Carmen O’Neal is currently celebrating being crowned the best gin producer in the UK.
Her 58 Gin Distillery, based in a Hackney railway arch and so-named because it took 58 batches of gin to perfect the recipe, has just won the coveted International Wines and Spirits Competition (IWSC) 2020 UK Gin Producer of the Year Award – this is like the Oscars of the drinks industry and should come as no surprise as the Distillery has come a long way since its conception in 2014, with Carmen responsible for its success.
Carmen has taken 58 Gin from an initial batch of 35 bottles of London Dry Gin, to producing a full range of tens of thousands of bottles per annum, alongside a running an on-site Gin School and an online Make Your Own Gin service. Earlier this year Carmen spearheaded the launch of the UK’s first gin-based hard seltzers and now 58 Gin supplies major premium retailers such as Harvey Nichols.
And all the while Carmen has instilled a sustainable ethos in every area of the business. The team prides itself in its ethical distilling process, sourcing wonky and foraged botanicals from Loddington Farm in Kent, where the Distillery also donates its botanical waste for composting – it’s a real full circle approach.
58 Gin Distillery was also the first in the country to switch gin production to hand sanitiser at the start of the pandemic, which it did in-part for charitable causes.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I’m originally from Canada and have had an entrepreneurial spirit for as long as I can remember. I started my first business aged just six years old, making and selling Christmas wax ornaments to my friends and family – I think they knew then just how tenacious I can be!
I’ve always wanted to own my own business, initially I wanted to work in fashion, designing wedding shoes, but a chance meeting saw me move into the drinks industry and I haven’t looked back. Drinks are forever evolving as consumers demand healthier and more sustainable offerings, it’s a constantly evolving and fascinating industry.
My role is to drive innovation. Gin production is an increasingly competitive industry, especially in the UK, so we have to always be thinking a step ahead. We were the first distillery in the UK to create a hard seltzer using premium gin as a base, rather than vodka. We’ve gone big on sustainability too, our 70cl bottles of Apple & Hibiscus, English Berry, Navy Strength and London Dry Gin are packaged in fully recyclable glass bottles, including a glass cork and we use surplus Cox’s Apples in the production of our Apple & Hibiscus Gin and foraged sloes for our English Berry – both these flavours are very popular at the moment.
We’re now planning the installation of solar panels and a roof garden where we can grow our own botanicals, to make our distillery as eco-friendly as possible.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
I can’t say that I did, but I always knew I would be the driving force behind my own company. I have a tendency to not stop until I’ve accomplished what I set out to achieve. I grew up with an entrepreneurial mother and have definitely inherited her drive and entrepreneurial spirit. She ran her own successful business selling essential oils, so not only was I inspired to run my own company from an early age, I was also exposed to distilling, which still fascinates me now.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
Everybody faces challenges and it’s dealing with them that builds perseverance.
After moving from Canada to London to study at the London College of Fashion, I launched my first business as an adult, where I designed custom-made wedding shoes, but this career was cut short. In 2014 I was involved in a serious road accident, which meant I could no longer make shoes putting an end to my fashion career.
But it all happened for a reason. It was a chance meeting several months later that led me to move into the world of gin and now fully recovered, I haven’t looked back.
Covid-19 undoubtedly brought challenges too, but that drive kicked in again and I knew we had to adapt quickly, so we pivoted and in just three days we became the first distillery in the UK to switch gin production to producing hand sanitiser. We were a powerhouse for the alcohol industry, with other distilleries following the path we’d created.
We’ve supplied the sanitiser to drinks industry charity, The Drinks Trust, as well as NHS trusts, Marie Curie Hospices and the Police. Now we also sell ‘Gin-itizer’ on our website to people wanting a WHO-approved sanitiser which also smells divine!
I don’t think anyone likes failing, but failing we can all learn a lot from – if you don’t fail, you’re not trying hard enough.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
It has to be beating some of the UK’s biggest gin brands to the IWSC 2020 UK Gin Producer of the Year Award. We were up against drinks giants with sites in several continents – so as a growing independent, it means so much for our team to be recognised for the amazing work it does.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
Perseverance most definitely, but also treating people with respect along the way. It is possible – and important – to care while running a business. Relationships are key to success, support people where you can.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
Mentoring is something I am very open to, I love the idea of helping someone grow. As a mentor, you learn from your mentee in return, we all learn off each other. Gone are the days of people elbowing each other out of the way, there’s much more support from colleagues and peers now – someone’s success doesn’t mean someone else’s failure – and it’s rewarding to share knowledge with those starting out or needing a hand along the way.
I have also always sought out sounding boards myself. It’s so reassuring to have someone else in business to run things by, someone you can pick up the phone to. Even if you’re in completely different industries, often the hurdles are the same.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?
Encourage more females into the drinks industry. I can count on one hand the number of female gin distillers I know. There are also many more male bartenders, we need to encourage more women into this industry. Men and women bring different skills and approaches so there’s a real need for gender balance.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
I wish I’d known back then that my drive will get me to where I want to be. I’m not there yet, but I know now that it will happen.
When I was younger I was also concerned with what people thought about me. Now, I realise it doesn’t matter what other people think and there was no need for me to worry about that. I actually really like who I am. Yes, I’m human and I’ve had failings among the successes, but those failures don’t define me, in fact I’ve learnt so much from them.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
I want 58 Gin to be a household name. I want everyone to know who we are and what the brand stands for. I also want to see us start to create some limited-edition gins and do more collaborations. Stay posted as there’ll be a lot happening at 58 Gin!
WeAreTheCity has a back catalogue of thousands of Inspirational Woman interviews, including Cherie Blair, Paula Radcliffe MBE, Caprice Bourret, Anna Williamson and many more. You can read about all our amazing women here.