THE STORY SO FAR…..
So my seventh gin, CHERRY BOMB is being launched at the end of this month, 36 months after I launched my first gin, STAINSBY GIRL.
Where has the time gone! Christmas and New Year have whizzed by in a blur and now 2021 is upon us.
A year ago, 2020 brought hopes and dreams of more gins, more drinks like rums and beers. A new brewery, a bigger distillery, a Brewdog type bar, me getting back into shape, getting a dog, getting a new unit, getting some sleep, getting back to the house in Spain, even getting a life again!
However, many plans have been put on hold as the world has gone slightly bonkers and this pandemic (I won’t even say it’s name) has bitten so hard.
That is not to say 2020 was shelved. Just that new ideas, plans and products have launched instead, to initially survive, and then thrive. And thrive we have!
So, 2021 looks as good as we could ever have hoped and we will be getting most, if not all our future plans underway. Yes, it’s still sad out there for hospitality. Catastrophic for many businesses we know.
And tragic for continued lives lost. It’s been a shitstorm alright.
However, I write this on the afternoon of hearing about the sorry passing of Sir Tom Moore. And I am mindful of how brave, stoic and utterly British he was in 2020. He was the very best of us and a man to live upto. So, no moaning from me on how this world is right now, it’s just on we go and on we go. There are so many people and businesses in worse positions than us, so it is our duty to crack, do good things, make people happy with our products and service and give back to the community that supports us.
Given that, with everything that is going on, where do you even start with my particular backstory?
Like all good things, at the beginning.
I’ve had a bit of time lately to look back lately, and add more history and background to events this last unprecedented year, so even for those of you who have ordered a bottle for the first time, do read on.
Shall we? OK great.
I am aware that most of the websites of other drinks producers don’t give you much background on the person or people involved in the journey from idea to the liquid in your glass. Others that do, give lovely backstories of team efforts, inspirations, retirement money put to good use, how it was all fun setting it all up and everyday is an adventure.
Well, that’s all fine and jolly hockey sticks. It certainly hasn’t been that rosy or straightforward for me. But it has certainly been an adventure and ultimately very rewarding..
Some brands however, don’t even give you that. I have always felt that too many drinks brands, are mostly soulless cash cows. The biggest drinks brands are owned by multi-nationals, some are hundreds of years old, and the romance of it all has long since given way to the cold hard facts of business life. Even smaller brands can be faceless, their social media presence non existent, their websites a little “About Me” page with a picture of them and their dog sitting next to a pot still. Zzzzzz….
This is because either the founder/s are as dull in real life as their finished product is, or they just don’t seem to think it matters that the people who stump up their hard cash to buy their drink would even want to know who made it, how and why it matters at all.
Let’s say, I am a different animal. I favour ‘Warts and all’. Especially the crap times, and the cock ups. Sugary stories are for children. And happy endings only work if there has been a hard start and middle bit.
I have waited however until I have attained some perspective on this adventure I am in the middle of, on this road I am racing down, in order to give you a fuller, and hopefully more interesting account of the story so far…
There are so many things that have happened over the last couple of years that I have missed out, or won’t be expanding on. (for now).
Like, how I was very nearly bringing out a two different gins with two different very well known sporting celebrities but I called time on them because I just could not deal with their egos in the end.
For now, I’ll also omit some of the darker aspects of this journey, the back stabbing, the calling I’ve had from some “experts” in the industry, unhappy with what I do and how I do, the copycat antics of competitors. It goes on.
The falling out with friends I have had to move on from because they just see me as the loser or the chancer who runs from one business to the next. I’ve left out some of the dogs abuse I’ve had online along the way, (it happens). And there’s been too many times it’s all looked like crashing down around me, so I’ve spared some of them stories too.
But there is a little about my own personal private life and its dramas, some history, some plans for the future, and a fair bit of waffle!
So, go grab a gin and tonic, kick the dog off that sofa, turn off First Dates, put the kids back in the cupboard, sit back, and listen to my tale of woe, misery, darkness, retreat, learning, becoming, redemption and ultimately, a happy ending!
HOW THE HELL DID IT HAPPEN?!
How does a guy like me end up with a successful drinks brand and ‘busier by the day’ distillery operation?
With no formal training, (up until recently) no experience, no contacts, no money, hell, I don’t even have a Chemistry O Level!
It starts with…
GRANADA the GIN then TEESSIDE: Saved my life.
Two and a half years ago, I put on a Gin Festival in Granada, and I have never really looked back.
Since 2008, my partner at the time, and I owned a run down, never quite finished farmhouse set in 10 acres of land, 30 minutes outside the majestic city of Granada. Which is in Andalucia, a jewel of a region in Southern Spain.
We bought it before the big crash, when inland property in Spain was stupid cheap (the whole place cost as much as a decent 2 bed terrace in Middlesbrough at the time).
The house needed alot of work (still does), but the views were great, it’s isolated but not cut off, 30 minutes from Granada, 5 minutes from the nearest village. It has a stream running all along its lower boundary where families of ducks live, a big hill right behind the house which is an old tin mine with lots of caves to explore.
The land is south facing, fertile, gently sloping with a few trees dotted here and there and a lovely wooded area, where even to this day when I am back I walk through to pick wild mushrooms.
I loved the place then, and it’s driven me to the wall since, but I still love it now. Fresh air, open countryside out of your front door, my own stream, my own wooded area, farm animals passing every day, the quiet life of nature just easing along.
Back in 2008, buying property in rural Spain was like the Wild West, and we walked straight into High Noon.
We got the place cheap, only because the seller, Luis was let’s say ‘motivated’.
He was looking at doing some time, so he wanted to offload a property or two, and virtually insisted that we take this one. It was a project alright, still bloody is! But we were hooked.
We paid 30,000 euros on paper, and another 30,000 is cash.
I got it from the bank in the morning and carried it to the notary in a plastic Mercadona supermarket carrier bag. That was a long long walk let me tell you.
I wouldn’t carry 35 quid around in cash on me in the some of the places I have lived in believe me.
When we got to the notary, Luis, the seller, a small, Mexican tanned guy, very wiry, with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen on someone who isn’t a White-Walker, said, for another 10k more we could have another plot of land he had near the house. In fact he said he wouldn’t sell at all unless we took that too. We looked at each other. And thought, ‘F*ck it” We were already 500 miles past logic lane, and 70,000 euros for the whole lot seemed absurdly cheap then (it doesn’t now!) and I really didn’t want to upset the guy, he might get off at his trial yet.
So, we did the deal, and spent the next few months drinking and celebrating just being alive and living in the centre of that majestic city that is Granada. Making new memories, friends and hangovers. Occasionally driving up to this farmhouse we had bought, and just walking around the land, thinking, ‘How the hell did this happen!’.
It wasn’t until months later, that our lawyer drove up from Malaga, to sort some deeds trouble out, and asked had we actually seen the extra bit of land that Luis had sold us. We hadn’t.
Assuming it was just like the rest, a few olive, almond and quince trees dotted around lots of empty fields, with wild wheat growing in it.
As it turned out, the extra piece of land was further along the track that leads past our only neighbour, Jose’s farm. And it was two acres of vines! OK, it was no vineyard, and they hadn’t been looked after by Luis, but they were still there, still producing grapes. Just.
Being dreamers, we immediately had visions of making wine and setting up a vineyard, living the life of a vintner, opening a B&B, with a terrace restaurant, bringing wine lovers over to help us crush grapes in big vats of juicy soon to be Spanish vino.
It didn’t happen. The Financial Crisis did instead. And eighteen months later, we were both back in the UK, and not liking it one bit.
So the years have moved on, and we settled back into UK life, making many many trips back though, and I did a little more to the house here and there, but money was very tight and even today it’s still a little run down by ‘swanky villa’ standards, but it’s perfectly livable.
We couldn’t sell the place then anyways, apparently, they were only two nutcases in the world that would buy it, and we already had.
There has been alot of water under the bridge since then, and not all of it, clean drinking. But it became more painful for my former partner to go back, and caused us to really argue about what to do with it. I must admit I just wanted to keep the place as I always felt one day it would all come good. The split in hindsight started there.
So it was that split that led me to being back there on my own in 2016. I thought it best to get the f*ck out of Dodge (Dodge being Teesside), and back to Spain for a few months to regroup and get my head together. As I was not in a good space.
Breakups are never easy. And a 15 year relationship ending suddenly is a tough one for sure.
It sucked big time. But looking back, these things are not that sudden. With reflection, the signs were there, but if you’re someone like me, or like I used to be, you are blind to the telltale signs a relationship is on the rocks. Too wrapped up in my own world, jumping from one “Next Big Idea” to the next. Not compromising. Heaping stress on my former partner, totally oblivious at times to the hurt I would cause from my daily ups and downs, highs and low low lows.
Looking back I now realise I was ill. Mentally suffering and had been for years. I was depressed, deeply unhappy with myself and my place in the world and just in a bad bad way. I would have good days when I was fine and fun to be around. And then something I perceived as an injustice, some bad luck, some news of someone doing well, or hearing a slight said about me. And I would be staring down the well for days.
As usual, I did nothing about it, just let it fester and fester. Every now and again I would blow. Many times I would not speak for days, just spending my days inside my own head full of dark thoughts. I know now this was a terrible burden for my partner at the time. It must have been unbearable for her.
Eventually, you bend something long enough, and it will snap. The final straw for us, was my father in law saying to his daughter, my partner, that I was one of life’s losers, that I would never amount to anything and that if she didn’t leave me, he would cut her out of his life.
That’s very tough to hear. But That was that. She snapped. We snapped. I snapped. It was over.
And at the time, I thought my life was over. It certainly felt like it was in the UK. I was full of anger and shame and just could not handle seeing my now, ex partner, starting her new life without me.
Skint, mentally in bits, alone, I just thought, I need to get away.
Breakups are hard financially too, so I pulled the last of my cash together and hopped on a flight to Granada. I had no clue what I was going to do when I got there, other than just try and get away from it all and get over it.
It was the best thing I could have done. When I arrived there I was full of anger, hurt and suffering really bad bout of depression. But there is something about being alone, in the sun, with nature that can force you to see the world and your place in it with a little less self drama.
Living back at the farmhouse, surrounded by the summer Spanish elements, calmed me. The daily cycles of country life put my bruised ego to the sword. I felt humbled by my old neighbour Jose down the track, who braved long hot scorching days to walk his goats and sheep up and down fields and mountains to graze. And sometimes I would go with him, and just walk, talking about the land, the weather, harvests, and how Spain was under Franco.
Day after day my own precious little melodrama going on in my head started to feel just another silly love story in the middle of thousands. And when all said and done, I was alive, fit, still young enough, and in a great position to start a new chapter in my life.
Life goes on. Days seem longer in the Andalucian summer. And I had lots of work to do, fixing the house up, improving my Spanish and reading. Reading a hell of alot. Lots of psychology, business and mental health books.
And within a few months, I wasn’t looking to jump down the fresh water well in front of the house any more.
I also started to tend to the vines that hadn’t been bothered with for years, and Jose and myself brought them to life.
They actually started to look like the vines you see in neat rows around the wineworld. I say this, because it will become very very relevant this winter.
As around this time, I also met and became friends with Pepe, the local maestro winemaker at the local wine Co-op (every village or town has one in Spain I think). I asked him last year, if all the wine produced from our grapes, be made separately into our own wine. And crucially, I didn’t want that wine straight away as the other locals do.
I wanted the wine aged in barrels for a year.
Young wine is fine in Spain, but I had an eye on the UK market, where tastes are more demanding.
So we did just that. Pepe has since helped me buy the adjoining piece of land with older more mature and better kept vines on, and those vines along with those from that original piece of land are going to produce some very drinkable vino…
…..Yep, it’s a coming!!
But I digress.
Back then, by summer 2016, I was more worried about how I was going to eat.
I was down to bare bones money wise, under 100€ to my name.
I had to start to get something going again. And that something was gin.
At the weekends I would go and stay in the city with my pal, and we would head out in the many bars there. And it was just so evident that gin was so so popular in Granada. The bars and the bartenders in them, really knew how to make a great G&T. I started to see new gins I’d never heard of in bars, Martin Millar, Gin Mare, Bulldog, Puerto de las Indias, and a couple of local gin brands.
I thought, “Hang on”, there an opportunity here. (There probably wasn’t really, so I made one).
I was sure I could find UK gin brands to come to this gin loving city and show their stuff. I just had to make it a win-win for them to do so. An event would do that, and at the end of it, I could then become an importer to those brands that attended. And that’s pretty much how it went.
