North Norfolk-based Black Shuck Distillery celebrates its tenth anniversary next year with a new gin launched for Christmas and a desire to keep on having fun.
Black Shuck is one of the region’s best known – and loved – distilleries and, 10 years on, remains very much a family affair. Owners Patrick and Sarah Saunders say they are often asked: “How did the business start?” And they usually reply: “If we knew then what we now know, we may never have got it off the ground!”
Sarah explains that the formalities involved in setting up a new business, particularly one that involves the production and selling of alcohol, are extensive. As well as the various licences and permissions required by HMRC, health and safety, and local councils, there is the issue of labelling and compliance.
Thankfully, the family tackled each challenge one by one, and a year after the idea was hatched, the team were ready to launch with an investment of just £2,000. They sold their first bottles of the now legendary Black Shuck Sloe Gin in 2012. “We have come a long way in 10 years” says Patrick. “And we have enjoyed every minute of it. Well, almost every minute! There have been a few challenging moments, but that is the way in any business. It is meeting those difficulties head on and finding a way through that will make your business succeed. After all, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
The family remains a key part of Team Black Shuck. While their children Leanne, Nicola and William have now all graduated and moved on to their own chosen careers, they continue to provide opinions and support on all matters from social media posts, artwork and new designs and, of course, new recipe developments.
Keeping in touch with customers has always been important to the company. They are proud to have kept close contact with their very first customer, Mr C, who bought the first bottle of Black Shuck Sloe Gin at Raveningham Hall in October 2012.
“People buy from people,” says Patrick. “This is why we still do our own deliveries. We are very fortunate to have Lynn and John on the Black Shuck delivery team. They are now very much part of the family. We like to meet and talk to the people selling our products in their shops and serving our spirits at their hospitality outlets. It enables us to get invaluable feedback from them that in turn, informs us of our own progress and development.”
As the company prepares to celebrate its milestone anniversary, Sarah reflects on the journey so far, saying: “We have met some wonderful people and had a huge amount of fun. I still get a thrill when I see a bottle of Black Shuck on someone else’s shelf. When we launched our Black Shuck White Label Gin in 2015, we hoped to sell 1,000 bottles in our first year. In reality, we sold the first 1,000 bottles in the first four weeks! Since then, we have bottled over 1.3 million measures of Black Shuck White Label Gin. Not a bad statistic.”
But she adds: “It hasn’t all been plain sailing though. I remember one particular headache in 2016 very well, all to do with bottle supply. We were expecting a delivery of two pallets of bottles just in time for our Blush Gin launch. With just two weeks to go until the planned launch, our bottle supplier advised us that there would be a delay in our delivery as they had to fulfil an order for a much bigger company.
“After the initial feeling of panic and frustration had subsided, Patrick and I went for a walk. We agreed not to go home until we had thought of three possible solutions. Not for the first time, it wasn’t the first idea we had that solved the problem for us. On this occasion we used bottles we had in stock for a soft launch for our most loyal customers and invited others to place pre-orders for three weeks later. It all turned out very well and sales of Blush Gin exceeded all expectations.
“The discussion on that walk also led to the decision to have our own bespoke bottles, enabling us to always keep control of our stock levels. We have received so much positive feedback on them that this was definitely a story with a happy ending. Finding three solutions to any problem before moving forward is a strategy we highly recommend to anyone starting out in business – the knee jerk reaction isn’t always the best one.”
Patrick laughs when asked if he and Sarah always see eye to eye on new ideas. “When it comes to new recipes, it is vital that we both believe in a product if it is going to be given a Black Shuck label. On that we always agree. However, on other matters, I have been proved wrong more than once. When Sarah wanted us to have our own branded Black Shuck Copa glasses, I was horrified when she told me that we would have to place an initial order for 600.
“I had visions of these glasses taking up vital storage space for months or even years, but I had to eat some humble pie when we ordered our second pallet just two weeks later. She likes to remind me of this story when she has her latest madcap idea.”
He adds: “Not all ideas work out that way, but on the whole we get far more right than wrong and even when an idea doesn’t go to plan, Sarah has a way of spinning anything into a success – just ask her about the vastly over ordered ginger ale…”
The Black Shuck brand is now recognised across Norfolk and beyond. This is, without doubt, aided by the iconic image that is emblazoned on every product. The logo, drawn by daughter Leanne at the first family business meeting in 2011, has been admired by many, and the family is proud that they have built up the business from scratch, using their own ideas, experiences, and skills.
