For Carmen O'Neal's eco gin distillery, last year was a tale of triumph over disaster.

After being forced to stop production in March and pivoting to make juniper scented 'hand ginitizer' 58 Gin rounded off 2020 winning the IWSC's prestigious UK Gin Producer of The Year.

"When they rang to tell me I started crying and said 'are you sure?' she laughs. "We're just a team of four and to be recognised that year of all years was huge."

The Canadian-born entrepreneur started small in 2015 in a railway arch in Hackney Downs. Less than a year after refurbing new premises in Haggerston - upgrading from a 60 litre to a shiny 450-litre still - the pandemic hit and orders stopped overnight.

Ham & High: The 450 litre still is at the heart of the production processThe 450 litre still is at the heart of the production process (Image: 58 Gin)

"Bars, restaurants, small independents, our entire business stopped, it was the most emotional turmoil I have ever gone through. We couldn't get hold of glass bottles, so we converted to making hand sanitizer in three days. I see my staff as family and said 'whatever needs to happen'. We supplied the Met Police, NHS Marie Curie. It meant long days but we just imagined if we could save one person's life because they sprayed this on."

Ham & High: 58 Gin is based in a refurbished railway arch at Acton Mews, Haggerston58 Gin is based in a refurbished railway arch at Acton Mews, Haggerston (Image: 58 Gin)

She added: "We are in another railway arch and are fortunate that during lockdown all the business have bound together and created even more of a community."

O'Neal restarted gin production last July, selling direct and supplying cocktail delivery services. 58 Gin - named after the number of batches it took to get it right - includes London Dry, Navy Strength, Apple and Hibiscus, and English Derby. All are made with the utmost care for the planet, from packaging to using surplus apples and recycling them as compost, to plans for solar panels to power the still.

"We try to look at every step with an eco lens. It's not always the most cost-effective but even if a small company like ours can make a small difference what says that can't have a knock on effect?"

A shoemaker before an accident caused a hand injury that ended her career, O'Neal set out to create a "balanced gin" that could be used in a G&T or martini. Their signature London Dry is a citrus and spice blend of sweet Egyptian lemons, bergamot, coriander and cubeb pepper, best served with pink grapefruit.

The botanicals go through the still "low and slow" and only the best liquor from each batch is added to water which has undergone a nine stage filtration.

Ham & High: Carmen O'Neal who won the IWSC's Gin Producer of the Year 2020Carmen O'Neal who won the IWSC's Gin Producer of the Year 2020 (Image: 58 Gin)

"What's great about gin is everyone has personal preferences and people have got more adventurous and it doesn't have to be made only one way."

Although craft gin is a crowded market, O'Neal thinks "it's great there's a lot of variety and the key is staying true to producing high quality liquid."

Pre pandemic they were renowned for their gin school and distillery experience. Now they've "got creative" with virtual tastings, but for when restrictions lift, O'Neal is planting a courtyard of wildflowers and botanicals outside their Acton Mews HQ.

2021 sees them launch an English vodka and O'Neal predicts their 4 percent gin seltzers will match a growing trend for lower alcohol drinks.

"Covid has been extremely tough but I think people have become more conscious of what they are drinking making cocktails at home, and choosing quality over quantity which is good for craft distillers."