Black Mill Gin: How one woman went from having a gin-making hobby to a fully fledged business

The Black Mill on Beverley Westwood is an iconic feature of the East Riding - usually featured with cattle grazing the common land around it and dog walkers exercising their canine companions.

Jane Howes has her own micro gin distillery in the quaint East Riding village of Walkington, where she makes Black Mill Gin.

When Jane Howes, of Walkington, turned her professional experience in food manufacture to gin-making, Black Mill became the name for her new brand as it is where she takes her dogs, Dolly the Great Dane, Daisy the Dachshund, and Meg the Scottie.

Jane said her initial plan was purely to challenge herself creatively and scientifically utilising the skills and knowledge accumulated through her university studies and for many years in the commercial world of food production.

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“The starting block is always knowing how food, or in this case, drink works. It’s about how different things interact. When I read an ingredients declaration I have a fundamental understanding as to why those small percentages are there.

“They can be there for reasons such as mouth feel and texture on your teeth. They are all building blocks that bring about texture, flavour, appearance, shine or thickness. Every element plays its part.”

Jane worked on product development of sauce mixes for Goldenfry in Wetherby; on turning turkey products into an all year-round dish for Twydale Turkeys in Driffield in the 1980s; creating battered fish in a chilled state to make it as close as possible to fried fish for Marks & Spencer through to Icelandic Freezing Plants in Grimsby.

Jane then travelled to every country in Europe with Kerry Ingredients, managing the trade of ingredients to make bespoke seasonings and coatings.

Early retirement to look after her ageing father brought her back to something she knew, development of produce.

Jane said it was her enjoyment of a tipple that brought about gin as something she could start from the beautiful rural village of Walkington where she is the fourth generation of her family to live.

“My whole working life has been about understanding why things work together. I bought myself a still in February 2019. It took me about six months to teach myself.

“There were so many conflicting views on the internet that I decided I would much rather start from scratch and that way I would understand why everything works the way it does. By six months I was making what I classed as a decent gin.”

Jane had also found out information about the manufacture of alcohol that she said is not widely known and had made another more personal discovery that was to lead her into the next phase that she had not planned from the outset.

“Not many people either realise, appreciate or abide by the legal requirement that because of an alcoholic content even for your own consumption you must be licensed. After you’ve done that there are only a couple more hoops to jump through to get a licence to sell your produce.

“By that point I realised that having taught myself how to make a very nice drinkable gin even I couldn’t drink the amount I was making a week. Running one still at full capacity for one week will produce 14-15 litres of gin.

“Coming up with the gin, going through that process in the development stage, had done me a great service in occupying my mind.

“I had really enjoying learning and although I felt I hadn’t mastered it I felt that I was certainly well on the way. It had challenged me but then I had felt there was no point going any further in making more than I could ever drink. My happy bubble while learning seemed on the verge of bursting.”

Jane said that having worked with different companies in her career and having previously questioned herself as to whether she could start out on her own and make it work now returned to her thoughts and her action.

“That’s when I began thinking whether I could make a success out of it. Could I do everything myself? Was I as good as I think I am? That’s what drove me on to making the decision that I needed to sell my own gin.

“I knew that if I was going to sell it I needed to tick various boxes. It had to be saleable from an appearance point of view.

“I also needed to have a range of gins and attractive branding. I was back to fulfilling myself creatively coming up with various flavoured gins, my own bottle and label designs.”

Having started selling her gins in September 2019, Jane said that she has already achieved her aims in what she set out do and has a successful business model, but she has no ambition of turning The Ginery or Black Mill Gin into some kind of nationwide or global name.

“It started out as a passion project, it then grew into a business challenge and the next step was whether it became profitable enough to afford me the standard of living I am used to. I am pleased to say it is doing that at the moment.”

Jane’s brother converted a horse box into a unique private bar that became her trade stand at last month’s Driffield Show.

“It was its first outing and worked really well. My brother has designed it in such a way that it is easy for me to use and it looks really good. It stands out far better than using a gazebo or marquee.

“It also confirmed that I’m where I need to be with the product line including a blood orange gin that I would never have come up with without listening to my customers and the range of special occasion bottles that appear to have found the right mark.”

Jane said her Walkington home of The Ginery, just opposite the village pond, remains her sales hub.

“I’m always happy for customers to just come up and ring the bell.”