Mark Marmont from 58 Gin talks us through his story...
Article originally published in the February edition of 'One Time Press'. Our monthly newspaper that goes out to member of our special edition gin subscription service.
Mark Marmont has had a fascinating journey to be where his is today at the helm of his own distillery in Hackney. We caught up with him at the 58 studio to get the lo-down….
J: So Mark, start from the top; where’s that accent from?
MM: I’m from country New South Wales in Australia, a little town called Hay with a population of 3,000, it’s pretty much equidistant from Sydney and Adelaide. My parents both worked in healthcare, my dad was a paramedic and mum was a nurse. Our entire town ran on agriculture, I did a lot of work on farms growing up because that’s where the work was. At weekends I was always working on my mates parents farms, putting up fences, plumbing, all round skills that you need in that environment. Its these skills that enabled me to do most of the work kitting this place out myself, setting up a distillery can cost thousands in pipework alone, being self-funded I didn’t have that kind of cash to spend. Without all those weekends spent on farms growing up this might never have happened.
J: How on earth did you end up here?
MM: Well, once I finished high school I did a laboratory traineeship with the department of agriculture, that was in Wagga Wagga, also in New South Wales. There was a lot to learn there, we learnt a vast array of things from the genetic patterns in wheat to the distillation of Canola oil. This is how I gained my knowledge of how the world works on a molecular level. I did this for a couple of years but having gone in on a traineeship, I wasn’t getting paid very much so I found a second job at a restaurant, Sizzlers, it was a steakhouse. I started off as dish pig and worked my way up to head cook, my knowledge of flavours originated during this phase of my life, how they work and why, along with different bits and pieces relating to ingredients and how to prepare them.
Once work ran out with the Department of Agriculture I ended up manging Sizzlers, but that only lasted about 6 months before the company had a big change around and they took the decision to close our site. Being a manger I was offered a transfer to Cairns where they had another branch, Cairns is in Australia’s tropical north on the East Coast, it’s a really popular destination for tourists because it’s one of the best places to leave from to go and see the Great Barrier Reef. Sizzlers had made the offer sound a lot better than it actually was prior to moving so I jacked that in pretty fast, I went on to work in a lab up there but it was an analytical lab, same stuff day in day out. Checking out water from mining companies, distilling cyanide, not a good thing. I struggled through for 6 months and then set my focus on diving. I started off as just a trainee again and worked up to senior instructor and eventually skipper on the boat. Even with that though, after a while I grew tired, I was sick of hearing about the rest of the world from everyone on board the boats, I was 30 and had never had a passport.
"I got myself a passport and jumped on a plane"
I got myself a passport and jumped on a plane, I had a mate in London so came here, there wasn’t much else to the decision. I got a job over here as a receptionist in an advertising company. After being in London for just a couple of weeks I met my future wife, Jo. I was helping her set up a cat sitting business and we have pretty much hung out ever since. When my visa ran out I had to go back to Australia, me and Jo did the whole to-ing and fro-ing thing, going back and forth to Thailand etc to meet up. Eventually we got married in Australia, we had to decide who was going to go where and I lost.
I look back on it now and I realise that all things lead back into where I am today and how I ended up here. From the top; the farming helped me with all my handyman skills, the laboratory traineeship helped me to learn the distilling process, in the restaurant I learnt flavour profiling. Being a dive instructor taught me to entertain, working as a receptionist got my computer skills back to where they needed to be because I had been absent from them for nearly ten years, a lot had changed in that time. Finally helping to set up the cat sitting business I learned all of the admin skills its necessary to have when setting up a business, especially in a field as heavily regulated as distilling, that’s a mine field.
J: Did you ever think about setting up a distillery in Australia rather than London? Is there anything about the UK that makes it any easier?
MM: It’s not easy anywhere! Here all of the hoops you have to jump through with HMRC make it difficult. In Australia they’re probably about 5-6 years behind the UK in terms of craft distillation. They have had the cocktail movement where the standard has risen considerably over the past 7 years or so, the next stage is to make the spirits better; they only really had Bombay and Gordons there until a few years ago. It is happening in Australia and the people doing it there are doing incredibly well, on top of that there’s a huge amount of exceptional botanicals that you can find in Australia that don’t grow anywhere else in the world. If you look at Four Pillars (Australian distillery) and the guys there they’ve just got it nailed. They got in right at the very beginning of the movement, a bit like Sipsmith did here, got the offering right and now they’re flying. Whether it’s easier back and forth, I don’t know because I’ve never had to contend with the licensing in Australia.
