Spotlight Mini-Series: Ian Hart
In the second instalment of our #Spotlight series, we journey from the depths of the 1800s to a future that looks like a strange juniper soaked hybrid between Black Mirror and Breaking Bad. We’re meeting with Sacred Gin Distiller and Co-Founder Ian Hart, who has embraced new production methods wholeheartedly, transforming his living room-cum-distillery into a lab so convoluted even Marie Curie would have paused.
We are of the (humble, of course) opinion that Hart has been central to popularising (and even normalising) modern ‘cold’ distilling techniques ever since he installed his rotavap. The use of glass vacuums may seem commonplace today, but it took a pioneer like Hart to take a leap of faith in 2009, and the best half of a decade for the rest of the Gin industry to catch up.
Softly spoken and vividly impassioned with the pursuit of capturing the full essence of each ingredient one by one, it’s all too easy to cast Hart as a modern British eccentric, madly distilling botanicals from his family home in Highgate. This is far from the case, though. Hart is not the distilling equivalent of Sir Clive Sinclair, as we were soon to learn…
Vacuum distilling, only recently a new concept for food and drink, was used primarily as a tool for chemists. In fact, the contraption only began entering the world of high-end gastronomy in around 2007, gaining popularity with the likes of El Bulli and Heston Blumenthal. And until Hart created Sacred Gin, it has never been used as the sole apparatus for creating a gin. Sure, there were a couple of brands using essences created with equivalent systems, but never before had the entire process been undertaken via rotavap. Today, it’s borderline mainstream.
From rotary vacuums to more static, custom designed systems like that which Hart uses (and mostly designed himself), the varying vacuum apparatus and the pursuit of using them not for scientific research, but for flavour development is an area that has been major breakthroughs and innovation. Critically, vacuum is now no longer solely reserved for small scale glass-only distilleries, with many of the big names in German coppermsithing looking at ways to incorporate vacuum into their stills to increase efficiency, reduce temperatures and allow the distiller more options.
This experimentation and growth isn’t just confined to Gin either. Larger operators, like William Grant, have been looking at ways to introduce vacuum distilling to much larger rigs with several successfully implementing a hybrid of techniques and apparatus. At their site in Girvan for example, the William Grant use similar methodology to reduce temperatures on one of their (over 20 foot) stills in order to produce a lighter style of grain whisky.
Hart’s reach far outpaces the size of his operation, and it is only through his like that the potential of this method – and the possibilities it affords – is set to be tapped.
It is not just the fact that such systems use less heat to distil (thus rendering entirely different flavour results) that makes them such a talking point, it’s the scale and size of this equipment that excites. Vacuums are a fantastic way for those on a small scale to get up and running, and are allowing the proliferation of craft distilling to continue apace, and in spaces that otherwise would never have had the room or licenses to distil. Up until late 2017, Hart was distilling from a domestic property, and with bar owners and eager young distillers finding room for this equipment in the smallest of cupboard, it’s fair to see that he’s led something of a miniature revolution. Small set up? No problem. Sacred has been producing 60,000 bottles of spirit a year, so this pioneering tech has made light work of such confines.
One of the most exciting things that can come of this new technology is the possibility of new flavour combinations (and maybe even styles, too). We’re not saying that the vacuum still is the historical equivalent “gear change” afforded by the invention of the Coffey still, but that this advance in distillation methods will, in time, bring around the most fundamental changes to spirits as a whole and Gin in particular.
It was only once base spirits had been cleaned up that London Dry emerged as a style of gin. Before then, Old Tom and Holland’s were more popular. While Vacuum hasn’t provided a comparable paradigm shift (temperature control doesn’t make a better distillate, just a different one), it has greatly impacted the possibilities a distiller has at their disposal. If the efficiencies of glass and vacuum are developed into larger apparatus and incorporated into other types of copper stills, there could well be a shift in capacity, productivity and efficiency comparable to the move towards making vodka in a column as opposed to a pot still.
The biggest difference vacuum distilling has brought to the Gin category is a general understanding that botanicals can be distilled separately and blended together thereafter. Until Hart, individual botanical distilling was a highly unusual move, but it’s a genuinely superb method of making that creates a library of endless flavour combinations and encourages seasonality. Whether capturing cherry blossom in the spring or chestnuts in the autumn, distillers can bulk make the individual distillate when the hedgerows are heaving under the weight of their crop and have enough to see them through the year.
This makes the category more exciting, as the options for what to distil are endlessly diverse, and the flavours within crisp and fresh, with each botanical distilled using the extraction heat and speed that serves it best. Fresh cucumber and bright pink grapefruit are just two ingredients that have made it as a gin mainstay and which illustrate the potential of vacuum, in that when they are cooked in the pot, just don’t taste the same.
We’ve no doubt that Hart will continue to develop new ways to extract flavour, and we don’t expect others to just follow his lead. New makers will come along, develop this idea one step further and create entirely new precedents that we will all be looking to as the next frontier.
It is by celebrating these mavericks, these curious distillers and these forerunners who combine intuition with science and innovation, that we will be able to usher in a new dawn in Gin making. One in which old and new will combine to create the best of what is possible today. One in which we will build on the intelligent and innovative nature of the preceding generations of distillers, and create something altogether brilliant. Most importantly, one in which we will be consuming gin that delivers as yet untapped flavour journeys and mesmerising qualities.
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