With a sixty sleepless nights in between. Mountains of pure Spanish red tape bollocks. Frustration on the verge of madness. So many lessons learnt about Event Management, Social Media Marketing and the Art of Persuasion too.
Yet through it all, I put together a 3 man team, (Paddy and Kieran, I am forever in your debt) and help from half a dozen other fantastic friends, we got the job done.
In the end, seven gin producers made the trip out, and got their gin in front of 250 gin lovers from Granada, including ex pats living in the city from all over the world. The venue was the Plaza de Toros, the biggest place in the city I could find (and the most expensive to hire!). But what a place it was. But I figured you might only get to do this once Jay, so go big, make a splash, make those memories. I remember walking around it the night before, the lights on, shining bright on me out in the middle as I walked the sand where a week later Matadors would be putting bulls to the sword.
I felt very proud to have gotten to this stage just six months after being at my lowest ever ebb.
Ginfest Granada (you can still Google it I believe) did not make any money, and I got called black and blue in some quarters for seemingly “failing”. But organising that festival with my pals, the help and support I received by amazing friends there, and being in Granada at that time, saved me from falling down a well I may not have come back up from.
I suddenly had purpose. And I firmly believe that is the Key to Happiness; having a purpose in life. For if we don’t have that, we just drift through the days.
My purpose was GIN.
I had a new found love for the stuff. I was inspired by the producers I brought over. And I had made one really strong contact with one particular gin producer, who would later turn out to be my own gin mentor.
I had finally proved I was a ‘Doer’ and not a dreamer. I took on a very difficult project and I delivered it. And all the obstacles that I had come up against, I found a way around them, or over them. The books I had been reading had been invaluable and the lessons learnt in them I had at times put straight into practice, and they had worked. My mind was healthier, I had started to religiously practice certain daily routines, including keeping journals, meditation, writing 3 things I was grateful for everyday, starting checklists, and repeating my four pillars of truth in times of trouble, That really does give you a confidence to go at life in a much more positive way.
I just needed to find my next project to do that.
Two years ago, around March 2017, I was back in the UK, with a mission, new confidence, new know-how and very important contacts made. I knew I could put on a gin event here. But saw that there was one big gin festival company out there, doing very well. And I knew I couldn’t better what they were doing. So I had to think of a different way, a different angle.
Sitting on my friends sofa one night, drunk on gin. I was half watching something on TV, and a ship came across the screen. Something as simple as that got the sparks firing in my brain and I started to join random ideas together. Gin. Event. Boat. “Shit! That’s it, GIN AHOY!”
Teesside welcomed me back with open arms and gave me the reason to believe again. I have never loved it more and I will never stray so far from it again.
I set to work the next day and launched my Gin Cruise business in two months.
I designed every single aspect of it, from logo, to the website, to the marketing, Facebook set up, the lot. I sourced all the glassware, materials, and made an offer they couldn’t refuse to boat owners around the rivers of the north to let me hire their boat for 3 hours. Gin Ahoy was born.
I was manic, driven, and full of purpose. I had nothing, so I had nothing to lose.
I just knew that I was onto something. I have had two years of that butterfly feeling in the pit of my stomach, when I just know, my gut and my brain are screaming to go for it, to go ALL IN!
By the time I clicked GO LIVE on the website, I was living back at my parents house, in my old bedroom, had no car, no bank account, and about £30 to my name. I know some would look at me like I was Timothy Lumsden from Sorry, but I didn’t even give it a thought. I knew from my reading, that nothing is permanent. Life is always about moving forward. Situation is temporary.
I posted that the first tickets for the first gin cruise were ready to buy, and immediately, gin lovers just jumped onboard it all (literally!). Within 3 days I had sold out the first cruise, on my beloved River Tees, our STEEL RIVER.
Over the last two years have put on many many successful, fun, rewarding gin events….on a boat.
I love doing them still, it’s great to see people enjoying themselves and tasting new gins and talking gin. I always try to give guests a little history of gin, and how it is made, so they go home knowing a little more about gin, and a little worse for wear because of it!
These gin cruises gave me an understanding of the gin market and where it was going, and I saw a gap….hell, I saw a huge hole in a big proud amazing region that needed a gin to call their own. Someone just needed to step up.
So I did. And now they have it.
STEEL RIVER GIN
I realised that Teesside, and County Durham, a big big area of the North East of England, a proud region, but often an overlooked area, wanted something to call their own in this latest gin craze.
I also knew from my gin cruises, that straight up London Dry Gins, as good as some were, just didn’t sell that well. Well known and new brands sat cruise upon cruise untouched.
The majority onboard wanted a vibrant, colourful, fruity/bold gin.
These gin lovers were 80% women too. And many were new gin drinkers. They wanted a fun, easy drinking gin, not a fussy, triple distilled gin, made by monks, in a vacuum using shrubs picked by fairies from the local woods.
They wanted Rhubarb and Ginger Gin!
So again, I used all this info, joined the dots, put random elements together, and went to work.
I had launched a little gin business from scratch already, so I had some skills to get this project off the ground. Yep, the same old obstacles were in my way, no money, no backing, no equipment, no experience. But the knowledge I had learnt from the last two years was invaluable.
I felt a different person from the one that had limped back to Spain a year and a half earlier.
I knew then, and still live by these mantras now.
Never give up. NEVER. Always believe in yourself. Why?
Because, EVERYTHING we see and experience about us, from skyscrapers, to planes flying about, from funky mobile apps, to trendy bars you drink in, to lovely clothes you wear; EVERYTHING, was created by someone who was no more knowledgeable, intelligent, hard working, than you can be.
Always have a little more faith than fear.
Never listen to the doubters. But listen to your mentors. (Don’t have a mentor? Get one!)
Surround yourself with only positive people, dump any negativity or negative people from your life. (harsh, but essential).
Dream big. Do the difficult. (less people will be doing that).
Have a plan. Have the goal, project it, visualize that end goal. Eat, sleep and breathe it.
Master the mental. There will be setbacks on the way, and dark days. Get through them. Be tough.
Read, learn, get the skills (Everything you need to learn is on Youtube).
Gather as much information about your product/market as you can. Know what you need to win, who is doing it currently, and how they do it.
Know your competition. And either Be Better than them or Be Different to them.
And above all, take a positive view on every problem, that way you will always find a solution.
Age, background, physical, geographical, none of that is a barrier to success, only attitude is.
Lastly, life is supposed to be fun, it’s for living, not enduring.
So remember to enjoy the journey, you will learn from it all, and that IS success.
ALL THAT SAID, however, I was taking on a big project, something that I would be committing the next 5 years of my life to, full on, full throttle. And I remember being stressed at times, nervous alot of the time, slightly uneasy at all times about how little I knew about the drinks game and distilling in general.
But as soon as I came up with the name, STEEL RIVER, I just knew it worked. It moved me.
It invoked a spirit.
So, I just went for it. I did what I needed to do, and more. Because I just knew it was worth doing.
It was that kind of knowing you feel deep in you, where you have to walk away from everything else and just go for it. For that feeling, you get it a handful of times in your life, believe me.
I didn’t really make it public domain that I was planning to do this. As I find “talk is cheap and ideas are free” so I waited until I was well on my way with it.
And when I did announce it, it was well received which gave me confidence.
I did however, have a few snipers. You get that, people who daren’t dream like you do, or just know they can’t match your desire or work ethic, and some will call you. But those types of things come with the territory.
It’s all their problem really. I threw it all in the mixer and used all of that as motivation.
I also had little real money, no backers, no team, not even a proper bank account. It was just me.
I kinda like all that. Being the underdog.
In that sense I am a product of my upbringing. I’ve come from a council estate on Teesside.
And you are always the underdog when you start there.
But it’s where you finish, not where you start.
Anyone can make a buck if they get enough financial help and support around them.
It’s when you don’t have any of that, that you just have to think outside the box, work harder than the rest, and be massively innovative.
Three decisions I made back then, that ultimately came through for me.
I did everything myself. Starting with the bottle design, (my A-Level Art finally came in handy!). Every single aspect of that bottle has come from my overactive imagination.
And as Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than Intelligence”. Good job!
Also, building the website, Facebook page, Social Media set up.
To sourcing the 32 different elements that go into that bottle, from the wax, the metallic label, the unique world first Ginflasks, chains, boxes, the whole kaboodle..
I leveraged everything. All my ticket sales for the up and coming Gin Cruises year.
I launched a dozen cruises in November 2017 (essentially, in time for Christmas), and used all of the ticket sales to fund the launch of my first gin. I found a way. You have to.
You just have to risk it all. Balls out.
I called on my No.1 Mentor for help.
That last thing is why I say, even something that can appear a failure, like my Ginfest in Granada.
To me it WAS a success. It hadn’t made me any money true, but it had given me a new found drive and purpose. And it also introduced me to a man who has guided me and trained me on my gin journey ever since.
Tony owns a distillery in Scotland, yet is a Geordie by birth, but has been around a bit, having spent years in the far east. He used his retirement money to fund his dream of owning a distillery. And he has done just that. Not been plain sailing for him either. But he is extremely well thought of up there, and has a very successful drinks portfolio building. Gin, rum, and whisky, he and his team produce some of the best stuff around.
He came to my event in Granada, and we just got on like a house on fire. His wife said we are two peas in a pod. Namely, both slightly bonkers!!
I got in touch with him when I started doing my gin cruises, and he came on a couple to promote his own gin brand. And we met, and then met a few times more, and I told him about my plan, my dream; STEEL RIVER. And he just loved it. He said I just HAD to go for it and he would help me.
His help has saved me so much money and saved me from all the blind alleys he’s been down. STEEL RIVER simply would not exist as it does now without him. That is THE SUCCESS that came from me putting on a gin festival in a bullring in deepest Andalucia back in October 2016.
And I will be forever grateful to him.
They call this history, graft and risk,”Sweat Money”.
When you put it all on the line, put everything you own in the pot, risk it all.
Well, there was plenty of sweat that went into my first gin.
Having no money or knowledge, I didn’t have any choice but to learn from a master, Tony.
And use his equipment, tap him for knowledge and use all his contacts to get my gin off the ground. In all, I probably saved a year in prep time, and £20,000 in costs of equipment, consultancy and training. Tony would not have put that time and help in, unless he believed my Steel River brand was worth it, and that I was worth it.
That’s a constant motivation for me, especially when I’m being called by other (crappier!) local gin competitors. Or just feeling a bit out of my league.
I was in Scotland tasting gin, tasting botanicals, testing recipes, and learning the ropes for a week or two every month for four months in between gin cruises. And I fell in love with the whole process of distilling. I love whisky anyway, and seeing how it is made, hell, helping make the stuff from scratch is an immensely satisfying process. In fact I’d say it’s addictive.
Making gin is easier, as you are really adding flavour to a base spirit, not making the actual spirit itself as in whisky or rum. Making good gin is harder. And making great gin, consistently well, that’s what Master Distillers get paid big bucks for.
I saved time, because I knew exactly what taste profile I wanted and what colour. So I nailed the recipe quicker than most, and then refined it with practice, until Tony said it was good to go.
My recipe is not massively different from some other gins. I use a 4-2-1 equation, (twice as much juniper as citrus, and twice as much citrus as florals/herbals).
But it makes a good dry backdrop for those big stand out flavours to take centre stage.
So far, it seems to be working out just fine.
STAINSBY GIRL EDITION
If I only ever made one gin and then it all went tits up, I’d still be proud of my Stainsby Girl Gin.
It is just a few days over a year since I launched my first Steel River “STAINSBY GIRL” Edition gin in May 1st 2018.
I remember the sleepless nights, the blood, sweat and tears, the money worries, the stress, the fear of failure and ridicule. I now look back and smile.
What was I really afraid of?!
From the get go, the gin found its way to so many gin lovers’ hearts. Especially on Teesside, but increasingly further afield too. And I have not looked back since. In fact a year has flown by.
I could write a book of all that’s gone on in this last year, and I may just do that one day.
First and foremost, while I was spending time in Granada on my own, I was listening alot to Chris Rea, a famous Teesside son. I had always liked him, but hadn’t really listened to much of his music for years. My parents love him, and he is as big as it gets on Teesside in a musical sense. Back then I was missing Teesside, my family, friends, the towns, the people, the humour.
So listening to Chris Rea and another fantastic very well known local musician, now sadly gone, Vin Garbutt, just gave me a little Teesside to soothe my soul.
