This review has not been influenced by anyone at Sandhills Distillery and we have not been paid for this review.
Sandhills Gin has been catching our eye over the last few months. That bright yellow bottle reminds us of hot summer days and in our minds that only means one thing, a good G&T.
They’ve not even yet celebrated their first year in the gin industry, but husband and wife Tom and Jeanette Bird, along with their long-term friend and business partner Brian Howard, have already made a great impression on the gin market. Their first ever gin offering, Sandhills Gin, has gone from strength to strength during their first 10 months of business. Over this time they have been featured in Fortnum and Masons ‘Spirit of the Month’ back in June, and even more recently they picked up their first award, scooping a Bronze in the Contemporary Styles Gin category at the highly recognised IWSC (International Wine & Spirit Competition).
With their gin being distilled (not too far from us) in the stunning Surrey Hills and the team were keen to keep things local. Gorse flower combined with locally sourced honey and water taken directly from the Surrey Hills aquifer all play a role in the gin, with other botanicals including Douglas Fir coming directly from their own garden.
Not only are they giving the local residents of Witley a fantastic gin which they can call their own, Sandhills Distillery also support two local charities to whom they donate a percentage of their profits. CountryMice is a local charity set up by the Witley and Milford Medical Partnership in March 2010. CountryMice support patients who are terminally ill and in need of additional ‘end of life care’. This charity is helping bridge the gap in services which are currently offered by other national providers. Clockhouse is a local Day Centre providing those over 50 with somewhere to meet friends, have a healthy meal cooked for them and also a venue for them to try out some different group activities. Loneliness is predicted to be the next great health crisis, with proven links to malnutrition and dementia and as bus services decline and families move apart, social isolation in rural areas becomes more acute.
The team over at Sandhills were kind enough to send us some of their gin to try and also give us some of their time to discuss their journey so far.
You’re fairly new to the gin business. Tell us a bit about the team behind Sandhills Gin and what did you do before getting into the drinks industry?
You’re right we are new to the gin business having only launched Sandhills in December 2018.
We are a team of three people: husband and wife Tom & Jeanette and long-time family friend and gin lover Brian. All three of us have shared a love of G&T having moved past the ‘isn’t it something your mum and dad used to drink’ label of a few years back and finally feeling that the world has caught up with our passion for all things gin.
All three of us have full time ‘day jobs’ but come together and spend an increasing amount of time making our gin and growing a community of customers. Tom has written a number of business books and delivers training around those, Jeanette has a ‘portfolio’ career including being an advisor for Citizens Advice and managing some commercial properties and Brian is a firefighter.
And why Gin?
We have been long time lovers of a good G&T but our gin shelf only has a handful of gins that we would return to time and time again. On a trip to Hong Kong, Tom visited a gin bar and experienced re-distilled gin and was excited by the possibilities. As soon as he returned, he bought a 3-litre copper pot still and, with Brian, started experimenting.
The idea to turn it into a business came later but was fuelled by the belief that others would appreciate a sophisticated traditional gin: one they could return to time and time again.
We saw you at Junipalooza in the Newcomers Zone back in June. What has the reception been like from the public so far?
Junipalooza was a fantastic experience. We loved being part of the Newcomers Zone and from our point of view the event couldn’t have gone any better. We had a great response to our gin, we loved the interaction with the attendees and sharing our gin and story. We met fabulous bloggers who made the point of coming over and introducing themselves. I don’t think we stopped pouring gin or talking for the three sessions! Very sore throats on Monday morning but would do it again in a heartbeat!
You must have faced some challenges since starting Sandhills Gin. What has been the biggest challenge to date, and if you could give yourself some advice now, what would it be?
The whole journey has been a huge learning curve in that we ‘didn’t know what we didn’t know’. We have a few more grey hairs as a result and still wake up with 3am thoughts. We have learnt to sleep with a notebook on the bedside table! We knew very clearly the style of gin that we wanted to develop but a lot of work went in to creating the best method of distilling to keep the freshness of flavour from the botanicals. From this choice of methodology and the mix of botanicals our story emerged. The main challenges were around refining the distilling process combining traditional pot still and more innovative cold distillation. Along with this was creating a balanced recipe that had an integrated flavour – there is much more to that than meets the eye!
Looking back, I don’t think we would have changed anything we’ve done to date. We are still early in our journey so time will tell! One piece of advice that we have learnt through experience and would certainly have given ourselves if we knew it at the time was to embrace the fact that we are learning about everything and will continue to learn. It is easy to feel a pressure to have the ‘right’ decision when sometimes, things just need to evolve.
One thing that really stood out to us is the wide variety of botanicals you have used in your recipe. How long did it take for you to perfect the recipe?
