Manchester Gin | The story
Originally published in the March edition of our members newspaper 'One Time Press'
Jennie Wiggins and Seb Heeley, the couple behind Manchester Gin spoke to us about how they ended up with their very own distillery.
Seb: It all started on a Wednesday night at 1:30 in the morning, I was at a basement Tiki bar in the centre of Manchester and was with two friends who were talking to two girls so I was a bit of a spare part. I therefore said to myself that I was going to go and talk to the nearest girl to me and geographically the closest person to me was Jen. She was sat on her own, I just walked over to her and the first words I ever said to her were “what you drinking?” she replied “a Gin and Tonic.”
For the next half hour we spoke about gin, trying to out-do each other with who knew the most. Jen thought she was being really clever by saying her favourite gin was Monkey 47, turned out it was mine too. I’ll be honest and say I fell in love that night although it took Jen a little longer, a bit rude, but it was only about two weeks ‘til we were both at the same point. That’s how we started.
Jen: A couple of years down the line we knew we wanted to have a business together. We’ve always made a good team as Seb’s strengths are my weaknesses and vice-versa so it felt like the right thing to do.
Seb: Our initial idea was actually a secret diners blog, we still have the webpage and social media handle for it. Never actually used them though. We’ve always loved eating and drinking so were trying to think of ways to spend more time doing that. The concept was that we would be secret reviewers, instead of going in with the venue knowing you were a blogger and getting special treatment, you’d see it for how it really was and could write about that.
It didn’t pan out too well for two reasons. Firstly, we forgot to take the photo of the food before we tucked in and would realise 5 minutes later that we had lost the opportunity. We found it too tempting to tuck into the food as soon as it was set down. Secondly, we couldn’t be bothered to write the blogs and kind of forgot the details after a few glasses of wine too!
We then turned our focus to setting up a bar and we were put in touch with a gentleman who owns around 10 restaurants and bars in Sheffield, one of which was a gin and pie pub. They were making all the homemade pies upstairs in the pub and he mentioned that they make their own gin as well. We were captivated as he told us how gin was made. We got really excited and registered domain names and things on the train on the way home.
There is a lot to think about when opening a distillery, it took us a long time to go from concept to product. The branding started off very differently. We ran a competition online for someone to design the logo and we picked a winner. Initially we were fairly happy about it but I was showing a friend of mine the design when someone leaned over and said “that’s shit!”. I said “Thanks! I’ve just paid the competition winner for the design”, but he continued talking and said he could do a better job, his name was Sam Yau and it turned out that he wasn’t lying.
Next release from One Time Gin is April's collaboration with Batch Distillery who are making a Thai inspired gin with lemongrass and lime leaf!
James: What did the original look like?
Seb: It was ok, it always incorporated a bee but originally it was quite angular and part of it’s body, the stinger, made an “M” for Manchester. Thankfully he (Sam) sat down with us and spent about two weeks developing the idea and that cumulated into the brand you see now. I don’t think the original branding would have been half as impactful. Of course the gin has to be great but the branding is a really important part of the process too, it has to stand out on a shelf of gin.
James: What about your recipe?
Seb: Well Leon Dalloway from Gin Journey put us in touch with Jamie Baxter, now of Burleighs Gin. I’ve known Leon for a while and we spoke to him quite early on in our journey! We met up with Jamie who initially taught us how to make gin. We did a lot of research into what we wanted our gin to be like and came back to Jamie in March 2016 to get some help with developing our recipe. We developed the base profile with Jamie and then played around with it, tweaking it for the next month on our test still named Florence. We got the recipe finalised in May and then the bottles arrived at the same time along with the labels. We launched on Thursday the 12th May 2016 with a social media campaign.
James: I heard about the launch party, didn’t you have 1,500 people turn up?
Jen: At the time we really didn’t know how to launch ‘it’ so we just kicked off some social media activity on our own personal pages and asked everyone to share it. From that it just went crazy. It got a ridiculous amount of shares, then the Manchester Evening News got in touch and heard about the launch party. We promoted a secret launch party and asked people to register their interest and unbelievably got 3,000 people registering! We didn’t expect that many to turn up so decided to tell everyone that registered their interest where it was and told them all to come.
