The story begins in 1760, when Thomas Dakin built his distillery on Bridge Street in Warrington, north-western England. The grain harvests of the preceding few years had been so poor that the government prohibited gin manufacture in order to maintain the grain supply for bread making. This had delayed the project and Dakin did not start distilling until 1761.
Back in 18th century Warrington, easy access to both the river Mersey and the canal network meant the town was at the centre of trade routes between London and Liverpool, ideally situated to take full advantage of the Industrial Revolution. This gave Dakin, then a young entrepreneur, a ready supply of the botanicals and other raw ingredients he needed to make a top quality gin. It also gave him easy access to markets where he could sell it.
Warrington’s location also helped it become a centre of scientific knowledge and technical expertise with its renowned Warrington Academy, home to notable luminaries including the scientist Joseph Priestley, and Reinhold Forster, Captain James Cook’s botanist. No doubt Dakin did not have to look far for the best scientific advice of the day.
Thomas Dakin was one of the first of a new age of gin distillers who set out to distil gins of a much higher quality than the ‘mother’s ruin’ of his predecessors. The industrial age not only provided better stills and distilling technology, it also brought a more discerning customer base in the newly emerging middle classes. Dakin prospered until his death in the 1790s when the gin recipe passed to his son Edward Dakin, who took over the distillery. The precious recipe and the distillery continued to pass down the generations of the Dakin family.
Meanwhile, a mere twenty miles away in the Lancashire town of St Helens, a brewery which had been established in 1762 by Thomas Greenall was also prospering under the control of Thomas’ sons Edward, William and Peter. In 1860, following the death of William Dakin, the founder’s grandson, Edward Greenall leased Dakin’s Bridge Street distillery and, in 1870, purchased the enterprise outright.
Incidentally, the ‘G’ & ‘J’ of the now familiar G&J Greenall comes from Edward Greenall’s younger brothers, Gilbert and John, and in 1894 G&J Greenall became an incorporated company. Dakin’s Warrington Gin was renamed Greenall’s but continued to be made according to Dakin’s original 1761 recipe.
Sadly a fire in 2005 destroyed much of Greenall’s distillery, and with it most of the records from both the Dakin and Greenall’s eras, so it is not known what stills Thomas Dakin used when he started out, nor what infusion method he used for his gin. However, it is known that the Greenall family followed Thomas Dakin’s example and continued to invest in new technology to improve the quality of their gin.
Quite separately the brewing arm of the Greenall’s family also experienced rapid growth and the successive generations that followed Thomas Greenall built the business by acquisition of competing breweries and their tied pub estates to make what became known as Greenall Whitley, one of the largest regional brewers in the country. In 1923 Greenall Whitley’s Chairman, Lord Gilbert Greenall (who was given the hereditary title First Baron Daresbury of Walton by King George V in 1927), decided to diversify into the distilling business through the acquisition of Gilbert & John Greenall Limited. Thus the brewing and distilling interests of the two branches of the Greenall’s family were united.
By 1961, the company boasted more than 1,200 pubs and what had started as simple roadside inns had grown to become the Compass Hotels division. The distilling business also thrived and in 1961, two centuries after Dakin had established the original distillery, G&J Greenall moved to a larger site at Loushers Lane on the outskirts of Warrington. The new distillery was equipped with new, larger stills, a state-of-the art bottling hall and warehouses that allowed Greenall's to expand into contract distilling.
In the 1980s, the company then known as IDV (and now Diageo) bought the Bombay Gin brand but continued to contract G&J Greenall to produce it on their behalf. Up to that point the Greenall’s and Bombay gins were made using the same recipe and as I understand it both gins were made using the vapour infusion method, where, unlike most gins, the botanicals are not steeped in spirit, instead specially adapted stills force the spirit vapour through the botanicals on its way to the condenser.
I have previously been told that in order to differentiate the two gins, production of Greenall’s Original was moved to pot stills and the more usual steeping process while Bombay continued to be made by the vapour infusion method. However, Bacardi-Martini, the present owners of Bombay Gin, claim the vapour infusion method was developed specifically for Bombay Dry in the 1850s. Whatever the truth in this claim, Dakin’s 1761 botanical recipe continued to be shared by the two gin brands (as it does to this day).
G&J Greenall were then contracted by IDV to produce and bottle Bombay Sapphire which was launched in 1988 based on the Bombay Dry recipe, using the same botanicals in much the same proportions but with the addition of cubeb berries and grains of paradise. Incidentally, Bacardi-Martini, who bought Bombay Dry and Bombay Sapphire from Diageo in 1997, continues to contract G&J Greenall to distil and bottle both brands on their behalf.
Then in 1989 the Monopolies and Mergers Commission introduced its ‘Beer Orders’ regulations effectively banning the ‘tied house’. In 1991 this, coupled with overcapacity in Britain's brewing industry, forced Greenall Whitley to close its 230-year-old brewing operation. In turn 770 pubs and 69 budget lodges were sold to Scottish and Newcastle in 1999 for £1.1billion, The Belfry was sold to The Quinn Group in 2005 and the De Vere Hotels were sold to The Alternative Hotels Group, as was G&J Greenall.
In 2005, a fire at the Lousher’s Lane Distillery totally destroyed G&J Greenall’s bottling hall but fortunately the still house was saved and distilling resumed just a week later. The company took the opportunity to move to a new site in Risley, still in the Warrington area, where they built a brand new bottling hall and two new still houses for their precious 1960s copper stills – so spreading the risk should there be another disaster in the future.
In 2006 the Greenall family connection was eventually severed when Lord Daresbury (a descendant of founder Edward Greenall) stepped down from the post of non-executive Chairman and much of the family's interest was sold. However, the company continues to proudly use the Greenall’s family coat of arms and the motto, “I strive higher”.