Many people took up new hobbies during lockdown like cooking or jogging, but some brave individuals went a bit further and started distilling businesses while a global pandemic raged. Ian Buxton found out how the Covid spirit start-ups are getting on. 

It’s never easy starting a business. I know; I’ve started a few myself and understand the sleepless nights, the financial strain, the emotional rollercoaster….I could go on. But my entrepreneurial efforts were in relatively benign economic times, at least compared to the last twelve months. I can’t imagine starting a new venture during a pandemic. But these three pioneers have done it and I wanted to find out why.

Old Mother Hunt

Matt and Rebecca Hunt with their little still

Old Mother Hunt in Strathaven, near Glasgow

“I’m proud that we took a really dark moment in our lives and we’re trying to use that turmoil to funnel into creating a new life and career,” Rebecca Hunt of the Old Mother Hunt distillery told me. “It’s been tough and we definitely still have harder days than others, but it’s been a rewarding challenge and we’ve barely even scratched the surface yet.”

So why start at all, I asked. Essentially, because she and husband Matt had to. With her planned teaching career interrupted by the (happy) arrival of a family the Hunts relocated in early 2017 to Strathaven a small village just south of Glasgow. Matt was working a a pilot for FlyBe. Unfortunately, in 2020, FlyBe failed and he was made redundant.

As they very soon learnt employers were not crying out for part-trained teachers or airline pilots. So, as Rebecca says, “we had to create our own space in the world.” What that meant in practice was learning – very quickly – to distil, building their own Old Mother Hunt distillery and home-made still, getting licensed, building a website, brand and packaging, and going out where and when possible to sell their rum. Initially they were rectifying but now have a full distilling licence so as you read this will be producing from scratch.

Why rum? Their view is that the market for gin, the currently-fashionable spirit for start-ups, is now over-saturated and, like all trends, will wax and wane in popularity. Rum they see as offering a five to tenyear opportunity for growth. “The noise is building,” says Rebecca.

Lazydog distillery

The lazydogs

Lazydog in Coalville, Leics

Rum is also the route adopted by Matt and Lauren Thompson of the LazyDog distillery in Coalville. They were inspired by Caribbean distillery visits and a desire to create something “pared back and honest,” as Matt puts it. Once again, experience of furlough and the lockdown was the impetus – “if not now, when, we asked ourselves,” he explains. Though he modestly describes the distillery as a “side hustle” the couple are very fully committed. In addition to daytime careers in property, they work evenings to distil and bottle, and spend weekends manning a sales stall on local markets, where they are already meeting enthusiastic regular repeat customers.

That commitment is also clear in a personal investment of more than £75,000 on plant, equipment, bottles and so on. “I dread to think what it has cost,” admits Matt with a wry laugh. But long-term they aim to create permanent jobs in their own business, seeing rum as a globally popular spirit. The opportunity for a smaller producer comes, he believes, in “keeping our rum as stripped back as possible… it’s the most important thing”, adding “we only use fresh natural ingredients from start to finish (fresh orange peel in the spiced, freshly-picked local sloes in our Sloe Rum), never any artificial colours or flavourings.”

Much of the investment is due to LazyDog’s decision to buy a ready-to-go StillDragon still, rather than building their own, as Old Mother Hunt has done, reflected in their more modest start-up cost of less than £15,000. But then, as Rebecca explains “we’ve done everything ourselves; designed the logo, website and labels and built the still so we’ve kept costs to an absolute minimum.”

Green Room gin

Green Room gin

Green Room in Wandsworth, London

By contrast, Duncan McLean and business partner Seb Frost of London’s Green Room distillery have embraced white spirits, launching with a dry gin and vodka and then quickly adding sloe gin to the range. More ambitiously, single malt whisky is also in their plans.

Both have backgrounds in the technical side of theatre, hence Green Room. Impressively, by starting with a tiny second-hand still bought in France for £500, their start-up investment has been below £10,000 – though that includes a new 60 litre copper pot still from Iberian Coppers as they embark on the first stage of their expansion. The design studio in Duncan’s garden in Wandsworth has been converted to house the distillery.

Duncan handles the distilling, based he says on much trial and error though, as a malt whisky enthusiast, he admits to having taken the five day distilling course at Strathearn distillery and spent a few days shadowing workers at Bruichladdich. The project only started as a weekend hobby to get through lockdown but suddenly got serious when their gin picked up a Bronze award from the 2021 International Spirits Challenge.

The target is to reach 5,000 bottles in the first year. Local pubs, restaurants and off-licences are now stocking the brand; several theatres have promised to carry Green Room in their bars and there are plans for a supper club with wine consultancy Bacchus & Brodie.

A breath of fresh air

Compared to the sanitized, PR-curated corporate statements I encounter in my daily life, there’s a refreshing candour, an honesty, almost an innocence in talking to these neophyte distillers. But then they’ve found ardent spirits to provide a lifeline to better mental health or, like Green Room, supporting a charity, Backup, from their professional life. Turns out that for these new businesses distilling is more than a job, it’s their bright new future.