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Meet the distiller: Dominic M’Benga, Hooting Owl Distillery

Dominic M’Benga Photo: Hooting Owl Distillery
Dominic M’Benga Photo: Hooting Owl Distillery

Dominic M’Benga is founder and craft distiller at Barmby Moor’s multi award-winning Hooting Owl Distillery, 58-year-old Dominic has been a soldier, worked in the butchery field and developed a new type of wind turbine for renewable energy before launching his drinks business. ‘We’re probably best known for our own range of London Dry and fruit gins, but we also distil Yorkshire vodka, rum and other spirits. We currently hold 17 Great Taste Awards for the spirits we produce, so we’re arguably the most awarded distillery in Yorkshire,’ says Dominic. Here, he shares his food loves.

Most vivid childhood food memory?

I remember a discussion with other children when I was at school in Bradford, about dandelion and burdock pop. They were all insistent that, because I was growing up in care, I’d never be able to have such luxuries. Then and there I made it my mission to get some dandelion and burdock, just to prove them wrong. That first bottle tasted like success to me, and now, as a result, I always add dandelion and burdock root to all my gin recipes.

Most memorable meal out?

The evening I first discovered lovage, while having a meal at The Pipe and Glass restaurant, near Beverley. I was introduced to lots of incredible flavours and creative ways of executing them, but I had never come across the herb before and was instantly fascinated by its unique, yet somehow familiar taste. It inspired me to produce a vine tomato and garden lovage gin - which is absolutely delicious in a Bloody Mary!

Favourite ingredient?

This is cyclical as I am always experimenting and finding new flavours. My current favourite is probably beefsteak plant, also known as shiso leaf, it has an incredible, bright taste. It’s such a favourite at the moment that we're going to use it to produce a Japanese inspired gin.

If you weren't a drinks business owner, what would you be and why?

Before my passion led me to open Hooting Owl, I had a varied career. I was previously a soldier, then my love of food took me into butchery. I also had a great time developing a new type of wind turbine a few years ago so, if I wasn’t a distiller now, I would be working in renewable energy, or for some other green or environmental cause.

Your dream dinner guest, and why?

It would definitely be Nikola Tesla, just to get a glimpse into his brilliant brain.

Great British Life: One of the gins created by Hooting Owl Distillery Photo: Hooting Owl DistilleryOne of the gins created by Hooting Owl Distillery Photo: Hooting Owl Distillery

Your guilty food pleasure?

I’m not sure if it counts as a guilty pleasure or not but I absolutely love oysters. I think it stems from my time in Northern Ireland. I was based near Dundrum Bay, County Down, where I had access to an unlimited supply of them. I not only enjoy them as they come, directly from the sea, but also cooked.

Who are your Yorkshire food and drink heroes?

There are many - most are small, local producers. We often sell our spirits through farm shops, and I love to visit them because I see all the wonderful food and drink which local, independent businesses are producing - that's always an inspiration.

Pork pies are a particular favourite of mine. As a former butcher I admire those who provide meat which has been properly raised, butchered and aged, and then there are the smokers, and the charcuterie, there are so many. If I had to name a particular hero though, it would be SeaGrown in Scarborough. They are bringing something new to the region, they also have excellent products and innovative methods.

A food person who inspires?

There is an artisan bread maker in Borough Market in London, I always use him as an example when talking about artisans and the word art. This chap sells his sourdough bread at £18 a loaf - although you can buy a half or quarter loaf.

He is the epitome of an artisan; he's producing the very best product that he can and finding a market for it, he is not producing a product specifically for a market. To me, someone doing something they love and doing it well, and who also recognises the quality and worth in what they do, that’s inspirational.

A place you love to eat?

The Pipe and Glass is a favourite. I also loved The Rattle Owl restaurant in York, now sadly closed.

A career highlight?

Setting up Hooting Owl as I’m immensely proud of my faithful copper stills and the quality of the spirits we achieve. Away from distilling, my involvement in the development of the world's first commercially viable vertical axis wind turbine was a real achievement, possibly though, my greatest highlight is yet to come. Watch this space.

What's next for you and Hooting Owl?

We are at an exciting chapter in the Hooting Owl story as we’re currently in the planning stages of a move to within York's city walls. We’re looking to build a new distillery, visitor's centre and an event space and we intend to call it The Owl and The Pussycat, named after two of our brands, The Hooting Owl and The Curious Cat.

My favourite drink.

Can I say dandelion and burdock,’ smiles Dominic. ‘As a distiller people often ask me if I drink my own spirits, I always answer truthfully…of course I do! I began The Hooting Owl Distillery because I'm a gin lover, one that had become frustrated by the poor quality of some of the more mainstream gins available. I'd be hard pushed to think of a drink I enjoy more than a good gin, with a quality Indian tonic, served with a simple complementary garnish of fresh fruit or herbs.


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