Karl Bond had been stuck in a mind numbing nine to five job for 15 years. Life took on that eat, sleep, work, repeat sheen. Go to work, stare at a screen, drive home… His job had him stuck at a computer all day, studying part numbers and prices, so when it came to evenings the last thing he wanted to do was face another screen. Instead, he’d hide away in his spare bedroom with a pint sized pot still and a radio.
Karl’s wife, Lindsay, is a coeliac and can’t drink beer, so the duo amassed something of a gin collection at home. Their somewhat laden shelf served as inspiration as they sipped their way through the pile, so Karl decided to learn about the process himself, buying in cheap Tesco vodka to distil with juniper that he’d bought online.
“To be honest,” he says candidly, “most of the liquids I produced were pretty horrific! I always describe Forest Gin as a home-brew that has got out of hand. I was convinced that the nasty flavours that were in the drink were due to my crappy pot still, so I became obsessed with adding more copper and distilling at lower temperatures etc.”
“The breakthrough came in late summer 2015, when my six-year-old daughter had been picking berries in the local forest. My wife suggested swapping some of my cheap, dried ingredients for these wild, fresh berries. The resulting distillation was immediately better, so we stripped back the stills to the bare minimum and began sourcing very high quality ingredients. It should have been obvious, really, but as a complete amateur it was a learning curve.”
With that in mind, and having travelled the world – or at least England – via their gin cabinet, Karl decided that hyper-local ingredients were the way forward, alongside high quality imported botanicals. Even the water is local; each week, Karl, Lindsay and their nine-year-old daughter, Hattie, load up the car boot with jerry cans and drive to a natural spring at the top of the gin’s namesake – Macclesfield Forest.
Forest Gin was never supposed to get made. “It was only when family and friends started asking for some to take away that we thought that it may be a viable product to sell,” Karl told us. As such, the recipe was made to suit his and Lindsay’s palates entirely, developed through trial and error/disaster.
Since making the decision to turn Forest Gin into a commercial product, Karl and Lindsay have joined a cacophony of distillers in a red tape tango. “HMRC have never really taken us seriously as a husband & wife team distilling from home, so it always feels as though we are at the back of the queue when we need something signing off,” Karl says, slightly fatigued by the process.
Forest Gin is currently distilled from the Bonds’ kitchen table, but they’re hoping to upgrade shortly. Karl confirms: “We currently have a planning application in place on an old stone barn in the forest, so we are still very much on the path of creating the final distillery.”
Though Forest Gin came about as a result of Karl’s hobby distilling, Lindsay is now in charge of distilling and bottling, while her husband has taken on a more business orientated role. The gin making process begins on a Sunday evening, when Lindsay prepares the botanicals with a pestle and mortar. The recipe for Forest Gin is clutched tight by Karl and Lindsay, though we understand that around 16 botanicals are used: six relatively classic (including juniper, coriander, angelica, and liquorice) and 10 foraged (wild grown bilberries, raspberries & blackberries, moss and ferns from the Peak District, pine, bark and wild flowers).
Once the botanicals are ground, they are steeped in organically certified grain spirit which is imported from Italy. This is left to macerate overnight, before a four hour distillation run is performed. The gin is left to rest for 24 hours, before being blended with the jerry can water to 42% ABV. While the final blend rests, Lindsay, along with Forest Gin’s sole employee, Steph, sterilises the bottles, before filling each by hand.
Overall, the process takes a week long, so it is surprising to hear that each run produces just 80 bottles of gin. Perhaps that goes some way to justifying Forest Gin’s way (way, way) above average price tag. We almost choked on it when we first read it – at over £50 (£59.50 in Harvey Nichols) for a 70cl bottle, Forest Gin soars far above average. The results of our Ginfographic survey showed £40 to be an absolute cliff edge when it came to what consumers will spend on gin; people, even the geekiest of geeks, will need a good reason to part with such a wedge of cash.
That said, perhaps Forest Gin is the exception that proves the rule, because orders have been rolling in – so much so that the Bonds are currently working their way through three months of back orders. Our crude maths, garnered from the batch number on the back of our bottle (208), suggests that since launch, they have already sold over 16,500 bottles in the first 18 months. “We have been the biggest selling gin in pretty much every major outlet that we have released the gin to,” Karl confirmed, admitting that “we’ve always been quite sheepish about the price tag that shops place on it…. But we’d hate to cut corners just to try to reduce the price.”
