Spirit of Harrogate was founded by Marcus Black and Mike Carthy, two enterprising residents who captured and bottled their desire to share the restorative nature of their hometown of Harrogate in the form of Slingsby – a range of award-winning gins and vodka. As we celebrate our fifth birthday this August, we sit down and chat to Marcus and Mike about business, role models, sport and of course gin!

Marcus (left) and Mike (right) celebrate our fifth birthday

Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

MC – I’m a qualified chemist and had worked in the drinks industry for over three decades before co-founding Spirit of Harrogate. I’m an innovator and always coming up with new (and often out there) ideas for drinks! Marcus and I also own drinks producer Intercontinental Brands (ICB) which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.  

MB – My background is accountancy and I worked in mergers and acquisitions for 15 years before a partial buyout of ICB and finding myself joining the business. Now owner alongside Mike, we created the Spirit of Harrogate as a separate business with the aim to create a range of drinks that celebrates Harrogate and its spa town heritage.

What inspired you to launch Slingsby Gin?

MC - We were in one of our favourite Harrogate restaurants, Cardamom Black, having dinner and we started sampling all the gins from their collection and after polishing off an entire bottle of Tanqueray, it sparked an idea! To create our own gin that brought together all that Harrogate has to offer – the ‘Spirit of Harrogate’ was born.

MB - The original concept was to make all the sections of a Vesper Martini – A gin, vodka and a vermouth using local suppliers and ingredients. The first product we created was in fact the Vespa Martini that we bottled for a charity ball 5 years ago! We wanted to engage with lots of local businesses and bring everything together which we have achieved with Slingsby. We use local botanicals sourced from Rudding Park Hotel kitchen garden, Taylors of Harrogate green and jasmine tea is also one of the botanicals we use and of course we use Harrogate Spring Water. We try work with local suppliers for everything we do from sourcing packaging materials and ingredients and we are proud to call them our partners.

How did you come up with the name Slingsby?

MC - William Slingsby discovered the first spring water in Harrogate back in 1571. The Tewit Well which still stands today…although something just pretty to look at rather than a working well! It was Slingsby who kicked off Harrogate’s reputation to become the famous British Spa town, so it really tied into our whole brand ethos and desire to bring to life the heritage of Harrogate in the gin.  

MB - There were 3x people inspired for our list of possible brand names, but it turns out Slingsby had been dead longer than the others, so we didn’t think we’d face legal action from his family! I say it as a joke but it’s slightly true too!

What challenges did you face when you were starting the brand?

MB – We come from a drinks background and have resources and a fantastic team around us. If we were just two middle aged blokes who wanted to set up a gin brand, we would have come up against a lot more challenges than we actually experienced. We had a huge advantage and brought together all the experience across the business – we have around 1000 years’ experience and we brought all of this together. At the time when we produced our very first product, Slingsby London Dry Gin, I was over the moon with the finished item. I look back now and think, gosh, that looked awful! We are never satisfied and good just isn’t good enough and we always challenge ourselves to be that bit better. The challenges were not so much external, they were probably more internal as we wanted to get everything just perfect. 

MC – It helps to have an amazing team around you. We were venturing into areas we had never been before, we wanted to create a premium product that represented Harrogate and its heritage. There’s a huge amount that goes into creating the finished item that not many people will realise. We ended up travelling to Portugal to source some beautiful handmade natural corks, only to realise further down the line that they weren’t appropriate. We spent a huge amount of time on design and packaging and even sourcing blue glass proved to be problematic. We worked through 18 variants of the gin before we got to the perfect one and spent 15 months working on all of this before we launched the brand in 2015.

What advice would you give anyone looking to set up their own gin brand?

MB – Be very clear first and foremost of what you want to achieve and the long term plan. When we set out, we didn’t want to be a small, local gin brand. We always said we wanted to be a global brand - Harrogate based but operate globally. Everything that we did, from sourcing bottles and looking at how we would expand was key - we never wanted to be in the position where we couldn’t scale up. If it’s a lifestyle brand and your passionate about it, there’s room in that market but they’ll be a constraint about how much you can produce. If you’re wanting to build a national brand you’re going to need a full set of skills and resources. If you’re passionate about it and enjoy the act of producing gin and have done your homework then give it a go!

Which personal skills are key for business owners to have?

MC - It’s not skills as an individual, it’s all about putting the right team together and also building your network including external partners. It’s about enthusing and giving that passion to everybody and getting everyone bought in with where you want to go. Being able to get everyone pulling in the same direction is one of the key skills.

MB - The need to compromise and not be too pragmatic. You can’t always get things exactly how you want, so you sometimes need to compromise and just run with it. If we hadn’t let go on a few things then we probably wouldn’t have even launched even now and we’d still be trying to perfect everything!

What is the best piece of business advice you have ever been given, and who gave it to you?

MB – It’s clichéd ‘if you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life’ but this is actually one of the few that’s stuck with me. You’ve got to be passionate and love what you do. Love it or leave it.

MC – An old boss once told me to treat business as a motorway, get in the outside lane, as if you get in the outside lane no one will get past you.

Who would you consider as your business role model?

MB – I’d ditch that and say it’s not business, it’s sport. A lot of what drives both of us is that we love our sport, but we also love sports people. We admire their dedication and their commitment and the hours they put into becoming the best. I would say I admire them more than business people. We link sport and business a lot.

