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SPOTLIGHT ON: The Henley Distillery

Jacob Wilson sheds light on running an award-winning indie gin brand: from 7am tastings and creating new recipes, to hosting Gin Experiences at his Henley-based distillery.

Tell us a little about your work and your background.

I grew up in Henley, going to Trinity Primary School, The Oratory and Henley College. When I was 14 I was diagnosed with M.E (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) which left me bed-bound for nearly 3 years. I slowly recovered and got myself to University (with a massive amount of help from both my parents) to study Mechanical Engineering. Halfway through a 4-year course I decided to catch up on some life experience that I missed due to my illness, so took a gap year.

I started a pop-up cocktail bar that operated in Henley called Molotov Cocktails, serving cocktails for events. I realised that the perfect blend of my two passions (Engineering/Problem Solving and Flavours/Drinks Industry) met at distilling. I researched the industry and moved straight into working, not returning to University.

I started as an Assistant Distiller and within a year was the youngest Head Distiller in the country running a team of 12 and producing 3000+ bottles of craft gin per week. During that time (7 years ago) I sat down with my father Alan and we registered The Henley Distillery Limited and Henley Gin Limited as companies. I knew eventually I wanted to come back to Henley and start my own distillery here. From there I set about gaining as much experience as possible to achieve this goal.

I helped set up and run a tiny start-up distillery and had my own consultancy business helping distilleries and brands rands increase production, efficiency and launch new products. This was my ‘course’ to get myself ready to launch The Henley Distillery and ensure that we were producing top-quality, award-winning spirits from day one.

What made you decide to start your business?

Both my parents have run their own businesses all my life. From a very early age I knew that whatever I ended up wanting to do, I wanted to do it for myself. After six months of being an Assistant Distiller, I knew that I had found what I was truly passionate about, and I set about creating the plan to make The Henley Distillery a reality.

How do you find inspiration for new ideas for your products?

I try and experience as many new flavours as possible and am always on the look out. I find inspiration from a wide variety of food and drink, whether it is an individual flavour or a combination of flavours. I am a big believer in ‘A good idea is a good idea no matter who it comes from’ and so am always listening to friends, family and colleagues.

Describe your typical working day

Meetings, emails, meetings and more emails!

I don’t really have a typical day, which is partly what I love about running the Distillery! This is cheating but a typical week would include 12-hour distilling days (in at 5am and drinking 85% Gin by 7am), client meetings, creating new recipes, local networking, running our Gin Experiences, giving industry/university talks. All alongside the day-to-day basic needs of the business, from finance to business development and marketing strategy.

What has been the biggest highlight and biggest challenge to date?

The biggest highlight was winning England's Best London Dry Gin at the World Gin Awards after just 8 months. As well as being an amazing achievement, it felt like vindication for taking my time and gaining experience before setting up the distillery.

Biggest challenge has been rising costs. Ignoring taxes, the cost to produce a bottle of Henley Gin has risen by nearly 50% since we launched just over two years ago with glass, cardboard, gas and electric all going through the roof. This has been compounded by a recent 10.1% increase to alcohol duty which now sits at £9.30 per 70cl bottle of Henley Gin. We have fought incredibly hard to protect the consumer to maintain a £40 RRP but our margins have been squeezed almost to breaking point.

Best nugget of wisdom you can share with your fellow Creative Ducks?

In such uncertain times it is very easy to stop trying new things. Our success has been born out of constantly innovating and creating new products and revenue streams. We dip our toes in to test the market and then give a big push behind what has worked well.

Where can we find out more?

You can find out more on our website, but also coming along to our Tours & Tastings and Gin Experiences that we run on Saturdays!

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