Phil Kemp visits three of our local artisan distilleries to get a taste of the craft gin explosion

The gin industry throughout the country is reportedly experiencing a booming demand for one of the nation’s favourite tipples. And with total sales of almost £2 billion across the sector last year it’s perhaps not surprising that small-batch artisan producers are joining in to share their own unique take on what makes an outstanding gin. And going by the response that the three local distilleries I visited are having from customers keen to try their very unique gins I can see why.

Officially defined as a juniper-based spirit with an ABV (alcohol by volume) of at least 37.5%, what makes the difference with the individual gins is how the artisan distilleries develop their own taste recipes when they add herbs, spices and flavourings known as botanicals. And also what gives these small distilleries a unique edge is that they have the flexibility to create a bespoke gin to cater for your own individual taste!

Tucked away on the 500-year-old Thundry Farm in Elstead, the Elstead Village Distillers launched two years ago as the brainchild of Neil Redit and Paul Shubrook.

“I have a scientific background and was keen to investigate how gin and other spirits are made,” explained Neil. “Paul joined with me to go to a ‘gin experience’ at the City of London Distillers where we got to choose what botanicals to use for the flavour we wanted and distil our own individual bottles of gin from a one-litre still. Our friends and family got to taste them and we got lots of positive comments. Then having later gone to a gin festival at Tobacco Dock in East London, where we tried lots of different gins, we decided to set our own company up to make gin in small batch production.”

The striking woodcut designs by Nick Pettit on their Thundry Hills Gin bottles provide a Surrey Hills rural canvas, with wildlife and various plants representing the botanicals used. “On the botanicals you of course have juniper and usually coriander seed and angelica as the basic ones, and everything else you add gives it the distinctive smell and taste you want.” Neil smiled as he added that in experimenting with flavours he’s created a tonka bean gin – and a tangerine and macadamia nut gin he called Cloudy Skies, because when you add tonic it goes cloudy due to a reaction with the macadamia oil.

“Our Thundry Hills Sanctuary I would say is popular with traditional gin drinkers who like a punchy juniper flavour, and it makes a fantastic pink gin too. The Original is middling juniper and we add a little sweet orange peel and caraway seed in the still when we distil it. It’s quite subtle with a bit of an edge and is good for making cocktails. And then our fruit gin is PM, with pear and mango. Unlike fruit gins in supermarkets which are coloured, ours are clear. This is because our gins are classed as ‘London dry gin’ which means that the gin is distilled once – nothing is added to it after the distillation before it goes into the bottle other than spring water. You are drinking what the alcohol has pulled out of the fruit and is unlike drinking say pear and mango juice. It has a different profile – quite subtle.”

Like the other distilleries I visited, Thundry Hills Gin is made in small production batches. “We hand-bottle about 50 bottles a time, then we cork it, label it and each is hand-batched and bottle numbered.”

I met with Jeanette Bird, who runs the Sandhills Gin distillery with her husband Tom and family-friend Brian, at The Godalming Deli where their gin was officially launched in December last year. Their very distinctive yellow bottle, with its raised embossed design of alchemy symbols visually representing their ‘Alchemy of Tradition & Innovation’ slogan, sat enticingly on the table between us.

“Tom returned from a business trip to Hong Kong where he had tried redistilled gin (when the base spirit is first distilled and then a separate distillation adds the botanical flavouring) which got him interested in making gin,” explained Jeanette. “We got a copper pot to experiment with and then had a go at cold vacuum distilling as well, and really liked what we were tasting, which is where the Sandhills story started.”

As Jeanette talked I tried a taster she had poured out and which very quickly brought her account of flavourings to life.

“We liked the fact that by using a copper pot we get a real depth of flavour from it – but as a lot of botanicals get tarnished in that heat we also cold distil. And that’s our combination really and how our gin evolved as we experimented with different botanicals. We like a citrus gin so we were trying different citrus elements. And we happened upon yuzu which is an Asian grapefruit, and the orange adds a lovely freshness to it.

“Then we wanted some local elements, so we have honey which comes literally from the top of the hill, Sandhills bees. And gorse flower, which is the amazing yellow flower which we pick locally and add to the gin. And as you picked up when you tried it just now we wanted a long finish to the gin. So, to add something spicy at the end we used Tasmanian pepperberry and black cardamom. And in amongst the other botanicals we’ve also got lemon balm and Douglas fir which we grow in the garden – and dandelion root which binds all of the botanicals together.”
Sandhills also rather uniquely uses water drawn from a borehole that taps into the Surrey Hills aquifer deep beneath their garden.

Sandhills are understandably proud of the fact that having approached Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly they were proclaimed Spirit of The Month in June and now regularly take part in tastings at the store. And a month later they were awarded bronze in the International Wines & Spirits Competition ‘Contemporary Style Gin’ category.

Ian Cox, who introduced himself as ‘Head of Ginfluence’ at the Village Spirit Collective – for reasons that will become apparent – had two significant milestones almost coincide and which gave him time to reflect. Hitting 50 and being made redundant gave him a new focus and resulted in him setting up a distillery.

“I’d always enjoyed gin as a consumer but really had no idea as to how it was produced. So I started reading a lot of books, visiting as many distilleries as I could, and really educating myself in the whole process of gin production,” Ian said. “However, in a fairly crowded market with lots of small producers all trying to do something different I wasn’t just going to be a ‘me-too’ producer. Living just outside the beautiful village of Hambledon with its terrific cricket pitch, church and pub – and a real sense of community – got me thinking.

There is a village shop and post office that is owned by the villagers, and I had got into a routine where I would walk the dog in the morning and would end up sitting outside the shop. I’d watch everyone come and go. Those coming for a newspaper and a cup of tea, the builders popping in for sandwiches, the kids from the local school. Everyone socialising as a community. And I thought to myself if there is one thing that I can do that is different from these other small producers, it’s in some way involving the community in this enterprise.”

And so came the flash of inspiration to form a collective for local people to help participate in producing the craft spirit. Once Ian had secured the necessary licences for a commercial micro-distillery, which is located in a converted building in his garden, he set about recruiting his ‘Ginfluencers’.

“I got together 30 gin lovers from the village. I distilled all of the botanicals individually, about 20 or so individual botanicals, and I got my Ginfluencers to taste all those botanicals individually and tell me what they did like and didn’t like. That allowed me to create a recipe which effectively reflected the tastes of the village community – and produce a gin specifically around that. This has worked tremendously well and we launched Vann Lane Gin (named after the road that runs through the village) in September last year.”

Ian does all of the distilling and bottling with the support of his wife Alpa who looks after the marketing and social media aspects, and apparently keeps Ian on track by acting as his project manager too. They have two or three Ginfluencer sessions a year to devise new botanical recipes. This resulted in a summer gin they called The Summer Spirit which used locally sourced rhubarb and honey from hives in the village as additional botanicals.

Ian repeated the whole collective process in Haslemere. Their Ginfluencers came up with a different blend of botanicals which included a very floral elderflower flavour, balanced by some pepper, for their Haslemere Gin.

“We also create special blends for private parties, perhaps a special birthday, where I come along with all of the botanicals and people get to blend their own particular gin. And we can do the same for businesses where they give specially branded bottles to their favoured clients as Christmas gifts.”

Having tasted the fantastic range of gins from all three distilleries, I thoroughly recommend that you check out their websites and social media pages to find out where you too can enjoy these.

Phil Kemp is a Godalming-based writer and photographer.

There are now many other local gin distilleries in our area, so do have a look online to discover even more!

Elstead Village Distillers

Sandhills Gin

The Village Spirit Collective