Brand trailblazer telling remarkable stories with spirit
Safe to say that Pat Rigney is a people person. The word crops up about a dozen times during our conversation, with the drinks industry pioneer at pains to emphasise the power of the collective.
“Yeah, I’d be huge into the people thing,” he says. “I need to work with people I trust and get along with, and I’ve been really lucky to have been surrounded by great people right throughout my career.”
Well, you know what they say about making your own luck. Renowned as one of the most innovative minds in the Irish drinks industry, Rigney has notched up some spectacular branding successes over a 30-year career, including the invention of the Sheridan’s Irish Cream twin-bottle and the establishment of Bailey’s as the world’s top-selling liqueur brand.
For his latest trick, the Dubliner has set the bar even higher. In 2014, he established The Shed Distillery of PJ Rigney in Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim – the first distillery in Connacht in more than 101 years and home to a range of premium drinks brands including Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin, Sausage Tree Pure Irish Vodka and ‘Premier Grand Cru’ Irish Whiskey.
It is a daring venture; the latest evolution of a career that began – like so many – with a simple twist of fate. Rigney grew up in Stepaside, Co. Dublin, going to Sandford Park School in Ranelagh before completing a B.Comm at UCD.
“After graduating, I had a major stroke of luck in landing one of only two graduate marketing programmes in Ireland which happened to be with Bulmer’s in Clonmel,” he says. “Straight out of college, working with a really good bunch of people, talk about landing on my feet.” (That word again.)
Rigney began a rapid ascent in the drinks industry, moving from Bulmer’s to Gilbey’s Gin and then to Carolan’s Irish Cream. From there, he worked on the iconic Bailey’s brand where he dreamed up the revolutionary twin-bottle Sheridan’s Irish Cream that made the market sit up and take notice.
Having led the Bailey’s brand to world domination of the liqueur market, Rigney repeated the midas touch with his Ború Irish vodka brand; currently valued at $100+ million on the AMEX (as part of Castle Brands). What next? What other worlds were left to conquer?
“I’d had this idea for a while,” he says. “I wanted to set up my own distillery, wanted to create something special. That was my original vision. I had seen and worked with stand-out drinks brands all my career and I wanted to make one of my own.
A ‘remarkable’ vision
“But I didn’t just want a local distillery with brands that would sell or simply ‘do well’, I wanted brands that would stand and compete with the best in the world, right around the world,” he adds. “I wanted it to be ‘remarkable’ – I chose that word deliberately, it was in our very first business plan and we have kept it to stay as close as possible to the original intention.”
His choice of business venture was not quite predictable, but not unexpected either. The location of that venture, on the other hand, was straight out of left field.
“Well, I already knew Drumshanbo, in fact I had a slight connection with the place as my parents had met there,” says Rigney. “Very beautiful, very wild countryside, very remote – a quintessential rural Irish village in many ways.”
“I went along for a look one Friday afternoon in 2013,” he goes on. “Most of the infrastructure was already in place so that was a big plus. Then I met some of the local people and got chatting about the town, about them and their lives, and felt an instant connection. I loved the place from the very start. Rang back on the Monday and said yes, we’re going to do it.”
Wind the clock back to 2013/14 and Drumshanbo, like so many towns and villages around Ireland, was still reeling from the after-effects of the crash. Optimism was in short supply. In choosing the quiet Leitrim town for his new venture, Rigney had a parallel motive.
“The business had to be profitable, of course, but it’s true that I also wanted to create employment,” he says. “I got incredible, immediate backing from the local community and I wanted to do something in return.
“I’m especially proud that we now employ 28 people, and that will probably be up to 30 by the new year,” he says. “Of those 28 currently employed, 21 would have been on the Live Register, some of them unemployed as long as eight years. We also try and do everything locally – supplies and services, where possible we source them locally.”
Is he seen as something of a hero in the town? “No, no, nothing like that,” he laughs. “And besides, I haven’t done it all on my own, we’re a team and what we’ve achieved is down to a collective effort. But there’s no doubt that the business has had a positive impact. I ask around, I talk to people. I was in a supermarket in the town recently and I asked the owner about the distillery – he told me it has restored a lot of confidence in the town which was great to hear.
“You know, I think the mentality of the local people has really rubbed off on the business too,” says Rigney. “There’s resourcefulness in many rural communities in Ireland, a thriftiness and a desire not to waste anything that has become a big part of the way we work. Nothing comes easy to a town like Drumshanbo, you have to work to achieve things. I love that mentality.”
The Shed Distillery moved quickly to production – and did not disappoint. Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin was launched in early 2016 and was snapped up by more than 25 international markets including the US, Russia, the UK and Australia. Pleasingly for its founder, the brand’s premium quality was acknowledged immediately as high-end outlets including Cunard, Selfridges as well as retail behemoths such as Target in the USA moved to stock the product.
“That process of getting things up and running I see as a sort of triathlon,” says Rigney. “You build, you make, you sell – except you start with the last one, you start by asking what is going to sell? How can we create something that will connect and engage with consumers all around the world?
“It goes back to the promise in that word ‘remarkable’ again,” he adds. “That feeds into everything we’re doing – the product, the process, the brands, and ultimately the experience. We are making something that is high-quality, authentic, and with a story behind it. That is a combination that interests people.”
In less than four years, The Shed Distillery’s turnover has passed the €6 million mark with production expanding every month. Sausage Tree Pure Irish Vodka was launched to acclaim earlier this year, with ‘Premier Grand Cru’ Irish Whiskey – and an exciting new €2 million visitor centre – set to follow.
EY award finalist
A finalist in this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards, Pat Rigney may be part of a team but is clearly its driving force. “You need to have a clear vision, and the energy to pursue it,” he says of his leadership style and career success. “Give people responsibility, get them performing individually and feed that into the wider group.”
Away from the business, Rigney is an enthusiastic traveller, sailor and family man whose wife Denise is also involved in the business (“a tremendous asset to the company,” he says).
“The Shed is probably my biggest business achievement,” he reflects. “Just that feeling of having created something out of nothing. Not just the commercial aspect but the human element, the ‘second impact’ of having done something for a community. Rural Ireland gets a tough break a lot of the time and I am very proud that we’ve managed to do something positive in this part of the country.
“Now we want to build on that,” Rigney adds. “Hang onto the edge that has got us where we are today and avoid complacency – the enemy.” A remarkable story.