There seems a kind of inevitability about the fact the launch artists – or makers, in current parlance - in Bushmills’ new creative campaign Answer the Call are an outfit called the Bearded Candle Makers. Candle making is a fashionable design area now and of course, you can’t be truly creative if you aren’t hirsute. Beards conjure up the hipster state of mind and everything that is bespoke and, well, authentic.
This is an imaginative piece of marketing, linking the arts and the famous whiskey by getting the public to sign up online for workshops and events and get creatively involved. It follows in the footsteps of innovative ad campaigns like Guinness’ recent anti-racist 1930s jazz sequence, not to mention Renault’s naming of its C4 model Picasso. The idea also taps in to Bushmills’ pioneering identity as an independent whiskey distiller since it was granted the world’s first licence to distil the amber liquid by James I and as the campaign continues runs on to September, will celebrate what the company regards as independent local writers, booksellers and other creative types.
As Marshall McLuhan put it, the ads and marketing of our time are the 'richest and most faithful daily reflections any society ever made of its whole range of activities'.
Happily, Michael Morris (34), originally from Belfast and one half of the company, lives up to the billing. He is bearded, passionate about candle making and knowledgeable. In terms of branding, he and partner Mark Kelly (30) from the Mournes weren’t being ironic, just playful. 'We tried out other names, like the Irish word for candle,' he explains. 'Then the words ‘bearded candle makers’ just came out of my mouth and it worked. We both have beards and now we can’t shave forever.'
Based just outside Downpatrick, which is handy for the airport when Morris sets off on an international marketing push, the Bearded Candle Makers operate from a studio behind the couple’s bungalow. 'It’s 12ft by 10ft and designed so that everything is manhandled and you can adapt the space to accommodate the pouring of wax or shift it around when you’re labelling.' The candles come in attractively retro silver cans with handwritten names.
Apparently, these designer candles are going down well in places as far flung as Tokyo. 'There is an Irish design shop in Tokyo and even there, we’ve had a great reaction,' says Morris. 'The response in America has been amazing – people find us online, in Facebook and elsewhere. There has been organic growth.'
The company started up in 2015 when Morris realized he didn’t want to continue on the corporate ladder in his successful retail career. He had worked as a retail manager in outdoorsy companies such as Surf Mountain and Trespass and in 2016 made the break. 'I am quite an outdoors person and had worked in different areas, including getting business into Europe. But I’d always been interested in the idea of scent.' Morris, who has a degree in computer science, admits that even his English books at school were full of stories about perfume. He also remembers enjoying Patrick Süskind’s sinister 1980s novel, Perfume, about a man’s obsession with smell when he was quite young.
You can even read a kind of Proustian madeleine association into Morris’ work on developing scents like Turf, which took four months to get right. He explains: 'The memory association is a big thing for me via taste and smell. In our Irish Collection, each candle is based on a memory from childhood.' One of them is scented with gorse, better known as the Irish whin bush. He acknowledges the joke about kissing being in season when the perennially blooming bush is in flower before outlining the smell he researched. 'The whin bush and the candle smell of synthetic coconut oil, it’s a bit like sun cream, and the response has been incredible, partly perhaps because of the sense of holidays. The science behind the way smell works is amazing.'
Mark and Michael are partners in life and in business. They met at the Kremlin bar in Belfast seven years ago and are hoping to get married in 2019. At the moment, Mark is still working full-time in insurance but once their candle making business has grown, he will join Michael as a full time craftsman.
The business is self-funded although the couple have been offered investment. 'We didn’t want to go that route. But Bushmills have helped us so much and the publicity has been invaluable, with professional photographs by Rob Durston for which we had a stylist. There’s more to come and we may even get our names on a billboard.'
Many factors affect this craft business, including temperature, as Morris explains. 'After I had the idea of this business, I spent a year testing out smells and techniques. The temperature of the room and of the wax is crucial. The wax reaches us in large flakes, you need a high temperature to melt it and then bring it down as you add the scent, then pour the candles. With the wrong temperature, the candle and scent won’t bind.'
He is shy about revealing trade secrets, although he says that the people attending the Bearded Candle Makers' free Answer the Call workshop on March 30 will learn more. As Morris notes, the process of producing the perfect candle involves a bit of trial and error, not to mention some perfectionism. He reveals that he makes a hundred candles before selling the perfected product.
There is, inevitably, a Bushmills whiskey scented candle which smells deliciously authentic. 'I enjoy drinking the whiskey but the smell is one of the most difficult to reproduce. The first batch I produced were quite sour although Black Bush is a smooth whiskey.' Naturally, Michael and his trained nose produced a good likeness eventually.
There are even literary candles in the range. You might not think that books could inspire scented candles, but they can, as Morris reveals. In fact, the very first successful candle he produced was based on a scene from Harry Potter. 'It was inspired by Professor Dumbledore and I wondered what his office might smell like. The answer is old books and lemon drops and ambergris, which is a magical scent.' Ambergris, which comes from whales and is very expensive, costs around £500 per bottle, so a synthetic version is used.
There are other literary associations in the range, including a candle inspired by the work of CS Lewis. 'One of my favourite books is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which has led to a candle. It’s all about opening the wardrobe doors and sensing crispness. I have used pure spruce and cedar wood to suggest that world and the smell of Turkish delight for the White Witch. Funnily enough, you can’t use the name Narnia since Disney made the movie, so it’s called Through the Wardrobe.'
Morris' family, including his sister, help out testing new candles and manning the Bearded Candle Makers’ St George’s Market stall. 'We’re there every Saturday and Sunday when apparently 30,000 people come through,' he explains. 'Every weekend we sell between 20 and 100 candles which sell for between £8 and £25.'
Family history has also helped influence his desire to go into business. 'My late father, Michael, for whom I’m named, worked for himself, running sweet shops, a Spar and a wee butcher’s shop.' The sad fact that Michael Morris senior, who died a couple of years ago, developed early onset Alzheimer’s, has also sharpened Michael’s desire to follow his dream. He says: 'He gave me that sense of possibility but when he went, it was a real motivator.'
There may be a lot of competition in the scented candle market, but Morris and Kelly do not mind. 'The majority of scented candles aren’t that good,' says Morris. 'Also, 90% of the candles sold in the world are made of paraffin, an awful by-product of crude oil. When I smell it, it catches me at the back of the throat. We use soy wax which burns clear.'
In July, when Liberty’s of London hold a session where businesses can make sales pitches, the Bearded Candle Makers will be touting their wares. Undoubtedly, their beautifully scented candles would enhance the legendary Regent Street store. Their personal business philosophy would also chime well with the shop, as Morris says with pride: 'I want people to buy one of our candles and know I made it.'
The Bearded Candle Makers host the first of Bushmills' free Answer the Call workshop series with Whiskey By Candlelight on Thursday, March 30 at Love & Death Inc. in Belfast. To register your interest visit www.answerthecall.co.uk. You can browse more Bearded Candle Maker workshops, as well as the company's full range of products, at www.thebeardedcandlemakers.com. Michael and Mark have been featured as part of Creativity Month 2017. Catch up on other stories you may have missed here.