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Norwich. A city of mavericks and makers, creators and trail blazers. A big-hearted city beneath even bigger skies, and open air, open minds. In Norwich, everyone has a story to tell. And we’ll be sure to tell it. Every month, we’ll be sitting down with local writers, designers, makers, artists and influencers to discuss life in Norwich. This week we’re joined by Craig Allison, co-founder of Gyre & Gimble bar & Gin Academy.
Craig is no stranger to the hospitality sector, having worked in bars since the age of 16. What started out as a part-time job polishing cutlery and collecting glasses has developed into an extensive career of managing bars across the globe. Craig has even spent time running bars in Sydney, where he really honed his cocktail making skills and his understanding of the industry. Today, Craig runs Gyre & Gimble, a stunning new cocktail bar and gin academy in Norwich that he founded with co-owner and friend, Rory Smith. We sat down with Craig to discuss his colourful career in the hospitality industry and the inspiration behind Gyre & Gimble.
How did you get into your chosen career/profession, and why did you decide to pursue this in Norwich?
I started the way a lot of people in the hospitality industry do I suppose – by collecting glasses in bars when I was 16, and then the day I turned 18 started working behind the bar and I’ve sort of fallen into it from there really! Once I had finished school I decided to do some travelling and went to live in Sydney for four years, where I really learned the trade and honed my cocktail making skills, as well as management on a larger scale. Back home, my parents had moved to Norwich from Essex so when I came back I crashed there while thinking of my next plans, and it had everything I love – a lively bar scene, great local food and drink, fantastic coffee. I worked for independent bars in the city and then joined Bullards and was instrumental in establishing them as a gin brand.
We – that is me and co-owner Rory Smith – opened the Gyre & Gimble bar, next to Strangers Hall on Charing Cross, in the summer of 2019. Then we added the Gin Academy – actually a separate room, in the same premises, where we have 8 miniature stills set up for people to come and make their own unique gin with us over 2 hours while learning a bit about the history of gin, and the technical development of individual gins, what flavours come from different botanicals and which garnishes match them best.
What do you love most about Norwich and why?
For me, it’s the genuine community feel and creativity that Norwich has, and its willingness to champion the local producers and businesses that make it unique. The area offers a wonderful quality of life and I love being able to visit the coast (15% of all profits from our coastal gin Callooh Callay go to Friends of Horsey Seals) and Whitlingham, as well as having access to our beautiful countryside. I also met my partner here who is from Norwich, so to me it just felt right to set down roots here. I genuinely think that there’s something very special about Norwich that encourages and fosters independence and creativity. Setting up the Gyre and Gimble bar and launching our spirits this year has been a fantastic adventure, one which I’m not sure would have been the same elsewhere.
Favourite place(s) to eat in Norwich?
Ah, so many great options to choose from! Being so close to the centre of the city, I get my lunch pretty much every day from one of the street food stalls on Norwich market. Current favourites include Taste of Shanghai and the fusion noodle soups from Norwich Fresh – my time in Australia definitely gave me a taste for pan-Asian flavours and both of those stalls serve it up perfectly. For similar reasons I love Blue Joanna with their tasty small plates, and fantastic atmosphere. If I’m going a bit more traditional, Logan’s Sandwich Bar is a top choice and for evenings out, the food at Farmyard is outstanding – their passion for, and creativity with, local produce means that there’s always something to surprise, that will definitely taste amazing. Chef Andrew Jones’ other restaurant at The Dial House in Reepham is also a family favourite, especially for their Sunday roasts. And I love what they do in terms of community involvement, with their winter coat collection and dementia-friendly services.
Favourite place(s) for a coffee/beverage?
I’m a big coffee fan and Little Red Roaster on the market has got to be my favourite – really sets me up for the day! Drinks wise, when I’m not enjoying our new gins I like heading to The Rosebery, and am really pleased that Gonzo’s is still going with a new investor! Brewdog is probably the most independent of the chains, so I sometimes head there too. It’s been great to see the innovation in responses to Covid restrictions around the city – Junkyard Market and the pop-ups from curious directive at 49 Elm Hill in particular have worked really well.
What did you miss most during lockdown? What were the first things you did/places you visited after lockdown was lifted?
There’s a huge social side to working in hospitality, and I really missed that as well as family and friends. I discovered that spaniels and toddlers truly do have limitless energy – and I also know the walks around Whitlingham Lake like the back of my hand now! The first place I visited was my old stomping ground in Essex, to see my Dad and grandparents which was so lovely after all that time apart. We also enjoyed an extended family break in a house in Brancaster over the summer, celebrating a 30th birthday and an engagement celebration. It was so good to be spending time with family and talking about something other than Covid for once!
What was your experience of lockdown like, and do you have any lockdown tips/recommendations for our readers?
There’s no two ways about it, lockdown was tough. I definitely suffered from cabin fever. As a business owner of course it was stressful – worrying not only about the professional and personal impact on me, but also the wider team. Creating Gyre & Gimble as a spirits brand and having that work to do really got me through it – I’m not someone who can sit idle for long. As well as launching the three gins, we’ve been developing the next spirits to join the range. Our first rum will hopefully be ready to go early 2021. We were planning to reopen in December with a brand new ‘Wilful waste makes woeful want’ cocktail menu, which is as close to zero waste as we can possibly get it and includes some really innovative combinations. You’ll just have to wait a little bit longer for that now!
I’d always recommend getting out in the beautiful countryside for a walk with the dogs (and in my case, a toddler too!), and like a lot of people this year, it’s really got me thinking about moving further out into the countryside to have that freedom to roam on the doorstep. On the odd occasion that I did have time to kick back and relax, I re-watched a few of the modern classics on Netflix like Peaky Blinders – thankfully the customers in our bar are far better behaved than those that frequent The Garrison!
And finally, what does ‘Norwich’ mean to you, or can you tell us your favourite memory of the city?
I love this city. One of my favourite memories is from the year before last, and the Lanes Summer Fayre. Seeing the whole of St Benedict’s absolutely buzzing, with what felt like the whole of Norwich out to play, was amazing. There are so many fantastic independents in this part of the city, but we’re usually all working too hard to see much of each other so that day was really special. While we’re firmly rooted in Norwich, we’d love to be able to expand to new locations at some point – Cambridge is first on the list, not least because it shares a lot of the Norwich vibe. That’s a little way off for now though – for 2021 we’re fully focused on developing the potential of Gyre & Gimble on home turf!