"We had about 500 turn up which scared the bar we held it at. I don’t think they expected so many to attend." Jennie
Seb: We were just flat out pouring drinks all night. The bar had underprepared a little and suggested we took six bottles of gin for the night. We took 50 and went home with none. I was making batches of 10 gin and tonics at a time, 10 lots of ice, 10 lots of gin, 10 pink grapefruit repeatedly for hours and hours.
James: And what’s changed since your first few months?
Jen: We’ve definitely got more efficient as time has gone on. Thinking back to labelling our first 100 bottles; it took us four hours, we labelled the first 4000 bottles at that pace before we invested in a machine. With efficiency also comes a little more professionalism - gradually saving a little bit of time or money in one area is really helping as our processes have evolved and it’s gradually making things easier. It’s a steep learning curve in terms of running your own business but also running a business in a new industry.
James: How have you found running your own business?
Jen: It’s funny, pre-launch we had told some of our friends that we were going to start our own gin company and everyone kind of nodded along to what we told them, not really taking it in. I think they thought it sounded really great but then kind of forgot about it. Our journey to launch took a good 18 months and in the last few months before our launch we got really nervous that someone else was going to beat us to it, so we stopped talking about it to friends and family. The next they knew was the social media launch. It definitely took our friends by surprise. They didn’t realise how far along we had come.
It’s definitely been hard though. For the first few months we were doing it on evenings and weekends at the same time as our full time jobs. We did what we could to keep production up whilst still working Monday to Friday 9-6. It wasn’t until September that I quit my job.
James: What were you doing before?
Jen: I worked at a marketing agency, I started off my career in finance and then moved into marketing working both client side and agency. My marketing experience was within the financial services sector so whilst it was great to have that skill set, and it definitely came in handy, it wasn’t massively applicable. Seb still works full time though.
Seb: I work for a property development company designing and planning 50-60 houses a year. Hopefully we’ll both be working solely on the gin by Christmas, last Christmas was crazy. We ran the still 24 hours a day for 11 days straight.
James: What’s a production run for you?
Jen: 105-110 bottles for our classic gin. During December we ran our still straight through for 11 days to make 1,700 bottles.
James: I know you guys sell a huge proportion of your gin to retailers rather than to bars etc.
Seb: Yes it’s surprised us that retail has been a much bigger opportunity than we expected. We’re in Harvey Nichols and do tastings in store regularly. We are their biggest selling gin in their Manchester store. We’re also Majestic Wine’s biggest selling gin in a number of their North West stores too. Then we have independents all over the region too, there genuinely isn’t many shops who stock us where we’re not the bestselling gin.
Jen: We’re putting all of our marketing efforts into expanding that retail reach, Christmas really was crazy. Up until November we were doing about 200 bottles a week, suddenly Christmas arrived and we were doing that a day.
James: Wow! Had you prepared for that at all, had you stockpiled?
Seb: Looking back I would say not at all, it was our first Christmas so we had no idea what to expect. We know what to expect this year so will hire a storage unit and start working towards getting a bit of a back-up stash for the peak times.
James: Are you bonded?
James: So was cash flow an issue at the beginning?
Seb: Initially yes but less so now, no different to any start-up I imagine. You give credit to clients you’re selling to yet we have to pay up front for the spirit because so much of the cost of it is duty. Unless you have a bonded warehouse duty is payable in advance.
James: Could you look in to going down the bonded route?
Jen: Not at the moment but again it’s something we may look at in the future. We grew quickly going from ordering one barrel of the neutral grain spirit at a time to 3 in November. Now we order 10 at a time.
Seb: We distil everything at home, our distillery is in our dining room and we don’t want to change that. We’ve just been granted planning permission to build a micro-distillery from scratch on our property. We run the still through the night so we need to be able to get up in the night to check it, it’s infinitely easier if you just have to wander downstairs. We’re doing a big extension for the house itself and then there’s going to be a big strip of 3x7 metres which will be the distillery.
James: I guess that’ll be right up your street with the property development experience?
Seb: Yeah, well I managed to get the planning permission through on time, that was a bonus. Next I have to figure out how to build it.
James: Are you going to do the building yourself?
Seb: No (laughing) these hands have never seen a day’s manual labour in their life. I will arrange all the work and everything else to begin around April time and then it HAS to be done by November as that’ll be our manic period again.
