Conker Dorset Dry Gin
For those not in the know, a conker is the seed of a horse chestnut tree. In the British countryside, school children are known to thread string through these seeds in autumn when they drop from the trees and engage in vicious battles, wherein they smash each others prized floor-treasure to pieces. Only one conker will emerge victorious, its owner grinning savagely through a face smeared with the entrails of lesser seeds.
A quick glance at Conker Spirit distillery owner Rupert Holloway gives you the impression that he’s the kid whose conker would win. He’s determined, quietly stubborn and dead set on doing things his own way.
Founded in 2014, Conker Spirit was the first distillery to emerge from Dorset. This is something Holloway treated as a blessing when crafting his gin– the county is not steeped in traditions and there is no distilling heritage to stick to. Holloway could work from a blank canvas, taking a sip-by-sip approach when creating the recipe for his Dorset Dry Gin. The focus was only on quality. This has turned out a blessing, in our opinion; a quick glance at the scene five years on shows a couple of competitors – Pothecary, Lilliput – but if someone were to task us to name a Dorset Gin right off the bat, this is still the first we’d think of.
Though a little craggy around the edges now, Holloway was a fresh face in the drinks industry when Conker Gin launched. Prior to starting the distillery he worked as a chartered surveyor, a job in which days stretched on for weeks and weeks into years. When he hit 29, he had what he calls “an early midlife crisis,” and decided to get out of there, deciding, quite suddenly, that he’d be “bitterly disappointed if I retire or die doing what I currently do for a living.”
A peak at Holloway’s blog shows his positivity and determination – every hurdle back in the day was taken as a lesson, rather than an exercise in futility. Conker Spirit was started with no money – “No savings. Zilch,” says Holloway. Rather than money, Holloway was rich with the opportunity that comes from having no responsibilities – no children, no mortgage. We’d strongly advise giving the blog a read, though accept no responsibility for those feeling the inevitable itch that comes from a long week at work who, inspired by Holloway’s successes, fire off an 8pm email to HR saying they can’t come in on Monday – or ever again, for that matter – because they’re too busy pursuing their dreams, damn it!
For Conker Gin, the eureka moment came when Holloway realised that he couldn’t buy a local G&T, despite the fact that there are craft brewers and distillers popping up all over the country. He knew right away that distilling was what he wanted to do and (despite no formal qualifications) began distilling almost instantly in December 2013.
Holloway sought the help of Summer Fruitcup’s David Smith when working on his recipe. They looked at recipes together and explored the flavour journeys the gins Holloway was creating seemed to be taking. Smith also helped Holloway develop his palate for picking out individual botanicals, an area that too few forget to do. It’s an important part of distilling (and cooking, even), as it through an ability to discern and articulate what you can taste that one vastly improves their ability to balance new recipes and ideas. Eventually, they settled upon recipe 38 (though Holloway went through 45 in total).
Local botanicals accompany a more traditional line up. Juniper, coriander, angelica, orris, cassia and Seville orange suggest a line up similar to any London classic, but this is livened up with lime peel which, says Holloway, “add a really nice, crisp, almost dry sweetness that balances out the very caramelised orange of the Seville orange.” The botanicals get a Dorset twist from dried samphire, elderberries and hand harvested New Forest gorse flowers, which are picked and dried in March and April to be used throughout the year.
Initially, all of the ingredients were added, along with the base spirit and New Forest spring water, to Conker Spirits’ two 30-litre alembic copper pot stills – Aunt Fanny and Pumpkin – and left to rest for 12 hours. Demand has called for a bigger rig, though, so production has been upgraded to bigger distilling units, although the method has remained largely unchanged. The Stills are heated until all of the alcohol evaporates away from the botanicals, taking their essential oils and flavour with it.
This process takes around 12 hours, and while initially Holloway was only producing 60 bottles a day, the newer kit and a higher botanical intensity means he’s able to process a few hundred per still per day. Basically, Holloway now produces a concentrate which can be mixed with more alcohol and then watered down to bottling strength. Many producers are snobby about the multi-shot process, but we can’t say we ever noticed a change in quality between then and now…
Conker Spirit Dorset Dry Gin to taste…
With Conker Spirit Dorset Dry Gin Holloway aimed to create a well-balanced gin, with no botanical much more dominant than any other. He’s achieved this well, with the flavours meld and intertwine delicately. To the nose, it’s a cacophony, with everything rushing forwards at once and shouting to be heard. Summery and sweet meadow-like aromas underpin the experience, with citrus and a soft, floral sweetness holding the juniper in place.
It’s green on the tongue, though the classic juniper elements are soon pushed out of the way by the elderberries, which bring a jammy sweetness and the chamomile-like gorse flower, which brings a candy-striped sugary hit to proceedings. It’s a smooth gin with a taste that lingers – fresh at the fore, though sweet throughout.