When I returned back in the UK I was living at my parents house in Thornaby, and Chris Rea was played daily. His own love song to Teesside, STEEL RIVER, from the Shamrock Diaries album in 86, was a favourite. I found a live version of it and I just played it none stop. Fifteen times a day and it would reduce me to tears. But it was helping me drive on with setting up Gin Ahoy Cruises, and the seed was sown, to eventually launch a gin brand for Teesside, and call it Steel River.
It’s a great name, it feels like it has been around for years, and it has in a way, it’s what we call the River Tees, because of the hundreds of years of iron ore and steel making heritage we have in this area, much of it, with coal and other trade to boot, was transported up and down the Tees.
So, I knew Teessiders would get it, but it would sound good to anyone not familiar with the meaning behind it.
After all, I didn’t want to be too ‘Nail on the Head’ and call it Teesside Gin or something like that. That’s just lazy.
Logically, well, logically for me anyway, the first gin, had to speak to Teesside. So, I borrowed from Chris Rea again (I really hope his lawyers are kind to me!) and decided early on to call my first edition, Stainsby Girl. After another fantastic song of his.
Stainsby Girl is a song about Boro girls who went to Stainsby school or were from that part of the town. And Boro girls, hell, Teesside girls in general, are some of the most amazing, warm, funny, tough women you’ll ever have the good fortune to meet.
They really can break your heart in two, Chris got that right. They can break your arm in too aswell!
The colour of the gin I wanted blue. As there is a line in the Stainsby Girl song, that says….”deepest water, Stainsby Blue, running straight, and running true…”
The knowledge I gained from gin cruises screamed at me, “Make it colourful Jay! The world isn’t waiting for ANOTHER clear London Dry Gin!”
Make it a fun, easy drinking, colourful gin
Leave the ‘Finest Made Gin in the World’ tag to someone else. Just make the bottle stand out, make it gorgeous, and make a gin that people WANT to drink ALOT of!
I think I accomplished that. The bottle is a premium bottle, sourced from Spain. It is different, and I think just a little sexy. I had to offset the masculine sounding ‘Steel River’, with a sensual, attractive bottle.
The Steel River logo, and other labels, are all my own imagination coming to work again. I seem to be good at closing myself off for a while and projecting images, moving them about, fitting them into a picture that forms in my brain.
The back label of my bottle is a case in point. It’s a collage of many of Teesside and County Durhams landmarks, which I just put together in my head, then found the images, then put them together, then did the graphic design work to make them neat and fit, then changed the colours and made the image a little like a painting, and voila! Easy!
Can you name then all?
If I get butterflies, I know I am on to something. All of the design work that has gone into this bottle has started by me just staring into space, or sitting and closing my eyes and ears and letting it all come from within.
Sounds a bit fluffy, poncey, luvvy when I say it, but it’s pretty much how it goes.
The bottom label where other producers usually put some blurb on the bottle to sell it, or highlight its “uniqueness” or the fact it won Third Place in the Skegness Gin Competition in 2013″ Or the usual “Small Batch” and “Handcrafted” and put every ingredient on there too.
I just wanted to keep it simple, the main ingredients, the big players and also get the lyrics of the title of the song that had inspired the gins name, Stainsby Girl. I know a friend who knows a friend (a well known chef/restaurant owner from Teesside) who knows Chris Rea still. He told Chris (apparently) about my gin and the fact I was using Steel River as the name and Stainsby Girl as the first gin edition name.
And (apparently) Chris said, “Yeah, go for it, whatever man.”
So until his lawyers tell me not too, I’ll keep some of his iconic lyrics on the bottle. And Chris has been fighting bigger battles lately with ill health, so I just hope he gets well soon as on my bucket list of life is to hand him a bottle of my Stainsby Girl gin that he so so inspired.
I always knew I wanted The Transporter Bridge on the main logo.
That bridge speaks to me.
When I first came back to the area after being in Granada, I would drive to it and just sit and stare at it, and always felt a calm. When you sit in the midst of history, you feel humbled, and your own petty shit just fades for a while as you imagine the men and women who worked on such an iconic piece of engineering as that bridge. Over 100 years ago.
And the outline around the bridge if you look closely is that of Roseberry Topping. A big symbolic hill in the Cleveland Hills. Where you’ll find Captain Cooks monument and hundreds of walkers and trekkers who climb upt there every Sunday to stand and look out over Teesside and North Yorkshire.
The metallic label is an extension of the steel imagery. And I found just one manufacture of metallic pewter labels in Europe. As soon as I showed it to my gin mentor, Tony, he said, “You have nailed young man.”
The hipflask, now called the Steel River ‘GINFLASK’ has proved very very popular and definitely expanded the reach of my gin. It’s an idea I had that is my part me, and part nailed on marketing.
As an eighteen year old (maybe a little younger!) poor college student, on a Saturday night in Middlesbrough, hitting the bars and clubs, every penny counted. So I’d take a hipflask with me as I was heading out on the town. A little nip here and there there certainly made the night better, and the pennies last longer.
Can you remember being able to go out with £10 in your pocket!
Oh I wish I could go back to those days!
So I thought it would be cute and nostalgic to have one around the bottle. The chain hung around the neck, again, both feminises the look, and also keeps the ‘steel’ elements on the bottle.
I also have ran many bars, and been in a hell of alot more. And know that barstaff love a freebie.
So those ginflasks would get pinched by all and sundry, and crucially, they would remember the gin for that. Essential when you think that most people still rock up to a bar and ask for
“a Gin and Tonic please”.
That puts the bartender in total control of what gin he picks, from the many on the shelf.
If they liked mine because they had a Steel River ginflask, my gin would be front and central in their thinking and recommendations. I think they call that…Marketing.
My idea was always to use the ginflask to promote the other gins I have too.
That has been one of my better ideas, because it allows private buyers to taste other gins in the range as the ginflask comes filled with one of them.
So, although my gin overall is not a cheap thing to buy, (who wants cheapo gin anyways!) you do get more gin for your money and alot of unique elements to the bottle.
The overall flavour of my Stainsby Girl Edition Gin is inspired by Spain, and my house there.
The fresh, watermelon, slightly fig aroma and taste you get is from the addition of Prickly Pear Cactus fruit. Called locally in the Spanish country, ‘Chumbo’.
These wild cactae grow all around my land and the country around it near Granada. I never even thought you could eat the fruit from them. As some have spiky scary thorns covering them, and others have really fine, irritating evil little ones. They are a sod to pick, never mind try and peel.
But walking around the countryside with Jose, my old neighbour, with his goats and sheep, he would tell me that in the really poor tough times under Franco, fruit like Chumbo, was a staple.
It was free, plentiful, and once you mastered peeling it, a lovely fig like fruit to eat.
And sometimes he would tell me, it was all they had to eat.
He didn’t much like the taste of dog anyway. Now that’s hard times.
I never forgot that. That’s humbling. And it was just one of many conversations I had with this remarkable old man, as we walked, or just sipped a beer on his terrace, that made me swallow my bruised pride back then, and remember that the best things in life are usually free. The sun, the air, the country, nature, animals. and life is tough at times, but also, truly beautiful and rewarding.
And it could always be worse, and usually has been at some point for the next man stood next to you. So, “Get over it Byers!” I would tell myself back then.
That feeling, and that chumbo I wanted in my Stainsby Girl as a symbol of a reawakening I had from my time in the Granada countryside with my pal, Old Jose.
By the way, Jose’s mum and dad, are actually brother and sister. It’s common knowledge in the village and when I asked “WTF!” once, the locals just shrugged and said, it was just how it was back then.
So when I say our place is in the Spanish countryside to you, you get what I mean now;
deep deep country.
All this nostalgia aside, it was not plain sailing however with this first gin and I guess that’s how it should be. If it was easy, I shouldn’t have been doing it. There were tough times, but also, some clear moments when I think the universe gave me back positives that I had been putting out there. A bit too spiritual? Read ‘Think and Grow Rich’, worked for me.
In November 2017, I received a tax refund out of the blue for £981. That was so so needed at the time and paid for a few essential elements to get going.
By January however, I had exhausted all the money I had, and gin cruise ticket sales were slow, as it was January. The diary was pretty much full for the summer ahead however, so I had very few spare dates to try and launch another cruise. I did have a cruise in Durham on a Friday night June, so in theory had the next day Saturday free. But two cruises in two days is tough going.
There’s a fair amount of work that goes into doing these gin cruises, and doing one in Durham one night, then heading up past Edinburgh the next day would require alot of planning and very good execution, and no little energy!
I thought F*ck it. And I stuck it out until February, and launched another cruise online, for Scotland where ticket sales had always sold well, on that spare Saturday. Knowing that that whole week, would to be a long, long, tough week. But I would worry about that when the time came!
Well that cruise I posted on Facebook, I paid a little for some promotion, and just hoped for the best. Well, it just caught. It went crazy. That particular Gin Cruise ad, no different than all the rest, was seen by 30,000 people where most were getting 6 or 7,000 views. It sold out in 4 days. Suddenly I had £3k to play with. The universe provided. so I paid the £250 deposit on the boat and used the rest to buy the initial bottles for the first couple of gin runs.
By July, a couple of months after I brought out the Stainsby Girl Edition. Sales had tapered off from the heady high of the initial launch. I was overworked, doing everything, working stupid hours and feeling run down. Wondering how I could keep this thing moving forward with the limited funds I had for promotion, and the finite hours in a day I had to do every single thing.
I decided to have a day off and head out for a drive. I ended up in Saltburn.
For anyone who doesn’t know, this is a little gem of a place on Teesside. A seaside town, with a nice big beach, classic long pier, houses, shops and a cliff top tram that hark by to an illustrious Victorian era.
I had a bottle of gin with me and as I walked down the pier, I looked back towards the shore, where you see the amusements and the tram that takes folks from the clifftop down to the pier entrance. I thought, “Damn, that would be a good pic”. So, I set the bottle down on the pier, laid down on my front and took this pic. Stainsby Girl Gin on Saltburn Pier. I got some very intrigued looks from passing strollers, but I’m used to getting very strange looks.
When I got back, stuffed full of fish and chips, I posted it up on Facebook.
I really thought it was a good pic and it would get a few likes, nothing more……
Well, it went crazy. And was seen by 25,000 people. And brought in so much good will and interest, both local, and from all around the world where Teessiders had moved to. There must have been something very moving about seeing Saltburn by-the Sea on a summer’s day, that stirred emotions. So many people, quite rightly, commented that it’s shameful that people outside this lovely region think of Teesside as orange skies, ICI and steelworks and a dirty river.
Once I quickly edited that photo (putting a link to the website on!), the interest brought in a splurge of sales, from folks all over the place.
It really gave sales a kick, and really gave me a boost too. And reaffirmed that this gin meant something to so many people, just as Teesside does. And I raced on through the summer, honouring all the gin cruises I had piled up, whilst working 16 hour days on the gin brand. It was a manic period and I was running on nervous energy, driven by a burning desire to succeed and not lose this opportunity I had created for myself.
When you are on the crest of the wave, you better ride it as long as you can, as you’ll fall in the wet stuff sooner or later.
EL CLASICO EDITION
My love song to Granada, my Andalucian home from home.
Six months after Stainsby Girl, I launched my second, Steel River “EL CLASICO” Edition gin.
I had been playing around with the flavours and ingredients for a few months however. Pomegranate is the emblem of the city of Granada, in fact the Spanish word for pomegranate, is….Granada.
And truth be told, I was missing the place, so it was on my mind when coming up with my second gin, so this gin is unashamedly Andalucian inspired, and tasting.
Even the roadside traffic bollards in Granada are metallic pomegranates.
So I thought, pomegranate, that works. It also has a slight bitter-sweetness to it that I like too, and thought would suit gin perfectly.
Pistachio I thought would add a little nuttiness to the flavour, being strangely, a nut. I also have a few trees on my land too.
So again, my farmhouse was an inspiration.
With that Spanish inspiration I kept thinking of the El Clasico; The big match between Barcelona vs Real Madrid.
Many a time I had sat watching it surrounded by locals in the village as they cheered on Madrid (don’t get me started on that). As I cheered on Barca. (they eventually warmed to me. I think!).
The colour I wanted to be red. Full of passion. Memorable too. There are lots of pink gins out there (and most are dreadful). But a red gin, that stays red in the glass even with tonic I thought would look powerful, sexy and full of heart.
The first batch sold before I had even put the labels on the bottles!
The gin itself is a different affair to my Stainsby Girl, less dry, but maybe more fun, and maybe one for the new gin brigade, not brought up on drier London Dry’s.
