How a vicar’s homemade gin liqueurs healed a divided community and helped the needy
Despite having the sort of comfortable background that would have easily secured him a life of luxury and ease, Hubert Bell Lester set himself on a very different path.
Born in England in 1868, Hubert was the son of a wealthy merchant family. After graduating from Cambridge University, he was set to follow in his father’s footsteps working in the family business, living a life of privilege and comfort.
Hubert was an extremely social person; he enjoyed meeting and talking to people from all kinds of backgrounds. He also enjoyed drinking gin and became interested in the process of making it. Gin was, of course, the popular drink of the day in England at that time, but the spirit was not high quality, the alcoholic strength was often too high and there was a lack of purity due to poor distillation. Hubert became curious about the way gin distilling and recipes were changing to create safer and more palatable gin-based drinks.
At the same time as he was enjoying his foray into the world of gin, Hubert saw a country emerging that troubled him. He was extremely conscious of the massive gap between the rich and poor, as well as escalating racial and social tensions alongside the extreme poverty in many parts of the country. He, himself, had spent time in the lavish gin palaces of London and was left with an increasing sense of guilt and a growing desire to change things.
Hubert was strong willed and resourceful; despite his family’s objections he gave up all his privileges and chose another way, following his desire to help those less fortunate than himself.
One cold winter’s day he set off to Keighley, Yorkshire, then one of the most poverty-stricken districts in the country, taking not much more than a sack with a few worldly possessions, the clothes on his back and a battered old gin encyclopaedia.
Hubert joined the Church locally and as his popularity grew, he became Reverend of Keighley, assembling a large, but also diverse and fragmented congregation of followers. The challenge of uniting this diverse community and raising money to support those in need of help seemed insurmountable.
Then he had a brilliant idea. Why not put his passion for gin to good use by creating a high-quality gin-based drink to help bring together his diverse community, as well as others, to buy and enjoy which could in turn raise money?
But Hubert knew distilling and selling alcoholic drinks, even for such a good cause, would be problematic. Not only would it be illegal under the Licensing Act of 1902, but it would also shock the Church establishment, and there would be a need to pay very high taxes to the local Marshalls, appointed by the Archbishop of York, depleting the money that could be used for those in the community in greatest need.
So, he did it anyway in secret. Working with like-minded members of his congregation, he started creating recipes and distilling. He would regularly hide his gin still (Gertrude) and relocate his gin making activities to various wooded areas across Yorkshire to hide them from prying eyes.
Famously, he was even arrested by the Marshalls and imprisoned for several days, until he agreed to give up his still. He had another old rusty version hidden in an oak tree for just
such an emergency.
Hubert, by now known affectionately as ‘The Rev’, then set out to create memorable drinks worthy of the big annual celebrations which he particularly loved as these brought everybody together. Wintertime with its focus on Christmas and especially summertime with its Fetes, when he could select fruits such as plums and rhubarb from the vicarage garden. Hubert’s recipes and distillation methods were designed to create a popular tasty more drinkable gin drink at lower alcoholic strength, 20-30% ABV with a high degree of purity, blending carefully selected real fruit and natural spices of high quality.
His gin drinks were of course a roaring success and eventually became Keighley’s worst kept secret.
Today, the creative spirit of Hubert, ‘The Rev’, lives on through his great-grandson, Thomas Lester, who has inherited Hubert’s original recipe book. These old gin recipes have been his inspiration for the creation of Reverend Hubert Winter Gin Liqueur (27% ABV), bursting with aromatic notes of dried fruits, winter spices and organic citrus zest and Reverend Hubert Summer Cup (20.1% ABV), made with prizewinning plums, rhubarb, sweet pomegranate and tart cranberries for a perfect balance of smoothness and a refreshing zing.