Black Powder Gin - how a tee-total farmer started gin production in Lancashire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 December 2017
John Loftus used to be tee-total. Now the farmer is making top quality gin with his son in law from his historic farm in Weeton. And it has exploded onto the market. Emma Mayoh reports
To say the Black Powder Gin distillery is one of Lancashire’s best kept secrets is an understatement - literally. On the fifth attempt to find the track to Preese Hall Farm in Weeton, where farmer John Loftus and son-in-law Tony Dalnus make their gin, I accept defeat and call them to direct me in.
‘You can imagine the fun we have getting people here when we have our gin events,’ joked John, who has lived on his family’s historic farm all his life. ‘We are difficult to find, but hopefully we’re worth the trouble.
‘And people do love it when they get down here, it’s peaceful and they love seeing the distillery. I think we’re probably the smallest one producing the biggest range of gins.’
The 68-year-old is not wrong. This pretty estate, next door to Weeton Barracks and dating back to the Domesday Book, is a little haven tucked away from everything. For his working life John has been a leading cattle farmer breeding world class stock that has sold for thousands of pounds an animal. But he began to approach retirement and his son Andrew, founder of Harrogate’s renowned foodie store and butchers Weetons, chose another career path. He began to wind his full time farming career down, although he still keeps Aberdeen Angus stock.
Founding Black Powder Gin was turning a hobby into a business. He had tried sloe gin out on shoots, another of his pastimes. But he struggled to find a recipe he could reproduce himself. Ironically John also used to be teetotal.
‘I didn’t drink until I was 40,’ he said. ‘It was my doctor who suggested I start drinking red wine for the health benefits. I really like red wine and sloe gin was a similar taste for me. I really enjoyed it.
‘It was one of those things, though, like with great bakers who never want to give their full recipes away. I kept asking people for their recipes to make it but I never managed to reproduce it.
‘So I decided to do my own. That’s where it started. I made it for family and friends for Christmas presents. And then one year I made over 400 bottles for friends of family and friends. I thought I must be onto something.’
Fatigued with his career as a drama teacher, 42-year-old son-in-law Tony, who also lives on Preese Hall Farm, joined in. They named Black Powder Gin after the origins of proof testing – in the Royal Navy the strength of the gin was tested by mixing it with gunpowder. If the powder smoked or failed to light it meant it had been watered down.
And just like the gunpowder story it is named after, the Preese Hall Farm estate gin has exploded onto the drinks market in a way John and Tony never expected.
‘It’s just gone really busy really quickly,’ said Tony. ‘People love the gin which is a really great feeling. We’ve worked really hard getting our botanicals and our blend just right.
‘We had some really awful ones coming out of the still at first – John told me one smelled a lot like cat wee. He was right, it did. But we’ve got there now and made something we’re really happy with.’
Now John dedicates his time to making fruit gins and the pure, clear gins are Tony’s baby. Fruits grown on the farm are used in the gins before being distilled in their own copper still – named Horatio. They are then also bottled on site. They have come up with a large line of different flavours from dark plum and blackcurrant to pink elderflower, salted caramel and quince as well as seasonal tipples, a special reserve fortified wine and a heather whisky. They do a navy strength and a London dry gin and Tony is also developing a new range of tea-infused gins which raises an eyebrow with John.
‘He thinks I’m a bit mad really because we already produce a lot. But look how many he has done compared to me,’ joked Tony, pointing at the shelf groaning with fruit gins.
‘He’s only joking with me really. I’m lucky that working with my father-in-law, we actually really get on.’
Despite being a young company – they only officially founded it at the start of this year – they already have a great line-up of stockists including The Cartford Inn in Little Eccleston, Saswick House Farm Shop and Tea Rooms in Roseacre, Barrique wine bar in Lytham and The Bay Horse Inn in Ellel, near Lancaster. They also supply a specialist gin bar in Nottingham, Gincident. But despite demand John and Tony are determined to remain a small batch producer.
‘We are making in small batches and that’s just how we like it. This is a hobby for me after all, it’s Tony who has to do all of the work,’ joked John. ‘Some gin companies are producing in huge quantities but that’s just not us.
‘We would love to get to the point where we supply the best gin bar in every city but only if that means never compromising on quality. We’ve found something we can produce well; we don’t want to spoil that by doing bigger batches.’