Make no bones about it, women are driving the gin market and drinkers are trying gin in their droves for the first time, and that’s because some gins really don’t taste like the traditional London Drys do. The purists scoff at that, and some call me black and blue. I really don’t care.
I make populist gins, that make as many people happy as possible. I’ll leave the awards and their attainment thereof to the Gin Luvvies.
The El Clasico Edition has been a hit. And I really learnt alot from its launch, and made a few howlers too. I pushed my customers patience to the limits and it all very nearly didn’t happen.
I was struggling to carry all the weight, and juggle all the plates, gin cruises, day to day, night to night gin work, as well as keep finding the time to train and get better at the actually distilling part of all of this. But I knew I had to launch another gin before Christmas or I was done for financially.
It was a manic, crazy few weeks, and the deluge of orders very nearly put me under.
Champagne problems maybe, but I was still doing everything pretty much myself, from the design, to the gin, the admin, the delivering, the lot. And it was a November, which raced in no time into the December Christmas rush which just about finished me off.
During this time, I lurched from one WFIO moment to the other. Want to know what WFIO stands for? It’s American tech speak for “We’re F*cked It’s Over”.
The unit I was due to move into in November had to be postponed as my friend who rented it at the time and was himself due to move to a new unit, died of cancer. Stevie had been diagnosed with the Big C a couple of times, and had fought it bravely, but just when the end looked rosy, he took a sudden turn for the worse and passed away just two weeks later. This saddened and shook me.
And there was no way I could move into his unit now.
So I was making gin almost on the hoof. And luckily called in favours with my gin mentor Tony again to help me make some of the gin at his distillery to cope with the sheer deluge of orders I suddenly had to cope with.
I was labelling, even waxing in the back room of my house, which became HQ. It was a very stressful time!
Also, I had key suppliers close early for Christmas, which I knew nothing about until too late.
As well as driver after driver let me down or quit on me. Luckily I had taken on a trustworthy new staff member, Andy, albeit on the proviso that I let him go back to Spain on December 20th for 3 weeks to go see his mum there. He and myself worked night and day to get through this period and I will always be grateful to him for that.
One major cock up at this time, was when I made a batch of El Clasico and put the blue Butterfly Pea petals in it, (which should be in the Stainsby Girl!). So I had a blue El Clasico. I must have been shattered, and as soon as I did it, I screamed “Noooooo!”.
Donald my ginger distillery cat looked at me, looked at the blue El Clasico, then looked at me again and I swear he shook his head in a “Jay you a humongous dick sometimes.” manner.
And then went back to licking his scrotum. (His favourite thing in the world).
By the time the 20th December came I had to stop online sales just so I could survive. I never thought I’d need to do that. But I did manage in the end, to get every single bottle that was ordered for Christmas, out to its buyer. Even dropping off the last bottle at 9pm on Christmas Eve.
I learnt alot from that period, and will definitely prepare better for the next product launches and for the Christmas rush. Prepare for Success. That’s key.
The El Clasico Edition has given folks an alternative. Some love it more than the Stainsby Girl and vis-versa. In the bars locally, it outsells Stainsby Girl. Online, it’s vis-versa. So, each to their own, I’m just over the moon if just one of my gins is loved.
That said, my next gin really did hit the spot!
CLUB TROPICANA EDITION
I’m so excited and delighted to say my third gin, “CLUB TROPICANA” has proved to be an amazing hit since I launched it. I launched it in bars first to gage the feeling from bar owners and customers, and from the off, people were loving it.
It brought to mind one of my books I read from some marketing guru. “You will go out of business very quickly telling the people what they should buy. Just give them what they want.” I do just that.
I think my Club Tropicana Edition just screams….SUMMER IS HERE!
It’s golden orange in colour (yeah, I just love colour!), and it’s main flavour profile is Pineapple & Passionfruit, a little more of the latter than the former.
Some people even drink it with lemonade and tell me it tastes like an adult version of ‘Lilt’.
Good grief, the gin purists will be putting me in the stocks.
I really don’t mind how anyone drinks my gin (some producers are a little more precious). As long as it puts a smile on gin lovers’ faces, I am a happy chappy. And this gin, really does that.
Why Club Tropicana?
My third juniper inspired love song to my other loves, Ibiza and The 80s!
Back in June 1988, I had just turned 17. Me and five pals from school were amazingly allowed by our parents to head on our first holiday abroad as ‘free agents’…..to Ibiza of all places.
Now that’s trust for you. Or maybe a sign of different times back then.
At the time, it was fair to say I was a little obsessed with the George Michael look.
I loved Wham, and loved their song and video Bad Boys (it felt so cool at the time to like that song!). But Club Tropicana and the video were something else.
I used to watch it on my video recorder and think “Wow! Where the hell is that place!” A bit like Duran Duran’s Rio. As a lad from a council estate on Teesside, these videos were so full of glam people and places, they might as well have been from another planet. The Club Tropicana video with its pool, the cool girls, Ibiza, the sun, cocktails.
I thought it looked the best place in the world to be.
By 1988, George Michael had just released his debut album, Faith. I loved that album.
And I just thought he was the coolest fella I had ever seen by this time.
Some girl had said around that time (I imagine she was drunk or unhinged), that I looked like him. Well, that’s all the encouragement I needed to get my hair done like him, tint my fringe, even get the earrings, chain, get the (fake) Ray Bans, buy tight jeans (I wouldn’t get a leg through them now), and even grow the stubble.
I say that slightly mortified that I had to use shading (a bit of mascara) to cover up the bits of my youthful stubble that my teenage years couldn’t manage to squeeze out. Hey, it was the 80s!
I fell in love with Ibiza as hard as I fell in love with a beautiful young Argentinian girl called Julieta while there. That romance didn’t last, but I still have a photo she sent me all the way from Buenos Aires somewhere. When people used to write love letters to each other. Ahh the days.
My love affair with Ibiza however has endured to this day. The next year in 89, I was back with a bigger groups of friends, again staying around San Antonio Bay. The George Michael had changed slightly by then, although I still thought he was one cool guy. It was the second Summer of Love and dance music was becoming ‘a thing’.
So when our holiday rep told me while in Ibiza in 89 that the Club Tropicana video was actually shot nearby, I just had to go. I hired a bike and headed out into the country near San Antonio.
But as I pulled up to the entrance, I was told I couldn’t go in as it was for guests only. It must have been the look on a crestfallen 18 year old George Michael look-a-like that persuaded the guy at the entrance to take pity on me and let me in.
And as my mates were dive bombing in the pool back at our hotel, I was sat round the pool of the mythical Pikes Hotel, celeb spotting and sipping cocktails.
It was one of the best days of my life. And by the time I was 21, I had ditched plans to go to Uni and grabbed a job as a Club 18-30 rep….back in Ibiza.
Throughout the 90s, I spent many summers and some winters living and working on that magic, mystical White Isle.
And to this day I have many many friends there and head back often.
So this gin is my ‘Thanks For The Memories’ to the 80s, which was my era, to Wham, to Club Tropicana, to Pikes, to Ibiza and to the George Michael so sadly taken from us way too soon.
Safe to say also, that gin is some of my customers favourites gins, full stop.
NORTHERN LIGHTS EDITION
My fourth gin is the result of a great cocktail I had this summer, with a name chosen by a Steel River fan.
In June I was taking a few days off. I spend alot of time in Andalucia, Spain, as I have a farmhouse there not far from Granada. Recently I have spent a fair bit of time in the wonderful city of Malaga too.
It is often overlooked as being just a stepping stone to the Costa del Sol, but it is a great city to visit, full of colour, culture and the added bonus of being by the sea.
So I was sitting in a beachside bar and saw on the menu a ‘Gin Mojito’. I’ve had a few Rum Mojitos in my time, and they are a bit too sickly sweet for me.
This gin version was new to me so I gave it a go. And then another go. And another. And in an hour I think I’d had six!
The rest of the night is a bit of a blur. But I knew that that Gin Mojito, with fresh lime and kiwi and mint in it, was amazing! Very refreshing, zesty and moreish.
I came back to the UK with an idea to make something as close to that Mojito as I could.
The name I had in mind originally was ‘WICKED GREEN’. I’d been to see the show, WICKED, in London that April, and really enjoyed it. There was green everywhere! And green has always been my favourite colour too. Not to mention the amount of times I’ve been called ‘Wicked’.
So it was the leader in the clubhouse for sure.
But for the first time, I thought I would get some feedback on the name of this gin, from the many many amazing followers online that my brand has luckily gained.
I have always wanted my gins and brand to feel inclusive. I’ve said it many times, that most gins, both big and small, lack a face, a story, a heartbeat, for the people that buy them to latch on to. I have always been determined to make Steel River, very social and open.
It’s why I share alot of info and history of my journey online, and in print, (this booklet for instance.) I wanted people who buy this gin and follow its journey to feel like they have a say, and have a part to play in it.
So, the feedback I received was that Wicked Green, was a little too much like WKD (that alcopop of the ‘Yoof’ uurrghh!).
In the end, I just threw it out there to everyone on Facebook and Instagram and said,
“Come on then, give me your suggestions and I will go with the best of them.” And in they came! Some absolute crackers. Some filthy. Some barmy. And some that I would have been arrested for if I’d used them.
But in the end, NORTHERN LIGHTS came from a guy called Mick, and immediately alot of folks commented saying, “That’s the one Jay.”
And once I looked online and saw the lights and the amazing shades of green they emitted, it just fit perfectly. I have to admit, I had never even thought of the link but am so happy someone else did!
It also made me tweak the bottle label designs too and I think they’ve ended being th best of the bunch. As the sky is so vivid now above my version of Teesside.
And the inner label that you see when you look through the front of the bottle, I’ve encorporated the Tall Ships theme with the HMS Trincomalee of Hartlepool and the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Along with the Transporter Bridge of Middlesbrough, I think they all fit really well together. Not forgetting the River Tees meandering through the image (did you spot that!).
Obviously, it has to be green. And kiwi and lime are up front and personal in the gin. It is a drier affair than El Clasico and maybe even more tropical than the Club Tropicana, certainly a bit more zest, and perhaps more juniper coming through. But it still has hints of the tropical with the kiwi.
I’ve tried it with a sprig of mint leaves, which adds a coolness to it. And I’ve had it with a piece of lime, which adds even more bite.
For style, I like to skewer 3 green grapes with a cocktail stick and have them sitting in the gin.
However, God knows what they’ll be putting in my fifth gin!
PINK DRAGON EDITION
Well, I never really wanted to go there, but so many of you have asked me to do one, so who am I to say no. But I did not want to bring out yet another strawberry gin or a raspberry gin, or even more boring, a rhubarb gin.
So as usual, I’ve strayed from the pack. This pink gin of mine will be made using the usual bunch of fine botanicals, juniper, orris root, angelica, citrus and cardemon.With the addition of some big hitters, DRAGON FRUIT, vanilla, lychee and PINK PEPPERCORNS.
It will be a pink gin with a little kick! As opposed to many pink gins which are just sickly sweet and obvious for me.
And I couldn’t resist changing the inner back label up for this one.
I know I know, I’m a child!
Overall though this gin has been the biggest headache to get right.
At times I have been thinking, ‘Why didn’t I just bring out a strawberry gin!’
As the thing is, as new and unique as Dragon fruit is in a gin, it’s a bloody pain to work with. For a start it’s expensive, not readily available and it doesn’t have buckets of flavour.
But boy does it look cool and boy does it look great on a label. The pulp is actually white and creamy, so that doesnt add the colour but doers add a certain creaminess to the liquid in the still.
But fortunately you can buy powdered Dragon fruit which I’ve used for the colour.
But I do hope you like it, you’ll certainly not forget it in a hurry that’s for sure!
THOSE GIN POUCHES
It was always my strategy from the off to make the STEEL RIVER GIN bottles as good as I could possibley make them. I just didn’t want to bring out a crappy gin in a crappy bottle, or even worse, make a good gin but be really lazy with the bottle design and waste the effort.
I know that many parts of the UK look down on Teesside, even those lot up the road, the Geordies like to lord it over the North East, God love em (and I do love Newcastle and its people!). So if I brought out a crap gin and bottle I would be just accentuating the notion that we on Teesside are a little bit naff and little bit crap. Well, I’m not having that!
So, I’ve gone overboard maybe on the design, look, and add ons on my bottles. I am the only gin producer in the world that produces gin in bottles that come with their own ginflasks around the neck, and a STEEL RIVER GAZETTE…..and now….they all come with their own lights too!!
So I had an idea to capitalise on this. I came up wirth the idea of a refill pouch. Something simple to use and economical. That customers could just refill their bottle with. And so my Steel River Gin pouches became a reality.
