Meet the women leading the Lancashire rum revolution
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 July 2020
Gin has had things its own way for too long, but two Lancashire women are raising the bar for another spirit.
There’s something decidedly rum about Michelle Partington and Cleo Farman. Although they’ve never met, they are both on a mission to transform our drinking habits, using peanut butter and online tasting sessions.
‘At one stage my kitchen looked like a Willie Wonka set,’ says Michelle, the 46-year-old founder and director of Salford-based Shellys Drinks which can now be found in 28 Booths stores.
Michelle, who is an honorary teaching fellow at Lancaster University’s Business School, was born at Longton near Preston but moved with her parents to the shores of Coniston when she was four.
A former pupil of the John Ruskin School and art college in Carlisle, she studied furniture design in Bournemouth then worked in Wakefield in furniture manufacturing before completing an MA in Leeds. She taught interior design and worked in further education on art and design courses as well as doing some freelance furniture work.
‘I never imagined alcohol, peanut butter and rhubarb would take over my life,’ she says. ‘I’d never planned on owning my own business, I just fell into it. I started with a street food business called Lakeland Picnic, catering at events across the North West and I had a stall in Albert Square in Manchester where I started selling home-made mulled gin at the Christmas market. It just took off.
She now makes three gins – Manchester Tart, Raspberry Ripple and Fig, Vanilla and Cardamom – and a peanut butter flavoured rum, called Rumbutt, which is suitable for nut allergy sufferers.
‘Rum is such a versatile spirit to add flavours to,’ she says. ‘I had a bottle of rum in my kitchen and thought I’d pop in some peanut butter and powder.
‘I tweaked the quantities and after eleven versions I came up with Rumbutt. It can be served with lemonade and lots of ice, garnished with fresh raspberries. I have a banana rum out soon as well.’
Michelle hasn’t just been mixing drinks in the lockdown – she’s also been busy mixing cement as she renovates a Lakeland cottage.
‘Building in lockdown has helped keep me sane,’ she adds. ‘It’s a complete renovation – damp-proofing, lifting floors and retaining walls. I’ve always been a hands-on person. I see opportunity in most things. And now, more than ever, there’s an opportunity to get hands on with a rum.’
In Chorlton, Cleo, is on a similar mission and has no doubts about her goal. ‘I want to convert gin drinkers and tempt rum virgins,’ she says.
The 49-year-old former marketing manager for Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island property, who also ran Manchester’s Odd, Oddest, Odder and Blue Pig bar, now creates Diablesse Caribbean Rum and Diablesse Clementine Spiced Caribbean Rum.
‘I’ve got a massive rum collection at home,’ she says. ‘I just started playing around with it, trying different blends out and concoctions. It got pretty serious pretty quickly.
‘Lockdown, has been an unsettling time as the sales landscape has completely changed,’ she says. ‘All my on trade sales have completely dried up so it’s about creating ways of maximising and enhancing online sales and reaching customers in new and innovative ways.
‘I’ve been doing live cocktail sessions people can do easily do at home every Friday on the Diablesse Rum Facebook page which have been going really well and I’ve also been invited to do a number of online rum tastings including the first-ever European rum tasting live. This is helping to connect people with the brand.
‘I’m not sure what the landscape will be once we’re allowed back to ‘normality’; the hospitality industry has been completely knocked over and it will be a long while before people have the confidence to return to how it was before. In the meantime I’ll keep leaping about on social media and reaching people that way.’
Cleo, who has a long-time partner and a ten-year-old son, Frankie, gets her special recipe rum blended and produced by a local bottler in Chorley. The name for her rums comes from a legendary story about a Caribbean seductress who enticed men into a forest, never to be seen again.
‘There’s loads more to rum than a Cuba libra and I’m fed up with gin getting all the attention. I wanted to create my own rums that are pure, unique and authentic and I’ve well and truly achieved that with Diablesse.
‘Rum is going through a renaissance with more independent, artisan rum producers appearing, as they did with gin. The public are becoming more curious as to how it’s made and what’s actually in it and this is driving the craft rum revolution.
‘Through education and experience I believe people will embrace rum like they did with gin, especially the flavoured and spiced variants, although good quality rums of provenance are also on the up. Rum’s a lot harder to produce than gin so I don’t think it will rise as astronomically fast as gin. It will get there, slowly.
‘There are so many variants, expressions and types of rum that there is one for everyone. A rum virgin will probably start with a flavoured or spiced rum, get to know it, get to enjoy it and experiment with different brands.
From that and through education I am seeing these people progress to craft rums that have no added flavours but which have been aged and matured in different ways to give delicious new flavours.’