Karl and Cathy Mason undertook major career changes when they founded Masons of Yorkshire a decade ago, waving goodbye to jobs in publishing and education. This year, the distillery will celebrate its 10-year anniversary on national gin day (Saturday 10 June).
The current economic crisis had “massively affected” trade, according to Karl. While certain areas of the business were thriving, other parts were struggling.
Glass and alcohol prices had rocketed by 40% - costs which couldn’t be passed onto customers, according to Cathy. What’s more, online sales were struggling as other gin brands bid on keywords online. During Covid, customers had taken to online shopping in swathes, but since, they had returned to supermarkets.
Karl wanted hospitality to be aware that premium spirit providers were having to absorb these costs.
He said: “If we were to pass that on to the pub sector, then they had to pass that on to their customers, they wouldn’t want to buy us.
“So, we’re having to suck them costs up and not pass the price rises on. They’re under enough pressure themselves because their energy costs are rocketing, and beer prices have gone up massively.”
This meant to make the same amount of money or pay the same amount of bills the distillery was having to sell twice as much.
“In the last four years we’ve gone through fire, pestilence and war, plus an economic crisis”
But Karl wasn’t worried. This wasn’t the distillery’s first hurdle: it’s third site had burnt down in a fire five years ago, for instance.
The pair had got a call from workers at 8am on the day it happened. “The distillery was a mile from our house, and as we turned the corner from our street, we could see the fire and smoke in the distance,” remembered Karl.
There had been eight people on site who had ran out of the burning building. But the next day, the team gathered around the table, and worked out a plan. “[We thought] how do we want to continue?” Karl added, “and just rolled our sleeves up”.
This attitude had been a key philosophy of the business since day one, where Cathy and Karl jumped into the business with no experience in distilling, retail or spirits.
“Every time we looked at obstacles and hurdles, we never came across one that we didn’t think was surmountable," he added.
People liked the brand from the beginning, according to Cathy. Staring the company in the midst of the gin boom was “exciting” and she found herself in a whirlwind of trade shows and exhibitions.
“Wherever we went to we usually picked up a customer”, she said, whether it be a trade show, talk or event. “It was right at the beginning of the gin boom,” she added, “so people were eager to talk and eager to buy.”
While the gin market had slowed in recent years, with 2022 stats showing sales drop by almost a third, this didn't phase Karl, who predicted the category would stay in a steady position.
He believed consumers were now aware of how "amazing" the spirit was, so it would always be a solid second or third drink for customers.
“We just have to work as hard as we can, keep pushing the message of how good it is, and work in partnership with the on-trade sector as much as we can, and we can get through it all together.”
But it hadn’t been an easy ride: “In the last four years we’ve gone through fire, pestilence and war, plus an economic crisis,” Karl summarised.
As soon as they had got over the fire and moved into new distillery, Covid happened, so all workers were sent home. Then, as soon as things started getting back to normal, the war in Ukraine began and costs rocketed while online sales plummeted.
The war had hit the premium spirits industry hard, according to Masons research distiller Rory Payne, as lots of alcohol was made from Ukrainian wheat, and the energy crisis also impacted the distillery as it was an energy-intensive business.
But Karl was optimistic about the future. "We burnt down one day, then we had a global crisis, now we’ve got a war,” he said. “If I didn’t worry about those three things I’m not going to worry about a little bit of economic turbulence.”
Masons of Yorkshire secured a two year contract to be the first gin served in first class service in LNER trains in November, and it was also launching a ‘back to basics’ juniper-focused gin come summer to celebrate its anniversary.
Karl added: “We just have to work as hard as we can, keep pushing the message of how good it is, and work in partnership with the on-trade sector as much as we can, and we can get through it all together.”