One woman, one five-metre-square shop tucked into a corner of Tooting Market and two 30-litre stills make Graveney Gin an impossibly dollhouse sized operation. Yet – and much to the surprise of its creator Victoria Christie – the spirit is gaining traction, so much so that it recently burst out of its home like a ‘roided up Polly Pocket on a mission.
Victoria grew up with a love of gin; her mum drinks G&Ts, and as a child she loved the smell. As an adult, she loved the taste. “I was always that weird one standing at the bar asking for a gin and tonic,” she recalls “it’s quite funny to think that I used to get mocked for being a little old school… and very British for a Scottish/South African dual national.”
When Victoria moved to London she’d scour bar backs for new, peculiar gins, a habit which became something of a trip down the rabbit hole. “From then onwards my gin world just opened up,” she told us. “It was during a trip to the Ginstitute at Portobello Road that I turned to my husband and said that if I could do anything in this world, making gin would be it.” Her husband, clearly not a man to mince words, said “well, why don’t you?”
Part of the Graveney Gin success can be attributed to Victoria opening her mouth just a little too early… while experimenting on a five-litre still, she began to share her journey on social media. Her friends responded with overwhelming positivity, whilst local festival Tootopia asked her to get involved. At this stage, Victoria was all concept, no product, so she spent each night after her banking job working on the product, creating six bottles a night until she had a stock of 200 (“which I though would be plenty for the festival and the rest of my life!” she squawks, still taken aback over a year later).
Graveney Gin was launched at the festival in September 2015, with Victoria selling an astounding 120 bottles. She was incredibly unprepared. “My husband had to run home and label bottles and then carry them to the food festival in his backpack. To tell you that I felt shocked, honoured and just so, so happy is an understatement.”
At the time, Victoria was doing all this from home. The distilling / bottling / labelling equipment, though small, began to creep across her house like ivy, so she put out a message on Twitter to see if anyone knew of a home for Graveney. Tooting Market got in touch with an offer, and – as true to our own hearts as a decision making process could ever be – Victoria and her husband sat down in Nando’s and worked out their outgoings on a napkin to see if Victoria could quit her day job and turn Graveney Gin into a full time thing.
Everything so far had been self funded, but this gear change was somewhat sudden, so Victoria turned to crowdfunding, setting a target of £3000 to help transfer her Tooting Market unit into a tasting room/ bar with onsite distillery. Such was the local support Victoria received, that she was overfunded by about £700.
A 30 – 60 bottle production run is the daily process for Victoria. She spends the first hour cleaning the still (or stills, she now has two 30-litre pots) and the next measuring out her water, alcohol and botanicals. Each distillation run takes three to four hours, so while that takes place she sterilises bottles and steals overprotective glances at the still to make sure it’s not getting up to anything untoward.
Once the spirit comes off the still, Victoria slowly cuts it down to its bottling strength of 45%, before spending much more time than anyone would like to, applying labels by hand. The stickers are clear (we’ll come back to this later), so getting the labels on bubble-free is an infinite, hell sent chore.
Graveney Gin has just seven botanicals in its line up: juniper, angelica, orris root, pink grapefruit peel, fresh orange, baobab and pink peppercorn. Victoria whittled this down through a process of elimination. She put all of her favourite gins in a row and listed their botanicals. “From then on it was a matter of saying what I loved in terms of ingredients versus what traditionally goes into gins. Once I had my list of favourite things I then created pure distillates from the ingredients to play around creating what Graveney Gin is now.”
There were, of course, disasters along the way. Sounding not unlike a certain orange-hued leader, she can only describe her experiments with her favourite tea, red bush, as “sad, sad, sad.” Disasters are par for the course for a trial and error distiller, though, and mistakes are a great teacher.
Talking of which, Victoria is only too enthusiastic to share her hard-earned wisdom with newbie distillers. “I come from banking where everything is so private and protected that this field is a breath of fresh air for me,” she explains. “I love the friendliness and the attitude that there is space for everyone in this market. Why be competitive when I am also a consumer and love gin. I got to do this dream job for a living because I received help. Why would I not pass the same on?”
Graveney Gin to taste…
Juniper delivers a sucker punch to the nose. It’s purple, sticky and resinous, as palpable as though you had some crushed between your palms and were breathing through them deeply. There’s a faint hint of spice, though pink peppercorn lends levity and a hint of warmth rather than a lip numbing, throat burning sensation.
