Toby Whittaker is a self-confessed anorak when it comes to distilling.
Although for 20 years he worked in property, five years ago he and wife Jane decided they wanted to do something different.
“I did a degree in chemistry but never used it,” he says. “Initially I had planned to start a micro brewery and brew beer. I went on a course which was brewing and distilling in Edinburgh, but lots of people I spoke to were going into making gin as it was a much less crowded market place.”
Visiting the Whittaker’s distillery located well off the beaten track in the heart of Nidderdale revealed a chemistry boffin in action.
Part of the converted barn at the family’s Harehill House Farm, looks more like a laboratory than a distillery with brightly coloured jars containing different fruits. This is where Toby develops his different gins. Whittakers now has four London Dry Gins on the market; original, Pink Peculier, Navy Strength and Clearly Sloe. They have even started to make gin for other people, most recently a special order for Harewood House.
But it took a lot of time and effort to choose the first Whittaker’s Gin.
“I had a started with a small still in the kitchen where we experimented with different botanicals and recipes.”
“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 – hawthorn berries, bilberries, home-grown thyme from their garden and lemon citrus, which all can be found on the family farm located down a treacherous stretch of track close to the village of Dacre.
They sent numerous samples of their gins to the London Gin Guild and eventually ended up with a shortlist of five which they put to the taste test.
“I remember we were going to the pub one night and I had one of the gins before we went out,” recalls Jane. “I remember getting to the pub and I still had the flavours in my mouth and I said, ‘That’s it, that’s the one we should make’.”
And so they did. All the tweaking of the recipe over 18 months paid off, with Fortnum and Mason naming Whittakers Gin one of their White Spirits of the Month – it still stocks the Yorkshire gin. It also gave them their second gin, Pink Peculier, which contains pink Hibiscus flowers. It is not only the taste of Whittaker’s Gin which makes it distinctive, the Bewick Hare on its label makes it stand out.
“We had no idea about bottling or labelling or branding so when I approached someone about doing some labels they said we needed to have a design first and suggested we speak to Dare! which was also based in Yorkshire.”
Not only were they based in Yorkshire, Simon Tame and Debbie Seale who make up the drinks branding company, lived literally across the fields from the Whittakers. The couples have since become firm friends and have been involved in growing the business. Dare’s core business is designing labels for wine bottles, but they relished the challenge of designing a label for the Whittakers.
“We knew they were really passionate about nature, especially where they live,” says Debbie.
“We love the work of engraver Thomas Bewick who came from the North East and initially thought about using one of his pheasants as there are loads of them on the farm, but Jane said she liked hares, and it tied in well with the name of their farm.” Toby’s signature was added to the label to accentuate that it is a craft gin made by hand in Yorkshire.
They launched the gin at Harewood Game Fair last year to great plaudits – selling more than 80 bottles a day.
Jane then took it upon herself to visit retailers and restaurants to see if they would stock their gin. Their first delivery was to Majestic Wines in Harrogate.
“I remember going into the Michelin-starred the Star Inn at Harome and asking if they would have it and left a sample,” says Jane.
“Ten minutes after we left she called me and ordered 12 cases.”
They had initially bought two stills from American (both names Jezebel after their couples’ daughters to previous marriages, Jessica and Isobel) but soon outgrew them and needed more capacity.
“We were given some astronomical quote for a bigger still to be made for us in America which would take weeks,” says Toby. They then heard about a welding firm in Tadcaster. They took one of the Jezabels down to him and asked if Tadweld could make a bigger one.
“He said he’d never made one before but couldn’t see why not – it was just a massive kettle. We had it in two weeks.”
The Whittakers are rightly proud of their North Yorkshire credentials.
Even the water used to cut the spirit is drawn from a natural water source on the property. Everything from the distilling to the bottling and labelling is done on the farm.
Jane gave up her job in a doctors’ surgery last year to work full-time in the business and they have just taken on a part-time member of staff.
And they welcome the explosion in Yorkshire gin making.
“The more people doing it the higher the bar is raised, so long as they are up-front about whether they really are craft gins,” says Jane.
As for Toby he is never happier than when he is experimenting with his overgrown chemistry set.