Romantic about gin, their city, and each other, Jen Wiggins and Seb Heeley have created one of the country’s most popular brands. Here’s how they went from dining room distillation to capturing the spirit of Manchester.
The first words Jen Wiggins said to Seb Heeley was “gin and tonic”. It was back in 2013 and, after a horrible stand-up gig, Heeley was drowning his sorrows when Wiggins caught his eye. He asked her what she was drinking and she responded with an answer that “would have been ok, but we were in a rum tiki bar,” Heeley jokes. “That genuinely started us off on a wanky half-hour conversation about who knew more about gin, getting into details about botanicals. Whoever walked past us would have thought ‘dicks’. But after that, we fell in love.” They still have the same stolen menu from Atlas Bar from their first date in which they made notes on each gin they tried.
For the love of gin
It’s the kind of love story we can’t get enough of here at MoM Towers (we’re romantics at heart). But Heeley and Wiggins didn’t simply meet and start loading botanicals into a still. Inspiration struck when Heeley, researching the possibility of opening a bar, stumbled upon a small still used for gin at an establishment in Sheffield. “It was a lightbulb moment,” he says. “We didn’t know you could do something small scale without major investment. We registered domain names, applied for licenses, and bought Wendy, a 60-litre copper column still named after Jen’s mum. She passed away before we made gin, but she was a fiery redhead who loved the stuff so it seemed appropriate”.
From there the love affair accelerated. The duo’s schedule meant coming from home full-time work, then cleaning and loading the still in the dining room. It was turned on at 7 pm, then at 2 am, 4 am, and 6 am they would wake for alternating shifts to make sure nothing was flooding/exploding. At 7 am it was turned off. That cycle went on for about 18 months. A hosepipe that went through the kitchen cat flap handled drainage for the first 9 months before Wiggins’ uncle (a plumber) installed a proper system. One hot summer they couldn’t close the door so fierce heat pumped through the house. Heeley’s solution was to saw the corner of the door off. Wiggins was less than impressed, but that door (with a missing piece) is in the gin school in the distillery now.
Gin became their life. The couple only had two weekends off in two years. By 2016 they had perfected the recipe and, by the time they moved their operation out of the dining room, they had distilled, bottled, and labeled 25,000 gins there. The effort paid off. Manchester Gin won a Gold at the Spirit Masters, Gold at the IWSC, and Double Gold at San Francisco, all from dining room distillation.
From passion project to the real deal
Both eventually quit their jobs to focus on the venture full time, getting a second still in 2017 named Victoria (after Victoria Wood, the funniest Mancunian they could think of), which was eventually joined by Emmeline (after Pankhurst, another local hero). Success kept coming and that meant a new site was required. In September 2019, Wiggins and Heeley opened the distillery, bar, and restaurant they work from now, in six railway arches in a 250-year-old building under the historic centre of the city. It’s capable of producing a million bottles a year.
Here distillation happens on Wonder Wend (the original’s big sister), a 1000-litre still, fed with green energy and complete with a high-tech, automated system with an in-built algorithm that ensures a constant temperature and offers easy selection of the multiple recipes the brand has. Heeley can even turn it on with his phone. It’s a long way from the dining room DIY. The Spirit of Manchester Distillery is impressive in that it’s one the few gin producers to make its own neutral grain spirit (NGS), as most buy-in. This gives the couple greater flexibility and control, and the lessons they learned along the way made them consummate distillers.
The duo use their own water supply and insist on diluting over three days, which Heeley says creates a cleaner, smoother, less spicy spirit, likening the process to making a stew, as it needs time to settle to let the different components marry. Heeley is able to demonstrate how their precise cuts in the heads (the first part of the collected alcohol) preserve ample citrus flavours and how to get a measured amount of the breadiness found in the tails (the last portion of alcohol) which adds depth and body, a small, but crucial addition he compares to using Worcestershire sauce in a stew. The man loves his stew.
The Spirit of Manchester Distillery range
The process has paid dividends, with its signature gin becoming one of the recognisable of the recent boom and the recipient of a glut of awards. It’s made with local dandelion and burdock root and ten other botanicals including orange, lemon, liquorice, and ground almond. The latter two give it a smooth, creamy palate. And since it was first made in their dining room, the founders have only changed one thing. “We swapped pepper for grains of paradise, from two grams to one gram,” Heeley reveals. That’s it.