I’ve been out to see the Four Pillars guys at their distillery, next on the list of Australian distilleries I want to visit is Archie Rose in Sydney, that’s another great Aussie team doing really well. I think give it another 3 or so years and you’ll get some great whisky and rum producers coming out of Australia, they have much more diversity in the types of crops they can grow so they have more options available to them in terms of what they can produce. The ‘Made in Australia’ badge is a lot stronger than the ‘Made in the UK’ badge is here, its drilled into you at an early age that you need to buy local so new kids on the block normally launch to a very supportive group of consumers.
J: So why gin?
"The whole reason I started making gin was that I arrived in London as a rum and whisky guy"
The whole reason I started making gin was that I arrived in London as a rum and whisky guy. My house here stands at 58 Colebrook Row, only doors away from the world famous cocktail bar at number 69. I started going in there frequently, it was my local and I was always ordering rum and whisky. Eventually I asked “what else you got?” a martini was suggested but I made them aware that I didn’t like gin, to which I got “why?” That’s where it all got started.
They started teaching me about different gins, why you use one over another for different cocktails etc. Then we got on to why I liked different gins over others…. It all comes down to the botanicals. Some I like and some I don’t, I thought ‘can I make a gin that I like, tailored to my specific tastes?’ that’s how this all started; it was never meant to become this, but I’m bloody happy it happened. My first still, affectionately named ‘Dizzy’, was bought so I could try to bring this elusive gin to life. It’s called Dizzy because I started off with twenty botanicals, popped them all in, ran it and it was just ridiculous, horrible, there was so much going on it just made you dizzy. It took me a long time trying to figure out how to make it work.
I was going to different bartenders asking ‘how do you come up with new cocktails?’ ‘how can I come up with a new gin?’ The best advice I got was to break it down to its core values and start from scratch. So I just started off with Juniper, coriander seed and Orris Root and did just one run of that through the 20 litre still. This really is gin at its most basic and every time I did a run, I built on it. I found out that lots of bartenders didn’t like lime, if it was too lime heavy they didn’t consider it good, substituting lime for bergamot was a turning point that really made my gin feel distinctive all of a sudden. I got to a stage where I found a nice balance between savoury and citrusy and took it round to a few bars to see what else they could suggest and was asked ‘what are you going to call it?’ THAT was the day I knew I had something, it wasn’t just a bit of fun anymore.
The whole process took a year, it’s very costly for starters, to be going out all the time buying bottles of vodka to distil, the botanicals etc, it’s the whole ‘breaking bad stage’ that goes on behind the scenes before you can launch with a product. It’ll be interesting to see how many of the new era of distilleries fall away over the coming years because they didn’t spend time on this stage, just launched with a ‘good enough’ product in a pretty bottle and a huge marketing budget to get it out there.
I just started in the complete opposite way, a great recipe and virtually no money, it’s all been self-funded. I had started tinkering away late 2013 and it wasn’t until mid-2014 that I was searching for premises. At the end of 2014 is when we found this unit. I had started looking for premises but the majority I found were big industrial spaces with zero soul, it wasn’t what I had in my head. I then came across Hackney Downs Studios, they showed me some of their spaces and then this one came up. I saw it at 11pm and put the deposit down, it was mine. The group of units that forms together to make Hackney Downs Studios houses around 400 businesses. You’ve got jewellery makers, graphic designers, the cereal killers (the two Irish brothers who run the famous cereal café in Shoreditch.) Basically any business services we need we can find within a couple of hundred metres of our front door, it’s an amazing community.
The name and the branding came together from the elements of my life in London. My address is number 58 on a road with such a fascinating liquid pedigree. Colebrook Row is in Angel, Islington, hence the wings on the bottle. That was my initial idea behind the design of the brand, I chose blue because it reminded me of the glow of a gin and tonic in the sun, the kind of blue shimmer.
"After checking out his work I came to the sobering realisation that I was never going to be able to afford him to do my design"
To draw the angel wings I went to see Mo Coppoletta, he owns the Family Business tattoo studio just around the corner and is incredibly talented. I went into the shop to tee up a meeting with him and before I saw him, the guy behind the counter in the shop gave me his card and told me to go and look up his work and see some of the stuff he’s done before having the meeting. I went and perused the website, turned out the guy had worked with Ralph Lauren, Damien Hurst, hand tattooed briefcases for Mont Blanc, he’s working with Rolls Royce at the moment, he had worked for yacht companies, he was huge, so so much bigger than I knew. The work for Rolls Royce was tattooing the leather in the car’s interior, he genuinely was in international demand. After checking out his work I came to the sobering realisation that I was never going to be able to afford him to do my design, but thought I may as well go and have the meeting.
