From a distance, the York Gin range might seem a touch confusing. It’s big, bold, loud and proud, but it’s also steeped in the history of its hometown, with its chunky, square, castle illustrated bottles reaching their hands back hundreds of years.
Ranging from classic, to fruity to (the now discontinued, but undoubtedly curiosity-peaking) chocolatey, there always seemed to be a lot going on with this team, but we could never quite work it out from afar. With its unique sense of humour underpinned by authentic history, is this a brand catering to the mad modern Gin craze, or is it one pandering to the past? It turns out it’s a bit of both and all the better for it too…
“Our historic city of York should have had is own gin for centuries,” said co-founder Emma Godivala. “Our motto is ‘history in the tasting,’ so we use botanicals that would have been available in the Gin Craze and before. York is famous for chocolate, while our Roman Fruit uses ingredients introduced to Britain – and Roman York: Eboracum – two millennia ago.”
Still, it was the more recent boom that inspired the quintet behind this distillery to get going. Pub landlord Paul Crossman, his friend Jon Farrow, former pub landlord Pete McNichol and local foodie Harry Cooke had almost bored each other to tears by banging on and on about the need for a local gin. All the surrounding cities had a namesake spirit, but York was found wanting.
Meanwhile, neighbour (and big time Gin lover) Godivala was doing all that she could to work out how to get a local Gin going. By the time she got around to trying to register the name at Companies House, it became clear she wasn’t the only one working towards the same ambition. After doing a bit of digging and finding out that old friend Crossman was involved (if anyone in a city is well connected, it’s the local landlord), she got in touch. Realising their visions were aligned, rather than compete the quartet became a quintet, and in February 2016 the York Gin Company was born.
The first gin, a London Dry, made its way onto shelves following a year of careful development and is a carefully crafted cocktail workhorse that seems to perfectly sum up the entire brand. It’s distilled using a traditional Alembic 300L still (the historic) that’s been customised to accommodate a wider column in which the team place their botanicals for vapour infusion (the modern). The Gin is laden with juniper and its eternal backup dancers, angelica and coriander (as well as others), combining the perfect citrus-spice-pine balance that all classic gins aspire to.
It is Gin as Gin was meant to be, nothing ridiculous – just a classic taste. It could even be said, there’s something almost Romanesque in its structure – it has a classicism that delivers for a reason and it’s because of this that local pubs, bars and shops have been reaching for it ever since.
York Gin Roman Fruit
York Gin hopped aboard the Fruit Gin train in 2019 and released its Roman Fruit edition. It wasn’t quite as simple as spotting a trend and getting involved, though; rather it was a way to bring alive the flavours and colours of ancient Rome.
The first thing to say is that this is undeniably juniper-based. A round of applause and three cheers to York Gin for that they’ve completely avoided the trap of adding in a truck load of sugar and synthetic flavours. Here, you can tell it’s a gin base that’s driving the flavour profile.
It’s made with a tea infusion including the likes of strawberries, hibiscus, berries and apples lending a rich, red colour and a bittersweet profile. The aroma is one of berries and candied fruit, while on the palate the fruit brings with it rich strawberry layers but it doesn’t over-sweeten – this is a Dry Gin by anyone’s standards, despite its ruby-rich colour. Try adding this with Mediterranean Tonic and either apples or raspberries to garnish.
To make their own version of an infusion that’s neither a traditional Sloe nor a Pink copycat is a confident move for such a young brand. They’ve made something true to them and shown once again that they aren’t falling at the feet of trends or trying to access a broader market, rather its founders are targeting out and out Gin fans.
York Gin Grey Lady
Made as a celebration and for the special 275th anniversary of York Theatre Royal, the gin takes its inspiration (with a good dose of humour) from the famous Grey Lady ghost that, according to legend, haunts the theatre’s dress circle. This edition takes the base recipe used for the classic London Dry Gin, but adds Earl Grey Tea into the botanical mix. After distillation, blue pea-flower is infused, creating an ever so subtle delicate grey hue.
