A new be-gin-ing
It’s hard to believe that Jawbox gin has only been on the market two years such is its success and exposure but founder of the Belfast tipple, Gerry White, can attest that time does go fast when you’re having fun, says Emma Deighan
I have more energy now than I had when I was 19,” says Gerry, 60, when reflecting on the past few years, from Jawbox’ inception in 2014 and his departure from his former job last year to Jawbox’s current position of international acclaim.
“My life has completely changed. It’s given me an energy and I’m on the go all the time but you get an amazing buzz,” he says, fresh from a short break. A rarity for the man who has been non-stop since he trademarked Jawbox four years ago.
Prior to that, Gerry was a barman, steeped in Belfast’s hospitality world where he spent his most recent 15 years at the helm of The John Hewitt.
“I loved that bar,” he says. “It had a different ethos to the rest in that profits went into the community. I was on a very handsome wage there and loved what I was doing so going alone was a big risk but I knew I had to try it.”
He grew up on Conway Street off the Falls Road, and has spent most of his adult years living close to Queen’s University.
And with Belfast in every fabric of his being, it’s no shocker that his Jawbox gin is built on the legacy of the city.
Gerry says he always wanted to have his own drink and swayed towards gin because it was the only spirit he would drink.
“It was considered an older woman’s drink and I would say only within the last few years it’s had a new lease of life, a resurgence and that’s because of the increased volume of quality gins and also barmen.
“Bar staff have gotten behind gin. They’re doing amazing cocktails and garnishes with beautiful presentations. It’s a completely different thing now.”
Gerry sought support through his contacts in the trade.
He met with Echlinville distiller Shane Braniff and his head distiller Graham Miller to create the signature blend that would catapult Jawbox to success.
“When I met Shane and Graham, I just knew this was it. They had the same passion and we worked well together,” says Gerry. “It might sound strange that even though Jawbox didn’t exist, I knew what it tasted like. I wanted something classic. And Graham knew exactly where I was coming from. It took 15 blends to get that taste and when we got it, we just looked at each other and knew that was it.”
That process of refinement took three to four months, says Gerry. Next followed the packaging and branding and that was when Drinksology, which looks after the distribution, marketing and branding of Jawbox, came onboard.
The name however is all Gerry’s.
“There’s always something behind a name,” says Gerry and, with his gin, there’s also a touching tribute to his granny Maisie.
Maisie Cunningham would tell her grandchildren stories of how the community would gather round the, now fashionable, Belfast sink to catch up on gossip and local affairs. That ritual gave the humble wash basin the affectionate name of the ‘jaw box’.
“Not everyone would’ve had the privilege of having their own scullery so they shared a sink but more importantly that place became a focal point for the community,” says Gerry.
“When I was naming the gin, I thought I need to be responsible so I thought it should be something that is shared and then I thought of gatherings and house parties. Where does everyone end up at a party? In the kitchen. It’s the same ethos. Everyone still stands around the sink.”
The launch of Jawbox took place in Linen Hall Library, which continued the nod to the brand’s Belfast heritage.
“That was important to me,” he says. “I’ll never forget the weather that night. It was a stinking Tuesday night and I thought no-one would come. It was a trade-only event and it’s hard enough to get the trade out to a pub event but to have it in a library, I thought this might not work.”
But it did work and almost 150 trade people came out in force to support “one of their own”.
“I do think they got behind me because I am one of them,” says Gerry. And they still are getting behind him.
Michael Deane and his contemporaries are all stockists of Jawbox. Michael has even dedicated a dish to the brand.
“It’s a Jawbox and citrus-cured trout and, of all the choices of gin, he chose mine. That’s a Michelin-starred restaurant. They chose us and named it on the menu,” says Gerry, still in a state of disbelief.
Niall McKenna has done the same.
But prior to that culinary endorsement, Gerry received his first real note of recognition when M&S decided to stock Jawbox after a blind tasting.
It was this retail listing that boosted his already strong belief in his brand.
“They fell in love with it,” he says. “They were one of the first and chose it from a blind tasting. To me, that was a big pat on the back. That was the stamp of quality.”
And today Jawbox is stocked in virtually every quality spirits retailer, restaurant and bar here.
It’s also stocked in over 5,000 retail outlets in England, Wales and Scotland. It has successfully risen to fame in the Republic, where Gerry spends two to three days of his working week, and just recently it checked into World Duty Free at Belfast City Airport, John Lennon Airport and London Stansted.
It’s also travelling the globe as Gerry’s exporting trade grows at a phenomenal rate.
“We are in eight different European countries and Spain has to be one of the biggest consumers of gin which is really great for us,” he says.
“We have recently been selling in Canada too and that came about from a conference visitor. A drinks distributor was here, in Belfast, with her husband who ran the Credit Union in Canada and she came into The John Hewitt and tried it. She said she would contact me and I thought nothing more of it, but she did so we started to export it.
“The Asian market has also been a revelation to us and, as we speak, we’re going into Hong Kong.”
But what’s most exciting for the man who quit his day job to follow his dream at the grand age of 57 is Jawbox’s potential to break into America.
“The big one for me is going live in the United States and that will happen at the end of September, beginning of October. The interest there has already been huge.”
Gerry has plans with former colleague and owner of The Dead Rabbit in New York, Sean Muldoon, to launch Jawbox state-side in the World’s Best Bar 2015.
“Being in America is the goal,” he says. “Years ago, I worked with Sean in The Northern Whig so we’re talking to the guys and would hope to do the launch there. That would be perfect. It would be great, two Belfast guys doing their own thing.”
It’s been a whirlwind two years for Jawbox since it hit the shelves and a transformational experience for Gerry.
While he won’t quantify the rate at which production line is progressing, he does say that in January this year he’s produced more gin than over both November and December 2017, “because the demand is growing so fast”.
“I always believed it would be a success but the speed and the volume at which it’s grown, I thought, would take us four years to get to that,” he says.
Reaching out to his colleagues in the bar trade, where he spent most of his glory days, he says: “I hope when I’m out doing talks that I can be an inspiration to people, especially those who are a little older. I was paid handsomely, at 57, in a job that I loved. It was a huge risk to leave that. I cashed in my pension and savings to start this. So, everything that I had went into this gin.
“My life has completely changed. It’s given me an energy. What I can achieve in a day is amazing.”
Beyond the American dream, Gerry says there is still “a lot to look forward to” with Jawbox and hints that different variants of the gin are on the not-so-distant horizon.
“It’s exciting,” he says.