24 January 2020 at Chapel en le frith Golf Club.
Forest Distillery Ltd has been all over our local papers. Last autumn they announced that they’d signed a ten year lease with Robinson’s to take over the old Cat & Fiddle Inn, up on the moor on the Macclesfield-Buxton road at the very edge of Cheshire East (it’s not in Derbyshire), with the intention of developing a whisky distillery. The extensive old cellars would be ideal, they reckoned. We all cheered: an iconic old pub to reopen, with the prospect of lots of new visitors to taste and buy a locally made craft product.
Richard Banyard, ECJ, Karl Bond (Forest Distillery), Jaime llull, Robert Largan MP
“I’m a great believer is saying yes, and then figuring out how to do it,” confessed Karl Bond, the new licensee, our Business Club speaker on January 24th. Not quite what the business gurus advise. And our new MP Robert Largan was present, listening in. But this company has confounded expectations since it got going, as Forest Gin, back in 2014.
Karl was selling IT products and getting home very late to his wife Lindsay and little girl. They lived in the Macclesfield Forest and enjoyed collecting the berries, mosses and ferns from their walks, and using them to make jams and home concoctions.. so why not try making gin? It couldn’t be that hard.
They got a licence, bought a still from ebay, some cheap vodka, and flavours from a health food shop. “And the result was disgusting!” Karl grimaced. So gradually they evolved, tasting and trying, realising that they needed to take this seriously: “We read everything,” and acquired a high quality still with copper piping, used organic grain spirit and the freshest produce from their walks. And spring water, not piped water. After much trial and error, even while Karl clung on to the day job, they were satisfied. And pondering how to turn a pastime into a business.
For Christmas 2014 they ordered their distinctive ceramic bottle from Wade, down the road in Stoke on Trent. When the first delivery of 1,200 arrived there was nowhere to put them: “There were bottles everywhere – in the bedrooms, on the stairs…” When the still was running, there wasn’t enough power to run a computer. That’s some learning curve.
Then the batch of 72 bottles was ready. The original idea of selling it at craft fairs had turned out disappointing, though Karl managed to give some away to chefs and other key figures in restaurants. The breakthrough came when he was contacted on Twitter by a fan… who just happened to be the buyer for Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge.
Soon Heston Blumenthal was serving it, theirs was the only gin in the First Class lounge at Euston station, and rave reviews were coming in. “We had to learn fast how to invoice,” Karl said. Honestly. BBC TV’s Countryfile filmed the family foraging, the only marketing video they were able to show inquirers. The next year, several bottles were entered into the “Oscars”, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and won an unprecedented two double-gold medals. Orders came in from Japan. A hobby had turned into a global success.
The gin is still made in small batches, by two people every day. Consistency is maintained by collecting as much as possible from the land and freezing any surplus; organic vanilla, juniper and other ingredients come from similar enthusiasts worldwide who like them will not compromise on quality (we heard a similar story from Bradbury’s Cheese).
Undaunted, they decided to try their hand at whisky distilling. It couldn’t be that difficult, surely? “Wrong,” Karl said ruefully. “Unlike gin, whisky is a horribly smelly and messy business. For example, there’s a reason copper is used: it removes impurities, particularly sulphur. We tried it in a stainless steel still, and had the smell of rotten eggs for weeks.” A much more expensive copper still was needed. For the time being their branded Forest Whisky (voted the Best World Whisky by the Independent Indy100) is created from other whiskies, but the future plan is to distil their own.
Looking ahead, the firm is now Forest Hospitality Ltd. Much of the income to be generated at the Cat & Fiddle will be not so much from sales of whisky (and they still have to sell Robinson’s ales) but as a classy visitor destination. The Peak District is the most visited national park but people don’t spend much; that could change. When Karl asked what we business club members thought he should provide at this windswept iconic site, I answered, “Coach parking.” The St George’s Distillery in Norfolk has them flocking in for weekends away and day trips; an expected 15,000 visitors a year in 2007 has turned into 85,000. It could happen here too.
And they’ll need that income stream. Good whisky needs storing in cask for ten years or more. It’s a fiendish demand for capital. “We have never had to borrow money,” Karl said and is obviously reluctant to do so now. “Everything is ploughed back into the business.” Robinsons have been very helpful and are a customer. The first mundane task, however, is to get the pub up and running, with basics like the electricity supply, access, waste disposal – it only has a septic tank at present. Karl hit on crowdfunding, with the reward of visits to see progress; £54,000 was raised in just 42 days The future is exciting, and could be lucrative.
All sorts of ideas were floated by our members. I’d like to see them selling shares in that whisky, as American craft distilleries do. The inn has rooms, but no money to do them up just yet. Stargazer pods were one suggestion: in your pod with friends or family, wrapped up warm and sipping whisky, you’ll gaze at the stars .. that’ll bring in the photographers, the honeymooners, the silver pound … My view? Watch this space. It could be quite a trip. Chin chin!
Karl wrote to us afterwards: “Please also pass on my thanks to the group. Everyone was extremely friendly, knowledgeable and I definitely picked up some useful contacts and advice.”
The bottle of Forest Gin was raffled, brought in £95 for Blythe House Hospice, and was won by a delighted Jaime Llull of Primera Travel.