Donna Ahern talks to Ryan Friesen, head distiller, the Connacht Distillery.
How would you describe your role?
My job is to learn everyone else’s job and then start finding ways to make our excellent product more efficiently, more abundantly, and in as safe and enjoyable a working environment as possible.
I’m about a month into the process. I’ll let you know when I catch my breath!
What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?
My first distillery job was at Journeyman Distillery.
It was a great learning experience, and I am still friends with the team there.
My first job was de-tasselling corn when I was 13 and growing up in northern Indiana. Farmers would hire teenagers to walk down the rows of corn and pull the tassels off, to prevent fertilisation.
That first job is where I learned about hard work and earning your wage.
I bought my first stereo and 11-inch colour TV with that summer’s earnings.
What do you enjoy most about your current job?
I feel like I’ve just begun to scratch the surface here at the Connacht Distillery.
Walking into an already established distillery is a lot different than building one from the ground up. I always say, stretching myself and learning new skills is what drives me.
I’ll have that in spades here in Ballina.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
I didn’t think I’d be in Southern California for seven years when Melissa, my now wife, and I moved there, but it turned out great.
I imagine whatever I say today would be wrong in five years.
The main goal is to be working with good people and making beautiful spirits, wherever I may be.
What is your advice to people starting out in the industry?
There is no easier way to impress the people who will eventually offer you that promotion than to be the reliable and on-time team member. Attitude and willingness to learn is more important than aptitude and technical skill.
I’ve always said, anyone can learn the tasks that it takes to do this job.
The hard part is marrying them all together to create a complete skill set.
The first part takes perseverance. The second part takes time – just like good whiskey!
What was your worst job, and what was so bad about it?
I think I can remember just about all of them, and I can confidently say I learned something from all of them. That first one I spoke about is also probably the worst one.
It was hot, dirty, labour-intensive work, and I made US $4.25 an hour.
I suppose that was probably minimum wage in 1992, and if you missed the bus that picked everyone up in the morning, your mom had to drive you to the field – not a good look for a teenage boy trying to be cool!
What three business people do you most admire, and why?
With total sincerity, the first one is my mother. She went back to school when I was a teenager and reinvented herself professionally.
She started her own business and became a pillar in her community, and she only retired last year. I am so proud of her and grateful for all that she taught me.
In the middle of my professional life thus far, I worked for the Duncan Aviation family out of Lincoln, Nebraska.
They taught me about leadership in a professional setting, the principles of customer care, and helped me foster a greater sense of self-respect. I still count them among my most influential friends.
The third would have to be an amalgam of every distillery owner/operator I’ve come to know over the past nearly ten years.
I can hardly imagine a heartier group of entrepreneurs and business owners.
The distilled spirits business is tough, and owning and operating a distillery is the toughest part of that industry.
I’m constantly amazed by how much determination and energy exists in our industry.
What advertising campaign have you most enjoyed in recent months?
I always go for ads that show a brand taking its product or service seriously, but not taking itself seriously.
I actually went onto YouTube to watch all the Dr Rick Progressive Insurance commercials back home in the States.
Hopefully it translates well to your readers, but I was laughing out loud!
Who would come to your ideal dinner party (living or dead)?
Two different dinners: one for each of my recently passed grandmothers – they each get their own. I think of them almost daily.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love riding motorcycles, hiking, and travelling with my wife, Melissa. We hope to explore every corner of Ireland, and we are so grateful for the opportunity to move to beautiful Ballina, in Co. Mayo.
I’m also a massive history nerd, so I look forward to finding out more about Ireland’s interesting and varied history.