Meet the Distiller
Mark Hird, Poetic License
A licence to thrill. Successful hotelier and restaurateur Mark Hird has helped the North East to join the gin revolution by launching his own award-winning craft gins.
With a 500-litre hybrid still from China installed in his Poetic License distillery bar in Sunderland, visitors can see spirits being made as they order a range of original gin cocktails. We talk to Mark about creating excitement and enthusiasm for gin.
THE GIN GUILD: You spent many years in the hospitality and leisure industry, can you explain how your gin journey started?
MARK HIRD: “I started my career as a chef, setting up my own restaurant 18 years ago. Over the years, I grew the business taking on multiple sites; bars, restaurants and hotels. I have always had a passion for quality food and drink and sourcing locally wherever possible. When I turned 40 in 2012,
I was inspired to setup a micro-brewery so I could brew my own craft beer for my sites and regionally, and within a few years I had set my sights on distilling my own spirits too. Our distiller, Luke Smith, was already working for us within the brewery and had expressed an interest in distilling, often bringing in the creations he had made on his hob at home. We got our heads together and the distillery was launched in September 2015.
Also, there are many different gins from lots of small distilleries out there, who all-together do much better promotion than paid advertising can.
THE GIN GUILD: What is the story behind the name of the brand?
MARK HIRD: In terms of the spirits we wanted to produce, I was keen to make sure they were something different – big, bold flavours that people would remember. This felt quite unlike what we had seen on the market up to then.
There seemed to be unspoken rules about what a gin should and shouldn’t be – however, we wanted to do our own thing and were keen for this to be reflected in the brand. My brewery is named after Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who was born and raised in Coxhoe, County Durham – the village where the brewery is based.
She famously penned Sonnet 43, the famous opening line for which is ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…’ – we translated this poem into our love for beer.
We wanted the distillery to be separate but still have a tie-back to the brewery, as a sister business. ‘Poetic License’ seemed to fit our distilling ethos and gave a subtle nod back to the brewery with the poetry reference – so I felt this was the perfect fit.
THE GIN GUILD: Tell us about your still and its location?
MARK HIRD: We are a small batch distillery and we use Gracie – our 500-litre hybrid still, named after my eldest daughter – to produce all our spirits, although we do test our recipes out on a 5-litre test still called Amelia, after my youngest daughter.
We use a one-shot method so we have greater control over how the product tastes and typically achieve around 400 bottles at a time. Gracie is based within a bar that shares the distillery’s name, set on the rugged north-east coastline, and is in full view for all visitors to the bar to see.
THE GIN GUILD: How are sales going?
MARK HIRD: Tremendously – we have had to hire more staff to cope with the demand.
THE GIN GUILD: How much gin do you produce and what is your main market?
MARK HIRD: We’ve more than doubled our production year-on-year, producing 60,000 bottles in year two. We’re hopeful we will see this pattern continue in year three!
We sell nationally via direct distribution and wholesalers, and are beginning to export too; currently 95% of our sales are to the UK market, with almost a third of those coming from the North.
THE GIN GUILD: What gives your gins their unique character?
MARK HIRD: It’s our stance not to shy away from doing things how we see fit, whether that’s big flavours, infusions, unusual combinations, etc.
We do what we think tastes good – we aren’t working to a strict rulebook, although we do stand by keeping juniper at the forefront so our gins remain gin by definition.
We also ensure there are botanicals, as well as juniper, that we use consistently in all our gins.
I won’t give away what these are but, having them present in all our iterations, provides a thread of consistency that runs through all Poetic License products.
THE GIN GUILD: What is your most popular gin?
MARK HIRD: Our strawberries and cream-flavoured Picnic Gin is a big hit in the summer – it is a sweeter gin (nurtured from the botanicals alone, with no sugar added) and its flavours encapsulate British summertime, so it tends to be a winner during the warmer months. However, our London Dry style, which we call Northern Dry Gin, is by far the overall winner.
I think Northern Dry Gin is popular because it is a classic gin but it has some big, bold flavours of cardamom and citrus, as well as juniper of course, while remaining balanced. It also stands out nicely in cocktails. For these reasons, I believe it holds appeal for the purists as well as some of the new-wave gin fans, which is why it has done so well.
THE GIN GUILD: What are Poetic License’s next steps, how do you see your brand and gin evolving?
MARK HIRD: We’re keen to keep experimenting with flavours and developing new and exciting tipples for our fellow wild spirits to enjoy. We are just about to launch a range of four gin liqueurs; blackcurrant & ginger, St. Clements, baked apple & salted caramel and sarsaparilla.
We have lots planned for our range of one-off spirits, ‘The Rarities’, in 2018 too, including some collaborations.
We aim to be at the forefront of the gin and craft spirit revolution and will continue to evolve and try new things to satisfy the curiosity of both ourselves and the wild spirits (our drinkers). Chin chin!