of Norfolk Gin
Usually, my Meet the Distiller posts feature just one distiller. But this time I have been lucky to interview two together: husband and wife team Jonathan and Alison Redding of Norfolk Gin.
Norfolk Gin is one of the few bathtub gins on the market. Run from three sheds (yes, three sheds) in their back garden on the outskirts of Norwich, Norfolk Gin is a modern-day cottage industry.
Jonathan and Alison have carefully grown the business from scratch, gradually building up trade from a few bottles a week made at their kitchen table in 2015 to a business which now employs both of them full time. And in 2018 produced an astonishing 12,000 bottles.
Recently, one bright spring morning, Jonathan and Alison gave me a tour of their sheds!
The Gin Studio
We start off in the original Gin Studio, a tiny space with barely room for the three of us to squeeze in. Unbelievably this is where Jonathan first made, bottled and labelled all the Norfolk Gin he produced.
These days it is where the gin is ‘bathtubbed’ before being bottled. It smells heavenly. Aromas of cardamom and juniper fill the air.
I ask Jonathan how he came about to be making gin for a living?
J – In 2014 I found myself unexpectedly unemployed. I did all the usual things, applying for jobs I’ve done before, but nothing was happening. Suddenly I was over fifty and no one wanted to know. Gin was what I decided to have a go at.
I contacted a few of the small gin producers who were very helpful. And then I spent around 14 months creating different recipes. Eventually, we started selling our gin in June 2015.
Starting out Alison said ‘who do you think is going to buy your gin?’ I had to say ‘I don’t know!’ We just got the first sales. We sold 15 bottles in the first week. Then we made 24. And it’s just grown by word of mouth and reputation. It was just me until June 2018 and now there are the two of us.
We made a loss in the first 6 months. But in the second year, we turned a profit and that was reinvested into expanding the working space. Hopefully, that’s the last big investment. So we can just move forward and enjoy it.
It would be lovely to have a nice little farmyard somewhere with an Elizabethan barn and a view of a lake. But we are here where we are, so we build on what we can.
Talking to them both it is obvious how the attention to detail is everywhere from their support of local businesses to their thoughtfulness in reducing waste, even extending to their electric car used for local deliveries. They make a point of using local businesses too for everything from PR to packaging. And clearly, Alison is as much a part of the business as Jonathan.
J – We both are full time these days. In June last year, Alison gave up work. One person just can’t keep up. It’s everything you have to do around making the gin: logistics, promotion, meeting people. One person just runs out of time. And with the two of us we still run out of time, don’t we Alison.
A – I worked fulltime for about two years then reduced my hours and made the decision last year to be full time in the business.
For those of you who haven’t yet tried Norfolk Gin, it is a cardamom rich gin with just the right amount of spice and a deep full-bodied flavour. I ask them why a compound gin and not distilled? Wasn’t it tempting to just go for it and start distilling?
J – Very few people are doing ‘bathtubbing’. The Americans, in particular, have a very negative view of compounding. It implies to them that it’s a neutral spirit with syrups added. Although, technically everyone takes a neutral spirit and in some way infuses it. But it was also the capacity and space to operate in. We started in the kitchen.
The thing I was most worried about was that our gin takes a tint from the botanicals. My concern was that everyone expects a gin to be clear. The first place I took my gin to was a wine merchant. He just said what a fabulous colour. Since then it has never been a problem. Colour doesn’t seem to be a barrier.
The Gin Studio is lined with shelves and a workbench that wraps around the space. Beneath the workbench on one side there are rows of large glass jars full of Norfolk Gin.
J – These are our bathtubs (indicating the large jars). They are ready for the next stage, bottling. And those are the botanicals that came out on Friday (indicating a large bowl of botanicals on the workbench). We don’t crush our botanicals or pulverize them. We leave them intact. Our gin is lovely and clear. It hasn’t been filtered. It’s just strained out the botanicals. When we bottle the gin it goes through a very fine strainer.
J – We do a taste test every batch.
A – We want our customers to experience consistency and high quality. I don’t think we have ever rejected a batch, have we?
J – We had one small batch that we didn’t use. We had to drink it. As I’ve always said if it isn’t good enough to go out you just have a party. But it has to be right to go out to the gin buying public.
A – The botanicals are only used once and we are always looking for a ‘home’ for our used botanicals. Seasons Bounty has just won a gold award for their Blood Orange and Norfolk Gin Marmalade.
