The following was written by the Gin Foundry team in 2019. Gin Foundry is now Spirits Beacon.
It’s rare when we see a start-up with massive potential right off the bat. Downton Distillery and their Explorer’s Gin however, has just that and more. They are proving that what’s needed in today’s saturated category is about so much more than being a local gin, a craft distiller, a small batch production or even – having great gin. It’s also about taking inspiration from the past and looking towards the future and making it relevant for the hear and now – it’s about putting it all together, with each piece of the puzzle as important as the next.
It usually takes many months for new distilleries to create the type of coherence that this team is showing from the start and we can’t help but be swept away by the sense of adventure of it all. They demonstrate that great gin is about being more than the sum of any individual part and do so with panache. Because of this – they were a sure fit for our Bursary spot at Junipalooza (2019) and ahead of the big weekend, we decided to talk with founder and distiller Hugh Anderson to find out more about the road travelled so far…
Hi Hugh! let’s start from the top – who’s the Downton Distillery team and what were you doing before devoting yourself to gin?
There are several people who make up the team. Meike, my other half, works in the financial sector in London, and spends most of her free time on marketing, branding, packaging and selling Explorer’s Gin. She has been a huge champion and supporter of making this dream a reality for us.
Then Shona Doran and Lallie Jacout, two fantastic ladies who are an integral part of the crew and keep me sane. Then finally myself, I run the operations, distil, bottle and then package ready for the deliveries. I am also passionate about all things gin and love the continual learning process as it enriches ones knowledge.
What were you doing before ginsmithing?
Prior I was working in the mobile technology sector for many years and was increasingly keen to set up my own business. I gave up my day job in 2018 to dedicate my full attention to making gin.
And was it a gradual idea that grew or something in particular moment that triggered you to take the plunge and start distilling?
The ember was sown when I took Meike, whose drink of choice has been gin for many years, to a gin making course at the City of London distillery for her birthday. I was fascinated by the whole experience, the history, the chemistry aspect and being able to create something very unique and subsequently drink it! Following this course, I got our first alembic still and started experimenting and learning as much as I could about the whole process.
You are based in Wiltshire, Downton Distillery can be found in a Grade 1 listed barn adjacent to Downton Manor. Is that neck of the woods just home for you, or how did you come across such a glorious setting for your distillery?
I grew up on the other side of Salisbury in a village called Ford, then in Idmiston. Despite having lived in London I always loved Wiltshire and the New Forest. I currently split my time between London and Downton and see myself settling down there again sooner or later. Friends bought Downton Manor House and the barn next to the manor house happened to be empty and provided us with the ideal location to start our own distillery.
There’s quite a big Sir Walter Raleigh connection between the manor, the botanicals you’ve chosen and even the name of the still – could you tell us more about that?
Sir Walter Raleigh was given the manor house as his first grace and favour property in 1583. A year later Queen Elizabeth I provided him with a warrant to explore the New World, now America. When she came to stay at the manor in 1586, it was extended by Sir Walter Raleigh in order to make her stay as comfortable as possible. In order to do this, he sailed one of his ships up the Avon to Downton, where it was dismantled and the timber was used to build the great hall and the chapel room.
Our beautiful bottle tells the story of the ‘Golden Era of Discovery’ where Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh established new trade routes, that eventually allowed Britain to become a maritime sea power. As a result Raleigh brought back tobacco and potatoes from America. The navigation lines, the rose compass and the blue ocean colour reflect this spirit of adventure in the design of Downton Gin.
And botanically, was there also inspiration drawn from that era?
Absolutely, our unique botanical is Western Red Cedar which came back from America in 1852, it was called the ‘Tree of Life’ by the Native Indians, as they used it for medicine, cooking, tea, clothing and to build their canoes. It grows in the distillery garden and is freshly cut before every distillation.
Raleigh, on his last expedition was looking for the fabled city of gold, ‘El Dorado’ in the 17th century. Our association to South America is the pink pepper corn, which originated from Peru.
I was originally working with lavender, which was the favoured flower in the Elizabethan era. Giving a sprig of lavender to your loved one was a sign of affection and the equivalent of the red rose today. However, it didn’t marry into the exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh.
Through research into the lives of maritime explorers during the 1700’s, I discovered that citrus fruits were used as an effective cure against scurvy. Scurvy was a cocktail of vitamin deficiencies, mainly of C and B, which was referred to as ‘the plague of the sea’ in the early 17th century and resulted in huge mortality rates. As a result, we decided to use grapefruit, lemons and oranges in the recipe.
Our still is called the Ark Royal, which was the name of the Queen’s first flag ship. Sir Walter Raleigh built it in 1586, and it was named Ark Raleigh, but due to the Spanish threat gave it to the Queen who then renamed it Ark Royal, following the convention at the time where the ship bore the name of her owner.
From the old Ark Royal to the modern incarnation of the rig made in copper and in the distillery – let’s talk set up! What are you working on and what was the experience of putting the distillery together?
Soon after doing the course at the City of London distillery, I started experimenting in our kitchen on a little 3l still called Tilly, and after almost 2 years of tasting and testing I came up with the final Explorer’s recipe.
I am now operating a 100L Copper Alembic still and use both direct and vapour infusion to create Explorer’s Gin. The botanicals are macerated for around 14 hours whilst the charge is heated up slowly; fresh botanicals including lemon, orange, grapefruit and western red cedar are added prior to conducting the distillation.
