17th June 2016
Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Emile Dinneen
17th June 2016
Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Emile Dinneen
We meet Justin and Jenny in their drawing room on an extravagantly sunny day in late May. After a quick chat, Justin shows us around the hotel, the distillery and the very impressive grounds while Jenny makes a start on lunch. When we return bearing asparagus from the walled garden, she incorporates it into a dish of poached eggs (from Ballyvolane hens, of course) and hollandaise sauce. Not to be outdone, Justin fixes us a couple of martinis using his own Bertha’s Revenge gin, which we can report is extremely good. Even the rhubarb in the syrup for the cocktails is homegrown.
As there were several distinct stages to our afternoon at Ballyvolane, we have arranged the following interview to match it.
I: She thought I was the hotel doctor
A conversation in the drawing room at Ballyvolane.
Justin: It’s pretty manic. We probably get up around 7 or 7.30am. I’ll turn all the lights on, get the house ready, check breakfast is being set up. At that stage the girls are coming in to hoover, the breakfast chef is in. I’ll look in my diary to see what appointments I have on during the day – wedding show-rounds, gin appointments – and go through my emails. Then there’s a lot of chit-chat with the guests, that’s very important as well.
Jenny: I’m not very good at having breakfast. I get the kids off to school first. If there are any leftover grilled tomatoes when I get back, I’ll have tomatoes on toast. I’m not a big fry-up kind of person. Occasionally I’ll have a poached egg. I love porridge. I love fruit.
Justin: I have a coffee and a Berocca every morning. I drink too much coffee – probably five or six cups a day. But I used to smoke like a chimney so I’d rather have a lot of coffee.
Jenny: Not really. It’s a struggle.
Jenny: We’ll try. Our oldest is at boarding school, so when he’s home we’ll go somewhere for an early supper. If we don’t get out of the house, we feel we can’t switch off. You’re living…
We don’t want to be hotelly, but we can take the best aspects of the hotels we’ve worked in. For me, it’s important that the pillows and duvets are really good and the beds are top-notch
Jenny: Yeah. So I’d rather go out for a Thai meal or a good noodle place. The kids love that. We’ll just escape. Otherwise…
Justin: The phone’s always ringing…
Jenny: Email. Social media…
Justin: In the winter we’ll go to the movies once a week.
Jenny: Oh absolutely. I’ll have no problem paying a babysitter so that we can go out on our own. Some of my friends are like, “Oh that’s such a waste of money, just to go to the cinema.” No it’s not! [laughs]
Jenny: I did a hotel management degree in England. After I graduated, I went to Hong Kong and got a job at the Mandarin Oriental, where Justin was working.
Jenny: No, Justin was on the food and beverage side, and I was in the rooms division.
Jenny: Yes. We met outside the lifts.
Justin: There were 25 floors so it was quite nice to spend a long time in the lift together. She thought I was the hotel doctor.
Jenny: I genuinely did.
Justin: Because at the time I was managing a restaurant called Vong [part of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant empire] which had opened in the top floor of the Mandarin. I was the only person not wearing a morning suit – it was very traditional hotel – and my office was in what used to be the hotel clinic.
Jenny: So he came out of the hotel clinic wearing his own suit, so I’m like, okay, it’s the hotel doctor.
Justin: I went along with that for a while. Then I eventually had to come clean.
Justin: Yeah. I’m just a trumped-up waiter [laughs].
Justin: Oh yeah, we were much better equipped than a lot of people. Some school friends of mine have country houses and they’re trying to do weddings and are finding it so difficult. We were lucky to have the experience and skills. I think we’ve done a good job.
Jenny: We don’t want to be hotelly, but we can take the best aspects of the hotels we’ve worked in. For me, it’s important that the pillows and duvets are really good and the beds are top-notch.
Justin: And be generous of spirit. It does make such a difference, I think. There’s no need to be mean. For example, we have an honesty bar. Help yourselves, write it down – that’s the idea anyway. We get the odd sneaky drink which is all part of the fun. Actually no, people respect it. People love the honesty bar.
II: It’s like floating through clouds
This is an opportune moment to move on to the distillery. Justin leads us out the back door (passing the aforementioned honesty bar) and down the garden to the converted shed where he and his business partner Antony Jackson make Bertha’s Revenge gin.
