There are now so very many varieties of gin, it is truly hard to keep up with the latest offerings.
However, if there’s one gin that is a game-changer in the world of distilling, it’s Surrey Hills very own Sandhills Gin. One of the newest additions to the gin shelf here at The Royal Exchange, we met up with the owners of this exciting product to learn more about their epic journey into the competitive world of gin.
Tell us a bit about how the concept of Sandhills Gin came about and what the journey has been like to date.
The idea to make gin started a couple of years ago, in a gin bar, in Hong Kong. Tom was in town working for a few days and got talking to the bar manager about their re-distilled gins, which seemed to offer endless opportunities to create interesting gins. Upon his return, Tom and a long time gin-loving friend Brian started experimenting and making gin using a small copper pot. Our vision was to create a gin that you would want to return to; which meant it needed to be citrus-led, offering something interesting and fresh, whilst still being a gin in the traditional sense where juniper remains a key botanical. The results were encouraging but something was missing… we loved the depth of juniper that we were getting but some of the more delicate botanicals, such as honey, gorse flower, yuzu and lemon balm seemed to be losing their freshness.
After many more hours of research and speaking with scientists we started experimenting with a rotary evaporator, which allowed us to distil under vacuum at 37 degrees (rather than 79 degrees in a copper pot). We decided that a ‘hybrid distilled’ approach where we combined the use of a traditional copper pot (for the juniper and coriander) with an innovative cold vacuum distillation (for all of the other botanicals) gave the best approach; depth of flavour combined with a light freshness that preserved the very nature of the botanicals used.
The journey has been a bit of a roller coaster! Having taken 18 months to refine the approach and choose the right blend of local and exotic botanicals, we were due to launch in December of last year – two days before we were due to bottle the first batch, our bottles were held up in transit in the midst of Europe and we were unsure whether we would have a product to show for the launch. Nothing like a bit of added stress to add to the mix! Thankfully everything came through at the last minute and after a couple of frantic days, we were ready. The launch went incredibly well and the take up since has been refreshingly strong.
It’s so important to remember that everything we were doing was ‘new’ to us and therefore carried its own heightened stress with it, but we have met some incredibly supportive and lovely people at events and are having to make a 500 litre batch of gin ever more regularly, which is surely a good sign!
We have loved creating a product that we are proud of and that has such a good connection with our location. We sponsor local beehives as we use Sandhills honey, forage gorse flower, grow our own lemon balm and Douglas Fir pine needles and then cut the gin with water direct from our own well, which is sunk 65m beneath the Surrey Hills. We have combined this with exotic Yuzu from Japan to provide the main citrus notes and created a warm spicy finish from Tasmanian Pepperberry and Black Cardamom. It is truly a unique tasting experience.
What would you say is the ideal food pairing with your gin?
Whilst we developed the gin to be complex and interesting, yet a traditional gin and tonic; increasingly we see customers sipping their G&T as an accompaniment to their food. As Sandhills has a spicy finish, the ideal pairing is actually with foods such as Thai or dishes offering a warmth of ginger, pepper or spice.
Do you have any top tips on how else to use the gin i.e. in food?
We recently worked with Dylans Ice Cream in Haslemere and they created some wonderful Sandhills gin sorbet and a gin jelly! Friends of ours have also used our gin to flavour cakes. The only limit is your imagination, it is, however, important to show constraint when being creative with gin…we suggest keeping in mind the phrase “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad!”. Increasingly we are seeing our customers enjoying our gin in its simplest form, over ice without tonic, although most prefer a traditional serve of Sandhills gin served with a premium natural (unflavoured) tonic and the zest of an orange to garnish.
Sandhills Gin is a family-run business; which family members and friends are involved and what roles do they play?
There are three of us that make and run Sandhills Gin and all of us have ‘day jobs’ in addition to our gin production. Tom helped co-create the gin with Brian (who is a long-term family friend and gin lover) and the two of them are responsible for distilling and bottling. Tom is also focused on selling the gin both locally and further afield. Jeanette, wife of Tom (although she insists this is based on a 12-month rolling contract!) focuses on the marketing and events and loves telling the Sandhills story at the tastings and events we attend.
What has been your biggest ‘business success’ moment so far?
As we have only been in the market since the middle of December (2018), our biggest ‘business success’ to date has to be that we were Spirit of the Month for Fortnum and Mason last month (June). This was based on blind-tasting by their spirits buyer and, in such a competitive and busy gin market, it was really gratifying that the product ‘stood up’ further afield than the area surrounding where we distil. The gin has been so successful for Fortnums that they plan to stock it all year round – we are absolutely thrilled!
Do you have plans to extend the product range?
We are excited to have developed an Old Tom style of gin as the first permanent addition to the Sandhills range. An ‘Old Tom’ is a sweeter style of gin that has its roots in the days when gin was dispensed by publicans through a hole in the mouth of an ornate cats face. Apparently, it tasted so bad it needed to be sweetened to be palatable! Thankfully, our Old Tom does not share that heritage. We have used fresh bergamot (a citrus fruit that we source from Calabria in Italy) and combined this with fresh pink grapefruit to give a really zingy citrus note. We have increased the dose of Sandhills honey to sweeten the gin and then added back in some original Sandhills to ensure it is a true member of the Sandhills family. We hope to release this around September/ October time, so watch this space!
Last year we also made a seasonal Christmas rum, which sold out within a week and so we are tripling production for this year. Because of our adoration of Christmas pudding, and our ability to distil this using our rotary evaporator, we created a rum that tastes like liquid Christmas pudding – the ideal Christmas present for your friends or yourself this festive season.
What is a typical ‘day in the working life’ for you both?
There are very few ‘typical’ days as we all still have our day jobs to contend with. Tom is an author of business books and then trains people on the topics he writes about, so if he’s not working on the gin, he is travelling, training or writing. Brian is a firefighter and so that takes up significant time. Jeanette administers a charity trust, manages commercial properties for another company and is a volunteer at Citizens Advice.
Gin is very much a business of ‘cycles’. We make a batch of approximately 550 litres of gin over the course of a week or so. Once bottled and boxed the focus changes to selling and distributing the product. We love working with local businesses and meeting our customers, so we’ve been attending a lot of events locally. During June, our Fortnum and Mason ‘Spirit of the Month’ meant we were also spending a lot of time in London doing samplings.
In between all of this, we find time to think about and create new product ideas, whilst sourcing and growing the various botanicals that we use. At the moment we are harvesting some lovely lemon balm and dehydrating this for use in future batches along with tending the Douglas Fir trees that we grow for the needles.
If you have a day off, what would be the perfect way to spend it?
There seem to be very few days off at present but that is OK as we love the gin world! When we do get some time to ourselves we are often walking Poppy (our Cavapoo) locally, trying to force ourselves to relax in the garden for a bit or planning meals for our children who seem to be perpetually hungry!
What would be your ‘last meal’ and accompanying drink?
Quite a morbid thought, however in Tom’s case it would always be a spicy curry accompanied by a cold glass of beer! Whatever the season, Tom is always happy with a curry. For Jeanette, it would be cheese on toast (ideally with fresh tomatoes sliced on top) with a Negroni. For Brian, it would be a deliciously fragrant Thai green curry, paired with our gin, neat, over ice!
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure in sampling Sandhills Gin, don’t forget that every Wednesday is Gin Wednesday across all of our pubs, so for just £5, you can enjoy any single measure gin, paired with a Fever-Tree mixer… so make hay while the sun shines and come join us for some alfresco drinks and dining.