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From gold rum to hand sanitiser: How our brewing business responded to the Covid-19 crisis

Sam & Maud Black of Blacks Brewery and Distillery in Kinsale have adapted their business model fast, even moving to produce hand sanitiser.

Sam & Maudeline Black

Here at TheJournal.ie, we’re running a weekly series called Business Matters, in which we meet people from all over Ireland who have adapted their business models fast to cope with the major changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. If your business is changing and adapting, and you’d like to be featured, do get in touch with us at voices@thejournal.ie. We’d love to hear your story.

This week, we meet Sam and Maud Black, the couple who founded Blacks Brewery and Distillery in Kinsale, County Cork. They describe the shock of the initial shutdown and their fast thinking that has preserved the business. They’ve also managed to support frontline workers and the local community by producing hand sanitiser.

BREWING AND DISTILLING isn’t something that was passed down to us from our parents, we didn’t study it in college, it was a passion that we fought to realise, and this passion and determination will see us through this difficult period too.

Before opening the doors of our micro-brewery in Kinsale in 2013, Maud was nursing while I passed my working day as a validation engineer. We began our craft beer journey before it was trendy, and in 2015 we were thrilled to expand and open our distillery.

The first of our spirits to hit the shelves was Blacks Gin, and in 2018 we were excited to once again be ahead of the trend as we introduced Ireland’s first-ever rum, Blacks Spiced Rum, which is made entirely from start to finish in Ireland.

Our Blacks family grew

Joining Maud and I are a five-strong team of hard-working brewers and salespeople. It’s an extremely exciting and rewarding industry to work in, and something which we have never taken for granted. Always looking to our next project, we wished to leave our mark on Irish whiskey and thought how wonderful it would be if we could open this door for other whiskey enthusiasts.

It was from this idea that the Blacks Whiskey Founders Club was born and launched in 2019. The Founders Club gives whiskey lovers the opportunity to purchase their own cask of whiskey, which is expected to deliver over 397 bottles of pot still single malt Irish whiskey.

Gold Award Winner at World Rum Awards - Blacks Golden Rum Blacks Gold Rum Source: Blacks Brewery & Distillery

If members do not wish to keep this quantity of whiskey they can also use this as a fun investment opportunity and after the five-year maturation period, they can sell their cask back to us in the distillery with interest. At the start of this year, we already had over 250 casks sold and many more members still joining the Blacks Whiskey Family. 

Everything changed overnight

March arrived and with it the amazing news that one of our rums, Blacks Golden Rum, had won Gold at the World Rum Awards. To say we were over the moon was an understatement, but unfortunately, we were brought back down to earth very quickly with the news of Covid-19.

As pubs and restaurants closed, so too did one of our primary distribution channels. This accounted for 25% of our business, and we also had a number of cancelled exports, including 200 kegs sitting in our warehouse now going nowhere. 

These really are unprecedented times for everyone, not just businesses but consumers too. Everything changed so quickly and there was so much uncertainty on how long restrictions would be in place for.

We not only had ourselves to think of but we also had our staff, and now our growing Whiskey Founders Club members who were excited to see the next phase of that project come to fruition, as we had just installed two brand new copper whiskey stills. While all of this was going on in our own bubble we were also conscious of our wider community and their struggles.

It was time to adapt

In order to survive and thrive, we knew that we had to make some changes, and quickly. Up to this point, we did not sell any of our products online. The way in which the craft beer and spirit consumer shopped was in a physical off-licence or supermarket perusing the shelves and buying a pick and mix of various products – some new to try and some of their reliable favourites.

Sam Black, Founder of Blacks Brewery & Distillery Celebrates Gold Win at World Rum Awards Sam at his Kinsale distillery Source: Blacks Brewery & Distillery

With the enforcement of these new restrictions and one of our channels to market no longer viable, online became a necessity.

Our on-trade sales team quickly transitioned to online and had our full product range added to the site and launched our online offering, all with free delivery. 

We still had the issue of some 200 kegs sitting in a warehouse with the clock on their best before date ticking down. We thought back to when we first opened the brewery all those years ago and to one of our first products – mini kegs. We felt that people at home were desperate to emulate a pub vibe, so we used the beer in the larger kegs to once again start producing five-litre kegs for home delivery. 

Assisting the local community

We also felt a duty of care to our community and wanted to play our part in trying to fight this virus. We became aware of the huge shortage of hand sanitiser for those on the frontline and realised we were in a unique position to be able to assist. We quickly altered our production process to start manufacturing and getting this into the hands of those who need it. We redeployed members of our sales team to help in the distillery bottling and labelling hand sanitiser.

This supply of hand sanitiser is being split between charities, such as Cork Simon and local Kinsale volunteers, and consumers. As an extra thank you to our customers when placing online spirit orders through our website they receive a free sanitiser and one more is also donated to a charity group in their name. 

Another big concern of ours was keeping our Blacks Whiskey Founders Club progressing to its next key milestone, which was the start of the distilling process. Members who had already joined were busy making plans of what they would do upon whiskey maturation like bottling and labelling their whiskey to gift to family, friends or corporate clients, others planning to sell some on the secondary whiskey market, while more are using it purely as an investment opportunity.

We really didn’t want to put their exciting plans on hold and disappoint any members. Technology came to our aid here and thankfully enabled us to keep everything moving forward. Our new whiskey still manufacturer is from Italy, and in normal circumstances, they would send an Italian engineer to our distillery for a week to test the stills and get them calibrated properly for production.

This was impossible, so they are now dialling into the still control panel remotely from Italy, and with video calling and multiple WhatsApp messages going over and back we are making changes on the ground based on their directions and using technology to complete this commissioning process.

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IMG-20200501-WA0000 Source: Blacks Brewery & Distillery

Next week the real excitement will start for both ourselves and our members as we move into regular production. We are delighted that we can put these sacrificial alcohol runs, which we are currently completing, to good use as these will also be transformed into hand sanitiser. 

We are in this together

The current environment is challenging as there are no guidelines formally laid out yet for each industry as to how we are going to get back to normal, and what this new normal will look like.

At the moment I would encourage business to get inventive, take inventory of your raw materials and the skill sets of your staff and see if there is a temporary gap in the market that you have the ability to fill.

We are all in this fight together, and together is how we will successfully come through this. Consumers and businesses have been great to support local and small business and continuing to do so will be really important as we start to come out the other side. 

To become a member of the Blacks Whiskey Founders Club, or to place an order for some of Blacks Brewery & Distillery famous craft beers or spirits visit www.blacksbrewery.com. You can also contact Paul, a member of the Blacks team at paul@blacksbrewery.com or stay connected online at  Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

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Sam & Maudeline Black

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