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How York’s first legal distillery is breaking boundaries

From marketing and branding to creating a gin brand, Emma Godivala dives deep into the essence of York’s first legal distillery.

“I’ve had a lifelong love affair with gin - and now I’m lucky enough to part-own a brilliant gin company along with my fellow three founding directors. York Gin is a dream for all of us,” says Emma Godivala, Co-founding director at York Gin.

Over a mere three years, York Gin is already at the forefront of the spirits market in the UK. Housed in the town of York, the brand continues to focus on sustainability, innovation, and top-quality gins and ready-to-drink cocktails.

Today, Emma Godivala takes us through her experience at York Gin, how she works with distributors, and how York Gin is building its name across the globe.

Emma Godivala with Grey Lady

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your vision.

After a science degree at Oxford, I spent over two decades working in corporate marketing and branding, while raising two kids and researching gins from around the world.

I was instrumental in building the York Gin brand from scratch, including drawing our famous cat and castle logo. York Gin has been a sustainable and ethical company from the outset (for example, we’ve always used 100% green electricity, our vehicles are emission-free electric, we’re a Living Wage employer and we buy local wherever we can). 

But we want to go the extra mile now - with the climate crisis already upon us, we need to act right now. So we have a consultant auditing the business to ensure we are doing everything we can to minimise our environmental impact. I’m now the public face of our sustainable and responsible approach, so I will be encouraging other businesses to follow our example.

I also develop our non-gin-related products. I also ensure our shop is running smoothly.

Tell us a little bit about York Gin.

We love the fact that so much of York’s history survives to the present day. Our brand had to reflect this history. Our motto ‘History in the Tasting’ guides everything we do – right down to the traditional centuries-old vapour-infusion method of distilling.

York is famous for its ancient walls (reaching back to the Romans), its castle (the 13th Century Clifford’s Tower), and its ‘bars’ (the four gates into and out of the city). The castle and walls are symbols of York’s incredible history – a history that amazingly remains intact. The cat is one of York’s symbols - visitors can follow a ‘Cat Trail’ of statues attached to many city-centre buildings.

The cat is synonymous with gin – surviving gin bottles from the 19th Century have drawings of cats on them, and a type of gin is called Old Tom. So the logo is a homage to both York’s and gin’s history.

The York Gin cat is inspired by a cat that appeared in a 17th-century woodcut of the Bottesford Witches, with a cat named 'Rutterkin' meaning 'a swaggering gallant'. Little Rutterkin sits proudly on the city walls on every York Gin bottle. Meanwhile, the distinctive font we use on our bottles is a revival of 17th Century ‘Fell Fonts’ - widely used in print at the time of the 18th Century ‘Gin Craze’.

York was almost certainly home to many illegal distilleries over the centuries. So-called Bathtub Gin will have been made in the city - as it was in many other cities – in private, unlicensed houses since the 18th century.

York Gin’s claim is therefore to be the city’s first legal distillery. It is also York’s only distillery today. The inspiration for our gins comes from York’s two millennia and gin’s three centuries of history. Thus our motto, ‘History in the Tasting’.

Some of our inspiration comes from:

The Romans, who settled here 2,000 years ago. York’s outlaws, including highwayman Dick Turpin, ‘Yorkshire Witch’ Mary Bateman (both executed in York), and the city’s most famous son, Gunpowder Plotter, Guy Fawkes, old boy of St Peter’s School.

One of the city’s many ghosts, the Grey Lady, said to haunt the Theatre Royal – York claims to be Europe’s most haunted city.
York’s chocolate history – specifically, the Terry’s Chocolate Orange, invented in York in 1932 and made in the city for decades.

We’ve even given our Roman Fruit gin its own Latin motto: ‘Veni, Vidi, Bibi’ – ‘I came, I saw, I drank’. We double-checked our Latin with the country’s most famous Roman scholar, Professor Dame Mary Beard of Cambridge University. Incidentally, the professor loves a York Gin Roman Fruit Negroni.

Labelling York Gin

According to you, what makes a great spirit?

A great spirit is one that makes you feel so much better about the world as soon as it hits your tastebuds. It has to be complex without being over-complicated, and smooth without being dull.

