THE STORY SO FAR…..
So, my third gin has arrived. Steel River “CLUB TROPICANA” Edition.
Where has a year gone!?
I don’t think I’ve even had time to look back yet, but feel the time is right for a little catch up between you and me. Shall we?
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 now 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…
Although way way longer than most “About Me” pages, or company/founder bio’s, it’s still brief. 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. 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 them in the end. Celebrities eh!
I’ve missed out the fall outs of all that, the accusations, the threats, and how in one case, ideas I came to the table with, have now been taken and ran with (minus me).
For now, I’ll also omit some of the darker aspects of this journey, the back stabbing, the calling I’ve had from competitors.
The falling out with friends I have had to move on from because they just see me as the loser who runs from one low point to another. Some of the dogs abuse I’ve had online along the way, it happens.
Some of the many times it’s all looked like crashing down around me I’ve missed out for now, too many to mention anyway! And my own personal private life and its dramas I’ve given you a taste of, but don’t want to bog you down with too many details.
Let’s just say I am keeping my powder dry for now.
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 and GIN, 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.
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 nearly three 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.
Eventually, you bend something long enough, and it will snap.
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.
Being in my house, 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 summer.
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, and with the hard work of my two pals 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!”
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 however 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 plough on, 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.
- 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 22 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 Cruise 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.
- I called on my No.1 Mentor for help.
That last thing is 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 of 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
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 sooth 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.
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.
I always knew I wanted The Transporter Bridge on the 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.
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. 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 if 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 those 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 soup sooner or later.
EL CLASICO EDITION
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. So I thought, 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. Stevie had been out to Spain with other pals to see me back through the years, so we had shared some fun memories 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.
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, I have a feeling my next gin is going to be the best selling gin in the bars yet!
CLUB TROPICANA EDITION
I’m so excited and delighted to say my third gin, “CLUB TROPICANA” was an amazing hit when I delivered it to bars in early May. I wanted to get the gin to the bars first before launching it ‘Live’ online to private customers. It would give me some wiggle room to tweak the gin and gage the reaction. It would also give the bars some good footfall too. And it did. Some bars sold out the same day I dropped the gin off!
The joy of still doing my Gin Ahoy Cruises is that I get to promote my own gins now. As each guest gets 2 free G&Ts included with their ticket. And guess what, they are both mine.
Hey, it’s my show after all!
I had my Club Tropicana Edition on two cruises before launching and it sold like, well, free gin. With a bar on their stocking 60 other gins, to see folks queueing up to order mine is a fantastic feeling. That’s all the affirmation I need.
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 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 my latest 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.
Through 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.
WHAT’S NEXT THEN?
MORE GIN and WINE and…….a RUM
I have one more gin to launch. I have a couple of working titles, SHOOTING STAR Edition, as a tribute to another legend, Paul Rodgers, a Teesside son. Or it maybe a tribute to two other superstars, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, from local Darlington and Middlesbrough respectively. You may be reading this in the booklet form, and will know what the name is by now!
This next gin is a drier affair, hell, it may even be a clear gin. But it will have aromas of almond blossom (that i picked and froze from my trees in February), as well as quinces, which I picked from my trees and froze too while back at my house in March. And sour apple.
So the idea is you get a floral bouquet, a bitter sweetness of the apple. However, the interesting aspect is that the ginflask this time will be filled with a quince infused olive oil. Yes, you read that right, olive oil, from the motherland, the land around my house in Spain.
A little drop or two, and it’s just that, a drop or two, of this sweet, quince infused, fresh pungent olive oil I think will bring this gin to life. And certainly cause a stir!
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 has been stored for nearly a year now in French Oak barrels at the local co-op in the next village over to mine. Overseen by Pepe the local vint. I have about 500 bottles. 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 have an easy drinking white, made from local Jaen Blanca grapes blended with the Vijiriega varietal too. I have also an aged red, a blend of Tempranillo and Syrah, that I think will be pretty damn good for a first effort.
Well, what’s the perfect partner to a Club Tropicana Gin, a tropical with pineapple & passionfruit?
A Club Tropicana Rum! More details on that to come, but it’s a coming alright!
If you’ve read this far, what the hell are you playing at! Get outside in the sun 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 on this journey. If you were one of the first buyers of my Stainsby Girl, you are treasured by me, you literally saved my ass!
If you are a recent convert to my gins, welcome aboard the Steel River Crazy Bus, it’s one hell of a ride! Let’s have a catch up soon eh!?
Lastly, I’ve had help along the way, no one makes it alone. Initially, with my gin mentor, Tony, most recently with a business mentor and friend, Bernie, and lately, my sister and brother in law, who have helped get gin to you. Also, Mal doing my accounts, his wife Mel now tearing it up with sales, and Stacy who takes care of alot of my social media stuff.
So, it would be remiss of me not to mention them all too, so THANKS AMIGOS, I simply could not have got this far without your all your help.
Love, Kisses and gin fuelled Jay Hugs to the rest of you!
PS, 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!
Love, Kisses and gin fuelled Jay Hugs