They admit that they did not foresee the scale of their success when the logo was first devised and only wrote a formal business plan for the first time in 2015. But this is an exercise that Sarah would encourage all small businesses to engage in at least once every two to three years, saying: “It is only when you sit down and think about where you want to be in two, five or even 10 years’ time that you find yourself considering the possibilities. Ask yourself: ‘what would you do if someone invested £100,000 or £500,000 in your business?’ Allow yourself to think big and then work out how you can get there without the investment.”
“The last 18 months have taught us many lessons. First, sometimes you have to rip up plan A, B, and C and make a completely new plan to fit in with the changing business landscape. That is exactly what the team did at Black Shuck HQ at the start of the pandemic. Thanks to some quick thinking, a couple of new licence applications and early ordering of new essential resources, the distillery was able to adapt their production to make hand sanitiser for key workers and essential services. Second, is a reminder of our original objectives to have fun, and carpe diem – seize the day.”
An example of this thought was in March last year when breweries all over the country were left with little choice but to literally pour their beer down the drain. Patrick spotted an opportunity: the distillery team had always enjoyed working with their friends from Norfolk Brewhouse in Hindringham, just a few miles away. So, via a zoom call with David and Rachel Holliday at Moon Gazer Ales, they cooked up a plan to distil their ‘unwanted’ beer to extract the alcohol. They had no idea how the experiment would turn out, but they figured that they had little to lose other than some time. As it happens, the results were remarkable and out of adversity came Moonshuck White Distale (distilled ale) that is now available in stores and online. It is a unique spirit with a fabulous malty aroma taken from the Bouchard and Triskele beers.
You can visit the Black Shuck Fakenham distillery, but trips must be booked in advance to ensure a truly special experience. During a visit you will hear about the legend of Black Shuck and the story behind the thriving business including a tale about the day. In 2015, they received a call from the TV programme, Dragons’ Den, inviting them to submit an application to take part. Be sure to ask them how that went!
A visit to the distillery also reveals bottles and barrels galore. The couple continue to explore new ideas, and visitors are sometimes offered an insight into what is coming next as there are always plenty of possible ideas in the pipeline, as Patrick explains: “One we are particularly excited about is our aged rum. It has been ageing for two years but has a bit longer to go before it gets bottled.
“One of the best bits of the job is tasting new recipes and tasting the ageing rum is no exception. However, at this rate, we may only have enough left for a dozen bottles when it reaches maturity!”
With the festive season just around the corner, it is no surprise that there is a new arrival about to be released – Black Shuck Cacao and Pistachio Gin – something that takes the distillery in a new direction with a completely different recipe. It has been traditionally distilled, with the rich, delicate chocolate notes carefully balanced with pistachio and lime to give a fresh, citrussy finish.
This new arrival will be available in 70cl, 35cl and 5cl bottles and the couple suggest serving it with Fever Tree Light or Indian Tonic, over ice, and with a wedge of lime.
When asked on their favourites, the family say that it is virtually impossible as they don’t bottle anything that they don’t love themselves. When pressed, Sarah responds: “William’s favourite is the Whirlybird Gin, possibly because the label and box design were all his own ideas and creation. We all feel passionate about the Whirlybird Gin as it has helped us to raise £8,000 for the East Anglian Air Ambulance, with £4 from the sale of every bottle going to this great charity.
“Nicola enjoys the Pink Grapefruit Gin, especially when paired with aromatic tonic. Leanne’s favourite is Sloe Gin paired with prosecco or ginger ale; perhaps it is the happy memories of picking sloes as a teenager that make this her top choice.
“As for Patrick, his current favourite is Spiced Rum served simply on the rocks. My all-time favourite is the original Black Shuck White Label Gin. However, my last visits to the Black Shuck bar have all resulted in a Cacao and Pistachio Gin paired with Fever Tree light tonic. I do wonder if it might just be our best gin yet.”
As well as receiving awards for their spirits and liqueurs, the team is very proud to have been acknowledged as a business that contributes towards the community. In 2015 Liz Truss made Black Shuck one of her 50 food stars and last year, following a public vote, Black Shuck won the East Anglian Air Ambulance Inspirational Business Award. In 2020, they were also nominated for a UK Business Heroes Award with the British Chambers of Commerce.
- Got a taste for Black Shuck?
These warming recipes will see you through winter and beyond.
Black Shuck hot mulled sloe gin
Black Shuck rum hot toddy
the Moonshuck mac
Cacao and Pistachio dry martini