Last week I trundled out in the sunshine to Ancaster Malbis to chat to Emma Godivala, one of the founders of the York Gin company. After arriving at the York Gin headquarters and being offered an oat milk coffee (I’ve never had oat milk before and I’ve been converted!), Emma gave me the grand tour of their small but perfectly formed gin distillery and spoke about the process of creating a unique hand-crafted gin. With a reputation for quality and taste that is gathering momentum across the whole of York and a logo that looks like it has been part in the city for centuries, York Gin is becoming a household name after just one-year on the market. Emma’s passionate and bubbly personality shone through as we chatted about the York Gin story and her experience in building a business and creating a unique product from the bottom up.
Okay let’s jump straight in! Emma, what motivated you to create a York Gin?
I don’t think that we were the first people in the city to think that York needed its own gin, but we were clearly the first people to get up off our arses and do it! After we launched the business, there was a number of people who came up to us and would say that they had always thought about creating a York Gin, and that is part of the charm really, it should have always been here.
And how did you personally become involved in the business?
I really love York and I really love Gin so that is how I got my idea! I tried to register the name ‘York Gin’ online, but it turned out that somebody else already had registered it. When I looked on the site, I knew the people involved as Paul was the owner of the local pub, so I picked up the phone and gave him a ring. We then decided to join forces as we both wanted to make a quality product without breaking the bank, and we felt that York should really have a gin. It is a busy market and there is a lot of gin, so we could have easily become lost, but we just felt that York needed it and people understood that.
What Botanicals do you use in the York Gin?
In the classic gin, we have nine botanicals that is about mid-way between average. We’ve obviously got juniper berries that have to be the majority flavour otherwise it isn’t classed as gin, then we have a range of other botanicals too like cardamom, dried lemon peel, and auris root which has the property of binding things together quite well. All of the ingredients we use in the gin would have been available on the spice route around 200 years ago.
You have four York Gin’s at the moment. What is your most recent gin?
Our most recent creation is the York Gin Outlaw which is a navy strength Gin at 57 % ABV. It is an extra strength gin and we are using a more of the botanicals to focus on the juniper and lemon flavour. We wanted to base the gin around the outlaws of York for a bit of fun. It is pushing the boundaries a little bit, and it is stronger than your average gin. The reason it is called a ‘navy strength gin’ is that sailors use to take a portion as part of their rations. However, the quality would vary, and when we say quality, we mean alcohol level! One of the ways to check if they had good enough gin was to pour the gin onto gunpowder and if the powder still lit, then they knew it was strong enough!
How did you find the process of creating your own business and a Gin?
It was quite a stressful process in regard to setting it all up, especially as everybody had another full-time job. It left us to all to do the York Gin jobs in the evenings and weekends, and in fact, we ended up working on things within our other jobs. I think I drew the York Cat for our logo in a meeting! It was hard work because we were doing two jobs at the same time.
What experience do the other members of the business bring to the table?
The other guys have got complimentary skills so we all work well together as a team. Paul and Pete have both got a background in the pub trade, so they know the local scene very well and all about alcohol law and licensing. I have a background in marketing and design, and Harry is really technical and set up the whole operation of how everything was going to work.
What inspired the iconic York Gin logo design?
Well, cats are quite symbolic in York, and from the York Walls you can see statues of cats on some of the rooftops. We wanted to incorporate this into the design, so I drew the cat ‘Rutterkin’ that was associated with witchcraft and supposedly Bewitched the Earl of York in the 17th century. It fitted in perfectly to place him ontop of the castle-style outline that represents the walls of York, and we kept our design simple with an ancient style font. It was created to look like it had been around forever.
It is a great design. And where did you work before starting the business here?
Immediately before setting up York Gin, I worked at a charity called Step Change which helped people in debt. I worked on the websites and helping the company create the best experience for their clients. I have a background in computing and marketing, and I focus on how things work for people. You take a very wide perspective on looking at things, and that can be very helpful when setting up your own business.
Did you have any knowledge about making a gin before you started up the business?
Not in practice, only in theory!
Wow! So where did you learn?
We went and visited other distilleries and the internet is a wonderful thing! Harry has more of knowledge and experience as he has worked with some stills before (the product you make the gin inside), but we just learnt through practice. If you know about the history of gin, ordinary people with no science background used to made it in their bathtubs… it can’t be that hard! We were not going in blind, and although there was a small amount of trial and error, it is a tried and tested method.
How long does it take to create your classic gin from distilling all the way through to packaging it up?
It takes us about two days to make a full batch of gin which is around 150 litres and we make this in our one still called Ebor. We make two batches to even out any inconsistencies at all, but normally there aren’t any as it’s a very reliable method. After you have distilled the gin, and you mix the water in at the end, you usually leave it a good few days to allow the water and oil to combine properly and that is about it. You can bottle it from any point after then, but we leave ours for four or five days for any sediment to settle if there is any.
As you were saying earlier, it is quite a crowded market out there, how do you make the York Gin stand out?
The main thing is quality, and it just has to be brilliant quality because York demands it. People love York anyway so the main thing for us is that people like and understand what we are trying to create. Our aim was to get the first bottle sold, and then hope that people will come back for more because the quality is there. A lot of people do say it is their favourite gin, and I think that is because of the quality that it is. We wanted it so it was smooth enough to drink neat. We have a small range of hearts in the gin and that is what keeps the quality high. Where we chose to cut it mattered more than anywhere else, and we did quite a lot of testing to get that right.
What is the biggest challenge you have had to overcome in building your own business and product from scratch?
One of the obvious things was losing John who was a part of the original team who unfortunately passed away during the set-up of the business, and that was really hard. Not only do you miss him as a person, but also all of his amazing skills because I’ve had to learn to do the bookkeeping and getting in touch with HMRC which he actually enjoyed doing! He loved tax! Also trying to work around a mixture of different laws from the 17thcentury to modern day has been really difficult.
And what would you say the gin industry is like as a community?
We did work with other people in the gin industry who gave us pointers, and it is a relatively friendly industry where people will help each other out which is quite nice. There is also quite a strong Yorkshire gin scene so we all meet up and chat about different things. I think there is more than enough space for us all.
If you could go back and give yourself any advice before starting out, what would it be?
I think we probably should have got in touch with other gin makers even earlier about HMRC and how to get set up because we spent a lot of time going through the official channels on the website and it was quite difficult to work out what to do. I spent a long time trying to work out what forms to send off, and if we had asked sooner it would have made more sense.
There is never enough time! How have you personally found the change in career?
You could think that when you start working for your own business that it would be nice and easy and that you can take time off when you need to, but you don’t! You are the bottle neck, and everything starts and stops with you because it is your business. If you don’t do it yourself or take charge, then no one else is going to do it for you. I’ve also learnt a load of new skills that I wouldn’t normally know how to do like book keeping and learnt more about levels of marketing and advertising which is great.
And where do you see York Gin this time next year?
I think we hope to consolidate York. The brand is getting really well known, and it is just making sure that we keep supporting the right people such as the local businesses and charities in York. We would also like to have a bigger presence in town if it were possible because people wonder where they can come and see us, although we have to make sure we can afford it. It is still our business at the end of the day and we haven’t got loans so it is quite nice not owing anyone anything!
Emma Godivala, 21.2.19.
York Talks would like to thank Emma from York Gin for sharing her story and for the delicious taster box of York Gin – They were all delicious!
This material is not to be copied, cited or distributed without the prior permission of the York Talks Blog.