Shortlisted for a 2021 Blas na hEireann award, Rebel City Distillery was only launched in 2020 by India-born Bhagya Barrett and her Corkonian husband Robert who wanted to create a gin inspired by Bhagya's Indian culture
India-born Bhagya Barrett and her Corkonian husband Robert recently opened the new Rebel City Distillery in Cork, launching with a gin inspired by her Indian heritage with botanicals sourced from a women’s collective in Wayanad in Bhagya’s native Kerala. Yesterday, Maharani Gin was shortlisted for a Blas na hEireann award and here Bhagya shares her career trajectory, which has taken her all over the world, and talks about why their new gin celebrates strong women.
I have done quite a bit of shuttling around different cities before finally making Ireland my home. When I was living in Madrid, Spain for a few months, this was really pivotal, as the exposure to an international culture gave me a chance to identify unlimited career opportunities and the freedom to live life the way I wanted. This has been the driving force in my career shift westwards from India.
I quit a team manager job in 2013 when things were going really well in my career and decided to take the risk to move to the West to pursue an MBA in Programme Management in Ireland. I was really sure about the direction I wanted my career to take, so it was not a tough choice. Now, since finishing the MBA, I work as a programme manager in the IT industry here, delivering multimillion-dollar programmes spread across different geographical locations and cross-functional segments. It keeps me constantly challenged, and that’s what I strive for.
Moving to Ireland in 2013, leaving family and friends back at home and starting anew was challenging at times both fiscally and mentally. The cost of the MBA was huge and I opted to do it self-funded, taking a study loan from India. As a non-European, securing a job post-studies is very difficult and competitive, as we only receive a critical skill work permit if the company that offers you the permit can’t find the same talent from its European talent pool.
Post-graduation, all non-EU folks are given a one-year visa to find a role that falls within a “critical skills job”, and if you fail to find a job at the end of the year, it means you have to return to your home country. So time was ticking, and I was fortunate to get the work permit for my current job in April 2015 after nine months of searching. Throughout this, there were times when everyone around me asked was it really worth it to make that switch from India to Ireland, but I have no regrets. I love the Irish people – they’re very friendly and open to different cultures, and I am so glad I made Ireland my home.
I’ve had two mentors who helped me grow in my career. My mentor in TCS Chennai, in India, advised me not to be afraid of change. While I was deputed to Madrid for my onsite assignment, I was really worried as I had zero knowledge of Spanish, and no experience of travelling abroad. He kept pushing me to grab the opportunity and trusted that I could deliver the programme.
I was able to successfully transition the programme from Spain to India in 2012 and made some really good friends in Madrid that I am still in touch with. I also have a mentor in my current organisation, and his advice is to deliver quality work consistently and let the work do the talking. The valuable advice from both my mentors has help me to push hard every day, deliver consistently, and to never be afraid of change.
Like typical millennials, my husband Robert and I met online and decided to meet in person at the Tom Collins pub in Limerick in June 2015. We instantly clicked. We had the same level of interest in art, history, and craft beers. We love visiting farmers’ markets, art galleries, museums, craft distilleries and breweries on our travels, and Rob always had the idea of setting up a distillery in Cork. We had been talking about it ever since we met.
We wanted to identify the right location to have a home for the distillery and searched to identify the perfect spot. We came across the old Ford factory building and instantly fell in love with the place. We were passionate about preserving the history of the building, so we carried out the preservation of the property alongside its owners with the utmost care and we retained all the structural elements as is. With Cork being known as the Rebel City and homeland of Michael Collins, we couldn’t think of a better name for the distillery than Rebel City Distillery.
Covid-19 pushed out our launch by a couple of months. It was very challenging, but it gave us time to re-strategise our launch plan and we decided on a phased launch starting with the product launch for Maharani Gin. In our second phase, we plan to open up our gin school and visitor centre to the public and offer tours and tastings, and we also plan to have a rum and absinthe launched in our next release. The Maharani Gin launch happened right on time, I think, as Ireland is slowly re-emerging from the lockdown. We hope our gin can help to lift people’s spirits up a little.
I am from Kerala, the South Indian state. Kerala is known for its spices, and there is a long history of the spice trade between Kerala and Europe. As an interracial couple, Robert and I celebrate Easter, St Patrick’s Day, Christmas, Diwali, and the Kerala festivals of Vishu and Onam. We wanted our first product to be a celebration and fusion of East and West, so we decided to have signature botanicals sourced from India, which is known as the land of spices and has a long history linked to gin.
We source the signature botanicals of Maharani Gin from a women’s collective in Wayanad. Wayanad is my favourite place in Kerala. We were really fascinated and inspired by the idea of a place run by women from the local community and were extremely satisfied with the quality of produce – the co-operative, along with spices, is renowned for its coffee beans, which supply a lot of European markets. Since our launch, we have been receiving a lot of enquiries regarding the women’s collective and we are glad that we could help people to discover Vanamoolika.
I think it is important to be mindful of how we run the business, and treating our partners with fairness is a part of that. As the business hopefully expands, we would look for opportunities for ways we can give back to our surrounding community and the communities with which we do business.
Coming from a country like India, it’s extremely important for a woman to have financial independence. It’s the key to unlocking the freedom you need to live life the way you want. I come from a place where society puts pressure on women to get married before 25. It’s really important to stand strong and say no and to not succumb to pressure unless or until we are ready. I believe you should live the life you want and celebrate your life.
My advice to other career women is to never stop learning, and always have a constant quench to learn new things and upscale your skill sets. Set goals and take baby steps each day to achieve them. Stay confident and believe in yourself, and never let anyone convince you that your goals are too big to achieve.
Our product celebrates all strong women out there. Our signature serve is called High Queen and consists of Maharani Gin, your favourite tonic, a slice of pink grapefruit and mint.
Maharani Gin, RRP €49, is currently available to buy from IrishMalts.com, the Celtic Whiskey Shop and select retailers around the country. For more information, visit www.rebelcitydistillery.com or follow @rebelcitydistillery.
This article was first published in July 2020