A new gin celebrating the heritage of York

York Gin Photo: www.yorkgin.com

York Gin Photo: www.yorkgin.com - Credit: Archant

The York Gin Company launched its first tipple just three months ago to incredible acclaim.

Test still Julie

Test still Julie - Credit: Andy Bulmer

Emma Godivala’s head is spinning. It involves copious amounts of gin, but not in the way you might imagine.

She’s one of four directors of The York Gin Company, which launched its first tipple just three months ago to incredible acclaim, as if the parched people of their home city were simply standing by, tonic in hand, waiting for their product to drop.

In just 12 weeks, York Gin has been picked up by Fenwick, which festooned two of the windows at its Coppergate gift shop with the company’s eye-catching cat and castle logo; Evil Eye in Stonegate, holder of the Guinness World Record for having the most gins in stock (more than 1,200); the full City Cruise fleet; York Dungeon; Jorvik Viking Centre; the Star Inn the City restaurant; the award-winning House of Trembling Madness bar; all three Hiltons and a number of independent boutique hotels.

Further afield, it’s also been added to the summer tasting menu at the prestigious London Gin Club in Soho.

Gin bottles

Gin bottles - Credit: Andy Bulmer

‘We thought we’d have a quiet little launch and then slowly build the business,’ said Emma. ‘Instead, it’s been absolutely non-stop. Frankly, we’re all astonished. Thrilled, but astonished.’

The business began with a question: why doesn’t York have its own gin? Durham, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Leeds and Liverpool have all got one, so why not York?

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Perhaps it was the sheer number of official hoops you have to jump through to launch a new spirit that put people off. Perhaps it was the weight of investment required to set up an independent distillery. Or maybe it was just that it needed five people with a diverse range of skills and a shared passion for gin to bring it all together.

Marketer and gin lover Emma posed the original, life-changing question, beginning a two-year conversation with Paul Crossman, landlord of four York pubs including The Swan in Bishopgate, Pete McNichol, former landlord of The Swan, fine food and drink fan Harry Cooke and publican Jon Farrow, Paul’s business partner at The Slip Inn in Clementhorpe, who very sadly died last summer.

Emma Godivala with Ebor the still

Emma Godivala with Ebor the still - Credit: Andy Bulmer

His death was a profound loss to the team. They’d already found a home for their distillery in Acaster Malbis and had ordered the equipment they needed to launch the city’s first gin. It was all-systems-go. And then it wasn’t. The team needed time to grieve, so they stepped back until they felt ready to give the project the vigour and passion it needed.

The result of their efforts is York Gin, a beautifully balanced spirit that brings together juniper, coriander, orris root (the fragrant rootstock of an iris), grains of paradise (tiny pepper-like seeds with a hint of citrus), black pepper, cinnamon, lemon zest and angelica. It’s a smooth, classic gin, which manages to be flavourful without any of the ingredients pushing their way bossily to the front. Everything works together for the greater good. And, boy, is it good.

‘We worked really hard to get the flavour profile right,’ said Emma. ‘We did lots of blind testing (the poor devils) to produce a high quality, drinkable gin that lived up to the standards set by the city itself. We feel so privileged to have given York its first gin – making it a spirit worthy of the name was key for us.’

The team uses traditional methods to make its classic dry gin, steaming the ingredients in a beautiful 300ltr copper still named Ebor (you have to name and register your still by law – like trains and boats), letting the Yorkshire water and alcohol absorb the individual flavours gently instead of macerating en-masse. There’s also a mini still called Julie, named in honour of Jon’s late wife.

Paul Crossman lowering a botanical basket

Paul Crossman lowering a botanical basket - Credit: Andy Bulmer

‘It sounds silly to name the stills, but it’s amazing how quickly it comes to be the norm to think of them as part of the team,’ said Emma. ‘Ebor and Julie are at the heart of what we do. We were worried about what Jon and Julie’s children (Emily, Katie, Joseph and Jessica) might think, but they like the idea that their parents are still here with us as part of York Gin.’

The team also unanimously agreed that Jon’s share in the company should remain completely intact as a tangible long-term legacy for his family, which tells you a lot about the admirable people behind the brand.

Forty-seven million bottles of gin were sold last year (not just to me – behave yourselves!), making it the most popular spirit in the UK, with 29 per cent of drinkers voting it their favourite. But could it be that we’ve reached ‘peak gin’ and that the York team have arrived a bit late to the party?

‘I think we probably have reached peak gin,’ said Paul. ‘But a great product is a great product. Not all the gins that have reached the market in the last few years will survive. I’m confident that York Gin is here to stay though. It’s a strong product with a very strong city behind it.’

Pete McNichol measuring angelica

Pete McNichol measuring angelica - Credit: Andy Bulmer

Paws for thought

York Gin celebrates the city’s long association with cats on its label, with a hand-drawn picture of a cheeky black moggy inspired by a 17th century woodcut of a witch’s familiar called Rutterkin (meaning ‘swaggering gallant’).

Many visitors to modern York follow its Cat Trail, comprising more than 20 feline figures perched precariously on buildings around the city. Some believe the cats were originally installed to frighten rats, mice and evil spirits. The York Gin Company is keen to stress that its spirit isn’t evil; it’s very, very good.

Test sample gins

Test sample gins - Credit: Andy Bulmer

Interestingly, it’s not just York that has a strong catty connection; gin has been associated with cats for centuries too.

After the 1736 Gin Act – one of many attempts by the government to cut down drinking during the original Gin Craze – the first Puss & Mew gin shop opened, complete with a cat-shaped vending machine.

According to one source, thirsty customers put a coin in the cat’s mouth to receive a mouthful of gin from its tail (via a disguised lead pipe). Another more whimsical story has it that customers whispered ‘Puss, give me two penn’orth of gin’ and the cat would mew if there was illicit booze in the building.

There’s also a traditional sweet spirit called Old Tom, which apparently got its name when a cat drowned in a vat of illegal gin. It was hugely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries but the York Gin Company has no plans to repeat its success by adding a few moggies to its ingredients list.