23 April 2019

Sandhills Gin

Sandhills Gin

The gin industry has expanded at astonishing speed since small-batch distilling was legalised a decade ago, during which time hundreds of enterprising individuals have eagerly set about producing their own spirits for commercial release. Of course, such creative freedom does harbour the risk that one's palate may be prejudiced by their own enthusiasm for the product, but sometimes these budding distillers surprise us with tantalising tipples worthy of a spot on our drinks trolley.

Among such company is Sandhills Distillery, who, having launched their namesake Sandhills Gin in December of last year, are Surrey's youngest offering to the gin community. While the lustrously yellow bottle steals your attention from across the bar, the impeccable pairing of citrus and spice ensures an enjoyable sip, and perhaps even a second round.

"The reality is the world doesn't need another gin," begins Tom Bird, co-founder of Sandhills Distillery alongside his wife, Jeanette, and their family friend, Brian. "For years we've loved gin, we drink gin and tonics quite happily at the start of an evening, and we've got about thirty gins on our gin shelf at home. But of those thirty, there are only three we'll buy again. So actually, even though you've got a market that has hundreds and hundreds of gins, a lot of them don't stand out."

Sandhills Gin

It's a grey and drizzly January morning, and I'm sat opposite Tom and Jeanette in the window of The Godalming Food Company, where they officially introduced their gin only a month prior. Other customers are ordering coffees from the counter, or perusing local produce from the shelves. Across the shop floor, a chalkboard sign identifies a "try before you buy" sample bar, comprising twenty different spirits clustered together on a wooden barrel. Sandhills Gin stands loudly and proudly at the front of the pack.

Tom explains to me the inspiration for wanting to make his own gin - a bar in Hong Kong that re-distills existing gins with alternative botanicals to create new and intriguing flavours. "I had one that was kaffir, lime and basil, and it was glorious," he says. "And so that opened my eyes to think, well, if that's what this bar is doing, we could experiment with gin. So I came home, we bought a little three litre copper pot just to play around with, and we started experimenting."

But after deciding on the criteria for their perfect gin (a juniper forward blend of citrus and spicy components), the trio's main challenge was ensuring the flavours of their chosen botanicals wouldn't be unduly lost in the sweltering distillation process. It's an understandable quandary - how often do you try a new gin, yet are unable to identify the botanicals listed on the label? As all sensible folk do, Sandhills Distillery turned to science for their solution.

Sandhills Gin

"Gin is done in a copper pot, as you probably know," explains Tom. "You've got a big copper pot, you put your alcohol in with your botanicals, and you heat that to about seventy-nine degrees. The alcohol evaporates and takes on the character of the botanicals, and then what condenses out is gin. And that is great for juniper and coriander, because the heavier oils in those botanicals need the heat to release them. But when you put in honey, lemon balm, yuzu, and some of these other botanicals that we wanted to use, that heat can begin to taint the flavour."

"So we got into something called a rotary evaporator," he continues, "which is a piece of science equipment. It essentially works in the same way as a copper pot, but what you do is you put the whole system under vacuum. And when you put liquid under vacuum, it reduces the boiling point. So instead of boiling alcohol at seventy-nine degrees, with the rotary evaporator, we can distill botanicals at thirty-seven degrees, and therefore you don't harm them. You keep the very nature of the flavours."

As I listen to Tom's explanation, I imagine this rotary evaporator as some kind of fancy space-age still with all manner of lights and buttons, however an image search following the interview presents what appears to be a oversized and overly complicated thermometer leaning over a slow cooker. Admittedly it doesn't have the same beauty of a gleaming copper still, nonetheless the method is a stroke of innovation in ensuring greater depth of flavour in a small-batch gin.

Sandhills Gin

Accordingly, it's the unique collaboration of traditional and modern distillation methods which has inspired Sandhills Distillery to adopt the symbol for alchemy into its branding. The symbol not only forms the loop in the letter "g" of "gin", but features also in the bottle's bizarre embossing. "Have you felt the bottle?" asks Jeanette, "I get over-excited, because it's very tactile." The bottle is translucent too, therefore it will glow when perched on a backlit bar.

The choice of yellow reflects two of the botanicals used in the recipe: honey and gorse flower, both sourced locally in the village of Sandhills. Likewise, Douglas Fir pine needles are harvested from Tom and Jeanette's own garden. Other ingredients are more far-flung, such as yuzu (an Asian citrus fruit), black cardamom and Tazmanian pepper berry. Altogether, the finished product reminds me of Thai food - bursting with flavour, led by refreshing citrus and warming spices. Sandhills Distillery recommend a zest of orange as a garnish.

"If you were drinking a gin and tonic because it's what you enjoy sipping," says Tom, "you're not drinking it to get drunk, you're not drinking five or six and evening, then what you really want is to be able to sip it and have an experience of different flavours - on the nose, on the palate - and that's what we try to craft."

Sandhills Gin

Even with an exceptional gin, I have to ask Tom and Jeanette if they were worried about launching their product in an already inundated market. Jeanette laughs nervously, "Worried? I think aware, in that we knew we needed to do something different. We haven't had the best of sleeps the last six months, but we were very sure of our brand and our story, and most importantly our gin. We're very proud of that."

"There's nothing out there that we've found with this hybrid distillation that's getting the fresh, pure flavour," she continues. "You've got to go in with your eyes open, but we feel we could be a strong presence in the market. We launched here [The Goldaming Food Company] just before December, and we've been very busy since." I make note to speak with Kevin, owner of the deli, who reveals to me that Sandhills Gin is outselling its more established Surrey Hills cousin, Silent Pool Gin, which says a lot for this vibrant newcomer.

Although the team are equally committed to full-time work elsewhere (Tom, an author of business books; Jeanette, in marketing; Brian, a firefighter), their ambition for Sandhills Gin is unwavering. Having established contracts with pubs in Surrey and Kent, as well as having attracted the interest of a reputable wine merchant, their focus now shifts towards introducing the product to larger stores in London and building on the brand's early success. There is also the team's side venture, Bespoke by Sandhills, which offers tailor-made spirits for weddings and special events, private organisations, or even as a unique gift. 

Quickly becoming a local success story, I anticipate an exciting year for Tom, Jeanette and Brian, who continue to demonstrate the love they have for their product - "Without a doubt, it's my favourite gin," says Tom. If you're passing through Godalming, be sure to stop off at The Godalming Food Company and try a sip from the sample bar. Otherwise you can purchase 70cl bottles either from Master of Malt, or directly from the Sandhills Distillery online shop.

Sandhills Gin

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