Harley Young talks with Seb & Jen Heeley-Wiggins, founders of Manchester’s most well-known gin brand, to find out more about it’s story: past, present and future
“We always say our love story started 10 years ago, on a rainy Wednesday at half one in the morning.” smiled Seb, Co-Founder of The Spirit of Manchester Distillery and Watson Street bar Three Little Words.
“I was out with two of my friends, looked over and saw Jen. The first words I said to her were ‘What’re you drinking?’ and she replied-”
“Gin and Tonic” laughed Jen as she reminisced on the day they met, sharing that they quickly began to give each other a good grilling over who knew more about different botanicals and so on.
“She told me that her current favourite was Monkey 47,” said Seb, adding “and I told her I had a bottle of it at home.”
After about four weeks we were getting so busy with orders. It quickly became apparent we had to go all or nothing.
The Spirit of Manchester Distillery and Three Little Words sit on Watson Street, occupying six of the arches that make up part of the Manchester Central Complex.
The impressively beautiful bar and distillation room, as well as the gin school room, can be seen from the street, enticing people in to learn more about the spirit that brought them together (or just to have a tipple or two)
The pair's shared interest quickly turned into something they could envision becoming a business, but it wasn't as simple as getting the keys to a property and firing up the still. It’s the couple's hard work and determination that has led them to this point. And trust us when we say, this pair have put a hell of a lot of elbow grease into turning their shared passion into a career.
“We were put in touch with a guy in Sheffield who owns a number of bars, went to visit and saw that he was making his own gin in a still on a table. We realised we could definitely do that.” said Jen, adding that the couple noticed there was no Manchester gin brand as of yet so decided to register their domain names and set up social media handles on the train home.
The pair then had to apply for licences to run their business from their home, as The Spirit of Manchester Distillery began its life on Seb and Jen’s kitchen table.
“Once we’d gotten all our licences we started recipe development. Our first bottle was released on 12th May 2016.” explained Jen.
“It took us about 11 months from the thought process to getting the ball rolling and making our own gin. This was down to a combination of different factors - the main one being we had no money. We started with a 60 litre still that could produce about 105 bottles of gin per distillation with the view to distil just once a week.”
Seb and Jen planned to take it easy at their new home in Chorlton, slowly growing their business as a side-project and distilling gin from the dining room as they nibbled on cheese and bread on a weekend. However, this wasn’t the case.
“After about four weeks we were getting so busy with orders. It quickly became apparent we had to go all or nothing. Jen quit her full-time job after three months of distilling to start selling the gin during the day.” said Seb.
Jen was busy selling the gin during the day so the pair switched up their distilling process and began making the gin in the evenings, taking it in turns to check on and adjust the stills at two-hour intervals throughout the night.
“We’d start the still at seven at night, go to bed around 11pm then take it in turns getting up at two, four, six and so on…the next day, we’d swap shifts. In the morning, I’d then go to work and Jen would go sell the gin," explained Seb, adding "After that we’d come home, clean the still and write the labels for the previous day, clean and fill the bottles and box them up then put the still back on to start over again.”
The pair repeated the cycle for 15 months, brewing from their dining room in all weathers with the cooling pipe for the condenser running through the kitchen, out of cat flap and connecting to the outside tap. The winter was particularly difficult as the pair would have to run outside in the middle of the night to adjust the flow of the tap to stop it from freezing over.
In the summer, the heat from outside was so unbearable that Seb decided to cut a chunk out of the kitchen door to run the pipe under, much to Jen’s dismay. The couple now laugh about it and have even given the door pride of place in the gin school room as a reminder of the hard work and dedication during their humble beginnings.
In 2017, the couple moved their business to Temperance Street in Ardwick. “It was the perfect location for what we needed.” said Jen, adding “It had level access, water drainage and everything. That’s why there’s a lot of breweries around there. It’s just not a particularly customer friendly area. We wanted somewhere a bit more central.”
At a networking event, Seb and Jen met the Chief Executive of Manchester Central who told them they had archways on Watson Street that they wanted to repurpose and, thus, Three Little Words was born.
“It was a really big project. There was water and algae on the floor, and with it being a Grade II listed building there’s a lot of things we can’t do. But we agreed to take six of the archway spaces, got the keys in April 2019 and opened the doors for the first time on 5th September that same year.” said Jen.
In just 16 weeks, the couple and their team of renovators were able to build the bar, taproom and gin school that everyone knows and loves. Since then, Seb and Jen have taken their business from strength to strength, branching out from gin and creating their own vodka, rum and infused spirits.
They still make their original gin, of course. As well as some special editions like the Haçienda gin which was brewed with Salfordian legend, Peter Hook, and his family. This gin in particular was made with citrus fruits to give a slightly acidic flavour, paying homage to what was the birthplace of Acid House.
As well as their on-site distillery, bar and kitchen, the couple plan to continue expanding their business with the addition of whisky to their list of award-winning spirits. Their very first batch is being distilled right as you’re reading this. Be sure to keep an eye on their social media channels for upcoming announcements if you're looking to secure a bottle.
Three Little Words, 10-15 Watson St, Manchester M3 4ED
Get the latest news to your inbox
Get the latest food & drink news and exclusive offers by email by signing up to our mailing list. This is one of the ways that Confidentials remains free to our readers and by signing up you help support our high quality, impartial and knowledgable writers. Thank you!