Justin: This is our little still – it holds 125 litres. Our big point of difference is that we’re using whey alcohol as our base spirit rather than a grain base, which most gins and vodkas are made from. Whey is a by-product of cheese, it’s usually fed to pigs. We get ours from a big dairy plant in West Cork. It’s much fuller, richer and creamier than grain spirit and it carries spice incredibly well – that’s one of the reasons we’ve created quite a spicy gin.
Justin: No but we were aware that Black Cow in the UK were making whey vodka. As part of our research we went to London and met the head distiller at the Thames distillery, Charles Maxwell, who told us about the whey alcohol. He said it’s fantastic stuff and it’s made just down the road from you. We wanted to make a gin that’s 100% Irish rather than importing ethanol in from France, as most people do, and we thought: we’re on to something here. So many gins are coming into the market – 13 in Ireland in the last year alone – and we wanted to do something different. We’re really pleased with the results.
So many gins are coming into the market – 13 in Ireland in the last year alone – and we wanted to do something different
Antony: No, but we had experience drinking it.
Justin: We enlisted the help of Peter Mulryan from from Blackwater Distillery in Waterford. He’s a very experienced distiller and he held our hand every step of the way. He did 13 batches in his own still. Then, when we became legal, we brought all the production in-house. He helped with first couple of runs and we’ve been on our own ever since. It’s getting better and better. We’re always learning, always improving.
Justin: It’s a flavoured vodka. Juniper is the main ingredient – it gives it that sort of dry, piney flavour. For gin to be defined as gin, it has to have juniper. Most gins also have coriander, citrus and spice notes. After that you can hang whatever you want on it. We use 18 ingredients including spices like cinnamon, cardamom and cloves; also sweet orange, bitter orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit. It’s all about having a balance.
Justin: Nine months. But every batch we do is very different: the ingredients change with the seasons. Some of the botanicals dry out over a bit of time so you have to adjust for that. They’re living beings. You’re going to have little variations, but there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s all part of the fun. As long as you have acceptable parameters.
Justin: We named the gin after Big Bertha who was the oldest cow in the world. She lived in Kerry and died aged 48, having given birth to 38 calves in her lifetime. Once we decided to use whey, we were hunting around for a funny Irish story about a cow and I was always aware of Bertha’s existence. A friend of mine called Turtle Bunbury ended up at Bertha’s wake completely by accident in 1993. Through Turtle we tracked down the owner of Bertha and asked his permission. Would he mind if we called our gin after his lovely old lady? He was absolutely delighted.
Justin: Fantastic. Really good quality.
Antony: Oh no, there’s no hangover at all.
Antony: It’s like floating through clouds.
III. It was quite “granny’s knickers”
We move on. Justin shows us the wedding venue, which seats 140 people and generates 70% of Ballyvolane’s turnover. We investigate the glamping site, where bell tents and an arc cabin are surrounded by brilliantly coloured rhododendrons. We visit the chickens and a large pen where impertinent piglets chew at my shoe. Over in the walled garden, we meet Justin’s father, who is nearly 82 and is still out gardening every day. Justin picks a handful asparagus for lunch, then we circle around to the front of the house through a bluebell wood.
Justin: Yeah it was great.
Justin: Yeah I do. It’s a beautiful place. We’re very lucky to live here, though we don’t get that much time to enjoy it ourselves. We see ourselves as caretakers, we try to restore it, keep it in good knick and hand it on – or sell it if the kids don’t want it. You have to have a really strong emotional attachment to these places. We’re not in it for the money, that’s for sure. They’re complete money pits and everything we make goes back into the house.
Justin: In 2004, just after my mum passed away. I was general manager at Babington House in Somerset [part of the Soho House group] for a couple of years. I had great fun working there. They were great at taking all the stuffiness out of the country house hotel.
Justin: Yeah, it was quite “granny’s knickers”, so we just styled it up a little bit, but at the same time tried to keep the integrity of the old country house. The ambiance these houses have is very unique. You either go ultra-modern or keep it traditional. We focused on the comforts and a bit of styling.
Justin: Yes, my parents turned it into a hotel in the 1980s – they started taking guests when I was 16. We used to farm about 300 acres but my father had to sell most of it – he wasn’t making enough – and that’s when they went into the tourism business. The name of the game in rural Ireland is diversification. You have to have an eye for an opportunity and be willing to change, otherwise… That’s one reason we’re doing gin, so we can export it all around the world, hopefully, and secure the future for here.
