Lough Gill Distillery: The Unfinished Picture
David Raethorne
David Raethorne

David Raethorne is Director of Lough Gill Distillery. A seasoned entrepreneur with a track record of starting, investing in, growing and disposing of businesses, David is a software engineer by training and sits on the board of a number of SMEs. In November 2017, Cantor Fitzgerald announced a tax relief investment opportunity in Lough Gill Distillery, through the Employment and Investment Incentive Scheme (EIIS), completing a €4m fundraise.

What inspired you to set up Lough Gill Distillery?

I set up a software business in 1987, during the very early days of the personal computer when I was asked to write software to print labels in a pharmacy. The company was called Systems Solutions and over the years we developed that software to manage the entire business of a retail pharmacy. In 2006 we acquired Medicom, a GP software business, and renamed the new group as Helix Health.

In 2011 I invested in a fledgling business called Smiles Dental, which had been set up by Emmet O’Neill, an amazing retail operator, who went on to transform Topaz. In 2012 Emmet engineered the acquisition of James Hull Associates which enabled us to grow Smiles into one of the largest private dental groups.

Co-incidentally, we got unsolicited offers for, and disposed of, both businesses in 2014. I had read a lot about the resurgence of Irish Whiskey, and it seemed like an interesting sector. So in 2014, with some cash from the disposals, a group of us, all shareholders or employees in Smiles and Helix, decided to look seriously at buying or building a whiskey distillery. That was how the project began.

Why did you choose Hazelwood Demesne to set up Lough Gill?

The thing about whiskey is you need a lot of water. It’s used in the manufacturing process, and for cooling. I presume, in earlier times, water was also used for transport. So I always had an association in my mind between whiskey production and water. In 2014, when we sold Helix, a business colleague of mine asked me to go on a road trip to Sligo to look at a potential development site. He brought me to Hazelwood, and quickly realised that it wouldn’t work for his purpose. However, I fell in love with the place, and thought it would be the perfect location to build a whiskey distillery. I brought some of the investors down for a look. Initially, I think they thought I was mad. But as we talked it through, it made more and more sense.

Hazelwood Demesne (Estate) contains Hazelwood House and the old Snia/Saehan factory. Hazelwood House was built in 1725 by Richard Cassels for the Wynne family, who resided there for nearly 200 years. Richard went on to build many of the great Irish houses of the 18th Century, although Hazelwood House was his first! He is recognised as one of Ireland’s greatest architects. In the back garden lies a 6-acre factory, once the largest in the west of Ireland. Previously a nylon yarn factory and later a production house for video tapes, the site finally closed in 2005. It sits on an 80-acre peninsula in Lough Gill and is surrounded on 3 sides by water. Given the size of the factory it is one of the only locations that is perfect for both the distillation and maturation of whiskey on a single site. It also had the 300-year-old heritage of Hazelwood House, and before that, it was the seat of the O’Connor family, once High Kings of Ireland.

What is the thought process behind the Athrú brand?

We worked with Jones Knowles Ritchie, an international design agency that has worked with iconic brands. We felt their approach fit most closely with our vision for Hazelwood. Through a number of workshops we settled on Athrú as the brand and a concept around “the unfinished picture”. Athrú is the Gaelic for transform and it exactly describes the process of whiskey maturation where a clear liquid is transformed into a honey coloured liquid as it matures. Hazelwood is also transforming from a historic estate, to an industrial hub, to a whiskey distillery, so Athrú seemed perfect. It’s also short, and difficult to say, so you need to be “in the know”. The name is one small part of the brand, which will be revealed in the coming months and years.

Where do you see Athrú trading in the whiskey sector?

We are working with Billy Walker, one of Scotland’s greatest distillers. He is responsible for the resurgence of the Benriach, Glendronach and Glenglossaugh distilleries in Scotland and was voted Global Distiller of the Year in 2015. For the past number of years we have been maturing whiskey in Sligo, some purchased from Cooley and some from Pat Rigney in Drumshanbo. Our first whiskey is a 14-year-old single malt with a Pedro Ximinez and Oloroso sherry finish and will be a limited release of 6,000 bottles which will retail for around €150. As such it will be a super-premium whiskey. A number of these expressions (all unique), and carrying the Billy Walker name, will be released over the coming years, as we begin to mature our own whiskey.

To read the full interview with David Raethorne, Director of Lough Gill Distillery, click here to read our February Investment Journal.