Could we have gone larger? Absolutely – and we will very soon!
Having a background in programme management the planning side was straight forward, but as everyone knows the best plans can quickly come undone.
We learned a lot of things during the set up of the distillery. Health and safety being paramount the restrictions and rules, especially from HMRC are tough. Having a long gravel driveway that lorries can’t use is probably the toughest challenge and requires a lot of organisation prior to deliveries – not something we considered when dreaming about making gin!
The gin is in some ways a tribute to the explorers of the ‘Golden Era‘ – how did you find the process of grappling with marrying the history of Downtown with a sense of modernity and making it relevant to the hear and now?
The most fun element was to create the brand and convey the story of Explorer’s gin and Downton Distillery. We were all in agreement in terms of the direction we wanted to take – marrying the golden era of discovery, the fantastic history of Downton and its manor house with a modern sense of adventure. Rather than just creating a bottle of gin, we wanted to embody a lifestyle that goes with it. We love the idea of pushing boundaries in whatever field you operate in, travelling and challenging yourself. Being open and curious about the world is very important to all of us and translates into many aspects of our lives. Modern time explorers, that’s what we are.
Let’s talk about some of the really prominent notes in your gin – juniper, pink pepper are clear, but red cedar stands out strong to taste and is a very unusual choice of botanical too. What made you think to use it and more over, how would you describe the taste it adds to the ensemble?
It was a Eureka moment of discovery – I’m a keen gardener, and always looking at plants and flowers around me. Having walked around the garden of the manor house we were looking for something that would be unique and is relevant to our story. We discovered Western Red Cedar, and after doing some research, we tried to distil it and found it had a very interesting taste, piney and somehow citrusy. It was the final piece of the jigsaw and made the story complete.
Citrus peels, lemon verbena, bay and Sichuan pepper also feature in the mix, how hard has it been finding the perfect balance and create a harmonious flavour journey?
Very hard – it took a lot of experimenting and numerous distillations until I knew which flavours go well together and which botanicals are not adding much. A lot of experimenting and hard work went into finalising the recipe. We are very happy with the final recipe of Explorer’s gin.
The gin took just over a year to create – a real rollercoaster ride – what’s been the biggest moment of triumph?
A real rollercoaster ride indeed. Having seen the business become reality from an idea to eventually having the final product in our hands was incredible and gives us a huge sense of achievement.
As with every business, there were many issues and obstacles on the way, which wasn’t made easier by the fact that Meike was going through chemotherapy for cancer last year. The time prior to going live last November was extremely stressful in many ways. We shouldn’t have worried so much as the local support was incredible! The fact that many people now come back to us to buy their second and third bottle is proof that we created a unique product that people love.
Looking back on all the things you’ve done over the past year, all the work, the ups and downs and everything you’ve learned along the way – What’s the best advice you could give a new distiller?
Read, research, unearth and discover as much as you possibly can. This is a continual process and there are many people who are willing to provide you with very helpful advice. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; there are many moving parts and the creation of your recipe is only one piece of a huge jigsaw. Try and find yourself a mentor who is willing to devote some of their time to you, and with whom you can bounce ideas and concepts off. This is invaluable and your success is their success.
When I started out, somebody asked me ‘Why should I care, when the market has all these other established and well-known brands?’ These words have given me drive to establish a coherent brand with purpose, and to prove that Explorer’s Gin deserves to have its own space on the shelves.
Be prepared to learn about things you have never imagined you would need to learn about. ATEX was one of these subjects that I have never heard of before we were building the distillery. Our timelines quickly shifted to the right and my learning curve was 0 – 100 mph in seconds. This was one area that I found I had to resolve by myself as everyone has had different experiences.
What drew us to what you are doing is the fact that it’s so specific to your geography, yet completely unrelated at the same time in that the sense of adventure and exploration you have set out to capture in is universal.
In your case it stems from Downton, sure, but it’s about looking outwards and what’s possible, what travelled out there and what came back. Has the idea of adventure and exploration been something you’ve always been attracted to?
The village of Downton has an incredible history, which rotates around exploration and discovery, so it’s always been around and close to us. The connection to Sir Walter Raleigh is more than historic though. That sense of adventure is something that we feel strongly in our family, and always have done. As an example – my grandfather helped establish Operation Raleigh in 1984, which allowed young people to become volunteers and take part in expeditions around the world – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge also took part in one of these trips. Meike and I, as well as the rest of the team, have grown up living in several countries and we all continue to maintain a sense of discovery and openness, be it in Wiltshire or further afield.
Today, the distillery is our adventure and we hope to bottle that spirit of adventure, to awaken that sense of curiosity that can be found inherently in everyone, and follow it, wherever it may lead. It’s an incredibly exiting journey, and something that we hope others will join us on!
And lastly, what’s the big hope for 2019 – what’s on the horizon for you?
‘Never stop exploring’ is the motto we live by, so we are keeping ourselves open to all possibilities. In terms of the course chartered ahead – we are focussing on growing our business and to sell our gin both in the local market (mainly Wiltshire and the new Forest) as well as throughout the UK in the second half of the year. I gave my first gin night talk in a local pub a couple of weeks ago, and there will be more of those coming up!
We really hope that people can see the journey we are on and feel like that they can be a part of it. It’s going to be an interesting path ahead and we’re really looking forward to connecting with others who share our sense of adventure!