Yorkshire stakes a claim on leading the global gin revolution

Yorkshire’s world class gins are winning plaudits in export markets, but everyone working in the sector is keeping their feet on the ground. Greg Wright reports

Yorkshire entrepreneurs have always known that it pays to think globally. Across our region, gins are being produced that are winning praise as far afield as California. A trip to the recent World Gin Awards in London showed that, in this niche area, Yorkshire walks among the giants.

Visitors to the awards from our county spent most of the evening sprinting to the stage. During the national round of tasting, York Gin won Best English Old Tom, while Masons won Gold in the English Contemporary Style category for their Dry Yorkshire Gin and Cooper King Distillery picked up Silver for their Herb Gin in the same category.

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The accolades did not end there. Whitby Gin won Bronze for their Old Tom and another Bronze for their Bramble & Bay gin in the English Flavoured Gin category. Slingsby Gin was also awarded Bronze for their Gooseberry Gin in the Flavoured category.

30 January 2020 ..... Directors Karl and Cathy Mason at Mason's Gin new premises at Leeming Bar, North Yorkshire, Picture Tony Johnson

York Gin co-director Harry Cooke said: “We knew we’d made a special gin – but you never really know how good it is until you have independent experts judging it.”

York Gin is typical of the new breed of gin companies that have sprung up around Yorkshire; it is smart, nimble and aware of commercial realities.

The company was set up by a group of friends who couldn’t believe that a city with York’s rich heritage lacked its own gin company.

Emma Godivala, a director at York Gin, said: “Over the past few years, Yorkshire has become a real centre for food and drink.”

Emma Godivala. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe 30th January 2020.

She added: “There are some weird and not very wonderful gins being produced – many not even tasting of juniper (officially a fundamental requirement for a drink to be called ‘gin’).

“But we think Yorkshire producers in the main have always traditionally focused on quality. We have canny customers who can spot a dud a mile off.”

She added: “For York Gin, we knew we wanted to make gins that our county and our city would be proud of. We wanted to make a quality gin in York itself, and please both the locals and our many guests and tourists who would want to try the local tipple.

“Our insistence on the highest standards is definitely paying off with the world’s most prestigious competitions giving us the very highest awards. These include Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition; Gold Outstanding at the International Wine and Spirit Competition; Gold at the Spirits Business Gin Masters; England’s Best at the World Gin Awards.”

30 January 2020 ..... Distiller Liam Jackson with the new still at Mason's Gin new premises at Leeming Bar, North Yorkshire, Picture Tony Johnson

But can gin production ever be classed as a serious money-spinner? Ms Godivala struck a note of caution.

“It’s good to remember the maths for small spirits producers, who make up the majority of Yorkshire distillers,” she said. “Around a third of the price of a bottle goes in duty and VAT. And we don’t have the scale that the larger distillers have, which can bring production costs down.

“That said, our experience has been that we have smashed our sales targets each time we create them. Christmas was amazing – partly because York is a Christmas city, with so many visitors wanting local products, and partly because we have great Yorkshire products.”

But what are the opportunities for export growth in the gin sector?

“Funny you should ask, but we are on the cusp of starting to export three of our gins to California,” said Ms Godivala. “We have some distributors who are very keen.

“We are also seeing increasing numbers of Chinese visitors coming to our shop, enjoying our gins and taking them home. We have a feeling this may lead to commercial opportunities.

“Yorkshire is a brand in itself – respected around the world – and those of us who trade on and can prove this provenance are in a very lucky and strong position. But quality comes first.”

The UK gin market is expected to grow annually by 4.3 per cent from 2020 to 2023, according to online data platform, Statista. Even so, Ms Godivala believes we are probably somewhere near ‘peak gin’ for the UK market, in terms of the number of commercially viable gin distilleries.

“However, gin keeps surprising the experts with its incredible growth over the last few years,” she said. “Admittedly, much of the growth has been down to highly sweetened spirits and liqueurs that call themselves ‘gin’ but which are, in fact, not technically gin.

“There’s perhaps an argument for some clearer labelling or perhaps changes in categories – nevertheless, the interest in gin in all forms is huge.

“But there has also been a huge improvement in the quality of the gin being made. And given the UK’s international reputation for making gin and the fact that modern versions of gin were first made here in the 18th century, any English brands that can play on both features have the chance to prosper.

“Our motto is ‘History in the tasting’ and all our gins are inspired by York’s history – the Romans, the city’s famous outlaws, a well-known ghost, and the Vikings. And winning major international prizes underlines our reputation for absolute top quality.”

It’s no longer just about the drink itself. Many Yorkshire gin distillers have entered the tourism market offering distillery tours and dining experiences where gins are paired with different food courses and ‘gin schools’.

Karl Mason of Masons Dry Yorkshire Gin, based at Leeming Bar, is proud of his firm’s growing global reputation, but stresses you have to sell a lot of bottles to pay the bills.

He added: “It’s popular, but with more than 50 Yorkshire gin brands it’s competitive and hard work.

“I would suspect a lot of brands are not earning a wage and I think that is going to bite pretty soon, which will be a shame as we come across some excellent products.

“We feel proud to have inspired and started the whole Yorkshire gin boom and it’s humbling to know you have inspired others.”

Based in Bedale, North Yorkshire, Masons is Yorkshire’s original and most awarded gin.

Launched in 2013, it was created by Karl and Cathy Mason, whose journey into ginsmithery began when the perfect gin and tonic they were looking for couldn’t be found.

At the start of 2019, Masons were producing over 400,000 bottles per year, but disaster struck when the company’s old distillery caught fire in April last year, destroying everything inside.

After the fire, the Masons team gathered round the dining table at Karl and Cathy’s home to draw up an emergency contingency plan.

Within 24 hours, plans were put in place and miraculously, there were no delays in production.

Mr Mason said: “It goes without saying that without the incredible response from the fire department and the support we have received from our staff, community and our industry colleagues, we would not be in the fortunate position we are in today.

“When re-creating our distillery, it was essential we kept everything under one roof. We built our brand by working closely with our team, so we can’t wait to have everyone back together.”

The company has since moved into a new, purpose-built distillery just outside Bedale, on the Leeming Bar industrial estate.