Meet the new gin firm with a real taste for York’s heritage
The launch of a new gin company in York sparked an unexpected debate in academic circles. York Gin’s director Emma Godivala met Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright
All images courtesy and copyright: Yorkshire Post. Photographer: James Hardisty
Woe betide any Roman chariot driver who ventured out while under the influence.
Almost 2,000 years before breathalysers were invented, it appears charioteers who liked a drink lived in fear of being pulled over. Emma Godivala came across this insight into the distant past as she prepared to launch her company’s Roman Fruit gin. It seems some aspects of life under the Romans may be strangely familiar to modern Britons.
“We found a newspaper article that said it was an offence to be in charge of a Roman chariot while drunk,” says Ms Godivala, who is a director of the newly-launched York Gin company. “We thought we should fact-check our article by asking some of the world’s top classical scholars on Twitter, never for a minute thinking they would respond. But of course they did.
“Professor Mary Beard of Cambridge University wondered about the source for the drunken chariot riding claim and we spent 24 hours trying and failing to find one. We did read an interesting PhD on Roman drinking by Shaun Mudd of Exeter University during our quest for a source.”
But just when the story seemed about the disappear into the mists of mythology, Professor Catharine Edwards of London University told the York Gin team that their assertion sounded valid. Professor Edwards cited evidence from Cicero that castigated Mark Antony for his behaviour after a drunken bout.
It seems Roman magistrates wouldn’t have hesitated to throw the book - or papyrus - at anyone drink driving. At the very least, this unexpected exchange with the finest classical minds helped to inspire York Gin’s own Latin road safety motto, Non bibere eat agitere (Don’t drink and drive).
“It’s wonderful that these busy professors took time for us,” said Ms Godivala. “Although they look at the past for a living, they are completely engaged with the present and communicate so easily via social media. Obviously, I sent them some Roman Fruit as a thank you.”
York Gin Roman Fruit. Photograph Yorkshire Post. Photographer James Hardisty
The company was set up by a group of friends who couldn’t believe that a city with York’s rich heritage lacked its own gin company. The plan to create the business was, appropriately enough, hatched in a pub.
The landlord of The Swan, Paul Crossman, and Jon Farrow, his close friend and business partner, joined forces with Pete McNichol, the previous Swan landlord, and Harry Cooke to try to get the venture off the ground.
They discovered their neighbour, marketing professional and gin lover Emma Godivala was also keen to give the city its own spirit. All five got together and formed the York Gin Company, an entirely self-funded start-up.
“I have been a big gin fan for many years,” says Ms Godivala. “I and my fellow directors love York. We’ve all been here for decades.
“Establishing a gin company in York had been on my ‘dream list’ for several years. But when I found out about my fellow future directors - with all our different skills - wanting to set up a gin company, I thought, ‘Together, we can do this.’”
The project quickly gathered momentum, and was all set to launch in the summer of 2017. The company found premises for its distillery in Acaster Malbis and the first equipment was on order. And then tragedy struck. Mr Farrow died suddenly, just as his business dreams were about to the realised.
Ms Godivala recalled: “That really knocked us, but we regrouped and knew Jon would not want us to give up. His children are now an integral part of the company, helping with events and they will be busy bottling and labelling in the run-up to Christmas.
“Other challenges were trying to work out the regulatory system. The rules surrounding setting up a distillery can be slightly Kafkaesque. There were lots of late nights and scratching of heads.”
York Gin is back on track, and the distillery, which opened this year, is a hive of activity. It is home to a fully-equipped production line and shelves lined with thousands of bottles ready to receive their contents from the team’s 300-litre still, Ebor, the shortened form of Eboracum, the Roman name for York.
York Gin - hive of activity. Photograph Yorkshire Post. Photographer James Hardisty
Ms Godivala said: “We got our first bottle out on March 1. At that point, we did get some rumblings that this might be bigger than we thought. It was fantastic to watch the first bottles appear. It was right in the middle of the big snow. I had to distil gin wearing my snow boots, it was that cold. Our client base grew really quickly. Initially, it was very much within the city of York. But even though it was a local project we did have our eye on the world.”
The company is using York’s heritage to its commercial advantage. It has joined forces with the Jorvik Viking Centre to launch a Viking-inspired gift gin set. The business now offers three gins - classic dry York Gin, York Gin Cocoa and York Gin Roman Fruit - which are all hand-made in the firm’s distillery.
Ms Godivala said York Gin is “putting out feelers” to assess global interest and may hire more staff as the orders keep rolling in.
She said: “We’re keeping it manageable but we’re also keeping our eyes open for opportunities.”
Ms Godivala believes entrepreneurs must learn to give themselves time away from the business to re-charge their batteries.
She said; “You can spend literally every waking second working. And that can only mean exhaustion. That said, you have to be prepared to work harder than you have probably ever worked before. You must accept kindness from friends. And don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know the answer to something and seek help.
“We have some great unique selling points. York was recently named Britain’s favourite city.
“We have around eight million visitors a year. And the products we make really are top notch. Added to this, the top end of the gin market is still expanding quickly. We also cater for the gift market, including bespoke bottles and gift products which are really popular.”
There are no plans to place York Gin on the nation’s supermarket shelves.
“We don’t see ourselves as a mass producer,” she said.
“We are planning a lot of reinvestment in the business - just to keep pace with demand. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re turning over well in excess of 5 to 10 million pounds by 2024,” she said.
“But I’d like to make sure we’re still having fun.”
York Gin Directors Pete McNichol and Emma Godivala. Photograph Yorkshire Post. Photographer James Hardisty
Director, York Gin
Last book read: Mary Beard - Women and Power: A manifesto
Favourite holiday destination: Well, got to love Spain - largest gin market in the world.
Favourite film: Some Like It Hot!
First job: At school - behind the deli counter at Waitrose. More fun than you’d think.
What is the thing you are most proud of? Personally, obviously my children. Both now teens - they’ll be useful soon! But professionally, I think setting up York Gin is up there. Creating a product, a brand and a new business from scratch has been exhilarating, and York has embraced it, and I’m very proud of that.