.

What was your previous work experience (if any)? Do you think this gave you an advantage when setting up your business?

My previous work experience was always in bars and restaurants in Ireland and NYC. It has given me an advantage in that I understand the industry and the competition. It also gave me the advantage in that I have a vast network of contacts in the industry.

How did you initially fund your business? (self-funded, government funding, etc)

Our business was initially self-funded from personal savings. Shortly into the establishment of the business we secured some government/ local enterprise funding.

What difficulties, if any, did you encounter when securing funding?

We did encounter difficulties in the first year of operations hence the need to approach the local enterprise office for financial assistance – as per previous point.

What characteristics do you feel benefited you most when starting your business?

Characteristics that benefited me most when starting. I am pretty fearless. I like jumping out of planes. I am and always have been very hard working, I was given a strong work ethic from a young age, my parents worked very hard. I am not afraid to be told no. I am not afraid to keep trying and keep pushing. In a very male dominated business, I have never allowed anyone to intimidate me. I am not afraid to do things my way. I am not afraid of falling down. I believe every failure is a lesson to be learned from.

To what do you attribute your company’s success/growth to?

I attribute our company’s success to a few things. Listoke Craft Irish Gin is an excellent gin produced in a very pure way. Our gin school experience is a very fun part of the business and it has allowed us as business founders to mix face to face with our customers. As a company our founders have worked extremely hard and with great focus. We have always tried to make the wisest business decisions. Not only is there great integrity in the Listoke Liquid we produce but I also believe as individuals and a company, we have great integrity.

What is your opinion on the importance of a professional network for an entrepreneur?

I think a professional network for an entrepreneur is very important. To have like-minded souls to bounce ideas off, share challenges with, share failures and successes with, is very beneficial both personally and professionally. I have increasingly come to understand the importance of a network and networking. To quote Lydia Fenet, “network or die”.

Do you think entrepreneurship has changed in recent years?

I think entrepreneurship has changed in recent years, mostly due to the ever changing and expansion in technology. I think this change is somewhat immeasurable but has allowed for every single business to be “global” in a sense. I also believe in Ireland in particular there is more support personally, professionally and financially. There seems to be, particularly in Ireland, a great environment that encourages entrepreneurship.

Would you ever consider starting another company or involving yourself in new start-ups again?

Yes, I would start another company and would involve myself in other start up again. In fact, I intend to!!

If you had one piece of advice for a new entrepreneur, what would it be?

To a new entrepreneur. Grow a thicker skin and a harder neck!! Be fearless, don’t let anyone tell you “you are crazy” or that you “shouldn’t” or “couldn’t”. Don’t be afraid to try or to fail. Surround yourself with like-minded, positive individuals as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to work hard and keep pushing. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When and where possible, take advice from people in your industry, especially experienced ones. No matter how many doors are slammed in your face, always get up and keep going. No one else will do for you, what you can do for you. Believe.