Downton Distillery Explorer’s Gin
Downton manor house has a long and winding history attached to it, but it’s probably not the one you were expecting. No, Dame Maggie Smith didn’t roam the halls of this sprawling estate (that’s a different place – Highclere castle), but history looms large at Downton Distillery never-the-less.
We like to think that if a story is worth telling, it’s worth telling in Gin form, so let’s commence…
The property was gifted to Sir Walter Raleigh in 1583. Just a year later, Queen Elizabeth I gave him a warrant to explore the New World, thus kicking off the Golden Era of Discovery wherein Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake establishes new trade routes and brought Britain to prominence as a maritime sea power. Tobacco and potatoes were brought in from America, along with countless dozens of other herbs and spices.
A couple of years later, in 1586, Lizzy came to stay with Sir Walter. In a bid to make her sojourn as perfect as possible, he sailed one of his ships all the way to Downton and dismantled it, using the Timber to build the great halls and the chapel room. The little marks and scars of time still remain in the house, and we bet if you pulled up enough floorboards you’d find the 16th Century edition of ‘Walter woz ere’ sketched into the floorboards.
Fast forward a few hundred years or so and the property is now in the hands of Charles and Francesca Andrews, who bought it less than a decade ago and who have dedicated their lives to its upkeep. While involved in the Gin in a marketing and supportive capacity, the duo are largely hands off. In fact, it wasn’t even their idea in the first place.
Nope, that cap doffs to Hugh Anderson, founder and distiller of Downton Distillery. He is a lifelong friend of Charles and the husband of an all-out Gin geek, so when he and his buddy were sat by the fire one day (in a room still propped up with beams from the ship), the former chewing over how to set up his own business and the latter keen to get involved, the idea to make Gin landed with a bang. The barn next to the manor house was empty, so it was the ideal location to construct a distillery.
Anderson credits a tour at City of London Distillery for really seeding the idea. “The ember was sown when I took my wife, Meike, to a Gin making course for her birthday. I was fascinated by the whole experience; the history, the chemistry aspect, being able to create something very unique and subsequently drink it! Following this course, I got our first alembic still and started experimenting, learning as much as I could about the whole process.”
A little while after his visit to City of London Distillery, Anderson started experimenting at home, on a tiny 3-litre still. After nearly two years of tasting and testing, he landed upon the final recipe for his Gin. It is an impressive one, not only for the flavour it imparts but for the story each botanical tells.
There’s the star botanical, western red cedar, which travelled back from America in 1852. The tree grows in the distillery garden and is freshly snipped ahead of every distillation. There’s pink peppercorn, a peruvian berry that nods towards Raleigh’s last expedition, when he made for the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. Following the maritime path, Anderson went for a citrus trio, with grapefruit, lemon and orange sure to keep that scurvy at bay.
The western red cedar is a brand new botanical to us, and probably to you, too. We needed a little further explanation on it, so once more made a beeline towards Anderson for some insight. The tree “was a Eureka moment of discovery,” he said. “I’m a keen gardener, and always looking at the plants and flowers around me. Having walked around the garden of the manor house we were looking for something that would be unique and is relevant to our story. We discovered Western Red Cedar, and after doing some research, we tried to distil it and found it had a very interesting taste, piney and somehow citrusy. It was the final piece of the jigsaw and made the story complete.”
Juniper, lemon verbena, Szechuan pepper and garden-grown bay are the remaining named botanicals in a 15-strong line up. Though not declared it is safe to assume that the rest are the Gin necessities for a classic core, like coriander seed, liquorice, angelica…
To make it, the heavier botanicals are macerated in a neutral spirit for around 14 hours, whilst the fresher ones are placed in a botanical basked in the 100-litre copper alembic still. One hundred litres is not that small a set up but given the success so far, it’s a size Anderson will need to upgrade from soon. It might be named after Raleigh’s Ark Royal, but they’re going to need a bigger boat.
What does Downton Distillery Explorer’s Gin taste like?
On the nose, a waft of sweet grapefruit citrus pings up to say hello, with fragrant cedar and warming undertones of Szechuan pepper.
Tasted neat, the bright citrus cascades first, there’s a blink and you’ll miss it verbena moment that provides the bridge into a mellow pine tree creaminess in the heart. The pink pepper / Szechuan combo start to crescendo towards the end but it’s the red cedar that’s decided to take centre stage for the final flurry.
It’s taken a lot of tinkering to get to this point, but it’s a gin that needs a careful balance. Here there’s a sequence to the flavour and a cadence to how it presents itself. The red cedar, polarising as it may be, is a tour de force and give Explorer’s a unique profile that really helps it stand out. In a G&T, we’d add a peel of grapefruit as a garnish, but feel like this is a Gin that’s actually best with soda water. By contrast, it’s also the perfect building block for a fantastic Red Snapper.
So, a lip-smackingly, moreishly good gin. It’s such a feat that it’s almost obnoxious – who are these young upstarts bursting out of the woodworks too show the rest of us up? Their cunning doesn’t stop at the liquid, either; the bottle for Downton Gin is a stunner to say the least.
Seeking to convey that Golden Era, it is a glorious deep sea-blue glass, complete with golden compass and navigation chart. It is the one in your collection that people will ask about, and it’s a bottle you almost certainly won’t be able to throw away. A new candle holder, perhaps.
We met Anderson many months before he launched at a time when nothing about his plans had being revealed nor really materialised yet. We said what we say to all future distillers – that the hardest thing to do for any distillery is to answer a simple question; Given there’s thousands out there, why should someone care about your gin?
18 months on, his answer to that is clear. He’s taken inspiration from an authentic and unique history and been clever about how he harnessed it. Yes, Downton Distillery is anchored in the Golden Era of Discovery, but it is about a modern sense of adventure. There’s no longing for a bygone past though, just an acknowledgment of what has been and what is now being taken into a new age.
Explorer’s Gin, in being so profoundly about its location and geography is by default, fundamentally all about this interconnected planet, the journeys that people have been on what they have brought back (both botanical and ways of thinking). Theirs is a new chapter in this history and about the adventures that people will embark on in future, glass in hand.
It’s not just a gin, it’s the idea of place, people and attitude all captured in a bottle. The distillery is in itself the pursuit of a dream and a person’s adventure into unchartered waters. As with anything that reflects a brave undertaking – be it this story about it or their liquid, there is a huge dose of humanity imbued in it too.
Besides, if this all sounds like the mad ravings of a mystical shaman that Sir Walter might have encountered and if you don’t care about any of the above, then if nothing else – care about Explorer’s Gin because it’s bloody tasty.
Copyright © Gin Foundry