Enterprising spirit

12th Sep

You could think of it as Emma Kinton’s new library – shelves climbing from just above floor level all the way to the ceiling, packed with treats to fire the imagination.
But rather than the books that you would normally associate with an accomplished teacher of English, the contents of these shelves are bottles and jars all brimming with the herbs and spices that form part of the curriculum at Hotham’s Gin School.
The school opened during summer 2018 in Hepworth’s Arcade, Hull, taking its place alongside other quirky and quality independent outlets such as Dinsdale’s joke shop, Beasley’s Clothing and Fanthorpes HiFi.
“Head teacher” Emma instructs eager students in the art and science of making their own gin. She has a blackboard for chalking up recipes, a mortar board for use in graduation photographs, and a cane that – so far – has only been deployed for pointing out ingredients on the top shelves.
It’s a simple concept, which very quickly proved so successful that the spin-offs have been spiralling. Emma gave up teaching English and her partner Simon Pownall left his post as IT services manager at the University of Hull. Instead they’ve been making gin, building their brand and planning expansion.
Simon said: “We have potential franchisees interested up and down the country who are very keen to replicate what we have done here. That was part of the plan when we started. We took a ‘build it and they will come’ approach.’ A lot of people said we were mad and it would never work in Hull, but we have proved otherwise.”
Hard work is a key factor behind the growth of the business, but what really makes the difference is the combination of creativity and personality, the sort of attributes that build networks and make things happen.
A conversation with Deborah Spicer, director of 1884 Wine & Tapas Bar, at one of the HullBID Farmers’ Markets in 2018, led to a commission to produce a bespoke gin for the restaurant. A chat at the Yum! Festival of Food and Drink in the same year started a longer conversation which culminated in the launch of the Viola gin in support of the campaign to bring the Viola trawler back to Hull.There are plans for other versions of Viola gin. The Millhouse at Skidby became the second restaurant to order its own gin. The organisers of Pride in Hull appointed Hotham’s to make their festival gin. All from an allergy.
Simon revealed: “Three years ago I was diagnosed as being allergic to many things including yeast. The only things I could drink were champagne, which gives me a massive hangover, vodka and gin.”We’ll come back to the champagne, but Simon had been drinking gin for years; one of the couple’s earliest dates was a visit to a gin school and so they made some in their kitchen.
The key question: “Was it any good?”
The instant reply: “You drink it regularly!”
When a major distiller offered to help Emma and Simon take the gin to market they knew they were on to something. In addition to the basic product, they worked on developing the experience – students at the gin school find themselves in a museum-like environment, surrounded by copper stills all named after celebrities with a strong Hull connection, including Sir Tom Courtenay, Reece Shearsmith, John Godber and Paul Heaton.
Simon said: “From an allergy to yeast we now find ourselves running one of the biggest food and drink tourism destinations in East Yorkshire.”
The explosion in the popularity of gin, which has driven the success of Hotham’s, also ensures there is plenty of competition, with Simon counting 45 distilleries across Yorkshire and two opening in the Hull area in the past couple of months. But versatility is a big part of the Hotham’s offer – you can only sell a bottle of gin once, but there are also peripherals such as books, bar ware and glasses and you can do so much more with the fascinating story of gin as told by Emma at the Viola trawler events at 1884 Wine & Tapas Bar.
Simon said: “We have done corporate events at the rate of about one a month and they have usually involved people coming to the distillery, but we haven’t pushed that side of the business properly yet and I’m sure we can take our gin wherever people want it.”The order book indicates that people want the gin worldwide, with bottles being purchased by visitors from the States, China and Australia and the commemorative Viola gin likely to be heading to Grytviken.
The other spirit – the entrepreneurial kind – is gaining recognition with a series of awards including the Remarkable East Yorkshire Tourism Awards (REYTAs), the International Wine and Spirit Competition and a decision due soon in the White Rose Awards. It’s a glittering schedule that is giving Simon a healthy return on his investment in a dinner suit – and testing his aversion to champagne.
He said: “We’re a year in and have only recently started working on the business full-time so to win a REYTA blew us away.
“The international awards attracted more than 700 gins which were blind-tasted by a panel of 400 spirits experts. Our cardamom gin in the flavoured category won a silver medal with 91 points. The winner was a rhubarb gin with 95 points, so I guess we’re the best non-rhubarb-flavoured gin! We made it in our kitchen and it’s one of the best in the world!”
Inevitably there is resistance among some people who can’t come to terms with the price of about £40 a bottle – with the Viola and Pride versions costing an extra £10 to support the respective funds – for something that is hand-crafted rather than mass-produced and which surrenders 40 per cent to the Government.
There are also unusual requests for additions to Emma’s library of ingredients, with one prospective customer suggesting his favourite onion sandwich recipe – with the skins on – and another implying that he might like to bring in some of the marijuana grown by his neighbour.
Emma said: “You can put all sorts of things into gin, but we are not willing to distil anything illegal! On those shelves we’ve got dried fruits, flower petals, bird’s eye chillies, cloves, star anise, orange blossom, elderflower, thyme, marjoram… We tell people if you don’t like gin it’s because you haven’t found the right one yet.”

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