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Bhagya Barrett of Rebel City Distillery on self-belief - and launching a brand during the pandemic

The distillery co-founder also explains the inspiring story behind its Maharani Gin


The drinks industry, like any traditional sector, has a history of being full of male-fronted enterprises, but remarkable progress has been made thanks to a generation of brave, forward-thinking women.

This week on foodandwine.ie, we’re celebrating such women from around the country who are making their mark in the drinks world. From what it's like to be the only woman in your workplace to the advice they'd give to other women, inspirational women who work in all aspects of the drinks industry have been sharing their stories.

Bhagya Barrett, along with her husband Robert and father-in-law Brendan, set up Rebel City Distillery distillery in Cork in 2019 and launched Maharani Gin in June 2020. We spoke to her about her involvement in the distillery and the importance of strong women in her life. 

What does your role in Rebel City Distillery involve?

My role is in business development and my prime focus is on expanding business within Ireland and on export markets. I am also heavily involved in botanical and ingredient procurement, brand positioning and brand development. As we are a start-up, with a four-member team including myself, we all wear multiple hats. We are also a craft distillery so every element of the product is handcrafted right from distilling to bottling and labelling. As someone who comes from an IT background, my world was all bits and bytes so I love the creative side of the role. It’s quite a refreshing change from the IT world. 

READ MORE: Whiplash's Lynsey Campbell on being told she was 'too small' and 'not strong enough' to be a brewer

Maharani Gin has been described as a tribute to revolutionary women the world over. Was this ethos important to you?

Maharani means high queen and the name is a nod to the rebellious spirit within women. I come from India, a place where women still have to struggle a lot to come up in society. Also globally there are now bigger conversations around gender equality. I grew up listening to folklores of women who stood strong to make a change in society so this was a very important ethos for me. We wanted our first product to raise a toast to strong women and celebrate them.

The gin features botanicals from a women’s co-op in Kerala. How did this
come about?

We wanted the flavour to reflect a component of Kerala, India where I am from and signature botanicals  are sourced from Wayanad, my favourite place in Kerala. It's on the western ghats, a UNESCO heritage site that is the most biodiverse region of India. We source ingredients from a women’s collective that obtain botanicals from organic sustainable farmers. We love the social aspect which the collective puts forward and the quality of the botanicals was second to none.

What would you say has been the most challenging part of the business so far? And the highlight?

We launched Maharani Gin in the midst of a pandemic and launching a new product into the retail market first has been quite challenging. But despite all odds, we managed to get excellent support from the local community which has helped us expand product listings across Ireland. We also got immense support from the Indian diaspora across the globe which helped us get our first international export less than five months after launch. In December 2020 we won The Spirits Business' Gin Masters Gold for contemporary style gin and we also won bronze at the Crafts Spirits Berlin Awards 2021.

Do you feel there are any particular challenges to being a woman working in the drinks industry?

The drinks world is a very male-dominated industry and I come from India where women drinking alcohol is still not quite the norm. The industry needs to be more welcoming to women but numbers are definitely increasing and there are a lot of women in leadership positions. Still, we need to keep that momentum going.

READ MORE: Emma Millar of Hinch Distillery on meeting challenges and changing perceptions

What advice would you have for women who may be thinking of pursuing a career in the industry or setting up their own business?  

Believe in yourself and keep constantly learning and evolving. The drinks industry is a very friendly one and people are very open to sharing their learnings and providing guidance so keep networking. It’s also important to have a proper business plan along with milestones. Do market research thoroughly and understand the niche. Know your product and effectively use marketing mediums to raise awareness about the product. There is plenty of government support available too, from training to financing, from places like local enterprise offices and Bord Bia.

Who or what inspires you?

My mother has been the biggest guiding force in my life. I derive a lot of inspiration from her. I come from a lower-middle-class family in India but, despite that, my parents gave me the best education. Right from a young age, my mother told me how important financial independence is for a woman and this has really helped me push myself harder and move forward. Nature and forest walks do inspire me as well. I love going on forest walks - they clear my head, fills my mind with positivity and cleanse my energy as well.

And finally, what’s next for Rebel City Distillery?

Post-Covid 19 we are looking forward to opening up the visitors’ centre and have plans for opening a spirit school where we will be teaching how to make craft spirits. The next products from Rebel City Distillery will be small batched absinth and vodka which would be branded under 'distillery series' and this would be followed by rum.

You can find out more about Rebel City Distillery here.