’Being made in Donegal is a very important and unique selling point which immediately delivers a heightened sense of appreciation among many consumers across the world’’ according to Eleanor Hanna. In the face of a pandemic and a post Brexit world where Donegal businesses are exposed more than most, this sentiment is particularly important. Here we speak to Eleanor Hanna of Hanna Hats and James Doherty of Sliabh Liag Distillers who share their story of success locally and internationally.
Hanna Hats, 97 years young in 2021, was established by Eleanor Hanna’s grandfather David Snr, just before the Great Depression of 1927. As Eleanor jokes ‘’I don’t think business supports such as Trading Online Vouchers were available back then. Resilience is in our blood.’’ Family is still to the fore for the company with Eleanor and her brother John Patrick managing the business from their Donegal Town base.
Long before the challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit, Hanna Hats have been successfully exporting their handmade products including waistcoats, bags, scarves, bow ties, accessories and as well as their signature hat range. ‘’We identified an opportunity to reach new markets by selling online. We have built a strong sales pipeline in America, Canada, Asia, and in Europe right across to Russia. Covid has meant that we cannot visit those markets, but we are able to engage with buyers and customers through a range of virtual Trade Fairs in Ireland and further afield. We miss the face to face contact, but continuing to interact, albeit digitally is hugely important and demand for our products remains very high.’’
Sliabh Liag is something of a different family legacy, inspired by his grandfather’s old whiskey (& poitin!) recipes, James and his wife Moira decided to relocate from Hong Kong and pursue a lifelong dream and family tradition, establishing An Dúlamán Distillery in Carrick, Co. Donegal. ‘’We wanted to create a legacy that everyone can be fiercely proud of, not just for our family and staff, but the entire community and county’’. In 2017 they became the first legal distillery in Donegal for 175 years.
Covid-19 presented a different opportunity for Sliabh Liag Distillers, recognising the unprecedented demand for hygiene products and realising they were in a unique position to help frontline healthcare workers, the team quickly expanded the product range to include Sliabh Liag Hand Sanitiser containing seaweed to make it gentler on the skin. The company also donated 1,200 litres of the product to hospitals and nursing home facilities across Donegal.
Following the early success of their gin, Sliabh Liag Distillers have introduced award winning smoky Silkie Irish Whiskey, An Dúlamán Gin and Assaranca Vodka brands, they have also steadily grown their team with staff based in the UK and Europe to support their growing export market in 24 countries at the moment. ‘’The demand in the States in particular for our Silkie Irish Whiskey, introduced in September of last year, has been phenomenal. We are now on sale in 24 states with 9 more launching by May. We’re also due to open our Ardara Whiskey Distillery later in 2021, which will be a major milestone for us.’’ This development will bring further employment to the region, increase capacity and is also likely to become a major tourist attraction, benefiting the region in multiple ways.
There is plenty in the pipeline too for Eleanor and the team at Hanna Hats. After a successful 2020, the business was recently part of a TV campaign, aired in America on St Patrick’s Week. ‘’On the back of this we’ve had new customer sales and feedback saying it was great to know that you can still buy a handcrafted hat & cap made in Ireland. With our brand steeped in history and heritage, this really resonates with the demand for authentic, yet affordable, sustainable fashion.’’
Ensuring staff skills are kept to a high level, Hanna Hats have also teamed up Intertrade Ireland on a design opportunity for graduates, while closer to home they have teamed up with Donegal ETB, on a design and fashion accessory project through a ‘Skills to Advance Initiative’. This will provide an opportunity for new staff members, in a growing team, to upskill in the areas of pattern and new product creation. Eleanor added ‘’we are delighted to have this collaboration in place and it will enable all staff to have the opportunity to input into new collection designs for Autumn 2021’’