MC –We were lucky enough to have World Champion and Olympic Gold Medal rower, Sir Matthew Pinsent officially launch our store and experience 4 years ago, where he talked to us all about how he had to work on all the little details and never be satisfied with where you are at. I think it was one Olympics where the team won by a boat length, so never under-estimate the seemingly minor details. We need to constantly challenge everyone in the business to think how we move forward.

Marcus and Mike with Sir Matthew Pinsent at our store and experience 

What do you consider the brands greatest achievement to date?

MB – There has been a huge amount over the years. Our first listing was in Harrods and they only had 18 bottles and it went in 2 days. I delivered it personally and drove from Harrogate to London to drop it off! The first time we got in World Duty Free in the airports walking through to board a flight, seeing Slingsby everywhere! Screens, huge banners and bottles on the shelves.

MC – I still get an immense feeling of pride when I see Slingsby sat on shelves and back bars. We set ourselves out to be an ultra-premium gin and we set our target list of where we wanted to be and see it listed….we achieved that and more.

MB – There’s actually a funny story about one of our first and proudest listings. After doing one of our first ever trade shows, I got a call from someone who had tried our gin and taken our details saying they wanted to stock us in their restaurant. They explained they had a couple of venues over in the Lake District and had two or three stars and I thought this isn’t good enough, we’re better than that. We’re four or five stars at least! It was only about halfway through the conversation I realise he’s talking and Michelin Stars! At the time, it was Britain’s top restaurant – Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume in Cumbria!  We’re still listed there now 5 years on.

What is your best memory of the brand to date?

MB – I’ll never ever get used to people saying nice things about what we’ve done. You literally burst with pride. I’m an accountant….no one has ever said ‘I love your accounts’. Those are words that no one has ever said! The funniest time was at Leeds arena and a bloke nudged his wife and said ‘that’s the Slingsby guy!’, I was made up! Also, all the awards we’ve won and being able to give back. Sponsoring the Sunshine Coach for the charity Variety was the most humbling experience of my life.

MC – I agree, using the business to do good means a lot to me. There are too many amazing memories to mention but as a huge rugby fans when we were over in the ‘Lions Den’ in New Zealand when Slingsby was Official Supplier to the The British and Irish Lions tour in 2017. Now that was an unforgettable moment. Looking up and seeing everyone wearing red and seeing our logo in the grounds was such a surreal experience. I also have a funny Leeds Arena story where we had gone to see Queen and Adam Lambert and someone asked for a photo with me in front of the stage to send to his daughter to show they were with ‘Mr Slingsby’….I never knew I’d be able to take Queen on!

What is the toughest challenge you have faced to date?

MB - Particularly when we set out with a premium offering, and you’ve got that trade off between creating volume and maintaining exclusivity. We try to be accessible and that means we can sit on the high street as well as premium retail, I always look up and strive to be the Grey Goose of gin. It can be difficult to get the balance right sometimes though.

What do you like about the Gin industry?

MC - What I’ve certainly found is that there is a lot of like-minded people. Passionate people who have worked their rocks off and come up with something. You can speak to competitors and they become friends, it’s more of a community than ‘competition’ as such. I remember we were over in Germany at an exhibition once and we had so much stock left and Chase Distillery helped us out and offered to bring it home for us. It’s the collaboration with different brands to grow the category – if we all grow the market then there’s enough room for everybody to play.

How has Covid-19 changed your business?

MB - It’s been challenging as it has been for everyone. There is an initial short term hit on the business including a decrease in sales, making the difficult decision to furlough members of the team and close our store and experience. However, there is also going to be a serious long-term issue that we will all have to address as an industry and as a sector full stop.

MC - If we look at our market that we operated in pre-covid, we had retail including our own store, on trade, travel retail and export. All of these sectors have been affected and it has an impact long term on how we can invest in the brand. It is still unclear what the new ‘norm’ is going to be and we, just like a lot of businesses, have to take each day as they come. We are not through this by any means, particularly due to the core markets we operate in.

What is next for Slingsby Gin?

MB – We are delighted to have the retail unit and one of our physical gin experiences back up and running. We also have a new digital experience for those that can’t make the trip to Harrogate, which is going down very well. Although all of our events programme has sadly been postponed this year, we are still in long term partnerships with Chestertons Polo in the Park and PGA Championships at Wentworth and we look forward to getting these off the ground next year.

MC – We’re still innovating and creating exciting new gins behind the scenes. Some of these are available to try from our famous kilner jars in our Harrogate store where customers can vote for their favourite. This is where our Rhubarb, Gooseberry and most recent Marmalade Gins started out. We use the store as a test bed to gain feedback before we go to market and customers can still come and sample these. We’re also looking at new ways to serve Slingsby and we produced a RTS, Solo Slingsby premixed gin and tonic which we tried and tested at the UCI world championships in Harrogate. We’ve received fantastic feedback and are currently looking into how we might make something like this more readily available. We feel there is going to be more of a requirement for convenience and ease of serve for both consumers and the bars and restaurants.

If you weren’t running Slingsby Gin, what would you be doing?

MB – I would love to help young people in business and encourage them. I’d love to set up a private equity fund that specifically targets kids in tough areas – gives them investment and backs them. That has always been my plan. Or my other dream, would be telling Gareth Southgate who he should be selecting for the England squad!

MC – I would be focusing more on the charity work that I do already. I do a lot for Lymphoma, Yorkshire Cancer Research and St Michael's Hospice. When I properly retire that is what I will be spending my time doing. I mean, I’ve got to do something, or the wife is going to quickly get fed up of me!