Graveney Gin is sweet to the fore, with clear angelica, light floral orris notes and goji berries bringing a gentle hint of ripe, red fruit. Baobab lends a sour citrus quality, whilst the grapefruit and orange add a lively, zesty crispness. Juniper doesn’t so much underpin the gin as overarch it; it’s there every second, enhancing the other botanicals with its rich, crisp pine and flooding the mouth at the end so overwhelmingly its as though you’ve fallen over face first in a Christmas tree farm. The pink pepper also plays quite a key role in adding complexity to the journey too, permeating at times and vanishing at others. It’s a really well balanced gin that shows considerable skill in how it has been assembled.
Much like fellow London-dweller 58 Gin (which Victoria mentions as an inspiration), the use of Angelica root here is very clever as it feels that the gin is actually centred on a different botanical than juniper which, as we mentioned, umbrellas everything. Placing the multifaceted nature of angelica at the heart of the flavour means that as a gin it can be leant many ways by the end user. It is both citrussy and savoury in nature and as at home in a Martini with olives as it is with a twist.
With tonic, the sweetness is exacerbated, but so is the sourness of the baobab. In fact, the juniper seems to take on almost tart qualities in this context, while the grapefruit and orange seem more pithy. Victoria serves this up with a handful of ice and a wedge of grapefruit; it’s a fine shout, but we might be more inclined to play with the red fruit element – perhaps a handful of cranberries would match the sourness well.
Baobab’s inclusion in the line up lies in Victoria’s childhood. She grew up between South Africa and Scotland and was keen to add an element of the former into her gin. The uniquely South African fruit is a strange old thing, plucked from a comically squat tree. It looks like an ugly coconut, and contains parcels of boastfully nutritious flesh that naturally dehydrates in its shell.
Her years in Africa gave her a deep-rooted passion for nature and animals, particularly gorillas, for which she’s never managed to shake her childhood obsession. Since starting her own business, Victoria knew she wanted to do something to give back, so proceeds from every bottle of Graveney Gin sold go to Gearing Up 4 Gorillas, the UK’s only charity that focuses on the conservation of gorillas in Virunga National Park, in the Congo. So far, she’s raised £5000.
Another aspect of Victoria’s giving back is that Graveney Gin is an entirely organic product. “Being your own boss and creating your own product means that you can do what you believe in – like making sure that everything is sustainable,” she says.
Local support has been abundant; from that sellout first day to customers bringing their friends and family to the bar, Victoria has had a number of unofficial ambassadors selling the virtues of Graveney Gin far and wide. It is for that reason that she’s keeping the space in Tooting Market, even though she’s far outgrown it.
She has, however, taken another space in (very) nearby Merton Abbey Mills. This is her main base now, and gives her a bit more room to distil, serve, teach and chat to curious customers.
Of course, while a home grown fan base is fantastic, no one gets into the gin business without dreams of filling bars up and down the country. The philanthropic, animal loving heart of Graveney Gin will help gain some media appeal, and the fact that it has such a pure, classic taste created in miniscule batches gives it strong local appeal. Nevertheless, there’s a but (and believe us, we hate ourselves for adding a but): the bottle is a washout. The shape (teensy and square, with a rounded neck) is lovely, but the two clear stickers front to back mean the bottle becomes an anonymous affair on a dimly lit back bar. While not entirely cheap in it’s overall look and feel, when you’re paying £35 for a bottle of gin, you’re paying for the brand as much as the liquid and Graveney Gin has much room to improve.
The same bottle wrapped in textured white paper would look fantastic. Moreover, if it was on a bar you’d spot it. Having created an illustration laden outer box for shops that looks the part it’s clear to see that Victoria is capable of stepping up and in time, with continued success fuelling continued re-investment, we have no doubt she will.
Victoria is taking the right steps to expand Graveney Gin into general consciousness too; she’s signed up for trade show Imbibe Live in July and will head to the Spirits Show in December. Hers is a product that has an admirable collection of USPs: it’s organic, it’s charitable and it’s hand crafted in the teensiest batches. It’s good quality, it’s the right price and the fact that geeks can get really hands on with, can sit down with the distiller and even attend classes run by her is superb. All it needs is some continued improvements to the offering (which to be fair are exactly the same challenges as every other small producer in their early years) and a wider route to market and who knows how well it’ll do.
Regardless of whether she succeeds, fails or lands somewhere in the middle, Victoria’s core ethos means that the journey will be an enjoyable one. As she herself says: “If it’s not fun, I don’t do it.”
For more information about Graveney Gin visit the website: graveneygin.co.uk/
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