Meet the Distiller: Darren Nugent - Íon

Darren, for those readers who don’t already know you, please tell us a bit about your background.

How did the íon journey begin?

My name is Darren Nugent and I am an avid Craft Drinks fan. I started Pokertree Brewery a few years ago and from the very beginning had the desire to develop that into Spirits production - I always saw that as a natural evolution. I have wanted to make rum for a very long time and my first real introduction to rum - in terms of both drinking it and seeing it being produced was during a fantastic holiday to Cuba with my girlfriend at the time (and now wife) around 13 years ago. We sipped on a variety of fantastic and fresh tasting cocktails that were out of this world and my interest in Rum was peaked. A highlight for the trip was when we visited the home of Havana Club and watched the crushing of the sugarcane plants to extract the raw juice and followed the process of making rum right through to the finished products and it was absolutely marvellous - romantic almost. There was something special watching the process and seeing what could be achieved through processing something as simple as sugarcane. 

I had often thought about producing Rum in Northern Ireland - but felt it was just a crazy idea. But having seen the dramatic rise in the craft beer movement - and then the incredible rediscovery of Gin about two years ago we decided to go for it and create a distillery and make our own Rum, Gin and Vodka in Northern Ireland - the first commercially made rum ever to be 100% made here. 

How long did it take to perfect your recipes?

We had been developing Íon for two years before we were happy with the recipes and felt there were where we wanted them to be. One of the key problems we encountered was translating the recipe we had developed on small test equipment to larger scale, commercial equipment. I feel starting out with a very clear idea of the type of products we wanted to make was the key to our recipe development. Our Gin for example - we always knew we wanted to create a classically simple gin with a crisp and citrussy profile and complex but subtle flavour. However the huge variety of botanicals out there lead to a long process of experimentation, but the key was the inclusion of Japanese Yuzu fruit which gives out gin is citrussy signature - in fact out gin is built around it.

You use different stills for each spirit,  can you tell us a little about why that’s important?

The shape of the still used in making spirits has a very important role in the final profile of the product. As a rule, spirits made in a pot still produce a more flavourful and interesting spirit, this is why Pot Stills are preferred for Whiskey and Rum- rather than Column stills which tend to produce lighter, cleaner and less flavourful base spirit - which is exactly what you want in Gin and Vodka. From the start we knew we wanted to produce a range of spirits and it was important for us to make our products in an authentic way. So we decided, very early on that rather than one multi purpose still we would manufacture a still for each product, including the only Caribbean "Doubler - Style" still in either the UK or Ireland.

What’s your favourite part of the distillation process?

There are a number of key stages that are all equally enjoyable from start to finish. The first is the start of the fermentation. There is movement within the liquid as it churns over in the tank and that is when we know the process is underway. The next highlight is when the still is fired up and the Spirit is freely flowing . No matter how many times I do it, there is still a smile on my face when I see that crystal clear liquid starts to run and the aroma fills my nostrils. Another key moment - in relation to the Rum specifically -  is the when the rum is finished in the casks. Seeing how it transforms in the wood and how the flavour mellows and changes is a very satisfying moment - one when a sense of achievement hits home.

What's the production schedule like at Íon?

We distil fairly regularly - around three times per week. As we are a full production distillery from start to finish so distillation is actually only one part of our working week. As we make our own base spirit this must be distilled a number of times before the finished product is ready to bottle or age. This is broken into different processes for each product - with our Vodka, Gin and Rum 

The craft drinks scene is often described as a bit of a cult of personality. What aspect of the Nugent personality is vital to the success of íon?

I am not sure that I have any personality traits that could engender a cult following! However I do believe that I am driven to create a range of products that I am proud to put my name on and to drink myself. I am very proud of what we have achieved so far and I am positive that those who try our products will love them too.

How do you combine an international approach, while keeping Íon firmly grounded at home in Tyrone?

By merging the best of both. All our products are made in our own distillery here in Tyrone with water sourced from a well deep beneath our premises. This is combined with the very best ingredients from around the world. Also by being a full production Distillery we have the freedom to make things our own way and have input throughout the process - so in making our rum for example. We use some particular techniques associated with rum made 

in Jamaica and Cuba, whilst putting our own "N. Irish" twist on it - by distilling three times like in Irish Whiskey production and aging in Oak Casks.

What is your favourite way to drink íon Rum and do you have a favourite Ion cocktail? 

There are a number of different cocktails I believe our rum works well in - and these can be viewed on our website - the Simple Cuba Libre; Dark N' Stormy and our own "Grainne Mhaol" are all very good...but I also love our Rum in an Old Fashioned, as I think the robust flavour stands up very well as a replacement for the traditional Bourbon.

Will you please share that cocktail recipe with our readers?

Such a simple, yet delicious cocktail. Combine the rum, syrup and bitters in a mixing glass with ice. Stir vigorously and strain into a double rocks glass over one large ice cube and garnish with an orange twist.

50 ML Íon Whiskey Cask Spiced Rum

1 Teaspoon Demerara Syrup

2 Dashes Angostura Bitters

2 Dashes Orange Bitters

What’s next for the distillery? What do you see as key to staying ahead of the game? 

2019 is going to be a very exciting year for us. We have just launched so our key priority is for us to establish our products and share them with as many people as possible so they can try them for themselves.

Do you have any new products in the pipeline?

We already have next Christmas's specials in barrels maturing - one specialty Gin and one Specialty Rum and we have a few ideas about small rum special products we want to product, however the big one on the horizon will be our Whiskey. We have already made spirit and it is maturing in our casks ready to launch in the future. That is the major benefit of being a full production Distillery and something we are very excited about.

The craft spirits scene is growing at a spectacular rate, what other products out there do you enjoy?

With so many new Spirits to try I am enjoying sampling the broad and varied range that are increasingly becoming accessible. Rum I feel, is becoming more popular and I really enjoy many established classics like Diplomatico Reserva, Plantation and Foursquare, and some of the more recent craft brands like Cut Smoked Rum and Bush Tea Spiced Rum.


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