Frustrated with the demands of working in the hospitality sector, and having a desire to run his own business, Tom set about creating an artisan gin distillery in the shed of his parent’s garden. This is the journey taken by Corner Fifty Three and its founder Tom Rudman.
This is part one of a three-part story.
Could you introduce yourself and your business?
I’m Tom Rudman, the founder and managing director of Corner Fifty Three Distilling, a small batch craft industry based in a shed in my parents back garden.
Have you always lived in this area?
We’ve lived in Liphook and Bordon when I was quite young. The family moved here [Clanfield] about six years ago. I’ve always lived in Hampshire though.
I believe you have a bit of a background in the food and drink industry? Mixology and bar tending, or this that just a bit of spin?
No, no, absolutely, I trained at the London Bar School, I had quite a few years behind the bar. I progressed to management quite quickly. That’s not as big headed as it might sound [laughs]. In the hospitality industry, anyone who shows willing is moved into a management role very soon. ‘Are you willing to work fifty hours a week? The job’s yours’ [laughs]. I was a chef then moved to front of house. I’ve worked in hospitality since I was sixteen.
Are you willing to work fifty hours a week? The job’s yours.
I guess this was where the beginning of the idea for your business started?
It was around 2013, when Gin became really popular. Back then we had three bottles on the back bar, then suddenly there was twenty. It was a sudden shift. Being there during that time got me interested in spirits. I worked as a trainer for Fullers Breweries on their spirits categories, I did my WSET’s …
Wines and Spirits Education Trust. It’s basically an Internationally recognised wine and spirits training scheme. I then had a really nice job in a gastro pub in Liphook. One of the key things of that job, was that not only did I learn how to make cocktails, but I also learned how to train people to make cocktails. At the time that was something that I wanted to pursue, how to teach and build training schemes. Then I moved down to the old Customs House in Portsmouth as part of my career progression, taking on a management role in a much bigger pub with a huge turnover.
When was this?
The summer of 2015, when the America’s Cup World Series sailing event was being held over four days in the July. I would have two days off, which used to be a Tuesday and Wednesday. Every other day I would be working from 10:00 am until midnight on a weekday, and until 2 am on the weekend.
Exactly. I thought “right, I have to do something else, this is driving me insane” [laughs]. So, after considerable thought, I went to my mum and dad and said, “we have some space in the garden, please can I have a distillery?”
Mum, Dad, we have some space in the garden, please can I have a distillery?
As you would expect, they took quite a lot of convincing! They said you have to sit on this idea for a while. So I started to do things around the house, digging over the garden, laying tarmac in the front and such like. I should say not on my own, but with my dad, I can’t take all the credit [laughs]. Essentially I was given tasks to do to show that I was serious about this madcap idea.
But you eventually won them over?
Yeah, but I went to work in a bar in Winchester as a bar and cocktails manager, while I started to create and test recipes on my days off. It was a hotel, and again lots of long hours. Not that I haven’t worked longer hours for Corner Fifty Three, but as you will appreciate it’s completely different when it’s for yourself.
Why Gin rather than anything else, did you recognise a gap in the market?
Gin is the most accessible spirit to get into the industry. It’s the reason why it suddenly became so popular. It’s faster and less demanding to distill than either rum or whiskey. You don’t need excessive amounts of equipment, and it can be produced, as we’ve demonstrated here, with smaller stills. So you don’t have to commit too much in the beginning.
Did you go on some sort of distilling course?
I didn’t have any formal training in distilling, so there was a hell of a lot of experimentation to get to the point where we had something that we considered good enough to sell. And, to be honest, I think this is reason that we ended up with something special. If we had gone out and asked for advice on how to do it, it’s likely that it would have just been a clone of everything else that was out there at the time.
Can anyone do it?
You can, but it’s not like home brewing or cider making where you buy a kit and can get started straight away. The legal restrictions and safety aspect are a lot more involved. The UK Government takes 52% of the bottle cost in VAT and alcohol duty, which is why people are tempted to try it at home. However, they are in serious danger of damaging their health if it goes wrong. If you want to poison yourself that’s one thing, but selling to the public is completely different, so it’s a formalised approach with good reason.
If you want to poison yourself that’s one thing, but selling to the public is completely different.
What do you call someone who makes gin?
Illegally it would be a moonshiner [laughs], but I would call myself a rectifier, although pretty much everyone calls themselves distillers. A gin producer is a rectifier, a liqueur producer who doesn’t distill is a compounder and you’re a distiller if you make your alcohol from scratch.
But you weren’t about to set this up on your own I assume?
No. Richard Cope, or Rico as we call him, Chris Bowyer and I were the original team. Richard is a graphic designer, animator and just a very talented creative. He’s an old school friend and was very free with his time. Chris, who now works for Instagram, but has also worked at Nike and Apple in different marketing roles, is a fount of business knowledge. They are both guys that I used to drink with [laughs], who liked the sound of being involved in a startup. It was never about the money. Which is great, because when you’re a startup you don’t have any [laughs].
You’ve got the beginnings of a business team, what’s next?
We had a weekend where my parents were away. Chris and Richard both stayed over, and we had a 72 hour brainstorm. In that time we came up with the branding and designed all the labels. I worked on recipes and stuff. We sat around trying out different things to decide on what we would launch with. It was a fantastic organic process, carried out by people who really didn’t know what they were doing, but just fancied having a go at it.
Who came up with the business name of Corner Fifty Three?
That was between the three of us, me, Richard and Chris. We toyed with names for days to be honest. The original branding concept, the logo with CB&R, was just us sat in the garden talking about what we could do with the original three gins. It ended up being based on our location and a little bit of anonymity. A lot of commercial gins are based on someones name, so we went for something a bit different. We know it’s not perfect, but as a first attempt at building something, we’re really happy with it.
Are Richard and Chris still part of Corner Fifty Three?
They’ve both gone on to bigger things now. Richard has worked on animation for Marvel movies, Chris, as I said, is now working at Instagram developing athletes social media profiles, among other things. I don’t think anyone ever really leaves Corner Fifty Three though, everyone is on this ship until it reaches it’s destination [laughs].
I’ve seen mention of other Corner Fifty Three team members on your website.
One of the things that I consider myself to be very lucky with, is stumbling across people who were, and are, immensely talented. They have all been instrumental in what we have achieved so far. When we first started out, it was a very collaborative effort. There were a lot of people who helped out to put something together, giving up their time, even though they had their own jobs and careers. I’ll always give them the credit for those early days because, without them, it wouldn’t have been possible to get things started.
Your partner, Teigan, is also in marketing?
Yes, we met in 2017. She came onboard helping out with events. She was completing the first year of her business degree at the time and has just finished  her Masters in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship.
Is she local?
She’s from Fareham, Portchester. But once again, someone who is an amazing fount of knowledge and very free with her time.
…and an artist
Yes, she studied fine art and is immensely talented
And then there’s Grandpa
Yeah [laughs]. That’s Jamie our fantastic sales person. He’s only eight years older than me though. He’s incredible as well. He did several years of work with me which only ended because of COVID. He had a family to support and because the business, like everyone’s, suffered in sales during that time, he had to look for another way to bring in the money.