For the last 20 years or so, it’s been pretty standard for people who have just graduated to head off for a gap year. The most popular destination has been Australia, and most come back having seen the wonders of that vast country: the great Barrier Reef, Byron Bay, Cairns and Uluru.
owever, by his own admission, vodka entrepreneur Shane Davey didn’t do any of that during his post-college year; he put the head down, shovelled cement on building sites to make some money and, after a year, came home. “I worked six days a week, getting up at 6am, working till 5pm. I didn’t make the most of the Australia experience. I went back later for three weeks and we did more in those weeks than I had in the whole year,” Shane says with a laugh, referring to the trip he later took with his wife, Fiona, an interior designer.
It wasn’t, however, a wasted experience. Shane is very observant and he came back fizzing with possible start-up ideas. None worked out at the time but they gave him his introduction to consumer products, which, in turn, has led him to the drinks business, culminating this year with the launch, finally, of his own product: a premium pot still vodka called istil 38, which he brought to market last spring. And, to his delight, it’s already getting brand recognition and is being stocked in 400 pubs and in 50 branches of Dunnes Stores.
They say success is 1pc inspiration and 99pc perspiration, and Shane is only half joking when he says he’s been working since he was a small child. “Dad owned bookshops and he instilled a massive work ethic in me. I would have worked from age nine with Dad, because Mum wanted me out of the house.” He hastens to add: “Not front-of-house; I’d be down in the stores. Everyone else was down in Wexford on holidays while I was in the bookshops but I loved it, I loved earning my 50 pence an hour.”
The gregarious Dubliner, who is one of four children, continued working for his father right through college, and while he was in Australia — by then he had a master’s degree in management under his belt from University College Dublin (UCD) – his dad rang him to ask him his opinion on taking over the bookshops. “He rang me and said he was selling the business and asked if I’d have any interest. I thought, ‘Imagine if I messed up the other kids’ inheritance?’, so I said, ‘You sell it. I’ll plough my own path’.”
The engaging businessman was confident that doing so wouldn’t be a problem. “I’d come back from Australia with a book full of ideas, thinking I was going to be a millionaire,” he notes with a laugh.
The first idea he had when he came home was food-related. He had decided that, despite the great love the Aussies had for barbecuing, they didn’t have nice sausages, so they could do with Superquinn sausages. He wrote to Feargal Quinn and the legendary retailer wrote back, invited him for an interview and even offered him a job – not as an exporter of his famous sausages but as an assistant manager. It was very good money but it didn’t suit Shane as the job involved working on Saturdays and he liked to play hockey that day.
His next idea yielded better results. He had also observed that while the Aussies have plenty of crisps, they didn’t, at the time, have Hula Hoops. He also noted that the Irish, when they go to Australia, love Tim Tam biscuits – they are similar to Penguin bars – but they weren’t available here, so he got onto the food-service company Robert Roberts with his great idea of exporting Hula Hoops and importing Tim Tams. Robert Roberts offered him a job; it didn’t involve exporting and importing but it also didn’t mean working on Saturdays.
He was then headhunted by Unilever to become a national account manager, working with Dunnes Stores and SuperValu and, later, with British multiples. After two years he decided he wanted to move and this time he joined the company that owned Fruitfield jams and Jacob’s biscuits.
After four years there, he got into drinks company Britvic, where he became sales director, learning everything to do with the drinks market over eight years. He then spent a year with Diageo, where he learned about building brands, before being headhunted by Irish Distillers, owned by Pernod Ricard, where he spent four years. “I looked after their premium brands, Redbreast, Midleton whiskey, Perrier-Jouët Champagne. I loved it. It’s a brilliant company with brilliant people and brilliant brands.”
After four years, the company was restructured and his job vanished. They wanted to keep him and he stayed for a further year doing project work but by then he had come up with his vodka idea. “During my time in Diageo, we launched Gordon’s pink gin and I saw pink gin go from zero to 25pc of the gin market and it elevated Gordon’s as a brand. So I suggested to Irish Distillers, ‘If pink gin works why don’t we do a pink vodka?’ but I was told, ‘Good idea, but we’re a whiskey company’. There are a lot of Irish gins out there, and a lot of Irish whiskeys but very few Irish vodkas. I felt there was a gap in the market; I felt there was an opportunity to launch an Irish vodka.”