IV: Like New York on steroids
We access the kitchens by a side entrance. As well as catering for the hotel and the weddings, these two well-equipped rooms, with pantries offshooting, also double as the family kitchen. (Justin, Jenny and their three kids live in the old servants’ wing adjoined to the main house.) Jenny cooks the asparagus for lunch and we take our plates through to the drawing room, where Justin fixes us a couple of martinis.
Jenny: I have to. I cover the chef’s days off. Teena does four days a week and I fill in the gaps. That’s two or three days depending on how busy we are.
Justin: Jenny’s a great cook.
Jenny: Yeah I do.
Justin: It’s not cheffy food. A good roast and homegrown veg in season. We do loins of bacon with cabbage from the garden, parsley sauce and lots of English mustard. Very simple but my goodness it’s good. We do big turbots on the bone. Everything goes in the middle of the table. We call it BMF, which is “Bring me food”. We do it with the weddings too. It gets everyone interacting.
We do loins of bacon with cabbage from the garden. We do big turbots on the bone. Everything goes in the middle of the table. We call it BMF: “Bring me food”
Jenny: Yeah very much. I was the second of four children and I was always like a mini-mum. I had two younger brothers. I did all their birthday cakes. Mum and dad would eat really well, always lots of vegetables, always cooked from scratch.
Jenny: When we were in London, my mum cooked, but we moved to Hong Kong when I was six and this lovely Filipina lady, Linda, came to work with us. She was the most incredible cook.
Jenny: She had worked in the Lebanon and she did this amazing Lebanese roast lamb dish with loads of garlic, really slow-cooked. But mostly she cooked western food.
Jenny: Oh yeah. That’s the great thing about Hong Kong, you’re totally exposed to all types of cuisine. I remember having snake soup in a Chinese restaurant. Later, when I was working there, Cantonese colleagues would take us out to banquets and you’ve got to be really up for it. You get such good food in Hong Kong.
Justin: It’s one of the best places to eat in the world. There’s a big Indian community and you’d get some of the best Indian food you’ve ever had in your life. And the Thai restaurants are really authentic. Cantonese, Szechuan… It’s like New York on steroids.
Justin: We fished a lot as kids so we ate wild salmon and sea trout all the time. Instead of going to Spain or France for family holidays, we always went to some river in Mayo. We’d be woken up at 3am when the river was in flood and given spinning rods, and then as the river dropped we switched to fly rods.
Justin: Oh yeah I loved the fishing, but as kids if you don’t catch a fish you get bored pretty quickly. But we did eat very well. A lot of game too. We were dairy farmers so dad used to bring milk down from the parlour in the morning and it’d have a big thick head of cream on it. You don’t get milk like that anymore. We used to eat our own hens. We always grew veg in the garden. We ate a lot of baked beans and stuff as well. My favourite meal was always roast chicken, mashed potatoes, peas and gravy. It’s still one of my favourite meals now, a good roast chicken.
My favourite meal was always roast chicken, mashed potatoes, peas and gravy. It still is…
Justin: No I don’t really have time, but I can cook.
Jenny: Can you? [laughs]
Justin: Mainly telling you what to do.
Jenny: Yeah basically. You’re good at foraging.
Justin: And I do all the menus.
Jenny: And he can cook breakfast – if we’re stuck [laughs]. But I don’t think you’d have the patience for cooking a four-course meal for dinner.
Justin: No. Although at the start of my training I did two years in the kitchen. In Switzerland I was on the grill.
Jenny: I know!
Jenny: Liquorice. I hate it.
Justin: Yeah. I eat like a complete pig. I’m a terrible picker.
Jenny: You are. It’s hard not to when there’s so many yummy things in the larder. Tina makes these lovely roasted spice nuts and they’re always there.
Justin: It’s so easy to have a bowl.
Jenny: When we first moved it was to Dublin.
Jenny: No. I’m glad that I had a stint in Dublin. I know Dublin is so different to rural Ireland but at least I got to know the Irish psyche a bit. I think the food has really improved in Ireland…
Jenny: Yeah. But you’ve still got to know where to go and where to avoid. It amazes me how hard it is to get a nice sandwich in these parts.
Justin: You need to be well informed about where to eat. You can still get a shocking meal if you wander in somewhere randomly.
Jenny: Also the gastropub is not really a thing, as it is in the UK. It’s all about volume rather than quality. Sometimes when we have people from England, they say, oh we’ll just have a nice meal in the pub. We’re like, really?
Jenny: You’ll be lucky if you get a packet of crisps!
For more info on Bertha’s Revenge gin, go to www.ballyvolanespirits.ie
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