When Ciarán “Rowdy” Rooney’s mother fell ill in 2013, it was the nudge he needed to leave a demanding career in telecoms to be by her side. Rose, or Rosie if you were lucky enough to know her well, sadly passed from her illness just over a year later and left an enormous hole in the hearts of family and friends. Rowdy and his five siblings were devastated.
“At that point I wasn’t thinking of what the next step was, or what I wanted to do when I grew up,” he says with a smile. So, he decided to help some pals at an up-and-coming distillery called Glendalough, located in a narrow glacial valley in the Wicklow Mountains, about an hour or so south of Dublin, Ireland. As fate would have it, he truly enjoyed it.
“When the orders kept coming in I realized they needed a full-time distiller and, when asked if I could take the lead role, I said, after a thought, ‘I can certainly learn!’”
As it were, distilling came naturally to Rowdy and, with his little brother’s wedding approaching, he thought he might use his new skill to craft something special for the occasion. He asked his sister, Yvonne, to go to their mum’s beloved rose garden, a special place for the entire family, and harvest as many roses as she could. “Don’t worry, dad won’t even notice,” were his instructions to his sibling.
Rowdy used the aromatic rose petals to infuse a batch of gin in botanical baskets and, at once, the familiar scent of Rose’s garden filled the distillery. “Anyone who would have ever been in Rosie’s house would have known the smell,” he recalls.
The end result was a resounding success. The Rooney clan toasted at the wedding with a gin from the roses Rosie grew in her garden—and, in a very real sense, Rosie with them in spirit. The rose gin went on to be a permanent fixture in the Glendalough lineup, its subtle rosy hue derived from soaking rose petals a second time post-distillation. And still, to this day, roses from the family garden make their way into every batch—thanks to Rowdy’s sister, who has now been permanently appointed master rose gardener.
The rest of the picture wouldn’t be complete without local forager Geraldine Kavanagh, who grew up roving the wooded mountains nearby Glendalough and knows all the gems to be found growing in the hedgerows and meadows. Her expertise was quickly scooped up by distillery staff when they wanted to broaden their whiskey-based offerings to gin, which was a growing market at the time.
Rowdy, on the transition from whiskey to gin, says, “We look at surrounding hills and valleys and they’re absolutely swarming with amazing wild flora, it just seemed to make sense.” Unlike other distilleries that rely on dried botanical and fruit sources to infuse their gin to make a uniform product batch-to-batch, Kavanagh forages daily in the Wicklow wild to gather things to give Glendalough’s gin its unique character—things like fresh elderflower, watermint, pine and native stickybacks, a cucumber-tasting botanical that kids chase each other around with to stick on each others’ clothing. Doing things differently, however, does not come without its challenges. Kavanagh has to balance the timing of flowering and ripeness of the botanicals with sustainable harvesting practices to ensure each plant can survive and thrive for many batches to come. And, although the first gin was well received by mixologists, the seasonal variation was hard to manage in carefully crafted cocktails. Happily, all the hard work paid off when the distillery hit its stride, finding consistency in infusing fruits and florals and seasonality to create a gin that now speaks to the sense of place in which it was foraged and distilled, similar to terroir in wine.
The finished product, the rose gin itself, is a work of art. Rose petals can be challenging to work with because they can quickly overpower a flavour profile, but one thing Glendalough has nailed is the art of balance. It is gin first and foremost: a fresh juniper backbone with orange zest, pine and a touch of anise. The elegant rose and elderflower florals make for a harmonious gin experience; picture gin-meets-Turkish Delight but without any “sweet pink gin” stereotypes. It shines best in a simple G&T, ice cold with a squeeze of lime (added after gin but before tonic) and a slapped sprig of mint.
One thing’s for certain: Rosie Rooney would be proud as (gin) punch that she and her beautiful rose garden were honoured in such a delightful way, meant to bring friends and family together. To all the gin-credible mothers out there, like Rosie, we toast to you! —Janet Helou