A devastating distillery fire could have brought down Masons of Yorkshire – but it has grown back stronger
There are few things more devastating than fire. Its ferocity, indiscrimination and all-consuming nature invoke a primal fear. For anyone who has anything to lose – a prospering gin business, for example – the spectre of fire is a terrifying one.
That spectre paid Karl and Cathy Mason a visit on 2 April, 2019 and took their Masons of Yorkshire gin distillery, near Bedale in Yorkshire, with it. Six years of planning, care and dedication literally went up in smoke.
“There is nothing worse that could happen,” says Karl. “We got a phone call about eight in the morning. There were staff on site, we were getting ready to go in, and someone shouted down the phone, ‘We’re on fire and it’s big.’ We watched it all burn down in a day – but the next day the staff turned up at our front door with notebooks and said, ‘Let’s start planning.’”
Cathy continues, “We got offers of help straight away… We found premises that we could rent, and the distillers went out to other distilleries to make product. The day of the fire we had 27 pallets of gin ready to go out and in three weeks we had all of that made, bottled, labelled and ready to go again.”
The Masons’ bounceback – both physical and emotional – seems even more remarkable when you consider the heights their business had reached before the fire. It all started with a Facebook page, G&T Friday, which garnered more than 10,000 followers. Cathy explains, “Gin companies were sending us bottles to feature on the page. That is where we started to try a lot of other gins. One night, after a few G&Ts, Karl said, ‘I think I could do better than this.’ I don’t think he had in his mind yet how he was going to do it.”
The ball was rolling. Karl found a distillery willing to do an initial 120-bottle run of their gin recipe; they sold out in a week. Realising they were on to something, the couple decided to go all in and launched their first spirit under the Masons of Yorkshire brand on World Gin Day 2013. At the time the English gin ‘boom’ was still in its infancy, and Masons was one of the first brands to blaze a trail for gin in the now distillery-rich region of Yorkshire.
“We had no experience of distilling or the drinks industry or history, but we had the passion for gin,” Karl says. “We always wanted it to be a different gin, not just a different label. It is slightly removed from your standard juniper-heavy gin. It has a lot more spice to it. We felt that we had brought out a gin that deserved a place, that had something to offer.”
The Masons found premises for their first distillery and brought in ex-Gordon’s and Tanqueray distiller Gerard MacKluskey as head distiller. Karl says a tasting event at a local independent grocer helped to launch their local reputation, after which they were “fending off enquiries”.
Both he and Cathy eventually left their jobs to run the distillery full-time. They started taking Masons of Yorkshire gins on the road to food and drink fairs, sparking a nationwide interest in the brand. Karl notes, “A lot of people were walking past having not tried gin, so it was exciting for them.”
By the time the fire struck, Masons of Yorkshire had built an enviable reputation in the blossoming British gin scene. But despite the shock, Karl and Cathy took the opportunity to build back stronger. In late 2019, the couple secured a 10-year lease on a brand-new building on an industrial estate just outside Bedale and kitted it out with a distillery, laboratory, events space, bar, offices and dispatch area. They invested in more modern stills, moving away from the heated alembic stills they used in the original distillery, and a rotovap for experimental distillation in their laboratory.
The new facility opened in March 2020, but another unexpected disaster, the Covid-19 pandemic, saw it shut its doors to the public just a week later. Like many other distilleries, Masons turned its attention to online sales to help it through the UK’s hospitality and non-essential retail shutdowns.
“As soon as the lockdown happened we thought, ‘This is only as bad as what we had to live through last year,’” Karl explains. “The staff were resilient, they could get through worse, so it was a case of, ‘Here’s the next hurdle, get on with it.’ At the start of this year we would have liked to have been further forward with new product development, lab work and trials on other products, and those things were pushed back.”
But Cathy strikes an optimistic tone. “We have really enjoyed building the business, and everything that it has had to offer. Next year we are looking for more of the same: more growth, more export, more flavours.”
Karl and Cathy say they are also excited to start welcoming people into the new distillery building. They tested the water with a few events in October – during last year’s brief period of breathing space for the UK hospitality sector – and have a programme of events and experiences ready to roll out including cocktail evenings, pop-up food nights and distillery tours.
It is the Masons of Yorkshire MO to approach popular gin trends in a left-field way: its Lavender Gin tapped into a trend for floral flavours; the Tea Edition is an experimental, yet thoroughly British, variation on a classic dry gin; and its Orange and Lime Leaf expression, released in 2020 from the new facility, plays on the growing trend for orange-flavoured gins. Its latest expression is a raspberry gin, which went on sale in February.
Masons is now in good company on the Yorkshire gin scene, alongside Slingsby, Cooper King, Whittaker’s and the Yorkshire Dales Distillery, to name a few. As relative veterans, Karl and Cathy are regularly asked for advice from new entrants to the market, and they also advertise a contract distilling service for start-ups and small brands looking for a place to have their gin recipes made for them.
It may be a stereotype that Yorkshire folk have a grit and stoic determination like none other in the UK – but for Karl, Cathy and their team, it was that refusal to be cowed that helped them to get back up after such a dramatic knock. The fact that Masons has recovered stronger from a tragedy that could have snuffed it out is something worth raising a glass to.