International Women's Day 2021

Time to ‘step up’ and showcase female talent in drinks and hospitality

By Stuart Stone

- Last updated on GMT

Women in leadership: 'There's some real talent and I think it’s just about stepping up and showing that that talent is there,' Carmen O'Neal says
Women in leadership: 'There's some real talent and I think it’s just about stepping up and showing that that talent is there,' Carmen O'Neal says

Related tags Gin London Women Gender Spirits

Managing director of the 2020 UK Gin Producer of the Year, Carmen O'Neal distills why she believes International Women's Day has taken on added significance during the Covid-19 pandemic, and why collaboration is key to women continuing to unlock the drinks industry.

Having recently renamed its copper pot stills after trailblazing women from both past and present – Florence Nightingale, Rosa Parkes, Amelia Earhart and Greta Thunberg to name but a few – female achievement is poised to become an even more integral part of the machinery at London-based 58 Gin.

“It was important for me to, again, champion amazing women that have had a really wonderful impact in history,” managing director Carmen O’Neal tells The Morning Advertiser (MA)​ just days after ordering celebratory plaques to adorn the equipment beneath Haggerston’s railway arches. 

Having scooped the 2020 UK Gin Producer of the Year Award at November’s International Wines and Spirits Competition, it's abundantly clear that providing a platform for female success was already very much in the spirit at 58. 

What’s more, it is success has been achieved amid a global pandemic which O’Neal states has had a transformative effect on the gin maker. 

“It feels like night and day,” O’Neal says. “We have been through a lot, but a lot has changed – we have completely rebranded our product, we have launched four of our skews and sustainability has become a focal point within the business.  

“We managed to pivot in three days and produce hand sanitizer that went into multiple London hospitals and the Met police. We managed as a very small team to make 50,000 bottles of hand sanitizer. We launched the UK first hard seltzers with a gin as its base.

“It really does feel like it's been probably five years in 365 days,” she adds, “and all while still maintaining that we're all healthy and that we're all able to come to the distillery and that we have the team.”

58 Gin-2

‘Celebrating successes together’

According to O’Neal, celebrating the successes of women in the drinks industry and on-trade on International Women’s Day has taken on extra significance this year in light of Covid-19’s impact – particularly on women.

report produced​​ by Women in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure (WiHTL) in partnership with The MBS Group and PwC in October found that female staff and workers from ethnic minorities were more likely to have been furloughed, put on reduced hours or made redundant during the pandemic. 

Guarding against unintended consequences: The Impact of Covid-19 on Gender and Race & Ethnic Diversity in Hospitality, Travel & Leisure​​, also found that although three quarters (77%) of businesses claimed that diversity and inclusion either remained a priority or became a higher priority during the pandemic, the issue had only been raised in board meetings at 15% of businesses.

Additionally, PwC research revealed that a higher proportion of women have been furloughed, put on reduced hours or made redundant (65%) than men (56%) while only 15% of businesses claimed to have measured the impact of pandemic measures on female or ethnic minority employees and only 6% measured the impact of redundancies, or potential redundancies.

​I think this year because there have been a lot of setbacks that the pandemic has unfortunately raised for a lot of women within the sector, I think it's important to champion success again,” she says. 

“I think championing people's wins and celebrating those successes together is really important – and patting everybody on the back going ‘it's going to be okay; we're going to get through this and good for you’.”


‘Hands on with everything’

Originally from Canada, O’Neal has been in the UK for close to nine years having arrived as an aspiring make-up artist and trained cordwainer eager to complete both her studies at the University of the Arts London and designs for a shoe line.

“I started working in makeup when I was like 16 or 17-years old back in Canada and worked on film and television in Vancouver,” she says. “I was working on lots of weddings, and I had lots of bridal clients tell me that they couldn't find wedding shoes. 

“So being a typical entrepreneur, I thought, well, why can't people find wedding shoes and thought I'm going to travel around the world and learn how to make shoes.”

However, after a road accident involving a lorry and O’Neal’s bicycle left her unable to use one of her hands, the entrepreneur turned her attention to making a, fully healed, fist of working in the drinks sector following a chance encounter with the founder of 58.

“I was looking for gin for an event,” she says, “I wanted to search out a very authentic and artisan gin.”

Incorporated in March 2016, 58 Gin describes itself as a sustainable neighbourhood business and a truly local, artisan brand, and while O’Neal doubled the company’s staff count when she joined, the team has since expanded to four employees.

“I came on as head of operations, you’re hands on with everything at a small business,” she says.

“It's been a long journey, but as with any small business you really do everything from the get-go. It's just whatever the business needs everybody in the business chips in.”

58 Gin

Collaboration ‘extremely important’ 

O’Neal adds that despite finding the UK’s spirits sector “very saturated and very competitive”, she has been pleasantly surprised by how collaborative it’s been during her stint so far.

“I think that has been really nice, seeing how much people want to work and champion,” she says, “even if it is somebody who's a direct competitor, they'll still be willing to help out if you need advice. 

“From ‘my box supplier is not able to come through does anybody have a good box supplier?’ to labels or ‘is anybody struggling with this or finding this buyer?’ 

“I think the drinks industry is very collaborative, which – even though you are competing for the same market – doesn't feel like everyone's trying to step over each other.” 

Conversely, having also seen sides to the industry and on-trade that she describes as “a little bit of an old man's club” and “really intimidating”, she stresses that it’s crucial for the sector’s women to collaborate. 

“If there are two bartenders, that doesn't mean that one's necessarily better and they need to step on each other to get to the next level,” she explains. 

“I think there are so many ideas and great collaborations that can happen, even across brands that might be competing, but there are some great ideas when you're when you're open to sharing and open to collaborating – I think only good things can happen.

“One thing that is been really important throughout the lockdown is connecting with other brand owners and asking: ‘How are you doing? What's happening with you? What are some of your struggles?’", O’Neal continues. 

“By sharing wins and struggles you don't feel like you're in this by yourself – people are having the same struggles that you are and might be able to help you and you might be able to help them back.”

58 Gin-3

‘Women are really good at leading’ 

O’Neal believes that one of the keys to unlocking the sector’s gender issues is being able to showcase strong ideas among peers.

“There are some amazing female bartenders – I've been really lucky that I get to work with them to help create some of our fantastic cocktail recipes,” she says. “There's some real talent and I think it’s just about stepping up and showing that that talent is there.

“I think women are really good at leading and I think that something that has been seen throughout the pandemic is how women take on that challenge of making sure that everyone’s okay and getting through that those really horrible situations,” she says. “So, I think just being more inclusive is a big, important thing, for us.”

This philosophy has guided 58 in reshaping its Haggerston home to emerge from lockdown as a platform for new female success stories forged in the spirit of those now commemorated via its copper stills. 

“I really want this space and the distillery to really become a hub for nurturing young females within the drink sector,” she continues.

“So, doing more bartender training, doing brand training – it doesn't necessarily have to be my brand – on mixology, spirits training, I really want it to have a community feel where women can feel comfortable, can brainstorm and can really get their hands dirty with producing and feeling like it's a great place for collaborating and, and sharing."

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