It’s fair to say they have been a massive success and will possibly be my route into the supermarkets, because for once, I’m ahead of the pack and have some USP to showcase.
It’s also good to know that my gins are that good that folks WANT to buy more off them.
That’s all the validation I need. I don’t need the medals and the 3rd place prizes at obscure gin festivals thanks.
What has been more surprising is that now my pouches are outselling my bottles online.
And many of them are being bought by folks who haven’t bought the original bottle.
I can only presume they have seen the gins online, or in bars, or through word of mouth and have headed to the website, and seen the hundreds of amazing reviews and though, ok, the bottle looks amazing, but Im just happy with the gin.
I do know for a fact that many folks were buying the pouches to go on holiday, camping, away with. Festivals too. Which is something I’m going to hammer next year. Next stop Glasto! Why the hell not!?
That gave me another idea this summer (oh I’m full of ideas!) to then come up with MINI POUCHES. Offering customers an assortment of my gins in simple, economical 50ml pouches. 10 or 20 in a box.
Like an adults or more like a gin lush’s version of a 10p mix up!
And didn’t that milkshake bring you all to the yard!
I’ve been on trains when I’ve seen gangs of girls heading to York for the day, pouring my gin from mini pouches into plastic glasses and getting stuck in. Absolutely right too! I love it!
It’s all a WIN WIN for me. And has given me an idea for a Full Circle Recycling adaption of the bigger 70cl pouches, fully branded up and bespoke to my Steel River brand. And fully recyclable. Even part made with paper too (although not 100% paper yet, small steps though).
I’ve designed them myself obviously, as I do all my own design. I’ve ordered them, all 10,000 of them.
And will be having them live and selling come December. When I’m hoping to meet some supermarket buyers about getting them out to the masses.
GIN. WHY DO I LOVE IT? WHY DO WE ALL LOVE IT?
I don’t know about you, but amongst many things in life, I love a drink and I love a good story.
And with gin, you have a fine alcoholic drink with a fine, colourful history to boot. It is one of those drinks that most people who love can tell a story or two that involves it in one way or another.
When I first started to drink it in bars I was around thirty. It was all down to my partner who drank it. At the time I was running a bar in Stockton-on-Tees and was pretty much drinking any alcopop that moved, along with Guinness (still my favourite pint) and JD & Coke (which I’ve not drank in 15 years!) But you know what it’s like when you meet someone new and you are a tad smitten.
You are on your best behaviour, the perfect version of you and want to appear much more sophisticated than you really are, or I was!
So, I made out I was the experienced gin drinker and kept up with her. It was Gordons or Beefeater that were the norm back then. Usually served in a crappy ‘low ball’ glass, with tonic from a gun and a sliver of slimy lemon that used to come in plastic jars. Jesus. I’m amazed I even had a second one!
That bitterness, and the taste that I almost didn’t like, actually grew on me. It wasn’t a drink that I would down in one and that actually was a plus. Eventually I moved on to Bombay Sapphire.
And by the time we went on our first holiday abroad to the Dominium Republic in 2002, I found Tanqueray. Which I have always had a soft spot for. And it does hold some bittersweet memories that drink and that holiday.
After an amazing holiday, we headed to the airport and I went to Duty Free and splashed out on a litre bottle of Tanqueray 10 as I’d loved drinking it from 10am to midnight on holiday!
We flew back into Manchester airport in the early hours and decided to drive back to Teesside.
It was November and the weather was crap. Andrea decided to drive, as I had had no sleep on the plane due to an ear infection I got on the last day, knobbing around in the hotel pool probably.
It was, and is, a decision that I regret to this day.
We had got to the A19 and had just passed a hotel restaurant called The Tontine, when I jolted awake hearing Andrea say “Shit!”
The car careered viciously off the motorway, down onto the verge when the car flipped over.
And over. And over. Smashing through a fence enclosing a farmers field, in doing so taking a fence post with it. It flipped one last time, and eventually landed on its wheels.
I came to and looked at Andrea and to me she was dead. I went cold. I reached over and shook her, shouting her name. Nothing.
I got out of my side and gingerly went round the other side of the car. It was only then that I saw that the whole thing, a Vauxhall Tigra was smashed to pieces and about half its original size, as it was squashed like a concertina.
I could see debris all over the place, like a mini aircrash scene. People who had stopped in cars up and over the motorway, now running towards us in the field below. As I got to her side and opened the door, she was, thank Christ, murmuring.
But it was then that I saw that the fencepost we’d taken out had lodged under the bottom of the car and it had pierced through metal undercarriage and up through the drivers chair and smashed through Andreas pelvis.
Meaning she had sunk and settled into a grotesque looking position and was clearly in pain.
The rest is a bit of a blur. I remember an air ambulance helicopter taking Andrea to Leeds such was the severity of her injuries. And I just walked around in a daze. There were holiday bags and cases strewn 50 yards away across the field. And I was taken to Northallerton hospital for a check up.
I sustained no injuries whatsoever. Not even a cut. I had a stiff neck for a few days, but that was it.
To this day, people joke that I am indestructible. I never get ill, have never broken a bone and torn a muscle. I don’t even get colds in winter. (I say it’s all down to gin and wine.)
Andrea however, ended up with a smashed pelvis, a broken femur, damage to her uterus and severe bruising all over. From top to toe.
She was in hospital in the spinal injuries ward for three months. Over Christmas and New Year.
And on crutches for a further two months. She lost her hair, went down to 7 stone and went through the menopause at aged thirty one. And was eventually told the crash has caused such damage that she/we, would never have children. Her lower back has a sizeable delve in it even now, and she will always suffer back issues from time to time.
So, we could never have kids. And that pain, especially for her, has reared up many times over the years and has caused alot of anguish and put alot of strain on our relationship, which eventually snapped back in 2016.
We compensated with cats and dogs. And gin. Lots of gin.
For as it is said, when life throws you lemons, make a G&T.
And it was from then on, a very special drink to her, and to us. And still is to me.
Especially given that, we were both told later that after Andrea was helicoptered out of the field,
I was found wandering around, looking through luggage and debris near the crash site.
An ambulance lady asked me what I was looking for.
“I bought a bottle of Tanqueray Ten at the airport, cost me a small fortune, I really need to find it.”
I said, (I think I was still dazed. I think.)
I do remember her looking at me with a “Is this guy for real!” sort of frown.
Another guy came over to try and get me into the ambulance, just when I spotted that bottle, lying face down in the mud. I ran and got it. And took it with me.
Now some would say I was merely saving a keepsafe to help me through the day. Some others have said I was merely being practical and thinking of the future ahead already. Others have shockingly said I am a complete wanker who was just thinking of the gin and not at my partners plight! Tut!
Whatever. Every cloud…..and all that I say!
That bottle of Tanqueray sat in the flat we shared above the bar we had at the time, along with the few other possessions that were salvaged after the crash. And it was there for all the time Andrea was in hospital. I didn’t want to open it without her.
On New Years Eve of that year, Andrea was laid in a ward in Middlesbrough General listening to revellers walking the streets outside, and seeing fireworks going off from her window, knowing I and all our mutual friends were having a New Years Party in the bar. While she was wallowing in pain, still bruised and coming to terms with months of rehab and life changes.
Well, I poured some of that Tanqueray into a hipflask (I have a big history with hipflasks!), and headed to the hospital to be with her.
I sneaked in, as visitors weren’t allowed. And snuck into her room as the nurses were watching Jools Holland’s Hogmanay on tv. And on the stroke of midnight, we shared a G&T together with that Tanqueray and for a moment, the world was a better place and life was a little kinder that it had been to us of late, just for that hour.
So, gin has been very important to me for years now. And you see, I do love a story!
Gin has been very important to many people for many a year too. I see it now online, it is all over social media, the posts, the comments, the laughs, the stories. If you listen to so many people telling a story about what they got upto over the weekend, gin, is there front and central.
It is a drink that just creates memories, mostly good. Let’s face it, when was the last time you heard someone trot that ancient line, “Ooooh gin makes me cry.” Naff off!
Gin for the most part makes people smile, laugh, grin and sing. And drunk!! It’s a drink that makes you go “ooooh.” Sure, they are a few drinks that make you go “Ahhhh.” like a thirst quenching cider on a hot summer day. But not many that evoke that kind of ‘Oooooh’ feeling.
It is a drink that is central to the social (and maybe unsocial) lives of so many people.
It has spawned memes, songs, sayings, even crisps flavours! Not to mention a surge in micro gin bars that accommodate gin worshippers to their gin filled alters.
It is the drink of the moment and seduces one more newbie to its bittersweet overtures every minute. Sure, they are millions of gin lovers who still love their London Dry Gins, myself included, out of my favourite 10 gins, half of them are very well made London Dry styles. Many of this gin group look on the latest craze with a little bewilderment I imagine. I know my mother does! She drinks a few glasses (and probably a few more) of gin every day, and it’s Gordons all the way.
Indeed Gordons is still the best selling UK gin in the world. So a hell of alot of people are still drinking it. I think I still had a 30 inch waist the last time I did! It’s just a bit dull, and weak and tasteless to me. Old hat so to speak.
However, Gordons aside, I think one of the reasons that gin is so “in” is that the range of gins now gives everyone a chance to at least find one G&T that they like, or at least suffer. Mostly this gives newbies the chance to try a sweeter, less dry gin to start with. On my GIN AHOY Cruises there are as many people asking for lemonade with their gins as there are traditional tonic lovers. My first thought when confronted with this request at the bar was “Get the f*ck of my boat.” But many of these newbie gin lovers are the ones buying my own gins, and if they drink them with lemonade, who the hell am I to judge.
What are my own favourite gins then?
MY FAVOURITE GINS
This is no top ten, just ten gins I usually have in the house, or that if I see out and about I will order. I was tempted to list the worst gins I’ve tasted too, but I’ll probably get sued. Just ask me if you want to know!
TANQUERAY TEN – England
For all the reasons I stated previously. And the fact, it’s just a well made gin, albeit a big brand gin.
PLYMOUTH GIN. NAVY STRENGTH – England
My go-to traditional London Dry. Just a very well made gin, from one of the oldest gin brands/distilleries in the UK. And at 57% ABV, it has a kick, plenty of juniper and botanical flavour.
BROOKLYN GIN – America
An inspiration for me. I love the bottle. It’s big, blue, strong and has a metallic style logo label in the centre. The gin is well rounded, good citrus notes to go along with the juniper. Three guys from Brooklyn started this brand and to see it on the shelves in my local Darlington branch of Morrisons gives me the eebie-geebies. You can dream that big.
CRUXLAND GIN – South Africa
Great looking bottle with a leather strap that fastens over the bottle top. It’s an earthy, spicy, off dry gin that has a bit of citrus to liven it up. And the use of the Kalahari truffle gives it a unique USP.
I like unique USPs in a gin.
BRIGHTON GIN – England
I know Kathy, one of the founders. She’s slightly bonkers, which I love. She also came to my Ginfest in Granada too, which I love even more!
The story of the genesis of this gin, is very much how I wanted my own to follow. Start locally, then move out, but always be a champion of your home town. And I love the bright, seaside looking bottle. It just screams Brighton. It’s an easy drinking gin, dry, robust balanced by good soft notes of orange citrus going on too.
STRATHEARN ‘HEATHER ROSE’ GIN – Perth, Scotland
From the distillery of my gin mentor. I saw this gin at my Ginfest in Granada in 2016. And saw people surrounding Tony’s stand, just transfixed by this gin. It is a rusty orange colour from the heather until you add tonic and it turns a lovely pink hue. ‘Now that’s magic!’ I thought. And that colour change was the inspiration for my Stainsby Girl Edition Gin. This gin is a floral affair, with hints of vanilla and spice, but enough juniper there to guard against it being a sweet gin.
SHETLAND REEL ‘OCEAN SENT’ GIN – Shetland Isles
Another gin that showed at my Ginfest in Granada, and boy did they come along way! This gin was a favourite of mine, simply because how many gins are made using seaweed! Not many.
It has always got me thinking, ‘Should I?’ I may just make my last gin, using seaweed collected from Saltburn and Staithes.
This gin is a strong one too, which I took inspiration from, who wants to drink weak ass gin?
it’s a dry affair, with juniper and sea salt laden freshness as well as some coriander spice.
