How times change. Not so long ago, Gin was often referred too as ‘Mothers Ruin’ whereas today, it is one of the most popular cocktails with an estimated 73 million bottles sold in the UK during 2018. The increase in demand for ‘interesting’ gins, with new modern flavours, has created a whole new industry which has led to a rapid rise in the number of small scale craft and artisan producers. There are now some 373 distilleries in Britain which has doubled in the last five years.
Walkington has not been left behind in this craft spirit boom created by individuals rather than big faceless international corporations. Jane Howes, of Walkington, has established her own micro distillery in the village. Yes, like many new enterprises, she did start off in the garden shed, at the bottom of the garden, before her brother constructed a purpose built facility. So how did Jane grasp the entrepreneurial spirit?
Before her retirement, to care for her father, Jane spent 30 years travelling around Europe, working with ingredients in the food and drink industries. After about 6 months of retirement Jane felt she needed to do something that was both stimulating and mentally challenging, more than just crosswords. Since her background was food and drink she initially thought about starting a little catering business; this was quickly discounted and she turned to drink, literally. The thing was to be flavoured drinks, and this was supposed to mean cordials, until her brother said you don’t drink cordials, you like gin. So, Jane bought a still.
Buying a still turned out to be the easiest part of Jane’s journey. What followed was 6 months of intensive learning and a hard slog. Jane is completely self taught and has spent long days and nights in the garden shed, now called ‘The Ginery’ perfecting the craft. Jane quickly found that there were many conflicting opinions on the best way to produce gin and she had to experiment in the methods and techniques to satisfy herself she was on the right track. Once you start a distilling process you can’t just knock off at 5:00pm and she spent many days from 8:00am until midnight, just learning and experimenting with each attempt batched and coded in a very organised manner.
I bet you’re now asking yourself the question I was about to ask Jane. How many batches did it take before you were satisfied that you had produced a good bottle of gin. She answered that the first ‘properly drinkable’ bottle was numbered as 143a and that was in August 2019. Somewhat shocked I then asked Jane what she did with bottle 143a and she said she gave it to her friend (Lesley Henderson) who had been very supportive. Apparently, Lesley gave up her Monday afternoons for Gin tasting in order to give an unbiased view, or product assessment, as Jane called it. Now there’s a good job description.
Jane also found that apart from the steep learning curve regarding the production of gin, there was another daunting hurdle to climb, this one wrapped in swathes of red tape. To produce gin, even for home consumption, you need a licence from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and then other licences from East Riding Council in order to sell alcohol. Despite the very in-depth process Jane conceded that both organisations were very helpful.
Following a walk on the Westwood, with her dogs, Jane had the idea of naming her gin after the Black Mill, on the Westwood, as it brought back many stories from her Father and Grandfather about the Mill.
Jane’s family links are very important to her. I have mentioned her brother already and she has now enlisted her nephew to build her website and her niece is involved with the marketing of the gin.
As Jane has spent a lot of her working experience dealing with shops and supermarkets, she took the conscious decision not to market Black Mill Gin through the usual retail channels, but to make it a purely local business. One where customers responses and feed back would be an important factor in measuring the success of the project. In this context of keeping it ‘local’ one selling point is that each bottle can be individually personalised with a message, or greeting to a loved one. This is such a good idea with Christmas just around the corner.
For further details please see the poster below.