Craig Allison and Rory Smith are co-founders of Gyre & Gimble, a bar and gin academy in Norwich. Although it’s been a tough year, having to close the bar for a second time, they’ve used this month to be as creative as they can
How were things going for you both at the start of 2020?
Craig: Having opened the bar and gin academy in July last year, we’d had a really successful six months and were excited to be developing both businesses while also working on plans for our own range of spirits. The gin academy set-up is like having our very own lab so whenever it wasn’t actually booked out for experiences, we’d be in there trying out new flavour combinations and creating bespoke spirits to serve up in the bar.
How was the whole lockdown experience for you both, on a personal and professional level? Did you learn anything about yourselves that you didn’t know before?
Craig: No two ways about it, it was tough. I suffered from cabin fever. There’s a huge social side to working in hospitality, and I really missed that. As a business owner, of course it was stressful – worrying not only about the professional and personal impact on me, but also the wider team. I discovered that spaniels and toddlers truly do have limitless energy – and I also know the walks around Whitlingham Lake like the back of my hand now!
Rory: I actually enjoyed spending more time at home – it was an unexpected bonus to have that time to spend with my new son (born in December 2019). And it was also good to have lots of time to play with different recipes without interruption. But, like Craig says, working in the bar and drinks industry is a social job so I did miss having willing customers to act as guinea pigs, and the framework of days in the distillery and evenings behind the bar.
What challenges have you had to overcome this year?
Rory: It’s certainly been a lesson in quick decision-making and adaptability! Keeping up with all the changes has been one of the biggest challenges – from working out how to pay our bills with no revenue coming in, to choosing suppliers without being able to meet face to face, to reopening the bar and gin academy in line with all of the new regulations…I’m sure all of those will be familiar to anyone running a hospitality business this year so we’re far from alone in that, and just thankful that our teams (at work and at home) have been so supportive.
Craig: Balancing the needs of everyone in the team has been a preoccupation for me – I’m very conscious that we have staff that rely on their job with us. I wanted to make absolutely sure that we were looking after them as best we could not least so that as soon as we were able to reopen, we could hit the ground running to make up for lost time. That approach has certainly paid off and has created a brilliantly tight-knit team in a way that I’m not sure would have happened otherwise.
Rory: Being forced to close the bar for a second time has been really tough – we just haven’t had enough time to recoup our losses from the initial lockdown, and reduced capacity while we were open obviously had an impact on takings. That said, our Wednesday nights ‘Drink Out to Help Out’ with £5 cocktails was a huge hit so we’re definitely planning to revive that. And in the meantime, we’re staying positive and taking the opportunity to continue developing new liquids and new cocktails as so that as soon as we can
Craig: Similarly, for the new products the timing’s not great as the closure of pubs and bars means fewer are looking to invest in new suppliers right now. But we’re using November to be as creative as we can with our marketing and forge some really good relationships among the industry so that as soon as things do pick up, we’re right there in pole position.
When did you decide to launch your own gin and what’s the thinking behind the names – Callooh Callay is a nice nod to Norfolk?
Craig: Launching our own product has been top of our list for a while, so lockdown gave us the perfect opportunity to devote our full attention to it. We’ve both got solid backgrounds in drinks development within smaller craft distilleries and breweries, so it was the logical next step. But this time, we’re working for ourselves so we can really let our creativity run both in the flavours and in the branding.
When we first started thinking about our brand essence, we both quickly locked onto the fact that we’re next to Strangers’ Hall and that this year has been strange in so many ways. That in turn led us to the strange world of Lewis Carroll, and once we started to delve a little deeper, there were so many connections that resonated with us, it all flowed from there.
That’s why all of our individual products have names and label illustrations that take inspiration from Carroll’s characters – from the twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee for Nohow, our London Dry with a double hit of juniper, to the Queen of Hearts for our cherry gin. Our Coastal gin is named Callooh Callay, from The Jabberwocky poem in Through the Looking Glass and features an illustration based on The Walrus and the Carpenter, from the same book.
Rory: We’re huge fans of the Norfolk coast on many levels – not least as a favourite spot for family days out and dog walks – so when it came to creating a gin from scratch, a coastal gin that was specifically from that coastline was top of our list. Key botanicals in Callooh Callay include lavender and samphire that we forage ourselves in North Norfolk. To make it truly coastal, we also add filtered seawater to the distillate before bottling. What that means is that Callooh Callay has a unique multi-layered saltiness – from the scent of sea air at the top of the glass to the salty undertones in the finish.
Taking it one step further, we saw an opportunity to give something back to that same coastline, albeit a little further round to the east, by donating 15 per cent of proceeds from Callooh Callay to the Friends of Horsey Seals. Along with the contribution from sales, we’ve also both signed up to be wardens for the coming season. Once we’ve undertaken the necessary training, we’ll be spending a day a month up there on the coast, directing the crowds as appropriate and this year ensuring that visitors abide by social distancing from each other as well as from the seals.
It’s such a good opportunity for us to support a local charity both with financial support and practical help. What also made it the perfect fit for us is that we’re doing our utmost to make all of our products as eco-friendly as possible. Our glass is made from 95 per cent recycled glass, the paper labelling doesn’t include any plastic, our corks come from sustainable sources and all of our packaging is fully recyclable. It completes the circle to also be able to work with a conservation charity and we can’t wait to put in our first shift on the coast.
Any future plans you can share?
Craig: All being well, we should be launching our first rum before Christmas, with a third spirit to follow in the spring and some exciting collaborations in the pipeline.
Rory: For the bar, as soon as we reopen following the current lockdown, we’ll be launching a new ‘Waste Not Want Not’ cocktail menu – including ingredients like pineapple tepache (made from fermented pineapple rinds). We’re also planning to extend current opening hours to include Sundays so that anyone heading into the city for Christmas shopping can come and enjoy a drink or two with us afterwards. We’re also going to be offering tasting sessions that will give an insight into the history of gin, and what makes a great one as well as the Gin Academy make-your-own experiences.
Craig: We’ve got a lot to look forward to over the coming months and while it doesn’t look like the world is going to be ‘normal’ for a while yet, as the Cheshire Cat says ‘We’re all mad here, you’ll fit right in’!
(Pictured in the featured image are Rory Smith, on the left, and Craig Allison, on the right)