Dartmouth English Gin
Confession time: we’ve known about Dartmouth English Gin since it was but a twinkle in its owner (and distiller) Lance Whitehead’s eye. We spoke to him about it for months, watching him develop ideas, making gentle suggestions as he bounced them around the room. We aren’t biased, no, but we can’t say we didn’t feel a bit like parents sending their kids off for the first day of primary school when this gin finally launched last year.
We know about the sheer graft that goes into not only producing a gin, but building an entire brand about it. Watching Whitehead’s graft from almost day dot though, reminded us the sheer endlessness of the task; the toing, the froing, the one step forward, two steps back nature of everything. Recipes – my God, it is hard to nail a recipe – were twiddled with, dialled up, dialled down and rejigged. The logo shrunk and grew, swam away, evolved, came back… every element of it was chewed over a thousand times and will undoubtably continue to be as long as it’s being made. The pursuit to continue perfecting is always relentless no matter how old a brand is but when it all begins, the workload seems boundless. Until, of course, one day it isn’t. One day it all just ties together nicely and you’re set to go. For Whitehead, that day was happened in July 2018.
We knew he was onto a very good thing with his Dartmouth English Gin. We’d passed it back and forth across HQ and tasted the various iterations. When the final one landed, we were thrilled for his achievement and sure he was onto a good thing. When it launched, and within weeks was named Classic Gin of the Year at the Craft Distilling Expo, it felt all but confirmed: this gin is going to be a success.
The journey to gin making appreciation began decades ago, when 18-year-old Whitehead joined the RAF Regiment and caught something of a taste for gin. After a fair few years at the controls, he stepped off to join the financial industry, where he set up his own business that helped private businesses raise capital. Being the boss was a good gig, but after decades of order, he sought the chaos of creativity.
A few years prior to launching Dartmouth English Gin, Lance and his wife, Caroline, bought a farm near Dartmouth, in Devon, and began to plant fruit. Booze was very firmly on the agenda and the land now boasts a growing winery, but they had a while to make plans while everything grew within the soil.
Having watched the emergence of Bombay Sapphire, and after that a huge Craft Gin resurgence, the Whiteheads were keen to make a gin. Lance’s appreciation for the spirit never left him, even after he left the military, so they started drawing up ideas.
“We had a very clear idea about the type of gin we wanted to make – classic, smooth and full-flavoured,” Lance explained to us (in an interview you can find right over here). “We had to wait almost a year for the arrival of our Müller Still from Germany, so in the meantime we bought a rotary vacuum still with a reflux column and began to experiment, distilling over 60 single botanical spirits in pursuit of just the right combination and balance.”
Using a rotary still to create a recipe is a great way to buy time and help kick start the R&D, but it comes at a cost. Botanicals react differently when treated with heat (traditional still) than when cold distilled (under vacuum), so what tastes crisp and fresh done one way has an ability to evolve a little when done another. Still, it’s not impossible to match the two but it requires patience and determined effort to finesse the smallest details in order to recreate ideas and flavour combinations.
When he delivered the still, Müller talked Lance through the art of distilling, providing guidance and years of inherited knowledge for him to apply to his gin. It was a great start, and after many trials the recipe designed to be a classic that played nicely with Dartmouh English Gin’s outdoor space, was honed and refined.
The botanical bill is vast and enticing. It’s juniper-led, but Scots Pine brings a fresh crispness to that, while sweet orange, lemon and fresh grapefruit contribute to the citrus. Cubeb berries, grains of paradise and cardamom bring the spice element, while rosemary, kaffir lime leaves, lavender and rose petals bring a floral/herbal duality. The finish is filled with thick, textured liquorice, that ups the sweetness and adds an oily mouthfeel.
Dartmouth is made in a 230L copper pot still, using a multi-shot process. Some of the botanicals are added into the still overnight – such as juniper, coriander seed, dried orange peel, cassia and Grains of paradise – while the fresher ones, such as lavender, grapefruit peel, rosemary and Scots pine, are placed in the vapour chamber just before distillation begins.
What does Dartmouth English Gin taste like?
Everything about Dartmouth English Gin’s profile is classically styled, yet that’s not to say it isn’t layered with complexity. On the nose, there’s a faint twang of kaffir lime with its unmistakable tinge of citronella, while the dense green nature of rosemary and Scotts pine take the lead on the aroma. Linger a little and all of them are clearly complimented by lavender, rose and grapefruit peel. While it might seem unusual to name so many things here (surely not all these are possible, you shout), the gin is distilled with such precision that these flavours are, indeed, discernible. And loudly. It’s fresh, yet has depth. Inviting to say the least!
To taste, what’s noticeable up front is actually how smooth this is – it’s almost silky despite being bottled at 45% ABV. That flurry of fresh herbs greets you and the bright zing of grapefruit gives way to the fuller orange. Resinous juniper and coriander seed take centre stage for their moment in the sun, accentuated by that ever-green pine hit, before handing over to a warming nip of cassia and a long tongue-twistingly delicious finish of grains of paradise with that unique, black pepper yet violet-like nip that can only be the work of cubeb.
Tasted neat, the flavour transitions are impressive and flow like a perfectly timed sequence. There is a clarity to each of the flavours that few achieve, a clear sign that the meticulous dosing and attention spent honing the recipe was not just about which ingredients they wanted, but in what intensity they were required to allow for a clear journey. Dartmouth English Gin shows just how flavour evolves and in doing so, make it one of the most compulsive drinking experiences we’ve had in a long time. We just can’t help but want more.
For those looking for a recommendation, we love it with an orange peel and a rosemary sprig as a garnish in a G&T, although blueberries are also quite nice as an alternative.
Dartmouth English Gin is a huge success, in terms of flavour. We’re yet to meet someone who has tried it and not fallen for its charms instantly. It had a place in the 2018 Ginvent Calendar and was widely and loudly applauded, with all of the geeks from our lovely community positively screaming their love from the rooftops. Sure, at Christmas we’re all a little more receptive, but the love lasted way beyond the honeymoon period. This is becoming a staple in Gin shelves up and down the country, and we’re excited to watch it be loved by more and more people as it spreads across the country.
As regular readers will know, flavour is the most important thing about gin, but it often has very little to do with success. To thrive in this world, a distillery needs to evolve further and present a fully considered brand. Dartmouth know this, and of course it takes time for that to evolve and while it’s still early days yet, it’s clear it is well on its way to doing just that. Brands need to be present, interactive and engaging and each time we’ve revisited their story to check in on progress, they’ve added images, been at events and are holding their hand up to be counted. There’s more to come here and a team who seem up to the task that lies ahead.
What Dartmouth English Gin has already managed to do is nail their shelf appeal. Clad in tall bottles bedecked in copper and blue labels, is a hallmark of quality. We’re suckers for foiling around here, so anything shiny is a win (well, as long as it isn’t filled with glitter). The overall look is one we’d consider ageless, in that there’s no discernible target audience here. It’s classic, and it will hold huge appeal – a gift for your niece, or for your granddad. That sort of thing.
Tours are in the works, too. The distillery is based in the beautiful Calancombe Estate (their winery), which has a visitor centre on the way. In no time you’ll be able to tour the vines and groves with a G&T in hand. How nice will that be?
This year will also see the release of a second gin and possibly, some fruit infused offerings featuring the estate’s crops – damsons, mirabelles, blackcurrants… We’re confident, hands on heart confident, that these are going to be amongst the best in the game. This is a team that has their head in the game. They know how to maximise the flavour potential of every ingredient and, most importantly of all, how to marry those flavours together to create a moment of sheer harmony. This is poetry in liquid form, and you’d do well to make trying it a priority.
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