Actually, making your own spirits makes you far more appreciative of superb examples of any spirit you come across. You know just how much work goes into research, development, and refinement until you find the perfect combination.

All York Gins

What would be your typical day at work?

One of the joys of helping to run a small business is that there genuinely isn’t a typical day at work. As I write this, I’m organising the launch of our second shop in York (in the train station). I’m simultaneously trying to organise photos from a Christmas photoshoot, work out who in the distillery team wants to do the Spirits WSET Level 3 course (we recently all did rather well in our Level 2).

Tomorrow, I’ll be talking to our sustainability consultant who’s working to get us down to net zero. I also have to rewrite our adverts for the local radio station York Mix, and needs some attention after we decided to make UK delivery free for orders over £30. 

How often are you firing up the stills and how long does a batch take?

At the moment, we really are firing on all cylinders. We are working six or seven days a week, with two runs most days. We only have one copper alembic 300-litre still (Ebor). We have more on order! The demand for our gins has been phenomenal since May – not only is our shop busier than ever, but we have some big trade accounts that are going really well, and our local hospitality sector is booming. Our online shop is keeping up the momentum we built up during lockdown too.

What excites you the most about your brand?

Our founding ethos, which has guided everything we do three years on from selling our first bottles. 

Here it is:

1. Only to create gins of the highest quality.
2. To treat the planet, our people, our business partners, and our customers with the utmost care and respect.
3. To be inspired by our city’s and gin’s long and incredible histories - hence our motto ‘History in the Tasting’.
4. To make York proud of us.
5. To have as much fun as possible.

What spirits do you consider your flagship spirits and why?

York Gin London Dry is the basis for all our success so far. This is the original dry gin we spent many months working on before we launched to the world. We made the decision early on that we wanted to use classic botanicals available during the 18th Century Gin Craze – and eventually decided on just nine.

We wanted it to be rounded, balanced and smooth, which as we found with experimentation, is easier to write than to achieve in real life. But we got there. It has won lots of medals in its own right but is also absolutely vital to the amazing success of our Old Tom, Navy Strength, and others which have seriously impressed judges and consumers alike.

Are you working on something new right now?

We are always developing - never standing still. One new device we’re playing with is a dehydrator to create our own garnishes. Everyone is very excited about that. Tasting experiences are at the forefront of our plans.

And Harry our Master Distiller is a taste fiend who loves experimenting. We’ll let the world know when he’s found the next big thing. The Chocolate & Orange he created for last Christmas will be our biggest seller from October until Christmas Eve this year.

As a brand, what are some of the things you do to make sure your distributor has everything they need?

1. A clear joint business plan - consistently implemented - to ensure maximum sales and efficiency.
2. A detailed plan of new product development.
3. Overall joint partnership to ensure the end customer has a positive experience of both brand and distributor.

Where can we find your products?

Master of Malt, Spirits Kiosk, and Amazon are the key national sellers. Our main national wholesalers are Matthew Clark and Enotria & Coe. The regional ones include House of Townend, Field & Fawcett, and Tate Smith. We have several contracts with regional supermarket chains including Proudfoot on the Yorkshire coast.

Our gins are also in thousands of pubs, bars, restaurants, and shops – predominantly in York and North Yorkshire, but you’ll find them as far north as the Whisky Shop, Aberdeen, and as far south as the Juniper Club in Cornwall.  

How do you work with restaurants, bars, and retailers to increase sales?

We have very active social media accounts, with a combined audience of around 40,000. So we use this to promote our partners – with both paid and free promotions.

We have lots of POS to keep the York Gin name on the front of people’s minds – glasses, beermats, etc. We also offer selected partners the more expensive kit like parasols. We have promotions all the time – for example, we currently sponsor a monthly comedy night at Impossible bar in York. 

We also offer training for the staff of bars and pubs. This helps them understand our processes, how we make gins, and also gives them a good understanding of our brand.

Tell us a little bit about your D2C channel.

Our shop (in a beautiful Tudor building in the centre of York) has never been busier. This is partly no doubt due to the trend for people to take breaks in the UK this year. But it is also down to our promotions, our fantastic reviews, and our products.