Jen: We’ve ordered a bigger still which arrives in a few weeks. Wendy is our current 60L still which gives us roughly 105 bottles per run but the one we’ve ordered is going to be called Victoria after Victoria Wood. Most stills are named after females; Wendy is named after my mum who passed away in 2015 and loved gin. She’s not been able to see everything that’s happened since launch but she loved gin and would have been very excited about everything we’ve been doing. Victoria Wood is a great female Mancunian who passed away last year so it felt quite fitting. We wanted something Manchester themed. The new one is going to have a 100L capacity, they’ll run side by side and they’ll increase our production to over 300 bottles at a time.
James: Talk me through the decision to go with Cherry Blossom and Jasmine for your release with One Time Gin?
Jen: We knew we wanted to do something seasonal, we’re obviously going into Spring and we tried to think of something that made us think of this time of year. For me that’s daffodils and blossom. The city gets covered with blossom for about two weeks a year. We decided early on not to pursue the daffodils route and to find a partner for the blossom, the jasmine element in the gin comes from jasmine tea.
James: Whenever I think of cherry blossom I think of Japan and the cultural significance of the cherry blossom there. To me Jasmine reminds me of China, my mind definitely travelled East when you first mentioned the recipe. What about your flagship gin, I know you have some botanicals in there that aren’t in any other gins that I’m aware of?
Seb: So our signature gin is a 12 botanical gin. We always wanted a citrus led gin because that’s the gin we liked to drink, it had to have orange and lemon to have a big citrus nose.
Jen: Luckily we both like the same kind of gin. We don’t like gin that’s savoury or herbal, slightly sweeter and citrus is our preference. That’s exactly what our signature gin is. We also knew before we began our recipe development that we wanted two unique botanicals in our gin, dandelion and burdock. This is something we both grew up drinking as children. It’s a very northern combination and it serves as our nod to the region.
Seb: Both grow locally, burdock grows where there’s water and the rivers that flow through Manchester is the perfect host to the plant, we will be hand foraging both later in the year. It’s the root of both of the plants that we use, it’s a lot easier to get the flavours from the root, they give a real depth of flavour to the drink. Our botanical breakdown is quite unique, we use juniper, orange and lemon for the citrus element and the juniper base, then dandelion and burdock are key to an earthy depth of flavour. We also use coriander seeds which is quite a common botanical, as is angelica root as a means to fix all the other flavours. Then we use almond and liquorice to give a sweeter finish, we use grains of paradise for a mellow menthol flavour and savoury, which is like a soft oregano to finish the profile.
Jen: We also launched our raspberry infused gin in December. We always knew we were going to do some varietal gins and this is our first. We’ve become quite good at perfecting one product and turning our attention to what we can achieve next.
Seb: Making gin is a relatively rudimental 1,000 year old process once you’ve got your recipe nailed. We weigh everything to two decimal places to ensure we get a consistent gin. Once we’ve done that we knew we wanted to keep creating it.
For our Raspberry Infusion we add fresh raspberries during distillation and then after distillation we add some natural raspberry flavour and a touch of sugar. it sits at 40% so is a gin rather than a liqueur. It’s amazing in a G&T but we’re pushing it to be used in cocktails a bit more as that’s where we really see the potential.
Jen: Try it in a Clover Club or a Cosmo 1934 which is essentially a gin based Cosmopolitan. The recipe we use is 50ml raspberry gin, 20ml lemon juice, 20ml Cointreau and 10ml raspberry syrup or cordial. Shake and strain into a chilled martini glass. Try a dash of prosecco on top if you’re feeling particularly adventurous.
James: Anything else on the horizon?
Jen: We also have another new gin planned for a July release which we’re still fine tuning. It’s linked to a project we’re doing with Manchester Metropolitan University which is Seb’s old university. We met one of their tutors on a gin tasting and she asked if we were interested in doing a live project with the students. It’s essentially a university project that they can apply to a trading business, it’s better for them rather than working on a purely hypothetical basis and it’s great for us as we get some fresh thinking.
As I come from a marketing background I’m particularly passionate about this too and excited about working with marketing students. They’ll take our brief and assess the market to try and analyse which flavours there is the most consumer demand for. The brief we gave them is that ‘we’re going to launch a new product, research what the market wants’. The students will put forward a plan for us around July time and if it looks viable it would be really exciting to pursue their research and turn it into a tangible product. It’s safe to say we’re constantly growing and evolving!