EU referendum: The view from the gin distillery

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Jamie Baxter and Phil BurleyImage source, Burleighs Gin
Image caption,
Master distiller Jamie Baxter and business partner Phil Burley enjoy a glass of gin and tonic - and differing views on the EU

Trade with other European countries has been one of the main talking points as people consider how to vote in the EU referendum. So what do two gin makers whose company in the Midlands gets a fair measure of its business from Spain think?

In a small bar overlooking the Mediterranean somewhere on the Costa de Almeria you could enjoy a quality gin and tonic while contemplating whether to vote Leave or Remain.

You would be in good company. You may not know it but Spain is one of the world's biggest consumers of gin.

Meanwhile, hidden in Leicestershire's ancient Charnwood Forest is a shiny new distillery making London dry gin. The two owners are both amiable, charismatic businessmen but they have wildly opposing views on the European Union.

Phil Burley, owner of Burleigh's Gin, estimates the Spanish gin market is three to four times the size of the British equivalent and is busy setting up a sister company on the Iberian Peninsular.

But he says: "It wouldn't make one iota of difference to us if we were out of the EU. It's time we got out."

Image caption,
Burleigh's started distilling its London Dry Gin less than two years ago

Mr Burley and his business partner, master distiller Jamie Baxter, sit on opposite sides of the argument but both are equally passionate about - and as convinced of - their beliefs.

Mr Baxter thinks the protection of gin and the simplicity of trade within the union are its strengths.

Mr Burley thinks the opposite.

"We need to be self governing. I don't believe the EU is in Britain's best interests," he said. "When the Common Market was first established there was no internet, no communication, no Ryanair," he says.

"The point of it was to aid trade and movement. But that's all changed. We don't need the EU to do that any more."

How do the Spanish take their gin?

Image source, Getty Images

With a tonic, obviously.

Jamie Baxter said a new glass has been developed, the copa de balon, designed to enhance the taste and smell.

They also fill the glass with ice, rather than just a couple of cubes, which rapidly cools the liquid and prevents it from melting and diluting the drink.

"Even quite ordinary bars in Spain will have 20 different gins and six different tonics," he says.

"They do a lot of work on what garnishes go well with your gin and tonic "

Mr Burley points to the teetering economies of Greece, Italy and the gin-loving Spanish and lays the blame squarely at the gates of Brussels.

And he is growing increasingly angry at the level of debate in both referendum camps.

"They couldn't even agree how much money goes to the EU and how much comes back. It's all part of your cash flow.

"They are raising taxes to pay for the EU and they can't even agree how much it costs. You can't run a business or your own personal finances like that."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
In the 18th Century - when Hogarth engraved Gin Lane - the spirit was seen as the cause of many of society's problems

Any argument that the UK would suffer on its own is rubbished by Mr Burley.

"The UK is not an exporter any more. It's the financier, the clearing house of Europe. Being realistic, everything should be in our favour if we leave.

"The rest of Europe need our banks to finance their business, they aren't going to stop doing business with us."

And he does not see it as a contradiction that his wife and children live in Spain.

"I've set up a business here in Spain. We've done all the paperwork, pay the local taxes, obey the laws. It's legally Spanish.

"Why would they stop me doing that if we're not in the EU? I can do the same in China."

Image caption,
Under UK law, the copper stills used to make gin come under "more onerous" legislation than they do in the rest of the EU, Jamie said

His business partner Mr Baxter, on the other hand, comes at it from a more emotional standpoint.

"I'm half Scots and half Austrian - I'm European," he says. "I've lived and worked all over Europe - that freedom of movement is really important to me."

He readily admits the system is not perfect, but believes it is the best option for the UK.

"From the business side, everybody complains about red tape but in the spirits world everything is very clearly defined and gives us a level playing field.

"An EU regulation, now enshrined in UK law, sets out how to make London gin. That's the gold standard."

That regulation, EU Regulation 110/2008, governs the process of making three grades of gin, the highest quality being London gin, otherwise known as dry or London dry gin.

It does not set out what is used to flavour the drink but does ban adding anything other water or a tiny bit of sweetener.

While he is on the topic, Mr Baxter points out the EU is not always the bureaucratic nightmare it is made out to be.

The UK government considers the equipment used to make gin - copper stills - to be "pressure vessels" and as a result they are covered by what he describes as "onerous legislation". But that is not the case in the rest of Europe.

And he says trade with the continent is fundamental to the UK's membership.

EU Regulation 110/2008

Image source, Getty Images
  • London gin is a type of distilled gin: obtained exclusively from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin, with a maximum methanol content of 5 grams per hectolitre of 100 % volume alcohol, whose flavour is introduced exclusively through the redistillation in traditional stills of ethyl alcohol in the presence of all the natural plant materials used

"Our biggest export market is Spain but we export all over Europe and the rules for exporting to every country are the same and that makes it easy," he says.

"I'm sure if we left the EU we could continue to export to these countries. If we vote to leave we will have to find a way round it.

"It's an added complication, to say nothing about the risks of tariffs making British products too expensive."

The two businessmen may not see eye-to-eye on the EU, but they consider their differences a strength for the small firm, which will shortly celebrate its second anniversary.

"It's like rugby," Mr Burley says. "We don't agree on that but it doesn't matter.

"If we didn't have any differences then the business wouldn't work as it does."

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