Although legend has always placed Robin Hood in Nottingham, a tradition dating back to at least the 16th century gives Robin Hood’s birthplace as Loxley, Sheffield – historically Locksley. That was the inspiration for Sir Robin of Locksley artisan gin and the Locksley Distilling Company’s range of bespoke spirits which are made at Portland Works in Sheffield.
“It was quite by chance that we came to Portland Works,” says managing director John Cherry. “I’d visited it before for open days and to see the artists working there. One day, we heard about a space that was being renovated. We applied and moved in in early 2015.”
“We love being in the heart of Sheffield and in the very birthplace of stainless steel. Portland Works is an important social community project – it’s not only preserving a building of enormous cultural and historical significance, but it’s an amazing space where small manufacturing, independent artists and craftspeople are continuing Sheffield’s creative tradition.”
As the business grew, the distillery expanded from its original upstairs space to an additional ground floor studio and then into a third space to hold its popular gin school. “We were handling some 40,000 bottles a year and hauling them upstairs was challenging,’ says John. “Now we do the distilling upstairs, bring it down in drums and bottle it downstairs.”
The pandemic effect
The pandemic has hit craft distilling hard. The sector relies heavily on custom from bars and restaurants, public tastings and being part of festivals around the country to introduce to its products.
Personally too, it’s been a tough year for John and the team. He and his wife Cynthia have coped with home schooling for their 13-year-old daughter and having to furlough themselves and their staff at various times. The distillery’s tasting room was shut down in the first lockdown, allowed to reopen in careful, socially distanced bays for a while and then closed down again in January. The team has missed seeing people who would normally have visited the distillery to learn about making gin, sample the products and take home a bottle or two.
Manufacturing has continued, albeit on a smaller scale. “Coming here most days has given me a sense of normality in my life during this time,” says John. He is positive about how the pandemic will reshape the distillery’s future. “It’s possible that a lot of new start-ups won’t survive. But I believe those who know the business well, who have the expertise and skills, will come back stronger. There is a renewed focus on buying good quality, ethically produced products and that will help as we get back to a ‘new normal’.”
23 years in the alcohol industry
John certainly has that expertise. He has worked in the alcohol industry for 23 years, in France and New York, where he managed liquor stores in Manhattan. “Every producer wanted to have their products in one particular store, so I met some amazing experts. Craft brewing and distilling was just starting to take off in the States and I wanted to move back to my hometown of Sheffield to introduce it here.”
Luckily before COVID-19 hit, John had started to diversify, to expand the core range and work collaboratively with retailers. The business is now selling more online and came up with the idea of virtual gin schools which have been popular during lockdown. They offer a personal video chat with Joe of Locksley’s gin school, who has guided more than 1,000 people through the process of making their own gin. Customers discuss the taste they’d like; he weighs out their chosen blend and puts everything into the still. When it’s ready it’s packed and posted out so enthusiasts can enjoy their very own personal bottle of gin.
The distillery’s flagship gin, Sir Robin of Locksley, is not only absolutely delicious – it’s ethically produced. “We will never be the biggest distillery, but we do aspire to be the best,” says John. “To achieve this, we believe very strongly in ethical, environmental and quality practices. We use local materials where possible, including sourcing our glass bottles from just up the road in Leeds. We make sure our ingredients are organic and natural where possible – not just for their incredible flavour but to eliminate chemicals and pollutants. We absolutely believe in conserving the environments for wildlife, animal welfare and biodiversity, promoting healthy soil and protecting future generations.”
“Fair trade is important to us – so growers, harvesters and farmers are fairly rewarded. And we believe in local employment at a fair wage rather than outsourcing at a distance or overseas. That’s our philosophy– doing things ethically and with a sense of morality. It’s how we believe all business should be conducted.”