York Gin Old Tom
Silky smooth and complexly layered, this is an intensely flavoursome tipple that is a completely unique endeavour.
Collaboration is key to its creation. To make their Old Tom, the chaps teamed up with local Michelin starred restaurant the Star Inn. Chef Patron, Andrew Pern, concocted a beautifully complex syrup, which takes its key ingredients from local hedgerows – such as White Alba rose (the White Rose of Yorkshire). It is cooked up alongside bronze fennel, star anise, angelica and pink peppercorns and then blended with a slightly higher cut of York Gin to create an absolutely intoxicating spirit.
The herbs are clear on the nose, while to taste the familiar juniper richness has been given an extra lick of sweetness, extending it onto a finish that’s gone from dry and peppery to more floral (the pink pepper) and enduring. The bronze fennel and star anise meanwhile are subtle, but manage to underpin proceedings adding a glorious depth.
Earlier this year, the Old Tom was one of only six gins in the world to take home the Gold Outstanding gong at the International Wine and Spirits Competition. It’s as close to a guarantee as you can come, really; a testament to the sheer quality contained in each bottle.
York Gin Outlaw
An award winning (San Francisco double gold) higher proof version of the Dry Gin, ramping the botanical impact with fantastic effect. On the nose, spirit flicks the nostrils with a warming hint of lemon. To taste, it’s a strongly juniper-led journey that finishes on aromatic notes of cardamom and black pepper. It’s noticeably smooth despite the higher proof with a drying finish.
Perhaps it was seeing the reception that both locals and visitors were having to their range or perhaps it was the limitations of showing as many people as they would have liked around their converted chickencoup-come-distillery that in 2019, York Distillery expanded.
In April, the team decided to take a presence in town, not to distil more but to launch a shop (that doubles up as a tasting room) in the heart of the city. At first they were nervous about the risks of taking on the high-street, a fear that soon evaporated and turned into a challenge on how to keep up.
25 new faces were added to help with curious customers, while the full range of gins was made available in multiple size formats, perfect for those seeking a gift, souvenir or limited by what they can mule back home on airplanes. With bottle sales soaring, a new still and expanded distillery space has been organised for 2020.
What fascinates us about York Gin is that it can seem a complete contradiction and yet it is precisely the opposing elements that make it such a brilliant proposition.
This is a team who are fiercely proud of their hometown and want to bring to life York’s heritage in everything they do, but at the same time they never want to create something just for, nor be perceived as a brand that simply caters to a tourist market, even if it is an overwhelming percentage of their sales. They are rooted in that place and it is precisely that which makes York Gin a genuine proposition.
The juxtaposition also continues to their size. They are so open, honest and almost raw about their small, largely rudimental set up and yet they are also having to do what far bigger brands have to do now that they have the shop – multiple size formats, gift packaging, info postcards and more.
It’s an artisanal set up doing mid sized volumes, something that at the rate of growth will be a challenge to maintain. With almost one thousand litres being needed from their still each week now, they must be forecasting masterminds maximising what they have at their disposal as they build towards a bigger distillery space.
These stark contrasts and the current state of flux is captivating to watch, especially as they are being navigated with the same intentions that began this journey. They only got into making the spirit because of a real love and appreciation for it and that sense of worship echoes through every sip of any of their gins.
While things may look rose-tinted now, it’s not been an easy road for the quintet. In fact, it became something of an awful one when co-founder Jon Farrow passed away suddenly ahead of launch. It was a terrible setback for the team, who lost a good friend and co-conspirator in one fell swoop. Though deeply sad that Farrow never got to see the fruits of his labour, there’s something quite beautiful about the fact that his spirit lives on in spirit form.
Every time you pour a York Gin G&T, you’re raising a toast to the core team member who never quite got to see it through to the end. You are also celebrating how a team rooted in a place have managed not just to succeed but create something credible and real.
That might sound like a given, but in the mad world of gin, that’s not always the case. This is something built to last, that locals can be proud of. Now, what is left to be seen is how they will go about keeping up with the monster they have created!
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