As soon as we sat down I showed him what I had in terms of a rough design and he straight away started playing around with it, “we’ll move the wings over here, you need this part here to be bigger etc” I pretty much had to stop him right there and tell him that there wasn’t a chance I could afford his work. I thanked him for the design pointers and got up to leave. He stopped me from leaving and kept working on the design that sat in front of us. I laid it out really clear that there was no way I was going to be able to afford him, that I was self-funded and I can’t do it. He basically replied that he’d been looked after by the big guys and that he’d happily help out the little guys. I ended up with a one off Mo Coppoletta for not very much and now he gets as much gin as he wants. I go over there occasionally with a bottle of gin, to catch up with him. I’ll always be indebted to him for his help at the beginning.
J: Can you talk us through your set up here in terms of equipment?
MM: All of our stills are copper, we have eight in total. Eliza and Lou are two 60 litre stills; they’re the main work horses, there’s the 10 litre still that I did all my tinkering on to come up with the recipe, then we have five 2 litre stills which we use for distillery tours where visitors can make their own gin. We do 90 bottles in a run. We load the still in the afternoon, heat it up and then let the botanicals steep overnight. This allows all the oils to be extracted slowly to ensure we’re getting as much out of them as possible. The next morning we fire up the stills; how long the gin takes to be distilled depends on the day, the temperature outside affects the water cooling so it’s not an exact time. During the winter it’s the best, you get a lot more back from the still and it’s a lot smoother but it takes a lot more time as well. It generally takes around 8 hours for a run if you averaged it out. A typical day would be turning up at the distillery in the morning, and firing up the still containing the steeped ingredients from the previous day, spending the day bottling, peeling, pressing and doing all of our day to day tasks before draining that day’s run before going home at some point early evening.
You absolutely can’t leave the premises while the stills are running, it’s never the case that we can all take a lunch break together, we’ve had water blowouts before and the last thing you want is this whole room full of alcohol vapours, so it really is a case of DO NOT LEAVE. I did all of the plumbing and electrics in here myself, all the stills are connected through pipework that I set up, I do trust my work but…. A while back a couple of guys from one of the units further down from us shut off one of their valves and it created pressure in here and it burst one of the tanks. We try to switch it around when we can, whoever comes in early gets to leave early and whoever came in later has to finish it off and vice versa, but the runs are pretty consistent now and we don’t have to be doing 13 hour days to get it finished. We distil using the single shot method which is where all the botanicals are distilled at the same time rather than distilling different botanicals individually and them blending them after.
J: When was the first run?
MM: 26th January 2015 was the first official run making what is now 58. It was a test run of 30 bottles in the big still. Those 30 went out very quickly to bars, so batch number 2 is a full run. The big thing at that point in the business was buying the spirit, having to pay duty upfront makes cash flow a nightmare. (Without a bonded warehouse on premises there is no way of deferring the payment of duty on the neutral spirit that’s bought in to make the gin). A 200 litre barrel was £7.5k so I had to start off with 25 litre barrels, the price point is so much higher at this quantity though, this was definitely the biggest challenge for me when I started out. I was literally buying 25 litres at a time to do one run in the still, then I’d have to sell the gin made in that run to be able to buy more spirit and do it all again.
J: I know you were on your own for a long time doing 58, when did that change?
MM: It was one and a half years that I did this alone, in April I took on a round of investors who injected capital into the company which has let me do some things now that I would have had to wait much longer to do if I hadn’t raised money, taking on staff is one of those things. Brad came on in May and Carmen came on in September so we’re a team of three.
J: You did a bit of a refit on the turn of the New Near, was this in preparation for anything?
MM: We’ve just started offering distillery courses through Airbnb, they’ve just launched a local experience program. You book your room or apartment or whatever through them and then you can search in the area close to where you have booked your accommodation too see what activities you can do close by. We do 5 people per class, its £125 pp, you get 2 bottles of gin (one which is your own blend), drinks and all the necessary know-how to create your own gin. We’re the first distillery in the world to do this through the new Air BNB platform. You don’t have to be an Airbnb customer, locals can also search for things they didn’t know existed on their doorstep. Airbnb came round and handpicked people to offer these experiences. We already had the small stills necessary to do something like this because of our corporate classes so it was an easy decision for us to get involved.
J: If anyone’s keen to come check out the distillery or do one of the classes how can they get in touch?
MM: All of our contact details are on the website and the distillery classes can be booked at www.airbnb.co.uk/experiences