Blog » How I Became a Head Distiller

How I Became a Head Distiller

20th May 2022

The Post: Head Distiller & Co-Founder, Rademon Estate Distillery

The Post Holder: David Boyd-Armstrong

Drive and passion have guided David Boyd-Armstrong’s career as a distiller of locally made gin and whiskey.

Give a brief outline of your career to date.

I worked as an engineer at Thales Air Defence in east Belfast after serving as an apprentice at aerospace manufacturer Bombardier for over 15 years before deciding to embark on a career as a distiller. It was after meeting my now wife, Fiona, that we decided to combine forces and draw on our passions to create Rademon Estate Distillery and Shortcross Gin and Whiskey.

What was your favourite subject at school?             

Looking back my favourite subjects were technology and design. I also loved science, in particular chemistry.

Did you go on to further/higher education, if so what did you study and where?

I served a Technical Apprenticeship with Shorts Missile Systems which is now part of Thales UK.  Along the way I studied part time and completed my HNC in Electronic Engineering at Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education and achieved my Honours degree in Computing and Information Systems at the University of Ulster.

How did you get into your area of work?

In 2012, I naively and gullibly said yes to my wife, Fiona’s, suggestion of opening a distillery. We had always wanted to create our own business and to work together, and Fiona had always talked about how exciting it would be build a distillery and produce a premium Irish product. Then as we explored the idea further, we became fascinated and inspired by the quality of craft spirits products being produced across the globe.

After spending a couple of years researching distilleries and brewing, in 2014, we opened Rademon Estate Distillery – Northern Ireland’s first craft gin distillery – and officially launched our first product, Shortcross Gin.

Is this what you always wanted to do?

I always dreamt of owning my own business but I would not have imagined a career as a co-founder and director of distilling. As my career developed, I started to find other interests, and when Fiona and I started to explore the idea of opening a distillery, we just fell in love with the idea of creating Northern Ireland’s first gin, Shortcross, and opening our distillery in Crossgar.

Were there any particular essential qualifications or experience needed?

You definitely need to know what you were doing. In my case I studied distilling courses and exams with the Institute of Brewing and Distilling. I still study and plan to take my exam to be a master distiller.

Dedication and passion is also needed. In December 2021, we released the inaugural Shortcross Irish Whiskey – the first new whiskey to be wholly distilled and released from a new Northern Ireland distillery in over 100 years. This was many years in the making, having first filled the casks back in 2015. 

Are there alternative routes into the job?

Yes, many people come into the industry from a chemical engineering or food technology background. Whilst that does help, I believe drive, passion and the willingness to learn are all you need. If you work hard and push your boundaries, you can achieve more than you think possible.

What are the main personal skills your job requires?

An eye for detail and great taste is a must! Passion for the job, room for the experience of constant learning. Being creative and curious and not afraid of long hours. My role is quite varied as I interact with all points of the business – from our team internally all the way through to supplier, customers and the end consumer. This means having the ability to personally interact and build relationships with people from all walks of life is key.

What does a typical day entail?

A typical day starts in the distillery planning what the priorities are for the day and then firing up our copper pot stills for our gin and whiskey production. After that, my time is spent dealing with customers and suppliers, and then also with guests on our tours of the distillery. We recently launched our new whiskey tasting and tour experience, allowing visitors to enjoy a fully immersive guided tour of the distillery, which we will run weekly. No day is ever the same and there is always new things happening and developing.

What are the best and most challenging aspects of the job?

The most challenging aspect is that my job is so varied and encompasses so many aspects. The latest challenges are shortages with suppliers, from glass bottle shortages, paper shortages due to strikes and increased energy costs. So, the biggest challenge is to keep everything moving forward as a business. 

The distilling and spirits industry is a fast moving and innovate industry led by consumers. Our business as a distillery encompasses so many different aspects from manufacturing, supply chain management, marketing, sales direct to consumer and business and our hospitality venue for tours, welcoming guests from all around the world to our home.  One of the absolute best parts is the satisfaction of working in a small, dedicated team.

Why is what you do important?

At Shortcross we focus on our ethos, we only sell what we distil, and we distil great products. I am extremely proud that as an independent family run distillery we have made our mark on the industry and continue to create products that win awards globally. 

How has Covid-19 impacted your business/role?

During Covid-19 we pivoted our business to make hand sanitiser, we donated over 1000 units to the NHS and local charities, but overall Covid-19 completely changed how we operated and to transition from our main routes to market to online and retail channels. We also saw travel, retail and the hospitality side of the business close for 18 months, so to keep engaging with our customers we launched virtual cocktail making classes and pre-mixed bottled cocktails for our customers to enjoy at home.

What advice would you give anyone looking to follow a similar career path?

Try and get some experience within the industry. It is a fantastic area to work in and there are roles for people with many differing skillsets and aspirations.  Most importantly, never doubt yourself or let people tell you that you can’t achieve your dreams.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you like to do?

I love what I do, so I don’t think I could ever see myself doing anything else. Distilling Shortcross whiskey and gin everyday is a job like no other. That said if I wasn’t in this industry, I would most likely be working as a Technology Manager in the defence or aerospace industries.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself on your first day?

Be patient and learn your role. Recognise that not everyone will work the way you do and that you will have to learn to adapt to everyone as individuals.

Describe your ideal day off.

Getting the chance to escape to somewhere new with Fiona or explore the local food and drink culture. Northern Ireland has a great hospitality scene, so my ideal day would be brunch or lunch at Balloo House or Smugglers Table, followed by a day exploring the city, followed by cocktails in Bert’s Jazz bar or the Grand Central observatory bar with dinner in Hadski’s, and a night in the Fitzwilliam Hotel.

And finally, what’s the key to any successful job search?

Find a career that you love and show the passion in your interview and that will shine through.

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