Thursday, 07 July 2022

Let's Get Down to Business: Jacob Wilson, master distiller and co-owner of Henley Distillery

Let's Get Down to Business: Jacob Wilson, master distiller and co-owner of Henley Distillery

JACOB WILSON is a master distiller and co-owner of the Henley Distillery, which he co-founded with his father Alan, a sculptor, and is based in an old threshing barn at Hampstead Farm just outside Henley. He lives in Fawley with his partner Katie Blythe.

Describe your business

We are a family run, traditional-style craft distillery producing our own brand of spirits and several other brands under contract. Our distillation process ensures our gin retains the aromas and botanicals that give it its distinctive flavour.

How many people does it employ?

At the moment just me, my parents and sister Emma and my partner Katie. We employ several young people part-time to assist with bottling and labelling.

What did you do before you started this business?

When I was at the Oratory I was a fit and healthy 14-year-old who rowed for the school and Upper Thames Rowing Club. Suddenly, I became very ill with ME and I suffered badly for several years. I was only able to take one GCSE exam, which was maths. It took several years for me to recover. I went to The Henley College to take my A-levels and then to Southampton University to study mechanical engineering. After two years of the four-year course, I took a gap year to start my own business, a pop-up cocktail bar called Molotov Cocktails, which I took to weddings and events. I was attracted to the drinks business and, much to my parents’ concern, I gave up university and applied for jobs as an assistant distiller. I got a job with Masons distillery in North Yorkshire and learned my craft from their master distiller Gerard Macluskey.

When did you start your business?

Although we registered the company name five years ago, we didn’t install the stills until this year and officially launched Henley Gin on June 25. We did a lot of planning because we wanted to ensure we had a viable business.

What was your objective?

To produce top quality spirits.

Who or what influenced you?

Being from a family of entrepreneurs, I wanted to emulate them. My parents were supportive in so many ways, including financially.

Do you have a mentor or role model?

Gerard Macluskey. He left Masons about eight months after I joined but I had already learned enough to be offered the role of head distiller.

What impact has the coronavirus pandemic had?

We had to totally change our plans. Just before the first lockdown in March last year, we were going to open the distillery in Friday Street along with a visitor experience but this had to be kicked into touch. Because of this I spent a year running a distillery consultancy business and built many valuable contacts. This enabled us to change our business plan to focus on production first and the visitor centre later.

How do you market your business?

Social media and we do lots of events. The Henley Standard did an excellent write-up on us when we launched.

What’s the best thing about running your own business?

Being “off the leash” and able to use my creativity. As owner-distiller, I have total control over the quality of our product.

What’s the most challenging aspect?

There’s never enough time.

Where is your business headed?

We want to build a visitor centre here to offer tours and a gin-making experience. We also want to expand our shop to include all the great locally produced products.

Do you have a five-year plan?

Yes. We use 300 litre stills as they produce the highest quality gin so in order to grow we will gradually add several more of the same capacity rather than increase the size in order to maintain the quality. We will have to hire and train a lot more people

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?

It’s important to let go and delegate.

What would you advise someone starting a business?

Know what your limitations are and plan accordingly.

What three qualities are most important to success?

Dedication and being prepared to make sacrifices, the ability to plan properly and acquiring the necessary knowledge.

What’s the secret of your success?

It’s really a family effort but knowing what the end goal is and then planning how to achieve it is crucial.

How organised are you?

Not as much as I would like to be. The sheer volume of orders has caught us off-guard.

How do you dress for work?

Very casual. We do have branded workwear.

What can’t you be without every day?

My Swiss Army knife, a present from my grandfather six years ago. I use it every day.

Do you continue to study?

Always. I am an independent craft distiller continually looking to create. If you’re not learning, you’re falling behind.

Lunch at your desk or going out?

Here in the barn.

What do you read?

Magazines on spirits but I’m more of a listener than a reader as it allows me to work at the same time. I have a lot of audio books ranging from autobiographies to fiction.

How are you planning for retirement?

A bit early for me to think about that but I’ll always want to be involved in this business.

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