More and more often, we see the word “craft” followed by “beer”, “gin”, “cocktail” and other stars in the alcoholic drinks universe. Black Castle Drinks, a brand of Irish craft soda, offers a refreshing approach to the trend both literally and figuratively, as their non-alcoholic drinks are aimed at adults and combine sophisticated flavours created to please palates without the need of an ABV.
The company, created in 2015, is named after Wicklow’s Black Castle, “an infamous ruin of a castle that sits overlooking the rugged coastline in Wicklow Town”, explains Riva O’Malley, who founded and runs the business with her husband John McGee. They choose to reference this unusual location as a nod to their own provenance; John was born in Wicklow, while Riva is a Dubliner who has lived in the county since she was a teenager. They liked the name “because it has stood the test of time and has a slightly dark history”, and because they were looking for something that was “Irish without being kitsch.”
They met in college and have been together for 13 years. During that time, John graduated in Structural Engineering and Riva studied Digital Marketing.
After a few years of career growth, the recession motivated them to move to London in 2010 to continue advancing. In the British capital, Riva got to be part of the exciting drinks industry in East London, “enjoying the creative, vibrant social scene before deciding ultimately that it was time for home.”
With 5 years digital marketing experience under my belt, and 3 years pub industry experience under John’s, we began planning our return home with an idea that was bubbling over!
They got the inspiration for Black Castle Drinks during their days in London, when the vibrant drinks scene made them wonder “why there wasn’t an equivalent movement in non-alcoholic options.” The idea of an adult soft drink was already taking shape in their minds when they decided to get married and return to Ireland.
We felt there was a real opening for soft drinks that had as just as much thought put into them as their alcoholic peers, ones that catered for more sophisticated palates; a soda less ordinary.
A Flavour Experience
Their craft sodas are inspired by flavours that they enjoy on a personal level and secondly, that can create an experience for the person drinking them. The sodas are infused with spices, ginger and nettle to create depth of flavour and added bite. They are lightly sweetened with pear juice and natural high quality sugar such as muscovado, and have a low level of carbonation to really let the flavours shine through.
“Our sodas are created using natural ingredients sourced locally where possible and made by hand in Newmarket Kitchen in Bray, Co. Wicklow. We currently have two flavours in the range, a Fiery Ginger Beer and a Berry Bramble Sting”, says Riva.
While they use real sugar in their sodas, the levels are kept as low as possible without compromising on flavour. Both products contain 7g of sugar per 100ml or less. To put that in perspective, Riva points out that “there are 6.7g of sugar per 100ml in the Ginger Beer, compared to 15.2g in the leading ginger beer, that’s less than half the sugar.”
They are keen to pint out that their sodas “are intended as stand alone drinks” as their aim is to allow people to feel like they are enjoying something special on a night out, whether drinking alcohol or not. However, they can be used as mixers and the ginger beer in particular provides a very pleasant background for mocktails and cocktails.
The biggest thing we hear from our customers is that there should be more options like these in pubs and restaurants! They are fed up with the non-alcoholic options currently available, they are either too sweet, too fizzy, artificial or make them feel left out, like they are having a kid’s drink.
Branding on a Budget
For Riva, the biggest challenge they’ve faced since they started the business has been finding a way to create brand awareness on a low budget, and while it has not been easy, she says it encourages them “to think creatively and carefully about how the brand is represented and about how we communicate with our target consumers.”
They’ve found a way to get their message across “through a mixture of social media, festivals, telling our story to relevant media and targeting particular clients such as The Guinness Open Gate Brewery, Teeling’s Whiskey Distillery, Avoca, Fallon & Byrne and SuperValu”. Word of mouth is crucial for brand recognition when resources are limited.
Secondly, another challenge they mention is a way to get their product to people who are looking to enjoy it. “We are actively seeking a nationwide distributor who understands the potential of Black Castle and who will help us scale up”, Riva adds.
Motivation and Planing
When it comes to a small business, staying motivated makes all the difference and it’s not always easy. “We are very fortunate to have each other in this business”, says Riva, for whom sharing a vision with John for where they want Black Castle to go helps her stay focused.
We can bounce ideas off each other, and pick each other up if we’re having a hard day. Reminding ourselves of our achievements to date and the positive feedback we’ve had from clients and customers keeps us motivated.
And after almost two years in business, they’ve not only strengthened their confidence and developed a product that is innovative, top quality and which was missing in the market, but they’ve also built momentum and are ready to take things to the next level.
When asked what advise they can share for those just starting out in the Irish food and drink industry, Riva says: “Trust your gut but back it up by research. If you feel you’ve got a great idea, find out if it’s worth pursuing. Speak to people in the industry, find out who your competitors are, read up on the category. Ultimately, enjoy every step as it can be a bumpy, but worthwhile ride.”
Regarding plans for the near future, they’re currently working on a new product which they expect to launch later this summer. “We’re very excited about it, initial feedback has been very positive. We are also developing new pack sizes for retail as a great take home option.” Riva also points out that further down the line, exporting looks more and more like a feasible goal.
For now, growing their brand and finding more shelves and venues everyday takes up most of Riva and John’s time. You can find their natural and flavoursome Irish craft sodas in several well known stockists and the list keeps growing.
More information blackcastledrinks.com
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.