Hope Distillery - Lucy Beard

Meet one half of South Africa's most esteemed distilleries.

Lucy left behind her career in London as a lawyers and alongside husband Leigh, returned home to South Africa to start up a craft distillery.

Initially called Hope on Hopkins, now rebranded to Hope Distillery, theirs is a company that has gone from strength to strength, as well as adapted their plans to take on contract distilling alongside making their own.

In doing so, Hope is now one fo the country's most respected distilleries. We decided to dive into that journey and find out more about where it's going...

Thinking back to the early days of  Hope (then Hope on Hopkins), do you remember when and what it was like when you completed your first batch of finished gin? 

Wow – it was such a rollercoaster of a journey. We realise now how naïve we were and just how little we knew! We had a romantic idea of what it was to own and run a distillery and we were so exhilarated to finally get that first bottle on shelf. 

How many trials had you done to get to that point?

We had done many, many trial batches by that point, as we had plenty of time to experiment because it took us 18 months of bureaucracy to get our production licence.

South Africa’s gin market is interesting in that it’s diverse, growing and developing a distinct identity through its use of native botanicals. Do you think that upward trend will continue, will it plateau or where do you think it’s heading in the next few years?

The South African market has boomed and shows no signs of slowing down, but that said, there are now so many brands that the pie has been spread very thinly… Distillers have embraced native botanicals, which makes for interesting and unusual gins. 

The industry has been hit hard by the Covid-related lockdowns (alcohol sales were completely banned for much of 2020), but things are starting to normalise and hopefully by 2022 things will be on the up again.

Before we talk all things Hope Gin, we’d love to explore a little more about the contract work that you do for others. You produce many other great SA gins (Bloedlemoen, Musgrave, Southern Cross, Amari to name a few) but was third party distilling always part of your plan and where did it all begin?

It wasn’t part of our original plan, but we were approached by Simone of Musgrave Gin before we got our distilling licence. The Haughtons from Beacon Commodities were visiting us at the time and they encouraged us to talk to Thames Distillers about contract distilling. 

We soon realised that it made complete sense: it helped cover our overheads and allowed us to be instrumental in developing the local market (which was very small back then).

From a distiller’s perspective, making a gin for someone else is an interesting challenge. You have to compromise in some areas but the collaborative process always brings new and interesting ideas – what’s been your highlight and the conversely, the biggest challenge with it?

One of the most exciting aspects of gin distilling is playing with different botanicals – by designing gins for others, this allows us to do just that.  The highlight was working with one of our cult winemakers, who has an amazing palate. 

The challenge is that sometimes things don’t work out: a fall-out between business partners in one brand that I really hoped would go places meant we only ever produced two batches of it.

Do you get nervous about how and what someone you’ve made a gin for is going to do in the way they bring it to market? The UK is rife with brands that hide who makes them and many base their identity over disingenuous claims - but all the ones you all make it very clear and uphold transparency values. That can’t be by chance.  Is it something you deliberately handle when taking on a new contract?

We are very careful (fussy!) about who we work with and have turned down an awful lot of people.  But yes, we do get nervous as ultimately it’s our reputation on the line and we have a purist attitude to gin. While we don’t put specific requirements in place, we do ensure we have a handle on planned marketing and branding as well as brand values before we engage seriously with any new client. 

You’ve got 4 stills now, plus act as a multifunctional space to bottle, seal, label and dispatch everything as well as a tasting room. Seems like there’s lot going in one place – are you having to consider moving or is there still space?

We’ve hired a warehouse across the street, where we have put our labelling machine and store our bottles and packaging material, and we’ve had to buy a shipping container (which sits in our side alley) in which we store the high strength spirits.  But when we visit inner city distilleries in the UK we realise just how much space we do have – our Distillery is huge in comparison to most of them! 

What drives you personally as a distiller?

I love the creativity of it all: far better than my previous day job as a lawyer!  

Even after a particularly crazy day at the Distillery when everything has gone wrong, having someone pop in and chat about gin and the Distillery sets the passion alive and makes me fall in love with it all over again.

When you look towards other countries and their gin scenes, what do you get excited about and which trends are you being influenced by?

We lived in the UK for a long time (we spent 14 years in London before moving home to start Hope), so are influenced by what is happening there: the pre-bottled cocktail trend is one we’d love to see take off here. 

What we are excited about because know will take off is the shift to direct-to-consumer, the interest in local distillery visits, and the fact that the flavoured gin category is slowing with talk of a trend back to the classics. 

For the Hope Gin range, you used to make your own base spirit. How much of an influence do you think that added to your gins and why did you change course?

We no longer make the base spirit for our gins (but instead ferment and distil an Agave Spirit and a Rhum Agricole – both on a very small scale), as we realised it just wasn’t appreciated and took so much distilling time. 

We have sourced grain spirit for our London Dry and African Botanical and buy in a grape base for our Mediterranean gin.  It still makes us unique, as most of the other local gins use cane spirit as a base.

Do you think that people buy into the origin of the base spirit when it comes to craft gin, or is it more a point of pride and something that only a certain percentage of drinkers will ever really engage with?

We feel that the grain / grape base is a selling point and is a point of pride for us; but sadly only the nerdy few actually appreciate it!

Last but not least, what’s the next big milestone for Hope Distillery and in particular your own gins?

We are looking to launch an export range next year – a uniquely South African gin, an African absinthe and a vermouth. So watch this space! 

21 March 2021