Zoë Fryday catches up with Brighton Gin’s inspirational founder and MD Kathy Caton
Brighton is a unique, vibrant city, and so is the award-winning craft gin named after it. As a matter of fact, Brighton Gin has been created to embody the spirit of Brighton – “unusual, playful and fiercely independent”. Since launching in 2014, the brand has become a much-loved tipple, stocked in a wide variety of bars and shops all across the UK and exported to 16 countries.
So, where did it all begin? At the helm of Brighton Gin is founder and managing director Kathy Caton, who explains that the inspiration for the brand and business came during a jog along the seafront the morning after the night before. “I’d had a very late night tucking into the gins and dancing around a friend’s kitchen table. As I was out running the next day, I twigged that if I’d been drinking anything else other than gin, I wouldn’t have been able to get off my sofa – let alone go for a run. It hit me that gin is the one drink that lets you get away with it. Brighton is a place that needs to get away with it frequently, and ta-da, the idea of Brighton Gin was born! From that very first lightbulb moment, I was sure that it had to be called Brighton Gin and should be firmly rooted in the city.”
Kathy has lived in Brighton for 23 years and counting. She explains that, when she moved to the area, she was blown away by the sense of community and gentle eccentricity. Before Brighton Gin, Kathy co-founded Brighton’s community radio station RadioReverb 97.2fm and she also spent many years working at the World Service and Radio 4. “Radio remains an absolute passion of mine,” says Kathy. “My work in front of and behind the microphone has let me meet many amazing people and build incredible networks.”
Kathy’s CV also includes a spell of running pubs in Camden during the Britpop years and starting a pub theatre company. She points out that both her parents and her sister have previously started their own food and drink businesses. “I’m sure this has had a subconscious (or conscious) influence on me launching Brighton Gin!”
Brighton Gin was humbly created in Kathy’s kitchen. There was a lot of trial and error, she says, and a lot of time was spent on perfecting the recipe and process. “I’m so proud that we remain a genuinely hand-crafted product, from peeling fruit and crushing juniper for our distillations to waxing and labelling each bottle by hand.”
The recipe took almost two years to get right. Kathy explains that there was a vast list of botanicals she wanted to use, however, this, eventually, was whittled down to six – every one of which has earned its place in the bottle. “We’ve created a gin that is smooth enough to be sipped neat and is certified vegan too, so it can be drunk with a clear conscience,” adds Kathy. “As a hand-crafted small batch product that takes time and a lot of hands to make, our focus is very much on quality and consistency, not pile-it-high volume. We proactively chose to focus on a single product in our first years and get it as right as possible, although we introduced our Seaside Strength 57% navy gin at the end of 2018, which has since been awarded the top-scoring navy gin at the International Wine & Spirits Competition.”
The focus on genuine quality and craft works in tandem with Brighton Gin’s unique community-centric ethos. “Brighton Gin was created through a love of gin, but also founded on the spirit of the values that Brighton holds dear and which make the city what it is: independent, fun-loving, open-minded and adventurous,” says Kathy. “We love our city and we love our community.”
The brand has supported hundreds of charity and community organisations, from beach cleans and charity fundraisers to sponsoring the community radio station and making an annual Pride fundraising bottle to raise money for LGBTQ+ grant-giving organisation The Rainbow Fund. During the Covid-19 crisis, the team turned their hand to making hand sanitisers to support the community. Through this not-for-profit project, they were able to donate thousands of hand sanitiser sprays to key and frontline workers.
The Brighton Gin team includes a 55-year age difference between the oldest and youngest, and there are employees from across the LGBTQ+ spectrum and from all sorts of different backgrounds. Kathy says that she is really proud of the company’s diverse workforce. In terms of management style, she describes herself as a team player. “I firmly believe in the maxim that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and that I’d much rather engage and bring people along with me in the pursuit of something than browbeat them.”
She elaborates: “I’m very empathetic as a colleague and a leader. I hope that my team would say they feel encouraged, listened to and supported, and that I help people play to their strengths. I love that the team really want to see how far we can take Brighton Gin. We’re all brand ambassadors, regardless of each individual’s role.”
We go on to speak about the current business landscape. As a manufacturer that takes raw materials and skilfully converts them into a finished product to sell on, Brighton Gin is having to navigate the ‘perfect storm’ of spiralling energy and bottling costs, supply chain issues, the reality of the cost-of-living crisis, and the aftershock of both Brexit and Covid. “The challenges have come from every angle and keep on coming,” says Kathy. “The cashflow pressures continue to be immense and from talking to other business leaders, it seems that people’s reserves of resilience have taken a knocking.”
However, she points out that there are always opportunities – even within crisis. “When the pandemic hit and hospitality was closed, taking 85% of our order book with it, we pivoted overnight to focus on making our not-for-profit hand sanitiser to support the community and also on direct-to-consumer sales and door-to-door deliveries.”
Kathy adds: “On top of this, we’ve developed a refill system for our local on-trade partners, which not only helps reduce the cost of our gin to them, but the refills stop bottles from going to waste. Hospitality has taken such a kicking and we want to support our friends and colleagues in the trade as much as we possibly can. We’ve also diversified into developing several ready-to-drink products and have launched a make-your-own gin experience at our Distillery Gin School. We’ve done everything we can to come out fighting!”
For 2023, the Brighton Gin team are focused on making sure they can safely navigate the current conditions without compromising on the quality and ethics of the brand. Looking to the long term, the overarching mission is to take the Spirit of Brighton to the world. “Close to home, I want to see us be the South’s favourite gin,” says Kathy. “I’d also like to see us lean into the export potential, building on those existing 16 countries. There are 48 places called Brighton in the world and I’d love for Brighton Gin to be drunk in each one!”