The job offer came out of the blue. A qualified chemist, Jessica Tomlinson had been working for a peptide company on Teesside. But after 10 months in the post the 25-year-old knew it wasn’t where she wanted her future to lie.
As she contemplated what to do with the rest of her life, a university acquaintance unexpectedly head-hunted her for a new post that proved to be the perfect tonic for her work woes: head distiller at the newly-launched Durham Gin.
The move from peptides to gin production isn’t as big or as unusual a leap as one might imagine.
There’s quite a bit of chemistry involved in distilling the perfect alcohol – whether it be gin, whisky or rum. And in the Netherlands, where gin is first said to have been produced 400 years ago, it was initially sold as a medicine in chemist shops to treat everything from stomach cramps to gout and gallstones.
What is remarkable about Jessica’s new job, however, is that she is a woman working in what is traditionally a male-dominated role.
Across the globe there are scores of women wine-makers. Women are increasingly getting into brewing too. But the spirits world has been, and remains, a very masculine environment - which is odd as gin is typically seen as a female drink. That’s not to say men don’t appreciate its finer qualities but the beverage is infamously known as ‘mother’s ruin’ and the 18th Century pictorial satirist William Hogarth notably depicted a baby falling from his drunken mother’s arms in his painting Gin Lane.
Over the years it’s fallen in and out of favour and been dismissed as a fuddy-duddy drink you couldn’t do much with other than drown it in tonic water.
But it seems gin’s time has come again. It’s currently on an ascendance with younger drinkers of both sexes now showing an interest in it and a new generation of gin-makers – many with a science background - mixing things up.
A plethora of micro-distilleries – like Durham Gin – has been launched across the UK and the US and filling the market with innovative new recipes and tastes.
Yet it’s mainly men running the show. Durham Gin – the county’s first distillery – is the brainchild of former NHS employee Jon Chadwick.
The hand-crafted gin, which is produced in small batches using traditional methods in a converted industrial unit at Langley Park, was initially devised by Jon and distiller David Wilkinson.
But it was David’s own recruitment by a rival distillery operating north of the Border that paved the way for Jessica to begin making strides in the spirits industry.
Stories about women holding their own in a man’s world should have been consigned to the waste paper basket years ago. It’s a sad indictment that they haven’t.
Thankfully Jessica is part of a new working generation coming out of university with a ‘can-do’ mentality and believes you are bound only by your own narrow-mindedness and lack of ambition.
Like most women she is irritated by stories about lone female pioneers. But she admits to being shocked by how few female distillers there are.
The penny first dropped when, a chemistry graduate from Edinburgh University, she decided to do a master’s degree in distilling and brewing at Heriot Watt. That’s where she met the man who went on to recruit her.
“Of the 44 of us on the course, only eight were women,” Jessica recalls. “Of those eight, most have gone into the brewing industry and only one other has gone to work for a gin distiller, I think in Scotland.
“The others came from as far away as India, Greece, Italy and Thailand and all the knowledge they learned has now left this country.
“I genuinely have no idea why the spirits industry isn’t attracting more women. I personally believe women have better palates and that they can identify more subtle flavours.
“Perhaps it’s to do with culture, like butchers and bakers traditionally being men and that’s then been passed down through the generations. I don’t know.
“What I do know is that things are happily beginning to change. I am a woman and that hasn’t stopped Durham Gin hiring me. Jon and David recognised that I’m qualified to do the job and that I’m interested in gin and interested in this project.
“This is what I want to do. I want to be a part of growing this North East brand and in developing more products.
“I feel as if everything has fallen into place for me and I feel privileged to be doing something that I really enjoy.
“And I hope that my being at Durham Gin will inspire more women to get into the spirits industry. Just like the sciences, the more women who see other women doing well then the bigger likelihood there is that they will see themselves doing a job like this and want to get into distilling and be the best.”
Jessica, who hails from Hexham and attended the town’s Queen Elizabeth High School, is involved with all aspects of making Durham Gin from the creating to the distilling, blending, consulting and even selling.
Since launching onto the market earlier this year, Durham Gin has been packing a powerful punch locally with North East drinkers. It’s a blend of 10 separate botanicals including, of course, juniper (the berries were originally added to gin in the 16th Century to make it more palatable and the beverage must now contain them), pink peppercorns, cardamom, celery and coriander, spring water from a natural well near Durham City, and pure grain spirit.
Turning the raw ingredients into a premium grade gin that people will want to drink is where Jessica’s lab skills come in handy.
It takes around three days from beginning to end to produce each batch of gin, which initially comes out at about 89% ABV but then has to be watered down to 40%.
But it’s not all about the science. Gin has been Jessica’s alcohol of choice since she could legally drink.
She was introduced to the delights of distilling at a young age. “I can remember going to France with my family when I was about 10 or 11 and touring the cognac factories. I can still remember the smell of the cognac and being fascinated with the whole distillation process.
“And mum makes sloe gin, so gin and distillation has always been a part of my life.
“Gin is so fruity and floral and I’ve just always liked it. I know gin wasn’t a cool drink for a while but I’ve never really followed fashions. I just drink what I like.
“The gin craze has hit the UK in the last few years, though, and with it a whole new world of possibilities and flavours has been opened up. People are realising that not all gins have to taste the same.”
The renewed appetite is being driven by top-end brands made in small batches and is a backlash against mass-produced alcohol.
But with Durham Gin’s flavour now established, is Jessica worried about picking up the reins where David left off and maintaining the flavour and consistency?
“That is one of the challenges facing me but one I am confident I can rise to. I know this is a very small craft distillery but, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t be coming into it if I wasn’t sure I could do the job and keep it is the same.
“But recipes are always being tweaked and while I might be able to taste a subtle difference I doubt whether somebody drinking it with tonic will be able to.”
Which brings us to the question of how Jessica likes to drink her Durham Gin? “Straight; nothing other than the gin. I would urge everyone to try the gin straight and see what they think. They will be pleasantly surprised.
“But if I have to have a mixer than either Fentimans or Fever Tree tonic as they really help to bring out the flavour. And no lemon. You don’t want to overwhelm the gin.
“We find that one part Durham Gin to three parts tonic works a treat!”
For more information on Durham Gin and stockist details go to www.durhamdistillery.co.uk
Gin-based cocktails and warm summer evenings go well together.
The classic is a James Bond gin martini – shaken, not stirred. He may not favour them in the films but certainly author Ian Fleming did so in print.
“We like to mix four parts gin to one part Noilly Prat vermouth, shaken over ice naturally, and serve in a cocktail glass with an olive,” Jessica says.
Or why not try one of these other summery gin cocktail recipes from Jessica? Each makes one cocktail.
1 measure gin
1 measure sweet vermouth
1 measure Aperol or Campari
Zest of an orange, finely grated
Mix the alcohol together and pour over ice into a cocktail glass. Grate the orange over the drink before serving.
Honey Sage Gin Fizz
3 parts gin
1 part honey syrup
1 part lime juice
Mix the gin, honey syrup and lime in a cocktail shaker with the ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and top up with soda water. Garnish with the sage leaf.
2 parts gin
1 part gomme (gum) syrup
1 part fresh lime
Couple slivers cucumber
Sprig of basil
In a cocktail shaker mix the gin, syrup and lime juice together with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass over ice and add the cucumber and the basil to garnish.