J – The used botanicals make quite a nice iced tea. Just infuse them with some boiled water, strain them and chill the liquid.
High up on one wall is a shelf of Norfolk Gin bottles. Jonathan points to it and says rather tongue-in-cheek:
J – We have our museum of Norfolk Gin in here. When we started I thought I would keep a bottle of each batch for reference. I had only sold 1 so I thought I would do a batch a month and at the end of the year have 12 bottles left. Like the twelve days of Christmas. But then suddenly orders just flew away with us. And now I am at batch 986. 24 bottles each time. They all have their batch number. We did open one that was a couple of years old and that was fine.
There is an interesting looking barrel on one of the workbenches. I had to ask what was in it?
J – That’s a nod to genever. We have a juniper-based spirit in there, resting and ageing. We’ll try it periodically. It’s not something we are going to do on a large scale. It might just be something we do for fun once a year. Like an oude genever, It’s very malty.
Jennifer the Bottling Shack
We move on to Jennifer, the purpose-built bottling shed/shack. Built by a local joiner (who I’m told loves a challenge) into a corner of the garden it is fair to say it is an odd, yet strangely satisfying shape, a trapezoid, without a square corner.
It’s appropriately named after the track Jennifer Juniper by Donovan. When they are busy bottling you may hear some soulful music coming from the shack from their vinyl LP collection.
Inside I am once again struck by the attention to detail. It is another example of how Jonathan and Alison have tailored their business to the available space and created something in response to a need.
Everything is well thought out with no wastage or excess. Even the shelves were built to just the right height to stack the boxes and crates underneath. Fully insulated the shack keeps to the same temperature so when measuring volume there is a consistency.
J – The bottles are sanitized with alcohol and filled to the appropriate measure. And then the stoppers go in. They go into the crates and then we take them up to be labelled. The bottles are in here to be climatized.
A – Recently we have moved over to a natural cork stopper. Again that’s just part of trying to use less plastic and be a more sustainable product. The Rankin company have been making cork since 1774. They have their own cork forests in Portugal.
J – These bottles (pointing to empty 70cl ceramic bottles) have come back from the pubs. We clean them up, strip the labels off, resanitize them and fill them up to go back to the pubs. There are probably 500 bottles circulating round Norfolk. Although the stoppers are not reused.
I ask them about their distinctive ceramic bottles?
J – The ceramic bottles are a homage to the era of genever. The original bottles came from Germany. But three times I got shorted out. So I went to Stoke on Trent and got Wade to commission a bottle to our design. Which is great because we can then put our production order in 18 months ahead so we are guaranteed supply.
They have also recently brought out a new ceramic miniature. I asked them what was the inspiration behind the unusual shape?
J – I remember growing up as a kid and there was a bottle on a shelf in the house and it was from The Crown and Anchor on Holy Island and it had whisky in it once upon a time. And my father has still got it. Probably fifty years on from when he acquired it. I thought perhaps if I make something reminiscent of that it may be on somebody else’s shelf in fifty years time in their house.
Matilda the Labelling Hut
Lastly, we climb the steps to Matilda, the shepherd’s hut, again made locally, and where the labelling takes place.
J – The new label on the new bottles is baked on. Made by Wade. The old labels were put on by hand. It was a labour of love.
I ask Jonathan and Alison about the name Norfolk Gin.
A – We are proud that we call ourselves Norfolk Gin. We are proud when we do our marketing and promotion that Norfolk is a great place.
J – Someone suggested we call it Lord Nelson’s gin because he was from Norfolk but I couldn’t warm to that. I just thought I’m in Norfolk. It’s a Norfolk gin. I’ll call it Norfolk gin.
Black Shuck were around with their Sloe Gin. Then Bullards came along with their Norwich gin. We were the first three. So in that first year, there was a time when a pub could say they had all 3 Norfolk gins.
Now (having so many Norfolk gins) is a challenge to some of the retailers and pubs. They just can’t stock all of them.
At the last count, there were 13 gin producers in Norfolk, not counting all the gins. Norfolk is a very ginny county!
I finish my tour of the sheds by having a go at putting the back label on one of the bottles. It comes out rather bubbly. Jonathan and Alison, courteous hosts to the last, choose not to notice.
If you would like to try Norfolk Gin for yourself you can order it online here through their website.