Women Of The Irish Food Industry – Marie Byrne, Founder & Commercial Director

Women Of The Irish Food Industry – Marie Byrne, Founder & Commercial Director

Marie Byrne is the Commercial Director and the founder of Chinnery Spirits. 

If you’re based in Ireland and care for gin at all, you will have heard of Chinnery Gin. The bottle is beautifully designed and although I’ve not tried myself (yet) but this new brand is making waves. You may not, however, have heard about Marie Byrne.

I love to find out and introduce you to the many women behind our familiar products or services and I feel we have much to learn from them. Certainly, Marie Byrne is giving me food for thought with her projects. She is quite the inspiring character and I hope you enjoy reading about her as much as I did. 

I asked Marie about how she likes her gin and we will have to agree to disagree, I like my gin with a lot of fuss and many a garnish. Some have said my gins even look like fruit salads

 

I’m talking to women in the food industry, what brought you into this category and what do you do?

Well, aside from a spell in financial services, I have always worked in start-up companies. There is a great sense of achievement from developing something completely from scratch. A few years ago, I took the fairly momentous step of setting up the Dublin Whiskey Company with 2 investors, which brought me into the drinks industry. It was a colossal task to develop a brand, learn about the industry, design a Dublin city distillery and guide it through the planning permission process. I was delighted to see it launched a few weeks ago under the new ownership of Quintessential Brands as “The Dublin Liberties Distillery”. After this, I worked with multiple companies both as a sonsultant and as an Enterprise Ireland mentor.

In 2016, I joined forces with David Havelin to set up Chinnery Spirits and we launched Chinnery Gin late last summer.

As a small company, both of us are across all aspects of the business but my particular focus is to grow Chinnery Gin both domestically and internationally.

 

How does your career fulfill you?

I’ve always had a grá for the food industry. Working in the spirits category fulfills a lot of passions of mine; brand creation, sourcing of unusual and interesting ingredients, creating premium products and building a company that’s underpinned by solid business relationships. It’s an industry that I think really demands a creative approach in order to captivate consumers and that is so important to me on a personal level.

I also work with Dr. Rena Barry-Ryan of Technological University Dublin (formerly DIT) who is a senior lecturer of Food Product Development. I approached TU Dublin with aspirations of setting up a B.Sc in Brewing & Distilling and our first cohort of students will graduate in September 2019, which will be a very proud day for me.

What are your ambitions for the next 2 years?

For the next two years, I will continue to grow sales domestically and globally by showcasing Chinnery Gin’s unique flavour profile, our innovative distillation methods and our packaging which is evocative both of Georgian Dublin and the romance of the Old China Trade.

In relation to my work with TU Dublin, we ultimately aim to establish a Brewing & Distilling Research Institute which will position Ireland’s Drinks Industry on a global stage.

 

What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?

Currently, I don’t think that there are enough women with a technical background working in the industry. Fantastic women such as Sarah Dowling who is the Blender/Distiller in Cooley (Beam Suntory) are still a bit of a rarity. However, we are trying to change that. For example, Brewing & Distilling students currently stream from the general entry Food Science Degree programme where over 80% of first year students are female. I’m delighted to see a similarly high percentage of female participation continues after streaming. This will result in more and more technical women entering the industry which will be fantastic and was one of my major considerations when setting up the degree course.

I have worked both formally (through EI) and informally as a mentor. I myself have always found it invaluable to receive advice from more senior people in the industry and so I’m really happy to provide advice myself, especially to other women.

There is a new association called “Wine Spirit Women” set up by Justine McGovern & Lynne Coyle. This group will help women to network with others in their industry and advance their own individual growth as well as shape the industry for the future. I personally found the networking opportunities at their launch event to be really super and look forward to future events with them.

 

Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspires you and why.

I think a lot of female producers and retailers are rightly referenced when we consider women who are ambassadors for the category. However, there are quite a few women who are really shaping and developing the industry in very significant ways behind the scenes. I’d like to mention some of these, which include:

  • Dr Rena Barry-Ryan (TU Dublin). Rena is leading the way in providing outstanding research into the Brewing & Distilling Industry; 
  • Grainne Mulligan (Department of Agriculture). The department offer protections at home and abroad for Irish Spirits. 
  • Aoife Clarke (Chair of the Irish Spirits Association) which represents all client companies;
  • Denise Murphy (Drinks Category Manager from Bord Bia). Denise is the first port of call for all new entrants into the drinks industry. Bord Bia have a big remit in promoting Irish Food but with capable women like Denise, the drinks industry is in a safe pair of hands.

Separately two other women that inspire me are:

  • Katherine McCartney of Classic Drinks. Katherine is a powerhouse of energy. Every great product needs great distribution partners. Katherine was one of Ireland’s first female sales representatives in the drinks industry and I’m sure she has some hair-raising stories to tell! 
  • Leah Kilcullen, Communications Manager for Chinnery Spirits. Just check out our social media to see how fantastic Leah is! She constantly delights me by what she can achieve on a small budget.

 

What challenges do you think women face in the Irish food industry?

I guess the challenges that women face in the drinks industry are broadly similar to those faced in other industries. During discussions with prospective investors, I have been previously asked to justify why they should consider investing in a company led by a woman who is “at a certain age in her life”. Frankly, I wouldn’t ever want to work with an investor who would have such a narrow focus as this. Therefore, I think that the government need to show leadership in providing more economical childcare options to remove this as a barrier for women planning to set up their own businesses. This challenge is obviously something that men would never have to contend with.

As we discussed at a recent Irish Spirits Association event, it can be difficult being the “only woman in the room” and therefore as consumers of spirits, women need to be more involved in how and why products are produced.

 

Have you had a wow moment to date in your career? If so, which one was it and why?

Ah I’m lucky enough (and old enough!) to have had plenty. A few in the last few years include:

  • Seeing lots of bottles of Chinnery bobbling down the bottling line! After so much hard work for myself & David in developing the gin and its branding, it was actually quite a surreal moment to see so many of them being prepared to head off across the length and breadth of the country!
  • Also, being recommended Chinnery Gin from a cocktail bar when I asked the barman if there was anything that excited him at the moment.

 

What challenges you personally and how do you recover?

Finding time! There are so many interesting projects and people that I would love to work with so it’s important to stay focused on the day job! I recover by considering what I would need to sacrifice in order to take on another task. Being brutal like this usually helps me to prioritise my time.

 

What are the top skills required to do your job and why?

Relationship development/management is a really critical skill. That ability to foster a win-win partnership for a brand-owner with a distributor and onwards to a retailer and through to the consumer is vital for success.

 

What are your favourite gin garnishes and botanicals?

Obviously, the stand-out botanical to me, is one of our signature botanicals used in Chinnery Gin; Chinese osmanthus. It has a wonderfully complex and refined aroma which we extract by vacuum distillation at low temperatures in order to preserve the delicate flavour profile. In fact, David travels all the way to Guangzhou once a year to personally select freshly harvested osmanthus and oolong for our production runs for the year.
A good tonic is essential and I personally love the Poachers Range (Poachers Wild in particular). Otherwise, I don’t like too much drama with a garnish, so usually a small slice of a citrus fruit served in quite a simple glass and I’m all set!

 

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3 Comments

  1. Isabel says:

    one to try I guess 🙂

  2. Conor Bofin says:

    Katia,
    Another great post in a great series. Keep up the excellent works.

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