Why Yorkshire gin is such a tonic

Marcus Black(left) of Slingsby Gin  in the kitchen garden at Rudding Park Hotel in Harrogate  with gardener Adrian Reeve
Marcus Black(left) of Slingsby Gin in the kitchen garden at Rudding Park Hotel in Harrogate with gardener Adrian Reeve
  • Image overhaul: It used to have an image problem, but now gin’s the new trend in town, writes Naomi Rainey.
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Ten years ago, a revolution started in the drinks industry.

As drinkers became bored of the same tipples from the same corporations, craft brewing found its niche.

Over the last five years, the number of breweries has exploded, bringing artisinal ale out of speciality shops and appreciation clubs to high street chains like Wetherspoons and to the shelves of Big Four supermarkets.

But now it seems there’s a new trend in town. While the consumer passion for independent producers shows no sign of abating, it seems the sheer volume of small brewers may have caused ale fatigue.

Enter: Gin.

Much like ale, gin has long had a role in British society – though not always a coveted one. Created in the Middle Ages and dubbed ‘mother’s ruin’ in the 18th century, its image has at times left a lot to be desired.

The new Gin Craze is somewhat more sophisticated than the debauchery of the 1730s and is doing a lot to rehabilitate people’s perceptions of the drink.

Karl Mason, founder of Masons Gin, says: “There was a stereotype image of gin, that it was an old lady’s drink and it tasted of perfume.”

That was then, this is now. New gin brands are popping up almost by the week.

And forget ice and a slice - this spirit’s gin’s latest incarnations are as likely to be served with served with orange peel, pink grapefruit or black pepper as they are a withered piece of lime.

The popularity of Gin Festival is testament to the spirit’s image overhaul.

Launched by Keighly-based husband and wife team Jym and Marie Harris in late 2013, the events have been a hit in towns and cities across the country.

The first event, at Leeds White Cloth Gallery, sold out the 160-capacity venue. Now, Gin Festival welcomes up to 500 people through its doors at each weekend.

Gin Festival has toured the length and breadth of the country, hitting London, Edinburgh, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Birmingham, Guildford, Hull, Leicester and others.

And the response from attendees is clear. “They love it,” Jym says. “They love the fact they can come to an event where they can drink a full glass of gin with the right garnish, in a proper Spanish-style copa glass.”

The next event, to take place in Harrogate’s International Centre on December 4 and 5, will feature more than 100 carefully-selected gins.

“We choose the gins for our events,” Jym says. “That means I have the hard job of trying lots of gins - but somebody has to do it.”

Despite the increasing frequency of the events - five are planned within as many months - Jym says it’s easy to mix-up the line-up.

He says: “The great thing about the gin industry is there are so many new gins coming out, so there are so many new exciting drinks to try. We’re always looking to keep it fresh.”

Knowing the provenance of what you’re drinking is a big draw for drinkers, he adds.

“People like knowing where the product comes from. The whole craft gin scene is like the craft ale business was like 10 years ago.”

Toby and Jane Whittaker, the couple behind Whittakers Gin, were drawn to the craft distilling after considering a micro-brewery.

“We thought craft distilleries were more appealing to us,” Toby says.

“Often trends follow from the States, and in the last 10 years there’s been a boom in the craft distilling industry. They’ve got over 350 craft distillers and it’s starting to happen in this country.”

The pair formed Harrogate Distillery Limited and spent around 18 months bringing their recipe for Whittakers Gin to life. Toby and Jane trained in distilling at Heriot-Watt University in preparation, building contacts in academia and industry, particularly the Craft Distillers Association in Scotland.

Following advice from Bill Owens, the president of the American Distilling Institute, they acquired two 100L drums from Hillbilly Stills in Kentucky and began formulating the recipe.

“We wanted to keep it quite traditional but identify with where we live and the countryside and the region,” Jane says.

That resulted in a mix of bog myrtle - found in the bogs of the Moors - hawthorne berries, bilberries, home-grown thyme from their garden and lemon citrus.

Whittakers Gin is proud of its small-batch credentials. Distilled at their North Yorkshire home, even the water used to cut the spirit is drawn from a natural water source on the property.