NORDES GIN – Galicia, Spain
My fave Spanish gin (there’s alot of really crap Spanish gins!) I love the bottle, very modern, very different. But you instantly get the origins of this gin. Galicia in north west Spain. A rugged province that is dominated by the roaring waves and the winds of the Atlantic. This gin is made from the Albarino grape spirit, as opposed to the usual grain spirit. Again, something I may do myself. Albarino is my favourite white wine too. It is dry, with a slight sea saltiness and mineral quality to it. That’s here in this gin for sure, with sweeter notes of lavender, berry and eucalyptus, and lemon verbena to balance. Just Lovely.
HAPUSA GIN – India
I saw this gin for the first time at the big drinks Expo, IMBIBE, in London this summer. And loved the back story, the bottle design and the gin itself. Weirdly, given the history of the G&T and India, gin is still small stakes there. But this gin and a few others that have jumped in, will change that. Two guys in Mumbai started a bar, and lamented the lack of quality gins they could get hold of.
The big distributors stuck with the usual big brands. Exasperated, the two guys decided to just do it themselves. They bought a still. Learnt as they went. And this gin was born. They’ve used earthy Himalayan juniper, turmeric, ginger and cardamom, but plenty of lime to give it some cut.
And this fine gin is now in the UK and the U.S. Again, just inspirational to me.
MOR GIN – Ireland
I first came across this gin and it’s founder Eoin in 2016. And he made a big impression on me, as did his gin. When he told me even back then, how much he’d invested in his brand and the operation behind it, I winced and thought there was just no way I’d ever get my own gin off the ground, never mind to that level. But I have. And that goes to show you, there are many roads to get where you want to be. This is is just lovely gin though, with four different berries up front, juniper berry, blackberry, cranberry and raspberry, but it has earthy notes of rosemary too, and a little pepper to finish. Quality hand crafted stuff.
WHAT DOES A GIN DISTILLER/BRAND OWNER DO DAY TO DAY?
Drink gin with Donald the Distillery Cat that’s what, hurrah!!
Well ok, not quite. I probably do go only a day or two without drinking gin. But don’t go a day without being immersed in it, worrying about it, being frustrated by it and being humbled by it.
By ‘it’ I mean ofcourse, the life I have created in it.
It’s difficult to say really what other gin producers do day to day. Most, if not all, have more staff than me, so probably do less menial tasks. Most have more money/income so can farm out many tasks that I still do, like design, procurement, etc. I also keep hold of tasks that I actually enjoy, that other brand owners probably don’t like or aren’t great at, like design and social media engagement.
I also spend a fair bit of time writing THANK YOU letters! I set out with Steel River Gins to make the most social gin out there. As I’ve said, so many brands are dull and faceless. Well, I thought, why? Don”t they want to say hello to their customers, talk to them, having a bit of craic with them and ultimately thank them for buying the gins! I do all of that and more I think.
Every bottle that goes out gets a hand written Thank You letter and that can be alot per week! Every comment on Facebook and Instagram et al gets a like or comment back. And I try and deliver as many gins as I can personally. It’s always a delight rocking up at someones front door and feeling the gin luuurvveee when they answer!
What I gained from a year out in Spain when I reinvented myself, or retuned myself may be a better description, was to keep checklists, TO DO lists, write stuff down and keep a daily journal.
So for two years I have done just that. And it has kept me on track day to day, and given me a way to carry over tasks I haven’t managed to do, to the next week. It also gives me some perspective.
It’s great to look back on and see just what was bothering me at a time and to look on it and smile now, knowing I survived whatever it was. (more of that later).
I will say though, that for the most part, I spend alot of time just being ‘frustrated’. I get told, alot, that I should be happy and delighted to have come this far with the brand, so soon, and given that I started with virtually nothing. I get that. I am grateful for many things, for many people, and for a fair amount of luck too. But I am never really totally happy with how my day has gone, how the week has gone, and so on. There are always things I could have done better, if I’d prepped better, or had more money to do something better, or managed my time better. I get frustrated at my progress or lack of it where I see stagnation. I will say that when I see people getting on by sheer good fortune, or by being handed family money, or by a cynical hook up, love-wise or professionally-wise, that I do get miffed. But I soon get brought down to Earth.
Let people get on with their own lives they’ve created, no one ever really knows what goes on behind closed doors anyway, and even those who seem to have it all and a fair bit of it handed to them on a silver platter, can be no more happy than any man on the street.
So, I just keep on keeping on, with what I have and what I can create and try to keep positive and be grateful for where I’ve gotten to so far, without ever, EVER, slowing down and losing ground.
I get up early, 6am, read for an hour minimum, hit the messages and emails, so that by 9am, I am off at the races and ahead of the pack, with a bit of knowledge gained too.
Here is a recent week commencing and daily task journal, it will give you an idea of what I have on my plate, day to day and week to week.
Feel free to give me a hand won’t you! I advise anyone to keep a journal, if only to look back on and to state daily the things you are grateful for in life.
ACTUAL GIN PRODUCTION
This actually takes up alot less time that all of the other business side of the operation. I won’t bore you with the finer details of how gin is made. That’s for a later edition. But simply, gin distillation is part chemistry, part alchemy and part luck! I’ve balls up enough times to know Im no master distiller. And owe my continued distillation knowledge to my gin mentor Tony, who is a master!
Distillation in relation to spirits, in layman terms is the separation of components in a mix, by the addition of heat. In gin, it’s separating alcohol from water, in a pot still for instance, because alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water. Approximately 78.3*C as opposed to water at sea level, 100*C. Some distilleries use Vacuum Distillation methods so water will boil at lower temperatures. Personally, that’s all great, but I can’t be arsed! I’m not setting out to make the world’s most unusual, best made gin. Just gins that are colourful, full of flavours and that put a smile on peoples faces and that they want to drink alot of.
My first four gins and fifth to come are bold flavoured gins. But all have the usual suspects as far as ingredients go. It is the top line flavours and colours that set them apart on a simple liquid gin basis.
The GNS, which is neutral grain spirit, which is the base of all gins I buy directly from Tony’s distillery. He has a much bigger volume than me so he gets better prices and passes that on to me. Again, probably an advantage I carved out for myself that other new gin producers don’t get.
There are a few big companies that sell most of the essentials. Juniper berries, orris root, angelica root, cardamon, and spices. As for the others, I’ve sourced as I’ve gone on and adapted accordingly especially the fruit elements. Lime, orange and lemon peel are easy enough to come by. They arrive dried, and you add them to the mix that way, avoiding adding the sweet flesh to the pot, that throws out the ABV due to the sugar content turning to alcohol.
I’m starting to use oranges from the Granada area of Spain, just because I like them and want to keep that element of the backstory in the gin.
The juniper berries have to macerated overnight to allow the oils to seep into the mix. My first still is called KERA. It’s a 300L copper pot still, handmade by a company in Spain and named after my four crazy, adorable nieces, KATIE, EMMA, RUBY and ANNA
The process can take as little as a day to do, two days at the most. Gin is quick to make, and doesn’t need to be aged or stored , like whisky. It’s why alot of whisky companies make gin now, as it gives them cash flow to survive the wait for whisky to be officially registered as Scotch (after 3 years).
The alcohol in the mix in the pot boils and evaporates, bringing with it all the flavours from the botanicals and fruit in the mix, vapour rises up through the still, and reaches the Swan Neck, where it starts to cool and fall back down through pipes coiled in a copper catching vessel, which has cold water running continuously round it. Thus turning the vapour fully back into liquid form; GIN
The skill of the distiller is knowing when to CUT the liquids that come through the process and out of the exit pipe. The first part of the liquid will contain nasty stuff like methanol, which you shouldn’t go anywhere near drinking. This is called the HEADS. The best part of the liquid, is called the HEARTS, that comes next. That’s the purest, best tasting, most stable part of the resultant liquid. Knowing when to cut this is essential, as what comes after that is the dregs of the mix, called the TAILS. That has alot of oils in it from the fruit and juniper, and has alot of taste and aroma.
All fine, and the final cut needs some of that, but cutting too late will put too much TAILS in the gin and give the gin a harsh taste, over done, even oily. Like when you burn garlic in a pan and it just ruins the whole dish.
The best distillers know when to make these cuts and how to boil up the mix initially, gradually and just have the experience and education to make alot of other decisions along the way throughout the process. It takes time, education and alot of practice. I like it, but know that actually, it’s not the favourite aspect of this whole business for me. I know what I’m best at and what I can do really well, and what I can do fairly well.
So, I am just about to take on a full time distiller who will work with me, and the GinOompaLoompas to learn my recipes and then that will be his role moving forward.
It’s one of those business decisions that gin producers only have to make if they have some success and just can’t juggle every plate. And this is a business after all.
FINANCIALS – (There’s not alot of money in the craft gin game!)
Contrary to the amount of requests I receive for donations to charitable causes, the life of a small gin producer/brand owner, is not a route to riches. There is seldom spare money lying around and for me, minus basic living costs, every spare money goes back into the business.
I have grown to a position where I now have staff, which is a good thing, both for me, as it eases some of the burden and also gives a few others the chance to have a job which is fun, rewarding and just a little bit ‘cool’.
If you count the Gin Ahoy Cruises as the start of my journey into the gin world, then I started this whole thing with £10 to my name, living back at my parents house in my old bedroom, and I was into my forties by then.
How do I live? How have I survived?
I have lived a frugal life, ok, the last year less so, but from 2016 to 2018 it was bare bones living.
I do not own a house in the UK. But we are lucky enough to own the farmhouse in Spain without a mortgage. So, whenever I head back there, it’s a very cheap week. As wine is cheap, seafood is cheaper, fruit and veg I grow and pick, or get from my neighbours along with the freshest goats cheese you’ll ever taste. And ofcourse, the sun, the nature and the clear night skies are free
When I went back there to live after the break up of my relationship in 2016, I lived on 50-100 euros a week. And honestly, felt completely fine doing so. I even enjoyed nights out in Granada too. At the farmhouse, it was a very simple life, but a good one. I’d walk with Jose across fields with his goats in the cool of the morning. I’d wake, go collect eggs, my lovely hens would lay. Even mushrooms, I would walk down to the small forested area at the bottom of my land where the stream runs, and I would pick every morning. I’d be eating cheese, tomatoes and bread, washed down with amazing olive oil and local wine, every single day and that never gets boring to me.
Even now when I head back for some ‘me time’ I spend the nights just sitting in my tattered old rocking chair, listening to the sounds of nature easing along doing it’s thing. Staring out along my land and up the the stunning night skies. Drinking cheap wine, listening to the greats, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac and Chris Rea ofcourse.
That virtual ‘back to nature’ living, I would recommend to everyone to do once. You feel closer to Mother Earth. And you appreciate the simple things in life. It’s a line often quoted, believe me, it’s true.
This grounding, that frugality has kept me in good stead back in the UK, especially when starting the gin business. I lived simply, and ploughed every penny and every minute into the business.
I now live at my partners house. And I now have a company van. We now go out to eat once, twice a week. And I drink alot of gin and wine still. It costs more, but that is the UK.
But when I go to deliver gins to lovely houses and see huge big brand spanking new cars in drives, and other trappings of wealth, I just shrug, each to their own. And fair play to anyone who wants and has achieved that kind of living. But I don’t envy or covert. I have my drinks business, a plan, a dream and in Spain, my release. And love in my life. That’s all I need.
Month to month, sales have risen a little every month. It’s been smooth enough. Mainly because as of yet, no big distributor has taken my gins on. I’ve missed the boat with some big players, like Matthew Clark. They are just not taking on any new products. Other big boys like LWC, who initially were very receptive to my gins, well, there’s been a political plays involved apparently, and they just don’t seem to want to stock the biggest local gin around.
So, it is what it is. I have made friends and it would seem some detractors too. That’s life.
I have also managed the retail side of sales. Yes, I get alot of shops, both small, and some big, wanting to stock my gins. But the problem is cash flow. Retail want/need credit and that stretches my cash flow. Too much stock out on credit, is stock I am not selling to faster payers and also I make buttons from retail, so it’s a risk too. So I’ve had to just take on a few retail outlets to start and will expand as we go.
The Golden Goose of a supermarket was always on my Bucket List. I even signed up on LinkedIn to try and connect with some buyers. (don’t bother, you never do). I’m about as much a corporate LinkedIn kinda guy as Johnny Vegas is. When I hear men talking about ‘Time sensitive issues’ and ‘Blue sky thinking’ my first thought is casual violence.
But Morrisons supermarket did come a calling and I thought, hell yeah. I like their brand.
Their gin selection is great and has some local brands on the shelves, so they must be decent to deal with. The guy who rang was friendly enough. He asked for samples and bottles to be sent down to Bradford and also price points. He was going to show them to the head spirits and wines buyer.
