I’ve known of Hughes Craft Distillery for a few years now, there’s is a slow and steady growth – a growth borne naturally and through constant hard graft. In no way denigrating the NI Craft Beer scene, but there is a certain amount of “scene” about the industry – that is to say that merely by launching a Craft Beer brewery, you are bound to get a reasonable amount of attention and success, such is the en vogue nature of the sector. The Hughes’ have been labouring away at their liqueur business since mid 2010, practically historic in the local alcohol producing industry.
I’ve tried their products, the whole range in fact – and they’re delicious (Okay, full disclosure – the Chili Liqueur blew the mouth off me, but I’m a coward when it comes to spice). Quite why they weren’t stocked EVERYWHERE in Northern Ireland has always eluded me. When local food brands are lauded and named on menus across the province, Ruby Blue was still in the process of “making it“.
Over time though, Stuart and Barbara Hughes have kept at it and got their company in a position of real strength, as well as their range of real fruit, small batch spirits, they have added Ireland’s first Potato distilled Vodka – which surprised me, because as an Island, we love our spuds and we love our vodka, go figure. The gap was there though and the Hughes’ jumped through it. Now being widely stocked across the province, more and more people are understanding why Barbara and Stuart have continued making what they make, not just because it’s a great business model – but because it’s a damn good product.
When did RubyBlue start?
We Started in May 2010 from home in Dromore Co Down making our Fruit liqueurs
Where did the desire to make your own spirits come from?
Stuart started his career in McMasters Restaurant in The Stormont Hotel as a waiter and worked his way to head wine waiter. At this time, McMasters was possibly the finest Restaurant in Belfast. His liqueur trolley was stocked with the finest spirits and liqueurs available and he learned to love & appreciate them for sipping, mixing and cooking. We met a few years later at Belfast City Airport where we both worked and after falling madly in love with each other 😉 we resigned from our jobs to open a little Bistro in Bangor. After a few years we sold up and went to work in the food industry for large companies but any entrepreneur will understand the desire to do something more and for yourself. It was 2009 when Stuart discovered an opportunity to produce a natural liqueur in a way that had never been done commercially before and after months of research we resigned again to embark on our Craft adventure.
Who is involved? Introduce me to the team!
We are a tiny team of two just Stuart and I (Barbara) we have 3 children and on occasion if the bribes are attractive enough we can get them to make a few boxes or input a few invoices on the computer. But we manage every step of the process from sourcing, production, labelling, selling etc…
What’s the goal? Global Domination?
The goal and driving force behind starting the business was work life balance and to be our own boss. I don’t think we fully understood the potential and interest in Craft Spirits and now the balance is way off but we love what we do and are hopeful we will build a successful business for our family. Global domination sounds interesting too…
What challenges have you faced getting to where you are now?
We have 3 main challenges, our biggest challenge is Marketing Pounds (or the lack off) this effects craft producers in the drinks industry in many more ways than any other craft business.
Firstly because the BIG Drinks companies have set a precedent of offering financial benefits and bonuses for stocking & distribution which also blocks small brands /craft producers from getting products on shelf or in bars.
This means the best way to market is direct to the consumer which raises challenge number 2, The NI licensing law. The inability to obtain a producers license in NI to responsible promote and sell one’s own craft drinks at high foot fall events and markets. The craft drinks producers in Northern Ireland are excluded from almost all events or if allowed to attend cannot sell direct to consumer.
The 3rd challenge is how do we tell the consumer how special and delicious our hand made products are without thousands of pounds of advertising money? Perhaps if we had the income from the previous lost opportunities we could compete with the Scottish, English & Irish Craft producers that are fully supported by their local governments and make a huge contribution back into their local economy by growing local purchase & Exports.
[INSERT] (And to establish, this is from me, not from Hughes’ Distillery) – This is a real problem for start-up distillers, Breweries have an issue competing for draught taps because so many bars in Northern Ireland have exclusivity agreements with the big breweries, Diageo, Tennents etc… Spirits companies do the same – it’s not uncommon for say, Smirnoff (owned by Diageo) to give a financial incentive to a bar owner to have their product as “house spirits” and to be a dominant ingredient on a cocktail list. How could a small company like RubyBlue get success in venues across the province when Bacardi, Jack Daniels, Absolut, Smirnoff etc etc etc are literally paying business owners to have bar staff pour their products when asked for a vodka and coke and not to explain what options are available – sure upselling is important, but when it is in the bar owners interest to sell another product – what hope is there? For example, a business I managed had an agreement with a major Gin manufacturer that for every case I sold (6 bottles) we would receive £1.50 as a rebate – seems small but over an entire year that could be thousands of pounds. Make no mistake – this is not a level playing field.