They can’t agree on a perfect serve, however, and their distillery bar gives you the option of Seb’s Serve, made with light tonic and garnished with pink grapefruit, while Jen’s Serve is Mediterranean tonic with an orange peel and rosemary garnish. There’s a running tab on who’s winning and it’s clearly Jen’s from what the bartenders said (sorry, Seb).
A raft of other expressions followed, including the Raspberry Infused and the Blackberry Infused, packed with real fruit and possessing authentic flavour but still teaming strong gin character. There’s also the herbaceous, savoury Wild Spirit, the intriguing Mother of Pearl, distilled with discarded oyster shells from Manchester’s Michelin starred restaurant mana, and Overboard, a punchy Navy-strength gin with lots of citrus and juniper. None of the gins are bottled below 40% ABV (they could go as low as 37.5%) because these are true gin lovers who do everything for maximum flavour.
A Haçienda edition distilled with zesty lemon and lime peel, was also developed in partnership with Peter Hook, who contacted them wanting to keep the club’s legacy alive, eventually becoming close to Heeley and Wiggins. Which, as you can imagine, was quite something for the Manchester natives. It’s not just gin they make though, One-Eyed Rebel rum is the distillery’s first entry into the category, introduced in March, while there’s also a Grain Vodka as well as absinthe, aquavit, and in-house vermouth available at the distillery bar.
Embodying the spirit of Manchester
Thanks to having a bar and a gin school on-site, the duo have created a fully immersive on-site experience, where you can drink gin, make it, or see how it’s made. In the farthest room, rows of miniature copper stills are neatly lined up ready to welcome you to try your hand at distlling, with a wall of glass containers filled with the various botanicals hinting at possibilities. It was teaming with visitors when I went, which Heeley was very proud of. The sense of community is vital to Heeley and Wiggins, who are immensely passionate about the city they call home. “We grew up here. Studied here. Fell in love. The industrial heritage, the culture, the independence, it all means everything to us,” Heeley says. “The bee on our logo is a tribute to Manchester’s work ethic and inclusive, hive mentality”.
They even set a new Guinness World Record for the largest gin tasting across multiple venues, after 1,865 drinkers took part in a live-streamed event on Saturday 4 June 2020. Phillip Schofield tuned in and the distillery raised £2,778 for Big Change MCR. Heeley also tells a story about a rush to make hand sanitizer for Manchester’s Nightingale Hospital in 2020, which wouldn’t open if they didn’t deliver. With a ten-day deadline, Heeley and Wiggins sourced plastic bottles and pumps, made alcohol from molasses, and got it there 15 hours before it opened.
Heeley and Wiggins continue to distill, bottle, and label in-house, with only miniatures being outsourced. “You can’t call it Manchester Gin if you’re not doing it yourself,” Heeley says. There’s a sense of family and togetherness in the distillery, which was built with no inheritance, no external investment, just Wiggins and Heeley’s commitment to working full time and investing savings while building the brand. Everything here is rich in detail and a labour of love. The bar is called Three Little Words, and it’s up to you to decide what that refers to. ‘I love you?’ ‘Gin and Tonic?’ It all means the same thing here frankly. Wiggins’ dad Martin is a constant presence having bottled more Manchester Gin than anybody else (after offering his services just once) and also helps with labeling and deliveries.
Despite that tough year-and-a-half we’ve all had, which the spirits industry felt more than most, that hasn’t stopped the impressive growth of The Spirit of Manchester. A second 5,000-square-foot facility is on the way. Located just outside Manchester city centre, ‘The Vault’ will provide additional space for bottling, labeling, and shipping, as well as the chance to hire two new workers for its production and warehouse team, and the opportunity to reach that one million bottles per annum capacity.
Heeley and Wiggins were early in the gin boom and you can tell they’ve always been in this for the love of the game. What they’ve created is an engaging brand. Booze nerds will appreciate their attention to detail and distillation know-how. The average person on the street will be charmed by their story and Northern soul. And everyone in between will appreciate the booze. I certainly did. Every flavour tastes authentic, each gin variant still retains plenty of juniper character, and Jen’s Serve is bloody delicious. Sorry again, Seb.