Two weeks later I got the feedback. The gin looked good. The labelling of the Stainsby Girl needed more clarification, as in, the Prickly Pear Cactus and Butterfly Pea petal powder needed to show.
But it was the price point they couldn’t work with.
For them to take my gins onboard, my price point would need to come down to about £18 per bottle. Yep, £18 per bottle. For them to sell at £35 per bottle on the shelf. And I was presuming wanting 90 day payment terms too.
The kicker is, that at £18, I couldn’t even make the gin for that! And I can see now how some gin companies can, they use crap cheap bottles, cheap labels and naff bottle tops, or they are huge companies who just have economies of scale in production I don’t have. Yet.
So as much as I would like to make these gins go large, right now, it just isn’t possible and I honestly believe the local brands that are on Morrisons shelves are just giving away their gin.
So I politely replied saying to Morrisons, thanks but at this point in time, no can do.
I like doing business. I like doing deals. I like making connections. I like talking business with business people. And I’ve learned a bit from more capable people than I.
A deal should be a WIN-WIN for both parties.
You have to be able to walk away to get the best deal.
Stay calm. Be polite. Be firm. And never burn bridges.
So, as for supermarkets, it’s a chapter, hopefully to be continued.
Like alot of small businesses, it can be feast, well, hearty meal, or famine. When you have weeks where you have lots of supplies, ingredients, and other outgoings, it’s touch and go. Then there are weeks when sales are coming in and it’s a sunny day, I may have done a particularly amusing, interesting, or just plain daft post online and it reaches a large audience and I’ll get 30 odd sales in a day. And I go to bed relieved.
However, this gin and drinks business is a volume game. And volume is where I will find the balance, the sense of security and a feeling that the dreams for the future can be achieved.
And volume comes with the commercial and retail side of the business expanding.
The gins have been in over 100 venues now, mostly across Teesside and County Durham.
But it has reached bars in Glasgow and Manchester. But even in my core area, there are still so many places the gin isn’t in. Which frustrates the hell out of me, but also in my brighter moods, gives me hope that I haven’t even touched the surface yet.
As I’ve said, I now have Mel onboard to help with that and also a guy called Tim, who is steeped in the bar business, even though he is only 24. So if I keep coming up with good products and they keep up the work, volume should grow.
In my first year I grossed £220k. I’ll probably reach somewhere near that in month 7 of year 2. So, £500k turnover this year is possible.
So, not big numbers here, but I’m not shy about stating them either. Other producers are.
Probably because they’ll be coy about how much money they are making, as some make alot!
And others because they are piss pot garage set ups that earn buttons, because they have crap gins, in crap bottles, with crap designs and a crap story. Thank God some of my competitors fall into that bracket!
To reach that magical £1million turnover will need some hard, sharp strategy from me. It will mean sacrifice and compromises too. At present I own 100% of my company and could plod on in that fashion with 5 or 6 gins and ride out this gin craze, building week by week and who knows, in a few years time I may be making a good living and have built a decent company with some resale value.
To move up the food chain quicker will mean finding finance. Finance to buy bigger equipment, different equipment, more marketing, more staff and new premises to house it all.
It’s no coincidence that when you achieve some success, you walk into the sights of other successful people that normally wouldn’t know you even exist. And I now know some movers and players. And some of them have enquired as to my need for finance. I could say yes. But I really only want to give away a part of my business to someone who can take it to somewhere I can’t. And that means a person with savvy, contacts and experience in this game, not just someone who wants to put £50k in.
Some others, like Andy Preston, Mayor of Middlesbrough have been a great source of advice.
He loves my brand, stocks my gins in his charitable driven restaurant, he loves my story and is passionate about business, our region and seeing hard working people get on. He wants to help and has been a good sounding board for me.
One route I have asked him for advance on is a CROWDFUND.
I have seen a fair few businesses raise money through various platforms and have been impressed by the ethos behind it all. Especially as banks are a no-no for businesses like me. They just don’t want to know and I have no property I could offer up as collateral. Most people in charge of decision making have no clue about being a small business anyway, let alone a distillery/drinks business.
People who love a product/service donate or invest in the business to either start it off, or in my case, help it build and realise its full potential. And receive gifts, discounts, and Thank Yous or a share of the profits.
I’m torn though. I do want to continue and expand the level of inclusiveness that I believe I’ve garnered with you good folks who buy my gins. I’ve asked for help to get the gins into bars and you have helped. I’ve asked for recommendations at times and you have given them. I’ve even thrown out the choosing of the name for this newest gin and you have all joined in and come back with gems. You have been patient with me, have supported me and hopefully feel that through booklets like this, and my online mutterings, I have given a hell of alot away about my life and my life in the gin game and so we have built up some trust and understanding. I honestly feel, we are in this together. If Steel River is a success, we all benefit from that.
I would invite the fans and followers of Steel River to donate money for the expansion cause and receive various gifts as a result. From £50 donations getting a fixed discount every time they buy a Steel River product forever more. To £100 donations receiving a bottle of one-off gin and Forever Discounts. To £500 getting a very real stake in the business and who knows, bottles, discounts, VIP Distillery events, hell, a night out with me and the GinOompaLoompas on the razz!
But it is the management of all that after that could be a headache. People, quite rightly, will want to feel included and feel entitled to info, an ear, a sense of ownership even, especially the big investors. Can I handle all of that as well as run and expand the business?
The Lakes Distillery, a huge affair, a big big business with a £4million turnover, raised over a £1million earlier this year through Crowdcube. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me? They have 16 Directors however, and plenty of staff, it’s a big enterprise and I guess can justify that crowdfund, are attractive enough to achieve it and are big enough to handle it.
To the complete other end of the scale, my closest competitor did a crowdfund for £8k to get off the ground. I’m not sure if they raised it or not, and personally I would never have done that. It just says ‘Small scale-Part time’ business to me.
So I’m somewhere in the middle.
But I’m established, have a good following built up, have made most of the cock ups and mistakes I’m going to make, have good, different, game changing products, uniquely presented. I have staff, some equipment, a unit and a vision for the future.
I therefore feel crowdfunding is a good option, but another big worry for me would be that I asked for a £50k raise and then didn’t achieve it!
That’s a very public slap in the face.
The last idea I discussed with Andy was to go at a crowdfund, full on, no half measures. Open up the raise to 500 people. To invest. Not donate. And thus have a real stake in the business.
And that business be…..
THE PEOPLES REPUBLIC OF TEESSIDE DISTILLERY AND BREWERY.
Thats big! That’s inclusive. That’s new. That’s exciting. That’s worth investing in???
What to do, what to do. I tell you what, you let me know. Feel free to email me on email@example.com and give me your thoughts and feedback.
(I wrote the above and the below earlier this year and just looking at it now, I’m thinking, boy, what do we know eh!)
WHAT’S NEXT THEN?
MORE GIN and WINE and…….a RUM…….and…..some…..
BIG BALLS! Yep you heard that right….BIG BALLS!
This project, this idea, this new dream may well be my finest achievement in life.
It was born out of a shock to this system, well, two shocks actually, and me just looking at the repurcussions of them and going…”No, I’m not having that. I’m going to do something about that.” What am I talking about?
MENTAL HEALTH thats what.
BIG BALLS FOUNDATION
One on the 27th December 2018 I was sat on the sofa watching the tv on the morning nursing a hangover from Boxing Day shenanigans. I recieved a text from my brother and felt the world go very cold around me.
He told me that one of the Thornaby lads had committed suicide.
I put the phone down. And then burst into tears.
You see, Thornaby is a rough diamond of a town outside of Middlesbrough. The ‘Boro’ was were I was born, but Thornaby is where I grew up as a teenager. And my parents still live there.
It’s a close knit type place, with some life affirming amazing people, but it can rip the bones from your back too. It’s still My Hometown (thanks again for the lyrics Bruce!) and I won’t have anyone call it.
They call it Gods Little Acre. And in some parts it is just that. I’m not sure what God thinks of that title, but he’d probably be too scared to kick up a fuss anyways. For Thornaby can be a tough place to live too.
The guy who ended his own life was called Jay Matthews. He did so on Boxing Day night. He did so after being out with all the other lads I know, watching the Boro, having a few beers, having a bit of craic. He was very well known around the town, a Thornaby legend if truth be known. And he was a year younger than me and someone I’d knew since I was a teenager and had over the years got to know pretty well and had shared many a good night, many a dancefloor, many a good pint and and many a good laugh.
He had supported me in every various business endeavour I had started. And always had time for me and I for him.
Jay was simply a gem of a guy.
And he is sorely, savagely, heartbreakingly missed by all that knew him and loved him. Friends, family and his amazing wife and lovely kids.
A big group of the Thornaby lads met in a pub the day after. And to a man we all sat there completely numbed and bewildered by what he had done. Some of these lads had been out with him not 12 hours before. Drinking, laughing, moaning about Boro latest performance. The usual Boxing Day fun.
He had rang me on the 23rd, maybe asking for gin for a pressie, I’ll never know. But I deeply regret not answering that call. But still he had posted a message to me on Xmas Eve wishing me all the best, and to enjoy it and slow down.
And then within 48 hours he was gone.
Why? Why? Why? That was what I kept hearing around the table when all the lads met up that next day.
As the day went on, I sat there and watched the whisky being drank, the laughs and the jokes, listened to the laughter and the stories and watched the tears flow down the faces of some of the toughest lads I know.
And I thought, ‘I’m not having this. This isn’t right. I’m going to do something good from this.’ Because I do not want, NEVER, want to be sat here again bewildered and grieving over another one of these lads or any other of my best mates.
Days after, I had done some research and what I found shocked me. The figures on male suicide are tragic. The North East more than most. And one stat kept knawing at me.
1 in 4 people are likely to be suffering from a mental health iussue at any one time.
It kind of hit me. Even sat round that table that day, when the talk came on to what had happened, it was clear that our friend had ended his own life because he had lost it, just for that moment, or maybe for longer, I still don’t know.
However he must have been in so much mental anguish, that he did what he did. Clearly and tragically he was not in a healthy frame of mind.
And those closest to him, just did not see it.
Because men just don’t tell you. They don’t talk about their mental state enough. They keep it all in. They get told to MAN UP. They suffer in silence. And eventually some, just snap and make a permenant solution to what may well have been a temporary problem that could have been fixed.
So in my own way, knowing what I know, and being capable of doing what I can do. I decided on the 27th December 2018 that I was going to do my bit, to try and stop tragedies like what happened to our pal and his family.
So I have come up with BIG BALLS FOUNDATION. With its own drinks brand that raises valuable money and awareness for Mental Health.
Because the way I see it, IT TAKES BIG BALLS TO SAY YOU’RE NOT OK.
We need to get people talking. We need to break the silence. Stop the stigma. And hopefully help people get well and get help.
I believe the BIG BALLS DRINKS going into bars and pubs and venues around the UK will very publicly highlight mental health in the most social of places, emphasising that we should never be afraid to talk about our mental health. And why not do it over a pint or a G&T with friends.
I have formed BIG BALLS FOUNDATION business, and I have been joined by the Treasurer and Legal Advisor who started another charity fund (The Finley Cooper Fund) with former Middlesbrough FC footballer, Colin Cooper, who’s son Finley tragically died at 2 years of age.
Already we have attracted some big names who really believe in the cause and the methods. It is about making mental health more socially acceptable and getting people to talk about it without feeling any shame at all.
The major differences between us and other amazing, but smaller local initiatives is that, I don’t do anything by half measures and if I do something my aim to get it big as quick as possible. And the BIG BALLS FOUNDATION will be no exception. Also, being a drinks maker and business orientated, my aim with BIG BALLS is not to rely on fundraisers, donations and lottery money, it’s to raise money through business and brands.
With a few high profile people in the mix to really get it out there to the masses. Here’s a statement from an Ambassador for Big Balls who completely gets what my aim is.
“Mental health issues are hidden inside homes and inside heads. Admitting you are struggling to your mates, family or doctor, is a huge step especially for men because we are meant to be hard, tough, the breadwinner perhaps, the rock.
And if you do speak up ? Snap out of it is the glib answer.
It makes me sick.
Anyone can suffer – rich or poor, black or white, old or young. I’ve seen mental illness close up. Friends fighting a terrible battle with themselves, with precious little help available to them. That’s why I am proud to be an ambassador of the BIG BALLS FOUNDATION. It should not take Big Balls to talk about mental health but it does. Lets help change peoples attitudes and understanding of mental issues.
