Although now as familiar to the city’s residents as a stick of Brighton rock, it’s hard to believe that Brighton Gin is merely nine years old. BITE Sussex's Nick Mosley talks to founder and managing director Kathy Caton about her weird and wonderful winding road to becoming the city’s Queen of Gin.
Despite being reappropriated from Dutch jenever in the 18th century, gin has long been an iconic English drink, although its image was a little dated at the turn of this century and it definitely played second fiddle to vodka in pubs and clubs across the UK. Around 15 years ago, that began to change as a handful of small batch distillers began to pop up – including in Sussex – accompanied by a demand from consumers for more flavoursome food and drink products that fed their thirst for uniqueness, local provenance and, above all, quality. The UK gin market was worth an astonishing £2.3 billion in 2019.
Kathy Caton founded Brighton Gin in 2014, and her lightbulb moment came to her somewhat unexpectedly whilst taking a Sunday morning run on Hove seafront.
“It was the morning after a pretty hefty and gin-lashed night before”, said Kathy. “It occurred to me that if I’d been drinking anything other than gin, I wouldn’t have been off my sofa, let alone going for a run. I thought ‘gin is the one thing that lets you get away with it. Brighton is a place that needs to get away with it on a regular basis - that’s it! Brighton needs its own gin, and I want to make it’”.
Gin is typically produced from a neutral grain spirit, although it can be made from other spirits of plant origin including potatoes and grapes. What differentiates it from flavoured vodka is that the ingredients – or botanicals as they are termed – all need to be natural with the predominant flavour coming from juniper berries that give gin its quintessential ‘ginny’ flavour. Further botanicals such as herbs, fruits and spices are then compounded into the spirit to create a unique flavour profile.
Making a quality gin takes a good palate, a healthy dollop of patience and an awful lot of experimentation, says Kathy: “It was a journey of many, many mistakes - but they’re mistakes that I don't regret, as that’s how and when you learn the most”.
“Gin has always been my drink of choice, even in the bad old days when it was desperately uncool and people would actively laugh in my face for ordering it in the pub”.
“I love juniper-led gins and those with lovely citrus too, and that’s the flavour profile I was striving for with Brighton Gin. I read a lot of books, made some toe-curling mistakes, nearly started a fire in my flat – which would have taken the Lion & Lobster with it – and kept going, changing only one variable each time”.
Whilst Kathy knew that she wanted her gin to be led with a strong profile of juniper and citrus, it was a long road to making a unique product that would stand up in the market place and meet her exacting standards.
“Looking back at it now, the process was somewhat Heath Robinson”, said Kathy. “Originally there was a foot-long list of the botanicals I wanted to have in Brighton Gin and although the experimental distillations started tasting like gin, they didn’t taste like the gin I wanted to make”.
“I ended up distilling each botanical separately and using the tastes of those to decide what to leave out. The recipe for our Pavilion Strength Brighton Gin turned out to be simple in terms of number of botanicals, but every ingredient brings something to the party. There’s nothing in there ‘just because’”.
Today, Brighton Gin is ubiquitous in bars and restaurants across the city and surrounding county, including in Marks & Spencer and Waitrose. It’s a mark of not only the popularity of the product with drinkers but also the pride that Brightonian’s have in the independent spirit of the city.
“I am an absolute Brighton obsessive, although like many here I’m not Brighton born-and-bred at all”, said Kathy. “I moved here in 2000 and couldn’t believe I’d wasted my time trying to live anywhere else in the UK”.
“With our gin, we’ve tried in every way to be and to embody the spirit of Brighton; accessible, fun-loving and independent whilst also being committed to and firmly involved in our community. We’re Brighton through-and-through right down to the ‘Brighton Seafront Blue’ of our labels – that’s the official designation of the colour of the city’s seafront railings”.
For many years, the residents and businesses who call Brighton home have been passionate about sustainability and supporting the small local food and drink producers who genuinely care about the environment and lowering food miles.
“From day one, ethical and sustainable production has been one of our core goals”, said Kathy. “We think if there’s one way to do things or a better way, we should always take the better way, even if it’s not easier or cheaper – which it generally isn’t”.
“Whether it’s our locally-grown coriander seed from Ringmer, our bottle which is made from 85% recycled glass sourced from around Brighton, doing as many deliveries as possible from our reconditioned ex-Post Office bikes through to valuing and celebrating diversity in our workforce, we’re doing everything we can to make sure that people can enjoy Brighton Gin knowing that its production treads as lightly as we can”.
“Although we do occasionally wish our bikes had more than three gears – some of those hills are killers, particularly when clonking bottles of gin about”.
Like many businesses over the past year, the Covid-19 lockdown caused great financial stress to this growing enterprise. Yet despite the economic downturn, Kathy and the team seized upon opportunities to ensure that the business could continue trading creatively and productively in turbulent times.
“Like for every other small independent business, lockdown has been an absolute shock to the system”, said Kathy. “We reckon 85-90% of our business stopped overnight as hospitality businesses closed”.
“I am so, so grateful that we not only have a business where we were still able to supply people with gin via our website, but also that we were able to very quickly become part of the effort to help by moving very swiftly to making hand sanitisers. These have been not-for-profit and every one sold through the website means that two have been donated to front line workers – everything from the NHS, care homes, food banks, mental health workers and delivery drivers".
Visit Brighton Gin's website to order their gin and other goodies online.