People love the shop with its socially distanced tasting machine (based on the Puss ‘n’ Mew contraption designed to get around the gin laws in the 18th Century). And it helps to have one of the most photographed buildings in York (we have lots of competition for beautiful buildings!). We are opposite Shambles – the famous medieval shopping street.

Until the pandemic struck, our website was not a priority for us – we were kept busy with our shop and trade customers. With both avenues closed for months on end, we were faced with a choice of developing online traffic or basically shutting up shop. We decided on the former action – and were astonished by the demand for our products once we made an effort to attract customers.

Although some of the local online trade has fallen off, our national customer base has held up well. We are employing a small consultancy to help with our online marketing - social media, Google, and email - and we are employing at least one full-time person in the distillery to deal with online orders.

The opening of our second shop in York’s busy train station is imminent. We believe travellers will be particularly interested in our ready-to-drink cans of G&T (we have fridges!), and our miniature gift sets to take home as last-minute gifts.

Team behind York Gin

What are some upcoming drinks trends, according to you?

We are very interested in the ready-to-drink market – we think it has lots of potential for growth. Our first foray into the RTD with just two G&Ts (a classic and a ‘Berry Fizz’ G&T with natural fruit flavours) won’t be our last. We are keen to see whether the G&S (gin and soda) market takes off, with the potential to attract drinkers who have perhaps in the past been put off gin because of the tonic.

We can’t decide on the no-low alcohol market. We are yet to find a product that we love enough to pay decent money for. This may expand for a while, so we will keep our eyes on this trend.

And we really don’t see an end to experimenting with flavours – in gin, vodka, whisky, and other spirits. The recent explosion in flavoured spirits is certainly something that keeps us on our toes – and we love the experimentation and innovation in the sector.

RTD by York Gin

Have you incorporated any new technology in distillation recently?

The most modern technology we use is electric heating for the still: everything else is as traditional as possible. It is worth noting our distillery is powered by 100% renewable electricity generated from the sun, wind, and water.

What do you expect from restaurants and bars when it comes to increasing sales?

Partnerships – we expect them to want their teams to be trained by us so they know our story, how we make our gins, why we choose particular botanicals, and our sustainability credentials. 

We always find that the more a team knows about our gins the more confident they are to sell them to customers. They really need to drink them too – to appreciate the flavour profiles. Once we as a distillery have convinced bar staff and waiting staff about our gins, they find it a much easier sell to customers.

We also love to chat with our customers to find out what they see as the future trends - as well as learning about their new cocktail creations!

Does social media play a big part in the sales game?

We look after the York Gin social media accounts in-house and manage the website (including our online shop) and all our marketing, advertising, and PR. (Our shop's ‘ban’ on cheesy Christmas songs in 2019 made headlines around the world, and even featured on the BBC World Service!)

We do use social media to get our messages out to as many people as we can. And it’s also useful to plug our partners. We don’t use social media as an incessant selling tool – although we do post about special offers or topical events that can lead to some sales.

We keep our social media pretty light-hearted:

Posts about our distillery dogs (we now have four) and four-legged visitors to the shop as well as cats (we support the local Cats Protection). Posts to coincide with celebratory days (like the international chocolate day or national cat day). Weather and photos of York looking beautiful in the sun. Charity events (of which there are many – Pete, one of our founding directors keeps doing mammoth cycling rides).

What advice would you give to fellow distillers looking to get their spirits into bars?

Try to sit them down and drink your products. Tell them about your story, show your passion for your brand, and make sure you keep up your relationships.

Talk to potential customers - learn what works well for them. Chat about how you can work together to your mutual benefit. And discuss what you can expect from one another. Finally, make sure you talk about price points.

What are some of the spirits you have on your personal shelf?

As well as all six of our gins - I’ve quite a full spirits shelf - the WSET course definitely inspired me to try more. I have started to enjoy Armagnac, Rye whiskies, and Mezcals too.

Noilly-Prat vermouth has been ever-present for a while for a regular Gibson Martini (complete with pickled onions). I don’t think you can beat a proper martini!

Lastly, what are you drinking right now?

A Gibson as it’s just after 6 pm. A decent-sized York Gin London Dry, Noilly-Prat vermouth, some pickled onion juice. I like mine shaken into a Nick & Nora cocktail glass with a couple of small pickled onions.

Pictures clicked by Matthew Kitchen Photography

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