Kathy Caton swapped the radio mic for the lab coat when she founded Brighton Gin with some local friends back in 2012. Since then the brand has gone from strength to strength despite some early setbacks like exploding stills and botanicals disasters.
Many of us have ideas after some drinks but few of us manage to turn them into a business. The Brighton Gin story began when Kathy Caton was having a few gin-based cocktails with a friend one night. The following day, feeling surprisingly chipper while running around her home town of Brighton, she had the revelation to create her own brand of gin. She explained: “Gin is the one thing that lets me get away with it. Brighton is a place that needs to get away with it on a frequent basis. Boom! That’s it, I was going to make Brighton gin. It was just one of those proper lightbulb moments.”
This was in 2010 just before the gin boom. “Gin has always been my drink,” she said, “it’s hard to imagine how wildly unfashionable it used to be when I was at university.” But gin’s image was changing rapidly and it was now much easier for new distilleries thanks to Sipsmith and Sacred laying the groundwork with HMRC. “I thought there was going to be a moment. But I absolutely had no idea that that moment would be what gin is now. People with gin bars at home. Gin festivals. Gin tattoos!” she said.
Easy does it
Caton had a strong vision for Brighton gin: “I wanted to make something that is of the best quality, that’s built on ethical and sustainable practices, made by a really diverse team,” she said. But her background in radio, with stints at BBC World Service, Radio 4 and Reverb Radio in Brighton, weren’t a lot of help for making gin. “I had very clear thoughts about how I wanted it to taste and the experience of it, but really bugger-all clue about how to do it,” she said. She realised that she would need the help of a scientist. The only one she knew was Dr Easy aka Ian Barry who is a physicist when she really needed a chemist, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Their first still was a little unusual. It was a glass apparatus which was used in the not hugely successful Samuel L. Jackson film, The 51st State, and Caton picked it up for £100 on Ebay. “We set it up in Easy’s kitchen. Looking back now we were just really dangerous and clueless. But each time you make a mistake you’re like ‘well we won’t do that again!’ and you learn more and more from it,” she explained.
Then she had a lot of fun experimenting. She described the process as like Road Dahl’s book George’s Marvelous Medicine, “everything would go in.” Initial batches were not promising: “They were so overloaded with stuff, they tasted like Domestos. I’m still using that for cleaning around my flat!”
But gradually, through trial and error, she narrowed it down to what she wanted. “Licorice was one of the things that was very early on the list to be booted out, “ she said. She was looking for a classic profile, a gin that tasted like juniper and citrus. Along with Dr Easy, she also called on the palate of top wine writer Johnny Ray who became an investor in the business.
The gin boom!
Horrible early batches weren’t the only problems they encountered. “I popped out for a bag of crisps, which again, I would now never do. I would never leave anything running and just pop out to the corner shop,” she said. “When I came back I discovered what happens when you have windows open, glass and mirrors and quite strong sunlight bouncing around. There was a lot of clearing up to do.” The Samuel L. Jackson still had exploded! Fortunately nobody was hurt.
“I then went down what I now realise is the more sensible route of getting a small copper alembic and really just learning the process of distillation,” Caton said. She found that running the stills slowly got the best results though achieving consistency in the early days was not easy.
The final recipe uses a “super-smooth organic wheat spirit as the base,” she said, with juniper from Macedonia and coriander seed “from Ringmer just eight or nine miles from where I am at the moment and that’s got quite a lemony spice to it.” They use fresh lime and orange peels, meaning lots of hard peeling work, “but those fresh peels definitely bring a different spectrum of flavour to it really,” she said. They do a cold maceration and then a warm one before distillation with everything in together. Now, though, she has now handed over distilling duties to Paul Revell, “ a former riot copper and also a former prima ballerina.” So Brighton!
Brighton gin hit the shelves in 2013 and had an immediate impact. A delicious product helps as well as a strong brand trading on the town’s image.There can be few more apt places to make gin than Brighton, sharing as they do a seedy sort of glamour. This dates back to when the town was a favourite haunt of the Prince Regent in the late 18th and early 19th century: “the Prince Regent’s favourite breakfast drink, which he called ‘cherry cordial’ was basically a pint of cherry gin. So maraschino liqueur and gin, by the pint.” Caton said.
From the early days, it developed a strong local following and from there it developed into a national brand. It helped having a journalist on board in the form of Johnny Ray who made sure Brighton Gin was served at the Spectator magazine’s famous parties.
Since those heady early days, the gin market has been transformed. Caton said: “There’s been a huge explosion in flavoured and sweetened gins,” which she hopes will get new drinkers into the market. Brighton gin, however, has just stuck to its classic expression with a Seaside Strength version at Navy ABV appearing a couple of years ago. She doesn’t want to release anything unless it is perfect and consistent nor go down the limited edition route. But she hinted that the team is working on a new product, “they’re not ready to shout about it yet but nearly.”
The standard bottling is a wonderful product that manages to be absolutely classic but highly distinctive with its strong orange note. It really is smooth enough to drink neat and so naturally it’s superb in a Dry Martini. Caton said: “Cocktail-wise, I absolutely love and have never really grown out of a Negroni”. It’s a great all round gin making a lovely G&T with a slice of orange to bring out the orange in the botanical mix
Then comes the lockdown
Their business has changed a lot since the pandemic with the shuttering of the on-trade and not having festivals to go to. She explained: “Our business has been able to change virtually overnight to focus on selling direct to consumers through our website and supporting the off-trade and various other online sellers”. They have been making hand sanitiser as well as making deliveries on their Brighton Gin bikes. “I did quite a lot of public crying delivering to people. I remember delivering to a lovely woman down in Hove who had ordered a couple of bottles and some hand sanitiser and her saying ‘actually I’ve already got five bottles of your gin in my cupboard but I really want to see you all survive and I love what you’re doing with the hand sanitiser’.”
But with things opening up from the 8 March, it looks like the worst will soon be over. “I know that summer is coming again, we will be on the beach again some time!’” Caton said. Amen to that.
Brighton Gin is available from Master of Malt.