It’s a miracle that anyone gets a product out given the amount of red tape there is

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With a young family and a busy job as finance director Sarah Gaudion still felt the urge to become a distiller and create her own drinks brand. Emily Moore finds out what drives this entrepreneur.

FOR most people, managing a full-time job, bringing up two children and refurbishing a house would be more than enough to keep them occupied.

But, as Sarah Gaudion prepares coffee, while also keeping a beady eye on her dog’s litter of eight puppies, it is clear that this is a woman whose energy knows no bounds.

And it is this energy and determination to bounce back from the challenges and heartache she has experienced which go some way to explaining how she found the time to launch her own business around 18 months ago.

‘I first had the idea about ten years ago when I – accidentally – started my Wine and Spirit Education Trust qualifications,’ explained the founder of Sea Level Eco Distillery. ‘The course was run by Dan de Carteret, from La Mare Wine Estate, and I was quite shocked when, half-way through the programme, he started talking about exams. I thought I’d signed up for a wine-tasting course.

‘Partway through my studies, I became pregnant and, although I originally thought that the pregnancy wouldn’t stop me, my daughter was born two and half months early and has Down’s syndrome.

‘She had her first surgery when she was two days old and that was the beginning of a really intense period of hospital stays and more operations, which included her having her fingers amputated in Southampton. Before I knew it, three years had passed, then her sister was born and I got divorced.’

With so much going on in her personal life, it was unsurprising that Sarah’s distillery dreams were put on hold.

But, after moving house twice before buying her ‘project home’ in Gorey Village, Sarah decided that it was finally time to resurrect her long-harboured ambitions.

‘I was feeling down after going through a difficult time when a friend asked whether there was anything I would like to do for myself,’ Sarah recalled. ‘I said: “I want to open a distillery.” I then told my ex-boyfriend what I was going to do as I thought that if I told someone, I would be forced to follow through with my plans.’

With her resolve set, Sarah – who is the Island’s first female distiller – signed up to a top-up course run by Chase Vodka founder Jamie Baxter.

‘He is now a master distiller and consultant, running courses for people who want to launch their own distilleries,’ she explained. ‘You arrive at the course with a rough idea of what you want to achieve and then you nail down the details based on what you can afford, premises and resources. Around half of the students on the course have gone on to launch their own distilleries.’

With a limited budget available, Sarah decided to start small.

‘I was determined to do it so built a shed at the end of the garden and off I went,’ she smiled.

But as it turned out, building the shed was one of the easiest parts of setting up the business.

‘There is so much red tape and so many hoops to jump through when launching a business in the Island that it’s a miracle that anyone gets a product out,’ she sighed. ‘While Jersey offers a tourism grant or productivity grant, you have to have been in business for a year before you can apply for it and, by that time, you’ve had to fork out for all the equipment.’

Despite the obstacles though, Sarah, inspired by the success of other distillers who also started on a small scale, ploughed on.

‘A lot of distillers start from the kitchen table,’ she smiled. ‘Manchester Gin started that way and now produces one million bottles of its spirits every year and has a state-of-the-art distillery and visitor centre on the outskirts of Greater Manchester.’

While Sarah’s production line has not reached those levels, she is making and selling significantly higher quantities than she originally anticipated.

‘When I first set up the distillery, I thought the worst that could happen was that I would end up with a whole load of gin that nobody would buy and I would have to drink it,’ she chuckled. ‘When a friend asked how many bottles I expected to sell in the first year, I said: “Let’s aim for 300”. As it happened, I sold 300 in the first five weeks.’

With that success, though, came another challenge.

‘Having exhausted my supplies much faster than I expected to, I then had to order more ethanol. Unfortunately, though, I have to front-pay the duty on the ethanol, which is another financial killer,’ she said.

Having started with 41 different recipes, Sarah spent several months inviting people – ‘mainly the mums from school’ – to the house to try each version before selecting the three gins which she now produces.

‘I went through several versions before I was completely happy with the recipes,’ she said. ‘I now have the London Dry Gin, Sgt Percival Pink Gin and Old Tom Gin, each of which has a distinct flavour.’

Based on hibiscus and lime, the London Dry Gin – which includes limes grown in Sarah’s garden – also features the four core gin ingredients of juniper berries, orris root, angelica root and coriander seeds.

‘While these ingredients are central to all gins, we use organic juniper berries, which is quite unusual,’ said Sarah. ‘The orris and angelica roots, although not flavours which many people would enjoy on their own, bind all the other flavours together, creating that distinctive gin blend.’

While the London Dry Gin is Sarah’s best-seller and the first of her spirits to go to market, her pink gin, named after her great-grandfather, is another popular option.

‘Unlike a lot of the pink gins you see, my Sgt Percival Pink Gin is not bright pink and does not come with the sticky, sugary taste often associated with the drink,’ Sarah explained. ‘The colouring in a lot of pink gins comes from carmine, which is derived from cochineal. I was not going to add dead beetles to my spirits so all the colour and flavourings come from natural ingredients such as grapefruit, Jersey raspberries, lavender and rose.

‘I don’t add any sugar or synthetic colourings and I don’t triple distil or do any carbon-filtering. I just take a really narrow cut from the still, which keeps it all very natural and simple.’

