Talking Trade

Island life

Anna and Orla Snook O’Carroll are the creators of Ór Valentia Island – the first ever Irish-made vermouth. Fionnuala Carolan spoke to the couple about how they utilised the beautiful natural habitat of this Kerry island to create their unique product and hears of their ambitious export plans for the brand

Orla and Anna Snook O’Carroll of Valentia Island Vermouth. Photo Joleen Cronin

While the rest of the country was busy baking banana bread during the Covid lockdowns, Orla and Anna Snook O’ Carroll were experimenting with tinctures on their kitchen table on Valentia Island, creating a product that would soon demand the attention of the drinks world. Fresh from their win of Best Irish drink at the Food Writer’s Guild Awards, their infectious enthusiasm makes you understand how this creative pair dared to dream and then made that dream a reality.
Orla and Anna have combined their experience in the hospitality business and the art world to create Ór. For those not too familiar with vermouth, it is not a spirit but a fortified wine, flavoured with various botanicals. It would typically be associated with Italy and the south of France and now for the first time, Ireland.
A pivotal moment in their life was when Anna attended a vermouth tasting in the UK some years ago, sparking an idea that also resonated strongly with Orla. “I just fell hook, line and sinker in love with it. I came back to Orla and said this is insane, you have to try it,” explains Anna. “And from that point on we started on a journey of trying as much vermouth as possible and learning as much as possible. And I think quite early on we were like this is what we want to do.”

The couple met while in art college in Bristol and previously worked in immersive theatre and fine dining events.  Photo Joleen Cronin

Anna is originally from Bristol while Orla – who grew up in Co Wicklow – had strong roots in Kerry due to her father growing up there. The two met while in art college in Bristol and previously worked in immersive theatre and fine dining events. “We were always toeing this line between art and food,” says Orla. When they moved to Kerry about five years ago, their creative juices went into overdrive.
“I’ve been coming to Kerry since I was six weeks old,” explains Orla. “It felt natural to go back there. We moved into the tiniest little cottage and it literally is just like the house scooped us up. Our lives have changed exponentially for the better for living there. It is absolutely phenomenal.”
Orla had learned about foraging from her beekeeping Dad, picking up knowledge of plants as a child. On Valentia Island, the couple began to explore the island’s rich tapestry of flora and botanicals, experimenting in their kitchen and developing their vermouth. “Throw everything up in the air in a moment in time and see what lands,” was their philosophy says Orla.
The base of this vermouth is Spanish white wine sourced from the Rueda Valley, made with the verdejo grape. Then use locally foraged Valentia Island plants and herbs including gorse which is an indigenous local ingredient that gives coconut and vanilla flavours. The name Ór comes from the golden colour that the gorse infuses into the vermouth.

SuperValu Food Academy

Vermouth is not a spirit but a fortified wine

A major moment for the business was when they were accepted into The SuperValu Food Academy offering them the guidance they needed at the time they needed it. “It really hand-held us through that first bit that can be very scary,” says Anna. “As long as you tick all the boxes of creating the brand, get the labelling right, they guarantee you will be stocked in a certain amount of SuperValus within the locality. So that really got us on the ladder. It gives you a bit more kudos. They really were a great support.”
And with this initial bit of help they have seen a great interest in the product from across the hospitality sector. “We feel incredibly lucky about the sort of butterfly effect there is in getting the product into high-end places, like five star hotels and Michelin star restaurants,” says Anna.

Next phase

Ór is bottled in nearby Cahirsiveen

The product is bottled in Cahersiveen, which is only a stone’s throw from Valentia as there wasn’t anywhere in Valentia for a production facility, explains Orla.
With a clear long-term plan for the brand they are looking to spread their wings quite early and are currently working towards launching Ór into the States later this year.
Is this not a daunting prospect I wondered? “I think we’re very aware that Ireland has been really good to us. And we have a lot more to do here too but there’s five million people in Ireland and say in the state of Texas alone, there’s 25 million. That’s a lot of scope. You can now make an all Ireland Manhattan, an all Irish Martini, all Irish Negroni and you could not do that before. So we are bringing that information to the US and using it as a unique selling point and targeting all those Irish bars,” explains Orla.
Acknowledging the great support they have received first from the people of Valentia and then from the people who take a punt and buy their product, they take nothing for granted. “It’s great when people say I want to try what you are making.They’ve heard about us and they know about the fact that it’s the only Irish vermouth. And so they pick it up, and they take a risk and buy it. And the meaningful thing for us is that they took a chance on us. It costs €35 so it’s a premium product and a lot of money and they’ve taken that risk. And then they say do you know what? That was delicious. I will get that again for a present. This is how we think it will grow,” explains Orla.
The dream and the long term plan is also to open a visitor centre on Valentia where people can come along and make their own vermouths. With the current trajectory of the brand this could happen sooner than later. And who could think of a nicer way to spend a day making vermouth in the company of this charming couple on beautiful Valentia Island. n

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