LONDON – It was 2012, and Kathy Caton was out for a morning run on the Brighton seafront following a long night of gin-drinking when she had her “lightbulb moment.”
Gin, known for its forgiving hangovers, was starting to grow in popularity thanks to the early efforts of craft distillers like Sipsmith, and Brighton needed its own version.
“Gin is the one drink that lets you get away with it and Brighton is the place that needs to get away with it on a frequent basis,” Caton told BI.
Three years after it launched, Brighton Gin is an entrepreneurial success story. The small-batch distillery was named the UK’s best gin at the People’s Drinks Awards in June, and sales have rocketed since. Year-on-year sales are up 60% this year, annual turnover hit £500,000, and sales reached 1,000 units a week in the run-up to Christmas.
In some ways, Brighton Gin’s success seems improbable. Caton had spent her career working as a radio broadcaster and running pubs and restaurants, and had “b****r all” clue about how to go about creating a gin. So how do you begin to create one from scratch?
The answer, Caton says, was a “shedload” of research, a team of helpful friends which included a laser physicist, and years of painstaking recipe-testing.
“We got a still off eBay, we made tonnes of mistakes and experiments, and I tried to dust off my ancient chemistry knowledge from school,” she says.
“I’m now really glad we went through that process of learning about the mechanics of it and the tiny things you can do to vary the result of the recipe.”
The basic idea behind gin is simple enough: it is formed of a base spirit, plus juniper berries, plus a host of botanicals, brought together in a still.
Caton says it is that simplicity which means there is such a variety between gins, but also what makes a good recipe so hard to come by. A bottle of Brighton Gin – which arrives hand-sealed with a wax lid – includes contains coriander grown in the UK, milk thistle from the South Downs, and fresh orange and lime peel.
“I always use the analogy of making a soufflé. Theoretically, it’s incredibly simple, but there are 300,000 different ways you can screw it up,” she says.
When Brighton Gin finally launched in December 2014 – “much later than we initially thought” – Britain was undergoing something of a craft gin revolution. The once disreputable spirit the Victorians called “Mother’s Ruin” was transforming into a product altogether more upmarket and desirable: Distillery openings in 2015 increased by 50% year-on-year, expensive tonic maker Fever Tree floated on the stock exchange in a move worth hundreds of millions of pounds, and gin sales hit a record £400 million.
Fast-forward to 2017, and there are more than 500 craft gin distillers in Britain alone. Is Caton worried the bubble will burst?
“I think it will contract at some stage, but bubble’s probably the wrong word,” she says. She’s confident that craft gin’s popularity is more than the fad which has come to characterise many food trends in Britain, and cites the enduring popularity of craft beer as evidence.
“We’re following what’s happening to craft gin based on what’s happened to the craft beer movement. The amount of knowledge and passion and interest that people from all sections of society have got about craft beer is really interesting.
“Five years ago I can’t imagine that I’d go to a pub and buy a can of beer for £6, but there’s been a wave of interest in provenance and the stories behind products. It’s a really positive thing that people are interested in their food and where it’s coming from,” she says.
Next year’s target is moving into international export markets, where British gin sales are through the roof.
Over 60% British gin is currently exported – a figure which is growing – and Caton believes the popularity of Brighton with overseas tourists put her in a strong position to sell into countries which drink a lot of gin, particularly in Asia.
“We have 11.4 million visitors a year coming to Brighton. If a quarter of those can go back to their home countries either taking a bottle of Brighton gin or knowing about it, it represents a huge potential for us,” she says.
Caton also aims to double revenue next year, a target which she admits is ambitious given the firm’s currently small production capacity.
“We’d rather aim for it and fall a bit short than not have that ambition,” she says.
“If we fall short, there’s always nice gin at the end of the day. I still think a gin and tonic is the most perfect drink ever invented.”
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