Named after Percival Pink, who married Sarah’s great-grandmother, Lily Walker, in 1907, the drink is a homage to a story which is both sad and romantic.

‘He was a sergeant in the Army and died during the First World War from a heart condition,’ explained Sarah. ‘He knew he wasn’t well and confided about his health to a friend called John. This friend asked whether there was anything he could do to help, to which Percival replied: “Look after Lily.”

‘In those days, the only way you could really look after a woman was to marry her, which he did. They went on to have a very happy marriage, becoming parents to my grandmother, Rosemary.’

The third Sea Level Eco Distillery gin is Old Tom – winner of a bronze award at the World Gin Awards – which Sarah distils with orange and yuzu fruit.

‘This is drier than the original Dutch Jenever but sweeter than the classic London Dry, which has to start with a certain percentage of ethanol and feature juniper as its main ingredient,’ she said. ‘With Old Tom, you get the sweetness from the botanicals, which takes away the bitter hit of juniper.’

Maintaining her hands-on approach, Sarah peels and dries all the orange and yuzu which goes into the spirit.

‘That way, you make sure that you don’t get any of the pith,’ she said. ‘It does, however, mean that a few times a year, the house smells somewhat overwhelmingly of citrus fruit.’

And these aromas are not the only elements of the distillery to pervade the family’s Gorey home.

‘Because everything is done from home, and by hand, the business does have a tendency to take over the house. Indeed, there are some days when there are so many bottles and botanicals on the table that the girls ask where we are going to eat dinner,’ smiled Sarah.

Despite these minor inconveniences, however, Sarah says that her daughters, Maggie (9) and Annabel (6), are some of her greatest supporters.

Sarah Gaudion, Jersey’s first female distiller, at Sea Level Eco Distillery making Gin Picture: DAVID FERGUSON. (34972637)

‘Annabel is the self-appointed head of advertising for the distillery. She is always designing Sea Level Eco Distillery posters,’ said Sarah. ‘They also help me to count the boxes and peel off the labels to go onto the bottles and they’re really into the science of distilling. They’re beginning to understand the temperature needed and they love testing the Ph.

‘I’m also using the sales side to help teach them the value of money, a concept which is difficult for children to understand. Now, they will ask me how many bottles I’ve sold and how much profit that has generated.’

While acknowledging the science involved in distilling, Sarah admits that she was ‘rubbish at science at school’.

‘I loved the experiments but I wasn’t really interested in the background,’ she said. ‘And, at that stage, distilling wasn’t an industry that was ever mentioned so it never occurred to me that it could become a job. Mind you, if anyone at school had said that I would end up being an accountant, I would have laughed at them.’

Indeed, Sarah’s foray into accountancy came about – a bit like her WSET qualifications – somewhat by accident.

‘I studied politics and international relations at university because I didn’t know what I wanted to do job-wise and so I was advised to study something I enjoyed,’ she reflected. ‘I graduated, still with no idea what I wanted to do, and ended up moving to Jersey after meeting a boy from the Island at Southampton.’

It was after moving to Jersey that Sarah trained to become an accountant, a move which, following the financial crisis of 2008, saw her return to the Island after travelling around Australia, China and New Zealand, and take up a position as a financial controller.

‘I left work to become a stay-at-home mum, something which lasted for about eight weeks,’ she smiled. ‘I then met Simon [Torode, chief executive of Livingroom], and became the company’s group finance director.’

And it is this position which Sarah maintains, working predominantly from home so that she can juggle the job alongside looking after Maggie and Annabel and distilling her gins.

‘I was a bit worried when I first told Simon about my plans to launch a distillery as I expected him to be concerned about how it would impact my job. Instead, he said: “Brilliant.” What I didn’t realise at the time was that, before founding Livingroom, he had been head of branding for a massive alcoholic drinks company. He has really encouraged me to pursue my own interests outside work and has given me the flexibility to get the distillery off the ground.’

While planning to scale up the business, Sarah is also keen to retain the brand’s environmental credentials.

‘The eco side is really important to me,’ said Sarah. ‘In fact, if I hadn’t been able to set it up as an eco distillery, I wouldn’t have done it. All the bottles are made from glass which has already been recycled and we encourage bars and restaurants to return the empty bottles to us. If they do, they get £1 back and I sterilise and reuse the bottle.

‘We are also completely plastic-free so the seals on the bottles are made from wood pulp and all the ink used on the labels is vegetable-based.’

Continuing her waste-free ethos, Sarah is just about to add a new drink to the range – limoncello.

‘I’ve ordered 800 lemons from Joe Freire and am really excited to be launching that product, hopefully this month,’ she said.

‘I will be using the peel in the limoncello and the boiled lemons will go to Scoop and The Chilli Kitchen to flavour their chutneys and relishes so nothing will be wasted.’

With plans to launch further products and scale up the business, it is not surprising that Sarah is already starting to think about new premises for Sea Level Eco Distillery.

‘It would be great to find an investor or handful of investors to enable me to take the next step,’ she said. ‘It’s not a business which will make you a millionaire but it is great fun to be involved with. And it would also be great to get my house back.’

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