Now , I will drink to that!”
Sky Sports Presenter and BIG BALLS Ambassador
But the biggest validation for this new chapter in my life comes from Hollie. Jay’s wife. Having met her and talked about BIG BALLS and about Jay, she thinks it is valid and right and just a good idea.
She says Jay would be overjoyed to have this project started in his honour.
That will do for me.
Hollie is an amazing woman. So BIG BALLS is inspired by her strength and at its heart is the memory of her hubby Jay, our pal. Gone way too soon.
R.I.P JAY MATTHEWS. You loveable, funny, kind, daft bugger!
Postscript: I did indeed get my BIG BALLS Beers out in time for Christmas 2019. And the feedback was great. They really did get men talking over a pint. And I was very hopeful of getting the beers into many more venues…..until those venues had to close… 🙁
A NEW UNIT, A NEW BOTTLE TOP AND A NEW BOTTLE.
As above! We were looking for new venues until it wasn’t possible to take your pet parrot for a walk, never mind get took around new units by shiny suited, thin tied, fast talking estate agents.
I LOVE A VINO! Anyone who knows me knows that fact. I have imported wine from Andalucia into Teesside at one time, and am a big supporter of Spanish wine overall. There are some really good wines from the Granada, Jaen, Malaga provinces of Andalucia. Not to mention sherry’s from Cadiz too. I’ve tasted alot. And know they stand up against more fashionable regions of Spain like Rioja, Caceres, and Catalunya.
My own wine from a couple of parcels of land with vines on at my farmhouse 35 mins from Granada, has given given me a start in the wine business. The farmhouse or ‘Cortijo’ as it is known in Spain is 10 miles from a lovely town called Alcala la Real.
Alcala la Real, my vines and my land. My dream is to have a vineyard where I can disappear to and gradually drink myself to a merry end.
All around my house are fields and fields of olive groves. It is the biggest producer of olives in the world. And everyone has an olive field of some sort.
But it is also an area with some historical wine heritage, being one of the few areas that were allowed to produce wines for the royal court of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel & Ferdinand as far back as the 1600s.
I have had some wine stored for a year now from last years harvest, the first in which my own vines produced. I have Tempranillo grapes for the red wine and also a local varietal called Jaen Blanca and Vijiriega which will be blended to make the white wine. The tempranillo has been aged in Amercian Oak barrels at the local co-op in the next village over to mine.
Overseen by Pepe the local vintner. I have about 500 bottles there.
But this years harvest has been and gone and I was there in August just to walk around the vines I have with some locals who have vines too and are advising me on mine. And back late September to observe and help out with the picking.
Local Spanish people from the country LOVE to advise Guiris (foreigners) like me on the nuances of village life and growing crops! They are also intrigued by the fact that there is a market for wines made there, in my region of the UK. (well, I HOPE THERE IS!)
They all make their wine to just drink themselves. They thought I was mad to buy oak barrels to age the wine from last year. It just isn’t done in my village. But luckily Pepe from the next village over could see the vision and has helped.
In August, we tested my vines and grapes for ripeness, taste, to see if the pips had gone brown, to see if the balance of acid and sweetness was there. Late September I was going to spend 2 weeks there, picking, helping the crushing and maceration.
But could only get a few days (because you lot keep buying lots of gin! God Bless You All)
But I am told it’s looking like I will end up with another 3500 bottles from this year.
So am not going to get rich from introducing them to you good folks. But wine, hell, gin, and most other alcoholic endeavours don’t make folks Rich, it’s a living, and if done right a fun one.
I will have an easy drinking white from this years harvest, nothing too complicated. But an aged red, a blend of Tempranillo and Syrah from last year, that I think will be pretty damn good for a first effort. And an easy drinking red, from the Tempranillo harvest this year.
Moving forward, starting in February 2020, I am planting more new vines on 3 acres of land immediately in front of my house and my dream is that by the time I am 60 years I can spend my days pottering around my vineyard, tending to the vines, and drinking wine under the stars in the evening, as Steel River Drinks Ltd is ran by my staff, family, and one day my nieces back in the UK. Ahhh to dare is to dream.
I am thinking of calling my wine range JAMMY BASTARD WINES. Because that is what some friends called me when I told them about our luck getting a field of vines that we didn’t even know about from that madman Luis when we bought he farmhouse and land. But maybe STEEL RIVER is best and less shocking!
Postscript: I was looking at planting 3 acres of new vines in April this year to really get going on my own wine range as well as intro the wines in the UK that I had had made for me from my vines in Andalucia.
But again, the wine is still there being stored and I am still here. But there are many who are not, so that puts things into perspective. It’s just wine. And there WILL ALWAYS be wine. But life is life.
Well, what’s the perfect partner to a Club Tropicana Gin, a tropical pineapple & passionfruit gin?
A Club Tropicana Rum! More details on that to come, but it’s a coming alright!
I have been testing the recipes for two rums. A spiced edition with the pineapple and passionfruit and also a darker rum, blending rum made in house with a Barbados 8 year aged rum I have sourced.
But the bottle will be bright, 80s looking, neons, pinks, yellows, oranges. And have a little mini bottle, with a secret note inside it, actually in the bottle. A message in a bottle, in a bottle! Ta dah!
Postscript: This IS still happening. We are looking for an end of August launch now. Watch this space for some FUN RUM!
Fair to say that 2019 was eventful, but flew by! And overall has been a big success.
2020 could be a very interesting, a massive year for me, for STEEL RIVER GINS and for BIG BALLS and for CLUB TROPICANA RUM.
Some folks keep telling me to slow down. But I can’t. I’m just afraid it will all end if I do.
Postscript: Yeah Jay, just a bit interesting eh! King of the understatement there!
And besides, I’m having a great time. My mind is healthy. I feel positive. I have a purpose. I have goals. I want to make the world a little better in my own way. I am having positive effects on people around me. And more importantly, I’m putting smiles on faces. So, why slow down!
If you’ve read this far, what the hell are you playing at! Get out and get a gin down you!
But THANK YOU all the same. And THANK YOU so much to everyone who has helped in any way to get me this far. Some say I am like Lazarus in that I keep coming back from the dead. Others probably say I’m like a bad weed, you just can’t kill it!
Who knows. I do know that I just found myself this last few years and got my shit together and got my head finally right and found my purpose in life. The proof is always in the results.
So I best just keep on keeping on getting results.
Lastly, on that, I’ve had help along the way, (trust me, no one makes it alone.) Initially, with my gin mentor, Tony Reeman Clark, and most recently with a best friend, Bernie, who is my business mentor and sometimes banker!
My sister Katrina, who answers all your queries online. Andy B, my right hand man in the distillery. Paul, Craig and Baz, who help out doing deliveries, to family jumping in when needed too. A real team effort.
Nick Waites who is my advisor and Treasurer for the Big Balls Foundation is a fountain of knowledge, a great sounding board, a die hard Boro fan and a really kind man.
I’ve also had one of those weird, strange, meeting up after all these years type events since February. An old aquaintance from my college days has walked back into my field of vision and has been, along with some of his team, an immense help in marketing, business advice, graphic design and contacts. With MESH Marketing’s help, I just know Steel River Drinks will push on big time.
Bernie, my old pal, has been a die hard supporter of me as a person and of Steel River. He is one of those succesful entrepreneurs who lives and breathes business and has been there and done it all. He has owned and ran Tatters Hairdressers in Stockton on Tees since the mid 80s. He also has cancer and has fought it like a superhuman and he is one of the bravest men I have ever met. He has been my top mentor and will always be my great pal.
I simply could not have got this far without everyone’s help and your support.
Love, Kisses and gin fuelled Jay Hugs to the rest of you!
That happy ending I was talking about. Well, because over the last two years I’ve been a much better person to be around, well, my former partner and I have got back together, and we have never been happier. So THANK YOU, FINALLY…. TO GIN!! HURRAH!.
NOT SO BLOODY FAST YOU! Well, wasn’t it all looking rosey in the greenhouse! I think I could write another 10,000 words on what gone on in the last few months, but that may finish you off. So, I’ll keep it brief. Here is the Lockdown Lowdown on Steel River Drinks and me since March 2020.
COVID comes a calling
Well, what a few months eh!
The world has changed and parts of it may have changed for ever. The Covid pandemic has been hoorendous. It’s have taken many lives, left millions grieving for lost loved ones and turned the world on it’s head.
I sincerely hope if you are reading this that you, your family and your friends have come through physcially unscathed. Mentally, I am sure many of us will bare some scars. And for some, it is the mental anguish of the effects of this disease and its repurcussions on our daily lives that will endure.
Back in February, like many, I was not paying attention too closely to the goings on in China. I have to say, that as a nation, China leaves me cold.
It’s not somewhere I have an urge to go and see. I studied it for about 6 months and as good as I may be at languages, I just wasn’t feeling it.
The history of the country is undoutably impressive, but it’s just too far down a list of other culturally significant, historic places that I want to visit for me to get too excited or interested in.
It’s is an autocratic country too, secretive in the extreme with a proven terrible attitude from its leaders towards the civil liberties of its people.
As for the glitz and glamour and 22nd century landscape of Shanghai, just like Dubai, it’s just not my cup of tea. Behind the glitz, I just feel there is oppresion and pain. Yes, there are no doubt export opportunities there, but they are not on my horizon either. Besides, I think Europe is the most culturally significant continent on the planet anyway and I have not yet explored a 10% of it. So, I’ll spend my time doing that for a few years yet. I love Europe.
I import from China and individually, the people I deal with are lovely. Hard working, polite and eager to please. But they are taking my money, so I would expect them to be. So, I would say I admire and respect Chinese people for their endeavour, spirit and courtesy, every indiviudal is a human being after all.
I just wish they were set free more and they and their society would be so much richer for it.
So when news was coming through of a strange like flu illness sweeping a city, a region, I was non plussed. ‘It’s over there, not here, doesn’t affect me, and besides I have gin to make’ was my thinking. I should have paid more attention and remembered back to history, notably, other pandemics which have come and gone throughout our times. History, once again, is our greatest teacher.
What’s over there, soon makes it’s way over here. We live day to day on an ever increasingly small lump of rock. It doesn’t take long for this house of cards of a society to come falling down apparently. And now here we are.
However, like many then, I still did not see that, coming to this. Even on March 17th, when the bell was ringing on the hospitality trade, I went out for a few pints of Guinness after work for St. Patricks Day. Just to give some support to the bars that were in limbo, not daring to close, waiting for help from a Government, that in hindsight (isn’t that a wonderful thing), left it too late to jump into action. That said, we as a people, didn’t have the stats and the data, they did. So my sympathies with the Government are limited.
There will be an inquest and some folks will pay the price and so they should.
But I soon realised this was going to be a terrible time, just by the messages I was getting from my many friends in Spain.
My sympathies with the hospitality industry are much stronger. Covid and it’s effects and it’s after effects have ruined some perfectly good businesses and the lives of the hard working entrepreneurs behind them and working in them. I know how hard you have to work on starting a business from nothing to survive and then if you are lucky, thrive. Some venues were just starting out and had no traction or cash flow to ride this out and others were well established and have had the terrible daily decisions of staff losses, rent payments, banks, and stratagies torn up, to deal with.
On a smaller scale in numbers, but just as catastrophic in terms of damage, has been the suppliers to the hospitality industry that have had their income streams closed down in the space of a day. The micro breweries and the much fewer micro distilleries, have suffered greatly. Most, if not all, had most of their eggs in one basket; the on-trade. Some had never built up an online business with a bank of regular customers and followers. Some didn’t even have a website. So, it has been a nightmare for many of them.
For me, it was a hell of a shock. My initial reaction was panic. Then after I had calmed down (gin was involved), I came to see what was happening as the death knell for some, but opportunity for others. I know enough from history to know that some “do well” out of a crisis. That sounds glib and cold, let’s say, some folks come out fighting in a crisis or create opportunities from it. That’s me.
By March my ratio of private sales to commercial sales was getting to 70/30 still. I started this whole Steel River business on the back of online sales to private gin loving customers. And had built up a good sized loyal following, so I figured I would concentrate on that and maximise the advantage I had. As you may have been aware, I am partial to a social media post or six, so online, I was streets ahead of my competition anyway in terms of brand awareness. I figured, some would have to plod along, I took this crisis as an opportunity to push on. And part of that was launching my 265 Club.
I’d know very quickly if my gut feeling was just IBS or a near certainty that an inclusive, exclusive gin club, with an actual producer, with an already decent sized happy customer base, would go down great. I’d join one, so that was good enough for me.