The drink sits well when sipped on ice, but the very nature of its evenly-spread botanical mix means that its one you can play with. The lime can be dressed up in a G&T with a lime peel, while the gorse flower sweetness could be accentuated by adding in some Fever Tree Elderflower Tonic.
Holloway himself recommends a Martini with a dry vermouth and a grapefruit peel twist, a mix we certainly enjoy ourselves (suggested ratio is 5 parts Conker, 1 Vermouth)… It’s delicately poised though, so suits being served both classic or with at twist in a Martin. If you are going classic, take our word for it and try Belsazar Dry Vermouth – it partners really well.
The bottle itself is short and stout and really stands out on shelves. The labels are hand signed by Holloway, and the colours, though bright, are not jarring. It’s certainly a well-presented gin and would make for a great gift for connoisseurs.
The name Conker, incidentally, was a happy accident. Holloway sent his girlfriend Emily a message to say that he’d decided to create a gin and she replied, quite accidentally, with the word ‘conker.’ He realised it was the perfect name: “nostalgic, very British and a word everyone knows but rarely uses. I now get to call myself ‘Head Conkerer’ as well.”
Conker Gin has been a bit of a slow burner. Not everyone’s heard of it, but those that know it love it. It’s a great emblem of the British countryside and while to a casual observer it looks like there’s been little evolution since the start – same bottle, same flavour, same brand identity – that’s only because it launched from such a strong place. It just never needed to grow up.
Still, that doesn’t mean things have to remain static. Since launching, there have been two additions to the range, with both a Cask Aged and a Navy Strength releases in the winter of 2018.
Conker Barrel Aged Gin to taste:
This wasn’t simple a case of soaking Conker Gin in a lump of wood, rather a little tweaking had to be done. The distillery’s flagship offering was reduced to around 45%ABV before being added to former Port barrels (8 at a time) and left to rest for 8 weeks. Once maturation reaches its optimum moment, with the liquid taking on a fiery, caramel hue, it’s disgorged and diluted to bottling strength with water.
It really is a beautifully captivating gin, with a rose gold hue to the colour of the liquid. On the nose, both the sweet port and the woody barrel are obvious to discern, bringing a forest fruit sensation on top of what is familiar Conker Gin territory (summer meadows and soft sweetness).
To taste, the orange peel is the citrus that seems to have taken control of the fore, before giving way to the flavours captured during the spirit’s gentle slumber. The oak is clear, but it’s not tannic, rather it imposes a fruity and subtle wood note, much tamer than the flavours you’d typically get from the likes of American oak, with more of the previous occupant noticeable here than the ageing process or the charred wood. Clearly, it’s a well suited cask for the gin, as the two play off each other sympathetically enough for it to be recognisably Conker Gin, but with enough character to be a new experience in its own right and worthy of discovery. The spice, not particularly present with the original, is more fiery here and more enduring too.
Conker Navy Strength Gin to taste:
To create his higher proof offering, Holloway dropped gorse as a botanical from the recipe all together, instead deciding to increase the amount of juniper, elderberry and samphire to allow for a more classic, resinous hit. Not just content with just making a higher proof offering, Conker Navy Gin is also built with a charitable soul embedded into each bottle. £5 from every sale goes to the RNLI in a partnership that will last (and hopefully be extended thereafter) three years.
The aroma is unsurprisingly, given the intentions, overwhelmingly rich with pine and elderberry, a duo that we’ll confess to having a soft spot for here at Gin Foundry. Forest floor with deep red jammy fruit is hard not to love and this gin teases you in to sniffing far too aggressively. The fact that it’s high-proof turns this delicious combination into something of a weapon, because a few deep breaths in and you’ll be coughing in the corner and yet you still feel compelled to do it all over again. On the lips, the juniper hits at the same time as the spirit, creating a pine explosion that’s further accentuated by the vivacious nature of the lime peel, which also leaps in to makes itself known. Once the moment passes, juniper and elderberry intermingle happily and a warming heat of cassia comes through on a dry finish.
While it’s a fairly traditional flavour sipped neat, classicism goes out of the window once tonic is introduced. Dilution brings the jammy elderberries stampeding to the fore, with the fruits somersaulting across the tongue like a troupe of marionettes. It’s stunning, especially when served with orange peel.
Conker Spirit was very much a one-man band operation for the first year and a half, with Holloway himself distilling, bottling and labelling his gins, as well as foraging for local ingredients. He soon added an old friend, Fred Gamper, to the team, and though it’s remained very much a tiny, the growing number of brilliant products (half a dozen at present, including an exquisite coffee liqueur) implies a distillery that is very much more than the sum of its parts. We want more, Holloway. And we definitely want an Old Tom – how well would those elderberries work in an Old Tom?
We’re not alone in our fandom, either – with over 60,000 bottles sold a year and consistent five star reviews, it seems that Conker Spirit Dorset Dry Gin is growing a litltle army. Seek this one out.
For more information about Conker, visit their website: www.conkerspirit.co.uk
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