Creating a range of gins that Teesside can be proud of has become a reality for Thornaby-born Jay Byers.
A world away from the slick corporate branding of some major labels, Steel River Gin was born and bred on the Tees and evokes the spirit of all that’s unique and wonderful about our region.
With eye-catching packaging featuring the iconic Transporter Bridge, uplit bottle and detachable filled “ginflask”, Steel River gin is the culmination of a dream for its creator.
On track for a £1m turnover, Steel River’s story is even more amazing given that just three years ago Jay had no experience or formal training in distilling, no money, a broken heart and mental health issues!
“I owned a rundown property just outside Granada in Spain with my ex-partner,” says Jay, whose background is in hospitality.
“Sadly, the financial crisis happened and we ended up back in the UK.”
Jay’s resulting depression caused the couple to split and, pulling the last of his cash together, he flew back to Spain in a bid to reset his life.
In Granada Jay saw how popular gin was and decided to hold a festival, persuading producers to make the trip and put their product in front of 250 gin lovers.
“It didn’t make money but it gave me a purpose,” admits Jay.
With a new found love of the drink and a contact who would become his mentor, Jay headed back to Teesside to launch a gin cruise business.
“I was living in my parents’ house, in my old bedroom, with about £30 to my name,” he laughs.
Within three days Steel River Gin Cruises were sold out.
“I realised very quickly that Teessiders wanted their own gin,” he says.
With the help of his mentor, who provided equipment and training, Jay created Stainsby Girl, a bright blue concoction of prickly pear, watermelon, fig and grapefruit.
Named after a song by his hero Chris Rea, Jay marketed Stainsby Girl on Facebook.
The Teesside-centric packaging and backstory hit a chord with followers.
“My A level art came in handy,” laughs Jay, who did all the design himself.
“The Steel River premium bottle is very masculine, so I wanted to soften it,” he says.
“I designed a detachable mini ‘ginflask’ and came up with the concept of an uplit bottle.”
Five more fabulous gins followed the launch of Stainsby Girl – El Classico, Pink Dragon, Northern Lights, Club Tropicana and Very Berry.
With the advent of Covid, more people were drinking at home and looking for a gin to savour – and sales went through the roof.
By April 2020, Steel River had to fight to keep up with demand from clients as far afield as the US.
The search is now on for bigger premises and Jay has big dreams for the future.
“We’d love a Steel River Café Bar – a place where you can have a drink but also see the gin being made. We’re also planning a gin school and a book will soon be published about the brand’s journey.”
Amid all this good news, Jay recognises how low he had been and has vowed to give back.
He supports the Middlesbrough and Teesside Philanthropic Foundation, donating his time and gin hampers for their prize draws.
He has also created the Big Balls drinks range ,which will be sold in bars and pubs, with all the net profits going to worthy causes and initiatives promoting and aiding mental health awareness.
Jay also runs a weekly Community Spirit Award, with a bottle of gin and a trophy presented to an unsung community hero and their story featured on the Steel River Drinks’ website.
“Teesside welcomed me with open arms when I was at my lowest and I will never forget that,” says Jay.
Find out more: Steelriverdrinks.com.