Behind the scenes at Zymurgorium gin distillery in Manchester

PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 October 2019

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Zymurgorium holds the honour of being Manchester’s first gin distillery, and continues to challenge the status quo with imagination and flair

From two men in a shed to a team of 12From two men in a shed to a team of 12

In 2013, Aaron Darke graduated from Aberystwyth University with a degree in Zoology. I am not sure how well he did, as it seems that he spent most of his three years there conducting a form of chemistry.

'Growing up,' says Aaron, 'my auntie Jan and my mum would make loads of jams and chutneys, so when I arrived in Aberystwyth and saw that the local area was full of things to forage, rose hips and sloes, it wasn't much of a leap for me to start using them in my own way. I made rosehip wine, filling the conservatory with demi-johns, and at the same time started trying out a little bit of distillation and brewing. In my second year I met Russ, who is still in the business, we got a tiny still, and moved everything to a basement. In our third year we converted a bathroom to a distillery-cum-brewery.'

Aaron's first stills are on display in their new Irlam distillery, but oh my, how things have progressed since those days in the basement of a student house in Wales. Indeed, things have progressed so far that their new premises are able to increase their output by 18,500%. That's a LOT of gin.

'I came home to Manchester in 2013 determined to start my own business making craft gins and mead. This is where the name Zymorgorium stems from: Zymurgy is the scientific study of brewing and distilling, while 'orium' means shop, as in emporium, where you would find various articles and trinkets.

Aaron DarkeAaron Darke

'There was still no craft gin market at this time. I would walk from bar to bar, with a shopping trolley of our gin, but people would say "why do we need a Manchester gin?" In 2014 we entered a competition, Test Town, where we had to set up our own shop. We won first prize, £10,000, which allowed us to take on some premises and build a still and bottling facility.'

The greatest turning point for Zymorgorium came when Aaron decided to expand their range.

'Sweet Violet was the breakthrough gin. Everyone was doing elderflower and it was actually my mum who suggested violet. LadBible posted about it and the calls kept coming. In less than a week, over seven million people had seen the video, and it was brilliant, but overwhelming. It's a bit of a marmite drink, but it really gets people talking. Now other distillers are making their own versions… which is interesting.'

Russ, who joined Aaron in his earliest distilling adventuresRuss, who joined Aaron in his earliest distilling adventures

Aaron is fascinating; he is interested in everything and knows so much about brewing and distilling and creating delicious things that if there were a degree course in the subject, he could lead it. Actually, there probably is a degree course somewhere, and they're missing a trick. He talks about the concept of 'magical realism', which in literature terms means weaving fantasy and myth into everyday life. You only have to look at the bottle labels, which he designs himself, to get an inkling of how this looks for him and it's a clear source of all the wild and wonderful ideas he comes up with for not only new flavours, but for the onward progression of his business. Indeed, such is the merging of his worlds that the staff-room where we meet resembles every student's fantasy sitting room, with cinema seats for sofas, street art on the walls and his childhood Batman figurine collection in the loo. There's even a sauna, though I am told nobody has had time to use it, yet.

Zymurgorium have set the bar high - if you're going to have a dream, you might as well make it a big, huge, technicolour one. Their range includes proper full strength gins and a selection of gin-based liqueurs, where they really let rip with the imagination. The Flagingo Electric Blue & Scottish Raspberry is a dazzle of pearlescent delight, which turns from blue to pink when you add tonic and - most importantly - tastes really, really good. I've not sampled the Cherry-on-Top Bakewell yet, but it's on my list, as is the intriguing, sparkling, Realm of the Unicorn. As for their gins, the original Manchester gin is a delight, smooth, slightly sweet and very moreish. It has an amazing 21 botanicals from across the world - ginger from the Caribbean, raspberries and honey from Europe, vetiver from Africa. Their Marmalade gin features their only collaboration, with Manchester's own Duerrs, makers of fruit jams and marmalades since 1881.

'We've taken every step our own way,' Aaron says, 'to maintain our ethos and core mission: to be a true Manchester business founded on imagination, creativity and hard work. We remain at the front of the innovation curve and it's just us, nobody to explain to, to ask permission of - it makes us fast to respond. We have a lab where we do a lot of trialling and product development, which is something we get the whole team involved with. These premises are our phase five - phase six is going to be really interesting.

'Zymurgorium was always meant to be this kind of diverse creature. When we first set up we also established the UK's first craft meadery. We did a bit of cider and a bit of rum as well, but these were put to one side as the gin took off and we concentrated on that. Now we're ready to get back into this again - and phase six is to establish a city centre bar with its own still, making craft gins. We've found premises in Old Granada Studios and, hopefully before the end of October, we shall be opening our very own bar - but very much with the Zymurgorium DNA, which means it won't be the usual thing!'

A proud heritageA proud heritage

The new bar will be called Project Halcyon and, says Aaron, will be a celebration of all the best bars in Manchester. 'The idea is to collaborate, for it to be more of a celebration of other bars than it is our own. We want to work with other people and get these other cocktailiers into our establishment, so that they can come and do their own projects within our space - a lot of them have been big supporters of us and the idea is to give something back. It's not meant to be elitist in any way, but we will be having some things there you don't see everywhere in Manchester, such as shots that cost £3,000 to £5,000, and Champagne bottles that are worth £3,000. The idea is to bring a sense of wonderment, something exciting and original.'

Exciting and original are words that the team at Zymurgorium live by, it seems, and I can't wait to see what they do next.

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