The Spirit of Freemasonry

Thursday, 10 September 2020

‘When COVID-19 struck the UK and we were advised to isolate, I tried to buy hand sanitiser for my mother, who was shielding following a kidney transplant,’ says Matt Felgate. ‘She has no immune system and I was worried about her catching the virus. I struggled to find any hand sanitiser that I didn’t need to take out a mortgage on to buy!’

When friends suggested to Matt that his mum should consider self-isolating at the gin distillery he runs, ‘they rightly said no germs could survive with all that alcohol I had’. It proved to be Matt’s eureka moment.

Researching which ingredients were needed to make medical-grade sanitiser, Matt found that he already had most of them to hand. ‘With 90 per cent of my stockists closed because of lockdown, I put the high-strength alcohol destined for our gin to what I felt was better use – hand sanitiser.’

Researching which ingredients were needed to make medical-grade sanitiser, Matt found that he already had most of them to hand. ‘With 90 per cent of my stockists closed because of lockdown, I put the high-strength alcohol destined for our gin to what I felt was better use – hand sanitiser.’

Before establishing The Lincoln Distillery, Matt, a member of St Hugh Lodge No. 1386, had served in the military, after which he ‘quite liked the idea of running a pub.’ His wife Jen, meanwhile, fancied managing a B&B.

While checking out the market, the couple heard about a tea room on Lincoln’s famous Steep Hill. The owners were retiring and it was about to become available. ‘It felt like a good compromise,’ remembers Matt.

The couple opened Bunty’s tea room in September 2012, giving it a vintage, nostalgic theme ‘with real china crockery and massive homemade cakes with quirky flavours’. Bunty’s was soon a huge hit. As Matt recounts, there were queues at the door every day, and the tea room even earned a number one slot on TripAdvisor.

It was while running the tea room that Matt started to dabble with distilling. ‘The business was doing well, and I began to think of ways of expanding it,’ he says. ‘I wanted a premium product that we could make, which had a longer shelf life, and one we could offer for delivery by post.’

Seated at an airport bar, Matt realised what that product was to be. ‘The bar had a small built-in distillery,’ says Matt. ‘I spoke to the distiller, sampled one or two of his gins and was fascinated by the copper apparatus and the whole alchemy involved in the process.’

Matt invested in his own kit, which ‘cost around the same as the espresso machine at work’, and taught himself the art of gin-making. ‘It took me a couple of years to learn how to distil – I began to wish I hadn’t dropped A-level chemistry – and to get the necessary licences.’ Matt also visited other distilleries, met with distillers and worked on developing his recipes and thinking of a name for his own gin.

Jen and Matt sold Bunty’s in May 2019, a week after their son was born. ‘That was a horrible week,’ says Matt. ‘My son had sepsis and suspected meningitis and was rushed to intensive care. He nearly didn’t make it. A big thank you to the NHS and Rotherham special baby care unit.’

Matt found himself unemployed and decided to turn his hobby into a business. The Lincoln Distillery, the city’s first commercial distillery to open since the 1860s, was born.

Less than a year later, of course, COVID-19 struck and the business underwent its major metamorphosis, with Matt putting aside botanicals to become a temporary science boffin. The process of switching from gin to hand sanitiser was, he says, relatively straightforward. ‘It helped that I was used to working with, and had permissions to acquire, restricted substances.’

To have an effect on the virus, Matt had to ensure the sanitiser had an alcohol content above 60 per cent abv – as well as source new plastic bottles, containers and labels. ‘We closed down the distillery side of things and adapted the workstations,’ he says. ‘We also made the distillery safe for us with social distancing, sanitiser and handwashing stations, no public access and so on.’

As well as sharing it with family and friends, Matt offered his hand sanitiser to frontline key workers, care homes, the isolated, elderly and vulnerable and the charities working with them. ‘We didn’t realise just how many were struggling to find sanitiser and whose suppliers had either run out or hiked the prices up,’ Matt remembers.

Word spread and the distillery was inundated with orders. Matt’s story even reached Japan, where it was picked up by news site Asahi Digital.

Matt refused to take any payment for his hand sanitiser. ‘It didn’t sit right with me to capitalise on people’s fears and desperation,’ he says. ‘In my eyes, this wasn’t a case of supply and demand. It was a national relief effort and I wanted to do my bit.’

Instead, he launched #CommunitySpirit, a not-for-profit initiative to produce and supply hand sanitiser to front line key workers, the community, vulnerable and hard-to-reach people in Lincolnshire.

‘Many of the people who received hand sanitiser from us had offered to pay something towards the costs as a thank you,’ says Matt. ‘After refusing to accept money from them, someone suggested that we set up a crowdfunding page for them to donate to instead. We also tried to link up with other distilleries and divide the region into zones for each of us to cover in an attempt to ensure as many folk as possible received help.’

The vital work Matt has done with his business dovetails brilliantly with Freemasonry values of benevolence, charity and brotherly love. ‘I saw our work at the distillery as an opportunity to use the [working] tools at our disposal in a charitable way and help those from all walks of life who required assistance,’ he says.

As well as keeping busy with sanitiser distribution, Matt is now once again producing gin and has been developing new products and working on a website, ‘for when things return to some form of normality. We also have a batch of our cask-aged gin due to be bottled in a couple of weeks.’

For more information about Matt’s work, go to www.thelincolndistillery.co.uk or contact him at:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

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