Raising a glass to Skegness!
Launched during lockdown, Skegness Distillery creates unique rums, gins and liqueurs which highlight local history, while also raising funds for community charities. Barbara Young visited to learn more.
As a unique visitor attraction on the Lincolnshire coast, Skegness Distillery offers an innovative blend of magical tasting experiences, insightful tours and cocktail sessions, as well as a popular events venue and shop.
Located just 500m from the beach at Skegness, this family-run distillery is the brainchild of Richard Longworth. A former marketing and design agency professional, Richard came up with the concept after visiting a gin shop in Manchester with his partner Sarah Riggall, who helps run the business with her son Tom (brand ambassador and events organiser) and Joe Wilson, Tom’s life partner (brand ambassador and social media co-ordinator).
The distillery produces gins, rums and liqueurs under multiple brands, including Stonewall LGBTQ+ Gin, which retells the story of the 1969 Stonewall Riots and donates a percentage of proceeds to LGBTQ+ charities; Skegness Gin, celebrating the popular east coast holiday resort; and CU29 Gin, which is presented in metallised copper bottles.
“We came up with the business idea as we thought that great tasting gins from the Lincolnshire coast might prove popular,” explains Richard, who worked for many years as a consultant in the food industry.
“We started to research and develop recipes, obtained all the necessary licences and invited friends over to sample our early efforts.
“After about six months and trialling 40 versions, we ended up taking the samples to popular bars such as The Hive, who saw the concept straightaway, so we were off and running and launched our first brand, Skegness Gin, in 2019 setting up the equipment during the first lockdown.”
Richard says that the idea behind the brand was to create great tasting Skegness rums and gin spirits for the regional hospitality trade, as well as holidaymakers visiting the coast, and this concept has more than proved a winner.
“The past year has been a bit of a whirlwind. When lockdown finished we opened our event area where groups can come along to make their very own recipe gin or rum and have a fun-filled and slightly educational evening, learning about and making spirits.
“The tour of the distillery is always popular and Dora, our ‘Still from Brazil’, never fails to impress.”
Region’s rich heritage
Launching a new drinks brand in a popular tourist coastal resort might be considered unconventional, but Richard stuck to his hunch that it would work and it has.
“Skegness is much maligned by some and much loved by many. I was born and bred in Manchester and viewed the coast as still having underdeveloped potential with a hard core of visitors who loyally come back year after year and generation on generation.
“We also started the business with the intention of not just supplying the local area, but to launch brands that could sell nationally, so it would make no difference where we were located. However, living and working on this beautiful coast provides many quality of life benefits.
“There is a rich heritage of food production in our region and bringing it to the fore will help encourage people to visit and revisit the area, which will in turn help the economy grow and improve investment in the region.
“It’s about time we started to shout about the good rather than be consumed by the ‘cheap shot’ critics!”
Richard explains that the aim of the business is to “create brands that have longevity and espouse the value of acceptance and equality, plus to have a bit of fun along the way”.
“What could be more fun and satisfying than to see people enjoying our venue, events, and products? For us, it’s the ultimate buzz.
“On a practical level, we hope to continue to raise thousands for LGBTQ+ charities and retelling the stories that encourage understanding. When anyone buys a bottle of Stonewall Gin, we ask them to tell the people they share it with, or gift it to, to tell the positive life-affirming story of the Stonewall Riots.
“We started this journey with our original brand, Skegness Gin, which features John Hassall’s 1905 railway promotional poster of the Jolly Fisherman character on the beach.
“John Hassall was a commercial artist in London and produced many posters for railways companies that wanted to promote seaside destinations and the use of the trains in the early 1900s.
“A little-known fact is that Hassall produced lots of versions of the Jolly Fisherman character, many of which are held at the National Gallery in London.
“We took the decision to trademark the words ‘Jolly Fisherman’ so we could create an international brand for our Jamaican rum products, which we import and further blend in Skegness.
“The Caribbean region is famous for many things, two of which are its rum and sports fishing, so our Jolly Fisherman Funky Jamaican Rum and Chocolate Orange Rum were born.”
Richard concedes that as a business they are very aware of the sometimes unpleasant history of their products.
“Rum in particular has a history connected to slavery where, in the past, people were taken from their homes in Africa and enslaved on sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean. So, with this in mind, our Jolly Fisherman Rum donates to charities that fight to eradicate modern slavery.”
