An enterprising Darlington couple have emerged from the pandemic with quite a tonic after winning a national award for running the best gin distillery in the country. PETER BARRON reports

IT’S just as well that Paul and Leanne Colman describe themselves as “a glass half full kind of couple” because it hasn’t been easy turning the dream of running their own gin distillery into a reality.

Having tasted initial success by opening the UK’s smallest gin distillery in the washhouse at Paul’s parents’ house in Darlington in October 2018, they decided to invest in their fledgling business by moving The Little Quaker Distillery to an historic site in the town centre.

The timing could hardly have been worse. They took the keys to the two-storey building, in Clark’s Yard, at the end of March 2020 – just as Covid-19 was sending Britain into lockdown.

“It meant we couldn’t open for a year, but we took stock of the situation and decided to make the best of it,” recalls Paul.

The building they’d chosen dates back to the 15th century, and is notable for English soldiers stopping there on the way to fight at the Battle of Culloden, in Scotland, in 1746.

Nearly 300 years later, Paul and Leanne faced a battle of their own to keep their dream alive, while also both holding down other jobs, and running a family home with four children.

They used the first year of lockdown to focus on getting the character of the building right, so it had a rustic feel and reflected its place in history. Then they adapted their business model, updated their website, and creating attractive online experiences.

The result is that The Little Quaker Distillery has now been named UK Gin Distillery of the Year in the Corporate LiveWire Global Awards. Around the same time, the business won gold and silver awards in the London Spirits Competition – one of the leading contests in the spirits world.

“We sometimes almost take for granted just how well we’ve done, considering we’ve been working full-time and growing the business organically,” smiles Paul, as he sits at the bar, upstairs in the Clark’s Yard building.

“We do everything ourselves – distilling, bottling, labelling, selling, and marketing. And the way we distil is different, using the techniques of the American moonshiners.

“There have been some tough headwinds, and there were times when we questioned whether we could survive, but we’ve continued to grow right through the pandemic, and now won these awards. It’s fantastic when you get that kind of recognition – it makes it all worthwhile.”

It means Paul and Leanne have won nine industry awards since setting out on their unlikely business path – not bad seeing as it all began in jest.

Paul was site manager of the Magnet factory, in Darlington, at the time, while Leanne was an account manager at EE. She came home one day and said: “Why don’t we set up our own gin distillery?”

The couple were members of the Craft Gin Club, and Leanne has a particularly refined palate, so the joke gradually began to ferment into a serious plan.

The Little Quaker Distillery was born in the washhouse, measuring just 2.1m by 1.6m, and with just one product – Quaker Gin – drawing ironic inspiration from Darlington’s history as town of temperance.

“I’m a local lad, very proud of the town’s history, so I wanted to do something that was immediately recognisable as coming from Darlington,” Paul explains. “Darlington didn’t have a gin of its own, so we saw a gap in the market and went for it.”

Around the same time, he took on a more senior UK role with Magnet, before going on to become site director for Faerch, a Danish company, manufacturing ready-meal trays. He still works there and Leanne is still at EE.

Paul further juggled his time by serving on the Darlington Football Club Supporters Board during the trials and tribulations of his beloved hometown club.

But Quaker Gin was proving to be a clear winner. Within months of being launched, it was being supplied to just about every bar in the area, as well as the likes of Rockliffe Hall and Walworth Castle.

It was enough to encourage the move to Clark’s Yard – just in time for the biggest public health crisis in a generation! At the time, 70 per cent of the business was based on deliveries to bars and restaurants, so lockdown meant having to become more of a retail customer, as well as introducing new online tasting events.

Then, with the pandemic at its height, the Government asked Paul and Leanne if they could use the distillery to make hand sanitiser. Not only did the couple start production, but they gave the supplies away free to local health authority workers.

“It was our way of making a contribution and giving something back,” says Paul.

Now, with lockdowns hopefully consigned to history, the The Little Gin Distillery continues to go from strength to strength. Six gins and four rums are now produced at Clark’s Yard, and the latest awards have given Paul and Leanne the confidence to go on building their business.

The gold award at the London Spirits Competition was won by the company’s Black Diamond Banana Rum – named after the third locomotive on the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

And the next chapter promises to be another link to Darlington’s railway heritage. After trial runs, Paul and Leanne are ready to go into production with their first whisky, which will be stored at the Head of Steam railway museum ahead of the 200th anniversary of the world’s first passenger railway in 2025.

The whisky recipe includes corn and grain and it will have a smoky flavour to reflect the age of steam. A name hasn’t been finalised yet but Locomotion is a fair bet.

In the meantime, regular tasting experiences are held at Clark’s Yard, and Paul and Leanne will be exhibiting at a host of events throughout the year. They were at Bishop Auckland Food Festival at the weekend, and plan to be at the Seaham Food Festival at the start of August.

As if they weren't preoccupied enough, they are also having to come to terms with some unexpected spirits at Clark’s Yard. Attracted by the history of the building, a group called Spectre Detectors recently carried out a ghost hunt and concluded that the distillery is haunted by an old carpenter, called George, and a mischievous little girl, called Connie, who likes to hide things.

“I’ve got an open mind but there have been some strange things happening!” smiles Paul.

Whatever the truth, it's nice to see that The Little Quaker Distillery has emerged from lockdown in good spirits.