Red brick and blossoms against a brilliant blue sky – April is undeniably electrifying in Manchester city centre. And your Craft Gin Club exclusive Distiller’s Cut from award-winning Manchester Gin, with flavours of elderberries, vanilla, dandelion and burdock, is the taste of spring in the city.
It was a dark and stormy night – not a wholly unusual occurrence in Manchester, the UK’s rainiest city – when Jen Wiggins and Seb Heeley first crossed paths.
“I was the nearest unattended girl,” laughs Jen, recalling that fateful evening at a rum bar in the Spinningfields district. Her friend had absconded to the dancefloor, leaving Jen in charge of the coats; Seb’s mates had drifted into other conversations. Both alone in a crowd, their eyes met across the room.
“He swooped in and asked what I was drinking,” Jen continues. “The first thing I ever said to him was, ‘Gin and tonic.’”
They couldn’t have known it then, but those words were the start of something spectacular: the partnership that would lead to the two wonderful gins in your April Gin of the Month box.
Neither Jen nor Seb were born in Manchester. She grew up in Warrington, while he moved to the city from Blackpool. But both have grown to love their adopted home with the pride of a native. And, after years of living and working alongside the city’s canals and mills, both consider themselves honorary Mancunians.
“We’ve got a really diverse city,” Seb says of why his love of Manchester has only grown since he first set foot in the city centre. “Since I’ve been here there are more and more restaurants, more and more bars. If it weren’t for the rain, it could be the best city in the world!”
“There’s a saying in Manchester: ‘We do things differently here’. You get a sense of that,” Jen adds. “A lot of chains that do well elsewhere struggle in the city. We just seem to have this appetite to do things differently. There’s a pride in Manchester unlike anywhere else.”
As two gin lovers whose first encounter was in a rum bar, Jen and Seb already knew a thing or two about doing things differently. That extended to the first months of their courtship, too – because, as they got to know one another, they were also on a quest to find the perfect gin.
After a whirlwind tour of Manchester’s many amazing bars, the new couple also found one called Atlas, where the long gin list was like a guide to up-and-coming craft distilleries. Seb and Jen pinched a copy of the list and tried each and every spirit on it. “We even went so far as to score them all out of ten,” laughs Jen.
On their gin-soaked trip down the Atlas list, it became clear that Seb and Jen both had great palates for tasting gin, and they liked many of the same styles and flavours. But beyond getting along as a couple, they started to have the sense that their personalities could work together in the public, as well as the private, sphere.
Jen explains: “I always say that my weaknesses are Seb’s strengths, and it’s the same the other way around. Seb is super laid back and he’s a good problem solver, whereas I’m organised and more particular. We bounce off of each other well.”
Seb and Jen had planned to open a bar of their own. But a chance encounter changed their trajectory.
While they were researching how to open their bar, they sought advice from industry experts. One of them, a legendary Sheffield publican, showed them a little secret: a miniature still in the back of one of his bars, where he was distilling small batch gin.
It was a lightbulb moment, Seb says. “Before that, we were of the belief that in order to make gin, it had to be in a warehouse with a huge still,” he explains. “But as soon as we saw that little still, we thought: we’re not doing anything this summer, so we can do this!”
It made perfect sense. Still and recipe aside, Jen and Seb already had everything that they needed to make a cracking craft gin: refined palates, a passion for gin, a new house with a disused dining room and, of course, each other.
The next time you find yourself walking through the lively Manchester streets, keep your eyes peeled for bumblebees. You’ll spot them on the road signs, on the bins, on the side of buildings and even in pubs, bars and restaurants.
These important insects are the symbol of Manchester, where local men and women served as the worker bees of the industrial revolution. Fortunes were made in the cotton mills that line Manchester’s canals, and the Mancunian work ethic has been a point of pride ever since.
It was this pride, so fundamental to the DNA of Manchester, which inspired Seb and Jen as they were building their first gin brand.
“We always knew that we wanted the bee on our gin bottle, so our logo is a modern representation of it.” Jen says. With the name of Manchester Gin settled on and the bee central to the brand, it was down to Seb and Jen to develop a recipe worthy of their city. They were more than up for the challenge – but their workspace was a little bit unconventional.
When Manchester Gin was born, it was in the dining room of a house that Jen and Seb had just bought. They were still working full time when their 60-litre still – named Wendy after Jen’s beloved mum – moved into the dining room.
Moving a still into the house with an eye to becoming master distillers is a big step, especially with little to no experience of making spirits. But Seb and Jen weren’t daunted. She says, “It felt normal. Because we were employed it didn’t feel scary, and because we were together it didn’t feel like work. But it was – it was hard work.”
Seb continues, “Our motto is ‘sod it’. We always said at worst, if we failed, we’d have 100 bottles of gin that we wanted to drink and a really expensive ornament in the shape of a copper still. We didn’t plot out a huge business plan for a six-figure cheque – we went into it as something fun to do together.”