One of the distillery team’s proudest parts of the business is their charity work and fundraising for LGBTQ+ charities, including sponsoring a party event to celebrate this year’s 70th birthday of gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.
It is also helping to promote the 50th anniversary of the Pride movement and looking at doing a special promotion where the new 50th anniversary Pride Royal Mint coin is attached to their bottles as a promotional giveaway and piece of history making.
Richard describes the distilling process as “part science and part creativity”.
“Anyone can learn the process to produce a good spirit, but our brand stories are what make it so special.
“It’s no longer good enough to produce a tasty gin. People want to know and buy into why this gin or rum exists and discover what makes them special, so compelling stories are all part of the brand.
“At Skegness Distillery we offer a blend of entertainment and information wrapped in a unique tasting experience. We always tell people there will be some drinks and flavours that you’ll love and some that you won’t, but there will almost certainly be flavours that you’ll have never tasted before in your life.”
One of Skegness Distillery’s most popular attractions is their in-house gin school, which offers a unique experience of making your own gin using mini stills under the distiller’s instructions.
At the end of the three-hour session, participants can take away their own bottle to entertain and impress family and friends.
Many visitors also enjoy a distillery tour, which gives them an introduction to the mystical and magical world of distilling.
“Distilling is a process that is at least 6,000 years old and in the past closely associated with alchemy and religion. Think about the Bible’s supposed ‘miracle’ of turning water into wine (alcohol) and you have distilling.
“The process relies on a few very basic chemical reactions and I’ll give you an idea without giving away too many secrets.
“Alcohol is a solvent; for example, when it comes in contact with organic material, it starts to chemically break it down. If you spilled strong alcohol on you skin, it would cause irritation as the alcohol is attacking your skin.
“Alcohol also vaporises at a lower temperature than water, so when the two are combined and heated, the alcohol and water will separate.
“These chemical reactions and processes all happen inside a still. Dora, our ‘Still from Brazil’, is a copper bain marie 300L pot still. She was commissioned for us and made in São Paulo, Brazil.”
Blends and botanicals
With recipes a closely guarded secret in the business, when visitors come to sample a tasting session, they are taken through the whole recipe development process in great detail.
“In terms of botanicals, we have the base ingredients that we use such as juniper, coriander and sea buckthorn, and we then build different recipes on that base.
“Ideas for flavours come from listening and researching; we listen to customers, and experiment with them. If you come to a gin experience session, we’ll invite you to try different samples and listen to the feedback.
“We are always working on new flavours and currently have about 21 flavours with new ones added to the range three or four times a year.”
Richard explains that the distillery gin school aims to offer visitors a full immersion in the spirit world.
“It’s been compared to TVs MasterChef meets Bake Off and if our visitors are having a really good time, even Strictly too!
“After about 30 minutes’ induction our visiting ‘creators’ start to build their recipes from the vast array of botanicals, choosing from tonka beans to grains of paradise and everything in between.
The first rule of spirit making is there are no rules, just creativity and taste.
“Participants get to see their gin or rum being made on a mini alembic still – a little cousin of Dora – and taste the syrupy liquid as it slowly drips from the taps over a 60-minute period.
“A label is then added to the bottle and visitors take away their unique recipe gin which they have created and made themselves, with the chance to purchase our own range of gins and rums and other merchandise from the distillery shop.”
The growing interest and popularity of the business has also attracted TV production companies, with the Channel 5 programme Susan Calman’s Grand Day Out lined up for filming at the distillery this summer.
The brand has also been selected to be stocked by major retailers, including London’s exclusive department store Harvey Nichols, and chosen to be part of Asda’s ‘Nurture’ programme.
“We do lots of work on social media and our Stonewall brands have been supported by various celebrities and media figures. We were contacted by store buyers and asked about the range; they bought in to the ethos and social cause brand and loved the samples we sent them.
“We were also delighted that Asda chose us as part of their Nurture programme, which is essentially for smaller suppliers that show potential, who with the supermarket’s help could grow into major brands. Looking back, the learning curve has been massive but it’s a truly amazing and fascinating industry, from the earliest alchemists or distillers to the crossover with the medical world and up to date, the growth in flavoured drinks and cocktails.
“A visit to the Skegness Distillery is fun, educational, and not to be missed – we look forward to welcoming you!”
For more information visit www.spiritofskegness.co.uk