Shane found two business partners, John Reynolds and Niall O’Dwyer, both of whom have years of experience in the business. Businesswoman Pippa O’Connor Ormond, who is married to TV personality Brian Ormond, has also come on board as co-owner and creative director. “We approached Pippa and Brian and she loved the brand, loved the bottle, loved the concept. She said she wanted to invest.”
He also got great support and advice from other experts in the drinks market such as Pat Rigney of Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin. In the main, Shane and his business partners got their funding from contacts in the drinks industry and friends and family. After months of experimenting and testing the market they came up with istil 38, which comes in three flavours: classic, pink berries and vanilla.
Coming up with the name was not easy. “We had 100 names, from Ivory Sea to Cool Puck to Irish Wolf. Some of the names had already been trademarked. I liked Ivory Sea; ivory is a luxurious colour but market research showed it has connotations of cruelty,” Shane explains, “We were getting close to presenting to investors and we had to come up with a name so we said, ‘What are we? We’re an Irish company. The vodka is a pot still and it’s 38pc ABV so we went with istil 38. Vodka is mainly drunk by women and the name will be good for marketing campaigns: ‘istil love Christmas’, ‘istil believe in love’,” Shane enthuses. There was a question around pronunciation but, as Shane notes, people have difficulty with Moët and Nike and it hasn’t stopped them becoming worldwide global brands.
During all the experimentation and development, his wife Fiona has been hugely supportive. The couple met at Leopardstown, Co Dublin, in 2005 and married in 2009. “We got married in the south of France on June 25, 2009, the day Michael Jackson died,” Shane says. Fiona adds: “Jackson’s love song Speechless from his album Invincible was our first dance.”
Fiona had studied psychology but was always creative and as well as studying interior design after university, she worked in fashion shops before opening her own boutique, Sofina – an anagram of Fiona’s – in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. She closed it just before their eldest Robyn, now aged 11, was born. “It went well for four years but then the crash came. My clients were all popping in for a chat but they couldn’t afford to shop. I would never own a boutique again. I loved buying and styling but I’m terrible with budgets,” she says candidly.
The couple have three daughters. As well as Robyn, they have Alannah (eight) and Matilda (six). Fiona combined looking after them with working in other boutiques before returning to another love; interiors. She opened Fiona Davey Design and helps clients refurbish their homes.
The desire to set up the interiors business was ignited when the couple bought their current home in Carrickmines, Co Dublin, eight years ago after selling their old one in The Gallops, Leopardstown.
“We had sold our first house, which was in The Gallops, at the bottom of the market in 2013 and lived in an apartment for a year but we needed to buy at the bottom of the market too. We came to see this showhouse on a Saturday and loved it and got my parents to come to see it.”
Fiona could see there was huge interest in the houses. “We were told the houses would be going on the market the following Monday, that a deposit of €10,000 would be required and that it would be first come, first served. I made Shane’s dad give us a cheque on the spot on the Saturday. The estate agents didn’t want to take it but luckily the builder was there and he said OK. The following Monday there were 100 people queuing for 13 houses and they put up the price by €50,000.”
Both say it was one of the best things they ever did. The other purchasers turned out to be young couples like themselves and they all have a great rapport.
Fiona has turned the house, which has five bedrooms, one of which is en suite, into a gorgeous family home, though Shane did his share too. “I’ve no input into the decor but I’m good at DIY. I built the bookcase and I did the panelling in the living room.”
His other big contribution is the drinks trolley. “Our house is the house to come to for a cocktail,” he says with a laugh. “Think of it: there are only four or five big global Irish brands – Kerrygold, Aran sweaters, U2, Guinness, Baileys and Jameson, and three of them are drinks brands. Gunpowder Gin may get to that stage and, you know what, istil 38 has that ambition too.”
Shane was thinking big in the early stages of his career and it’s refreshing to see his enthusiasm and passion to succeed haven’t waned. Raise a glass to success.
See istil38.com. See Instagram: @fionadaveydesign
https://www.independent.ie/life/home-garden/interiors/my-favourite-room-our-house-is-the-house-to-come-to-for-a-cocktail-say-istil-38-founder-shane-davey-and-wife-fiona-42004053.html My Favourite Room: ‘Our house is the house to come to for a cocktail,’ say istil 38 founder Shane Davey and wife Fiona