And together is how they approached the development of their signature Manchester Gin recipe, relying on another of their shared interests to help them along.
“We both love cooking,” Seb says. “It’s about balance, it’s about the flavours. When you make gin, you’re essentially making a stew.”
Fortunately, Seb and Jen had the same taste in gin. And, with their passion for the north of England, they already had their key botanicals in mind.
Jen says, “When I was growing up, Friday night was fish and chips with dandelion and burdock. We use the roots, which are hand-foraged locally, chopped up and dehydrated. They go into all of our gins. They’re our signature botanicals – it was always something we knew that we were going to have.”
Manchester Gin’s signature recipe, emblazoned proudly with the Manchester bee, has very quickly amassed a loyal following of gin fans. Demand has been so overwhelming, Jen and Seb say, that their dreams of a leisurely dining room distillery have failed to materialise.
“When we set out,” Jen says, “we thought that the 60-litre still would be perfect because we could put it on while we read the papers on a Sunday afternoon. That never happened.”
Rather, in the run-up to their first Christmas trading, Seb and Jen were running the still every single night, cleaning it at two and three in the morning, and making deliveries during the day. They had to leave their jobs to keep up with the sheer volume of demand. And after 14 months, it became clear that they needed to upscale in a serious way.
In the middle of 2017 they opened their own distillery premises, complete with two new stills: Emmeline, named after the famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and Victoria, after comedian Victoria Wood.
“We always wanted to name them after feisty, strong, Mancunian women,” smiles Jen, who made sure that the still named after her mum made the move from the dining room to the distillery.
But, while they’re proud as punch to be in a bigger space with three members of staff and more stills than ever before, Seb and Jen will always be proud of what they achieved in their dining room distillery.
Seb says, “What I love about the craft nature of gin is that, in the 14 months we distilled at home, we’ve won a Great Taste award, gold at The Gin Masters and gold at the International Wine and Spirits Competition. It’s a bizarre achievement.”
But they weren’t ready to rest on the laurels of their signature recipe, and the exclusive Distiller’s Cut in your Gin of the Month box was born.
Manchester Gin Distiller’s Cut is a revision of Jen and Seb’s award-winning signature recipe, a beautifully bottled spirit that encompasses the last two years of their journey: all of the new gins they’ve tried, techniques they’ve mastered and flavours they’ve fallen in love with.
“I’m adamant that we’re still learning every single day,” says Seb. “We’ll never change our signature recipe, but we do editions like our Distiller’s Cut – a culmination of everything we’ve learned over the last 18 months.”
This spirit has a slightly sweeter profile than the signature recipe. Manchester Gin’s classic dandelion and burdock are, of course, present; but they’re joined by vanilla and elderberries as a nod to spring.
Jen says, “Knowing the wonderful time of the year that April is, when everything is coming into bloom, we looked to develop a slightly lighter style. It lends itself to the season.”
As does the beautiful cut-glass bottle, designed to conjure up images of a beehive in the most elegant way. “We’ve been waiting for this cut-glass bottle to come out for 11 months,” Seb adds. “With being so close to its development in recent months, we’re really excited, but also a little nervous, to see how it’s received.”
Your Manchester Gin Distiller’s Cut is joined in the box by Jen and Seb’s Raspberry Infused Gin, another boozy nod to the brilliance of spring and summer. And, at 40%, this pink spirit is decidedly not a gin liqueur.
“Seb loves booze,” laughs Jen. “So, when we started thinking about doing a flavoured gin, it was important to retain it at a higher ABV. It’s not a liqueur – it’s a delicately flavoured gin.”
That this gin should take its colour and flavour from raspberries was a no-brainer when Jen and Seb were considering how and whether to branch out into a flavoured gin.
Jen continues, “We were thinking about what we could produce, but ultimately where we got to was: when we were stood in a yogurt aisle, the one we’d always fight over was raspberry. It felt like the perfect option for us.”
“Because it’s distilled with macerated raspberries, you really get the tang,” Seb adds.
Like all of Manchester Gin’s new and unusual recipes, both the Distiller’s Cut and the Raspberry Infused Gin were developed by Jen and Seb on Florence, their development still, under the watchful gaze of DeeDee, the distillery dog. Formerly a city centre stray, she’s now part of the growing Manchester Gin family.
“She comes to the distillery with us every day,” Seb smiles. “She’s the guard dog and head of morale. She was also our inspiration for our Wild Spirit Gin, another recent release of ours.”
While they may have moved out of the dining room, Seb and Jen still think of Manchester Gin as their family business – and everyone who works with them, human and animal alike, as part of that family. And, with a full roster of beautiful gins and a bright future ahead of them, their distillery is a very happy home in the heart of the city.