We wanted to create a gin that was sophisticated, traditional and with some complexity. A gin that was ‘of its location but not constrained by it’. We spent 9 months developing and perfecting our recipe. We wanted a strong citrus note and our love of Asia made Yuzu an obvious choice – a cross between a grapefruit and a clementine – and we added some orange peel to bring more complexity. The Douglas Fir pine needles (grown in our garden) bring a lemony pine note which compliments the local honey and the local provenance is completed with the golden Gorse flower that gives off a lovely coconut bouquet in the spring mornings. We wanted a gin with a long spicy finish and that comes predominantly from the black cardamom and Tasmanian Pepperberry. We wanted a balance of flavours that worked well together to create something that, whilst still a traditional gin, had its own personality.
Sandhills gin is classified as a “Hybrid distilled” gin. You distil the botanicals with heavier oils by copper pot distillation, and lighter, more delicate, flavours via cold vacuum distillation. Is this something you had seen done before? What made you choose this method?
We were introduced to the cold distillation method, using a rotary evaporator, when talking to the distiller of Stovells Gin which is vacuum distilled. We loved the freshness of flavour that this enabled but also wanted depth of juniper. Because heat is necessary to release the oils and flavours within juniper and coriander, we use a copper pot to distil these elements (along with a couple of other botanicals such as Orris and Cassia). Each of our other lighter botanicals are distilled individually at 37 degrees which makes such a difference. When you create the final gin blending copper pot distilled juniper and coriander with the other cold distilled botanicals you create a unique fresh light gin where the very nature of each botanical shines through. Whilst some gins do use this hybrid approach they are the exception rather than the rule.
We love the bottle you’ve picked and the colour is very bold and striking, who came up with the design?
With so many gins on the market, the bottle is important as it often is the thing that sells the first glass! We wanted the bottle to stand out, be tactile and be part of the Sandhills story. The golden colour represents the Sandhills honey and golden gorse flower that are two of our important local botanicals and the bottle is opaque so that you can see the level of the liquid but also reflects light very well (a lot of our customers put lights in the empty bottles!). It has some ‘measures’ on the side as a nod to the science of cold vacuum distillation. Above all, it is embossed with the ancient symbols for Alchemy which references our Hybrid Distilled approach of creating something which is new and different. We worked with a local agency called The Surgery who put our ideas into creating our beautiful bottle and branding.
We know Sandhills Gin is only in its infancy, but do you have any plans in the future to release any other gin products?
We have just finished development of an Old Tom Gin which will be released in the next month. We’ve taken Sandhills Gin and distilled it with fresh bergamot and pink grapefruit instead of the Yuzu that is in our original Sandhills Gin. We have also boosted the amount of local honey that is used in this sweeter gin.
Last Christmas we also had a bit of fun with our rotaray evaporator and distilled a Christmas Pudding made by a local producer Janes’s Cakes. We flavoured a rum with this and added some Fee Orange Bitters from the Caribbean, an infusion of raisins and Christmas Spices and finally some lovely Madagascan Vanilla. It went down so well we sold out. We are making this again and due to popular request in a bigger 20cl bottle this year.
They both sound RUM-maze-GIN! We love an Old Tom, when are you hoping to have this on the shelves?
The Old Tom will be released by the end of this month. It’s a limited distiller’s edition and will be available through our online shop.
Who’s in charge of the distillation process at the moment and is the distillery open to the public?
Tom & Brian manage the development, distilling and bottling of Sandhills Gin. The process requires complete accuracy to ensure that every batch is identical to the previous one and this feeds through into sourcing the botanicals to ensure consistency of flavour – Juniper from one country has different flavour characteristics from another country. They also grow our Douglas Fir Pines and the lemon balm which is another botanical in the mix.
At present, the distillery is not open to the public. Our operation is still a ‘part time’ project although we are spending an increasing amount of time focused on all things ‘gin’. Our aim is to get to a point where we can not only open the distillery to the public (when we are working full-time on it) but to make the most of the opportunity with masterclass workshops, bespoke gin development and a space to entertain our customers.
Lastly, how would you serve Sandhills gin, and where can our followers get their hands on a bottle?
Our view is that the perfect garnish for a G&T should be simple, involve absolutely no seeds or other little bits that can get stuck in the teeth of us more mature drinkers and should compliment the botanicals in the gin. Our preferred garnish is a simple zest of orange and lots of ice. And absolutely no flavoured tonics…just a premium natural tonic water!
You can buy through our online shop www.sandhillsdistillery.com, Master of Malt and did we mention we were Fortnum and Masons’ ‘Spirit of the Month’ for June? You can buy us through their online shop or in store.
You can follow Sandhills Distillery on the following social media channels:
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