What’s the RubyBlue ethos?
‘We make delicious tasting alcoholic beverages to the highest standard. We use real ingredients for the best possible flavour experience’
What’s your favourite moment or biggest success so far?
We have been honoured with awards for premium flavour over the 5 years but there are 2 moments that particularly stand out we entered a Spirit Competition in the US for the only 3 products we produced at the time and won 2 gold and 1 silver medal – The smallest producer entered and most awards to 1 producer at the event. Then last year at the International Liqueur masters we entered our range of 4 and again won 2 Gold, 1 silver and 1 Master in a blind tasting against the biggest brands in the Industry by the toughest critics.
Can you give me an outline of your current range?
RubyBlue Liqueurs 17% abv are ultra-smooth spirits that taste like real fruit, because they’re made with real fruit, handcrafted in small batches from quintuple distilled Irish grain spirit and authentically infused with all natural fruit, they deliver true flavour without the syrupiness often expected. Popular to sip on ice, Make cocktails but add to champagne or sparkling wine for something wonderful.
We released Irelands First Potato Distilled Vodka earlier this year at 40% abv, RubyBlue Craft Irish Potato Vodka has an appealing nose with subtle notes of vanilla and crisp apple. It is buttery and well-rounded with a heartening earthiness and a long clean finish. Ultra-Pure, Creamy and perfect for those that like to enjoy Vodka Neat but also an excellent base for cocktails.
Both are available in mini 50ml Bottles and gift packaging.
Any new products you’d like to do in the future?
We will release our Whiskey Cask-Aged RubyBlue Premium Vodka just in time for Christmas. It’s a limited edition of 1000 bottles – we are excited about this Special product and are keeping a close eye and tasting regularly as our smooth vodka picks up the flavours, colours and aroma from the barrels previously used by a local Irish whiskey & a Tennessee whiskey.
What’s your personal favourite drink or cocktail?
Well I have 3 personal favourites actually depending on the drinking occasion. RubyBlue Vodka Mule and RubyBlue Cranberry Bellini (Bias I know) but I do like Sagatiba Pura Caipirinha as well and I’m partial to a nice white wine.
Other than your own, of course, what Northern Irish/Ulster alcoholic drink would you say should be first on people’s lists when they land in NI and go hunting a great drink?
What do you consider to be the best part of being a brewer/distiller in NI/Ulster?
Meeting with customers that really appreciate our craft and love our products – hearing how they don’t have a family get together or party without buying our products for the event.
What do you consider to be the hardest parts of being an NI/Ulster brewer/distiller?
The lack of support from Government and the disadvantage we suffer because of out-dated licensing laws. The inability to sell our craft produce at places like St Georges Market where people want to experience the best the Province has to offer.
How much of the process is outsourced?
Stuart and I manage every part of the process including the original distillation, Blending, Bottling, Aging, and labelling however we do not have our own still onsite in Lisburn just yet. We work to the highest standards and are the only SALSA approved Craft Distillery in Ireland (BRC Quality standard for small producers)
Where do you get inspiration for your products? And where did the name come from?
RubyBlue = Precious Gem. We choose this name because our products are unique in production method and flavour and it reminded us of our little berries infusing inside the bottle it also works really well as a bar call…
What’s your favourite place to visit in NI?
We can’t wait for the Gobbins Cliff path to open again at Islandmagee, we used to live beside it and have happy memories of taking my son there as a small child.
Our long term favourite restaurant is The Cardan Bar & Grill in Lisburn but when in Belfast we always choose the restaurants buying local and supporting our fellow Food & Drink producers. We have amazing restaurants in NI now!
I’ve enjoyed great cocktails in The House of Zen recently but NI has really upped its game with quality bars and again we always choose bars that promote all the local products available to them.
You’re holding an exclusive tasting session of your products, showing off what you’ve made to any 4 people of your choosing, alive or dead, who would you want to sit and have a session of your own with?
BB King (because he loved our products and we never met)
Richard Branson (because he knows how to have fun and grow his business at the same time and I’m sure we could pick up a thing or two from him)
Daniel Craig (I could make him the smoothest Martini he ever tasted)
Audrey Hepburn especially in character as Holly Golightly as she was known to like her Vodka and I’m sure she could tell a good story.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
We spent a lot of money in the first year that wasn’t necessary and in hindsight could have been put to better use. We were focused on the American market too early but are looking forward to finding a partner out there as we grow.
Where are your products available?
Roulstons Centra, Enniskillen