Part of their costs, undoubtedly, come from their fantastic packaging. Forest Gin is sold in an eight-sided porcelain bottle, made by Wade Ceramics, and decorated with a paper cut design by artist Suzy Taylor. The design was created on a piece of paper that was carefully, and painstakingly, crafted with a scalpel and a magnifying glass. The design is glazed onto each bottle, resulting in a finish that wouldn’t look out of place in an old saloon, yet falls perfectly into 2017.
It took the Bonds a long time to procure the ceramics. “We live around 20 minutes drive from Stoke on Trent, which has always been famed for its very high quality pottery” Karl said. “Therefore, it simply made sense for us to contact local potters to try to produce a bottle for us. Initially, we struggled to find one to work with us; they probably thought we were slightly unhinged – trying to put our home brew in their beautiful ceramics, so we really struggled to find a producer. Therefore, for the first few batches, we bought in the bottles from Germany. Eventually, we met the guys at Wade Ceramics.”
We find the link back to the area to be a huge addition to the value of Forest Gin as a package, adding depth to their provenance. Stoke on Trent, once the most prominent centre of ceramics in the world with names like Wedgwood and Ridgeway still commanding respect and huge value at auction, hasn’t been associated with the gin industry for many years. To have rekindled this connection with the “Potteries” is to have brought the modern Gin craze full circle to an era before the Gladstone bottling act was in effect.
With Bols and other Genever companies still using ceramics a lot, it’s great to see a UK made Gin that follows the category’s heritage using age old artisan techniques from a traditional source. While it looks better in black, our only gripe is that the intricate paper cut design isn’t glazed onto the bottle using the Blue Ware cobalt glazing aesthetic so synonymous with Staffordshire potteries. Anyway, perhaps this could be for a Special edition later down the line!
Forest Gin to taste…
Forest Gin has an utterly extraordinary nose; it smells like a forest in the rain. It’s as though you’ve raked your nails down a tree and caked yourself in bark and moss and mud. There’s a sweet, berry note, but it’s masked by the dewy, forest floor feel.
To taste neat, moss dominates, filling the senses as though you’d plucked it from a rock and placed it straight into your mouth. There’s a strong taste of fresh spring water – the sort that still hums of earth and nature. The berries come through, although not in a clear way, more a humdrum of fruit riding on a rooty liquorice. There’s a small hint of spice that could well be cassia or cinnamon, such is its light, bright & fiery nature. It’s almost daft to suggest this, but Forest Gin tastes incredibly of the forest.
The Bonds have managed to capture and convey that feeling of being deep into the woods. There is a surprising lack of sweetness coming from the gin, especially given its palpable use of berries and liquorice. Rather there’s a rich, deep green taste, along with a hint of bark.
Tonic tones down the spice altogether, but Forest Gin retains its earthy, spring water taste. A hint of juniper comes through somewhere in the middle, and ripe red berries pop up towards the end. It’s utterly strange, but very compelling. We’d serve it with something that would freshen it right up, because while that lost-in-the-forest-feel is interesting, it can be a bit overwhelming at times and a bit… well, damp. Basil would do the job nicely, but you could always try a slice of lemon, as this gin – quite unusually – doesn’t seem to use any citrus.
Overall, we’re pretty into Forest Gin. It delivers what the name conjures. The bottle is to die for, the story is sweet enough to rot your teeth and the makers have been fearless in creating a spirit that is weird and wild and far from what a gin drinker would expect. There’s an enormous value to the wider package (the people, the provenance) which means it would make for a great, very considered gift, but given that it’s priced upwards of £50, it’s not a gin we’d personally buy.
The personal nature of the story, the overall feel of the package and the gin means it’s certainly one we’d recommend trying as it’s curious and utterly transportive. It’s just that there are numerous other British gins who share similar stories, depth of provenance and which have similarly great products – but that don’t have unrealistic price tags attached to it.
Hopefully, with some economies of scale by sizing up their production and with a stable income being generated that can be reinvested into building steady and continued growth, Forest Gin will not only become a little more accessible but it will flourish in years to come.
For more information about Forest Gin, visit the website: forestgin.com
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