It is sold in a variety of independent outlets, chains such as Majestic Wines and restaurants and bars around the region, as well as online.

All that tweaking the recipe has paid off, with Fortnum and Mason naming Whittakers Gin their White Spirit of the Month for November.

The couple hopes to branch out into other products and already has another gin recipe in mind.

Toby adds: “We want to make a Yorkshire whiskey, a bourbon. We’d love to be able to do that, to say it’s from grain to glass from our distillery, with everything from Yorkshire.

“Yorkshire is a successful association, simply because the people from Yorkshire are very loyal to produce from there. We’re very privileged to live in this part of the world.”

Whittakers is, of course, not the only Yorkshire gin on the scene.

In 2013, Karl Mason was inspired to launch his eponymous gin when he found himself tired of the same old G&Ts. He says: “Me and my wife Cathy are both enthusiastic gin drinkers. We started up a Facebook group for our friends to share pictures of having a gin and tonic on a Friday.

“We ended up getting 15,000 followers – it went a little bit viral.”

As a result, bottles of gin from distillers eager to reach a captive gin-drinker audience began appearing at the door by the week.

“One day, I was trying one of the latest gins and I thought, ‘there’s nothing new about this gin’. I turned to my wife and said, ‘I could make a gin, I want to make one that’s different’.”

That “throwaway comment” led to the creation of Bedale-brand Masons Gin.

Its recipe uses less juniper, in order to bring the taste of nine botanicals forward, which are in turn complemented by citrus flavours.

“With most gins, you can taste the juniper, and you can’t taste anything else. Once you make a gin and tonic, there might as well not be any botanicals.”

Initially, Masons outsourced its distillation, with its initial batch being just 120 bottles. The brand brought distilling in-house in 2014. Available in small independents, department stores and online - “anywhere from Harvey Nichols to local farm shops” - Masons is producing 1,000 bottles a week in the run up to Christmas. Mr Mason is extremely pleased with the brand’s progress, but it hasn’t been easy. He says: “We had no experience in retailing, we had no experience in the drinks business - all we had experience of was making a good gin and tonic.

“It was very hard work, but slowly but surely it’s gained traction.”

But why has gin become so popular of late? It’s all about education, Mr Masons says. “It’s a very easy drink to for bars to serve badly,” he says.

“You put one cube of ice in, you put a slice of lemon in that was cut at the beginning of the shift, you stick some tonic in out of a pump and it’s a pretty poor drink. But it’s being served better, there’s better gins out there, better tonic waters out there. People are being educated – it’s a lovely drink when served right.”

Recent weeks have seen another producer launch in the region, proving that while it might look like a crowded market, there may still be room for the right drink with the right story to tell. Slingsby launched earlier this autumn. It recently celebrated its 2,000th bottle landmark after just eight weeks.

Part of Spirit of Harrogate Limited, Slingsby Artisan Gin uses botanicals from Rudding Park’s kitchen garden.

The spirit is distilled in Birmingham before being shipped back to Yorkshire for water from Harrogate and pure single grain spirit to be added and then bottled. What makes Slingsby Gin truly special is its ethos, says co-founder and managing director Marcus Black.

“Put simply, we have sought to look at things differently and to provide the consumer with ‘the Spirit of Harrogate’ in a bottle,” he says.

Slingsby Gin pays tribute to William Slingsby, who, in 1571, discovered the unique properties of natural spring water from the Tewit Well in Harrogate.

“Slingsby did things differently, thought differently and had a vision that others considered to be extraordinary or even, a little odd; he epitomised the spirit of Harrogate,” says Marcus.

“We passionately believe that Slingsby Gin offers something different.”

But it is not just his gin that Black is excited about. The firm recently launched its Spirit of Harrogate retail experience on Montpellier Parade in the town.

Somewhere between a bar and a shop, people can experience Slingsby Gin from concept to creation. There will be tasting rooms where people can try a range of different gin including nine variations of Slingsby. Despite the crowded market, Marcus and his team are confident that there is space for a product like Slingsby.

“We did extensive market research and focus groups to ensure we knew what people wanted. No expense has been spared and the response we have had so far makes us hopeful we have got it right.”

There’s no doubt gin is having a moment. The hard part is choosing which one to try next.