Newton House Gin
Ever since its launch in early 2017, Newton House has felt like part of the furniture, and we mean that with the utmost respect. Familiarity while keeping a sense of individuality is something that’s incredibly hard to achieve.
It just fits in, like it was always here; certainly, like it always should have been here. It’s comfortably British, beautifully packaged and manages to paint a pretty little picture of the fruits and flavours that filled the mouths of ancient England.
Newton House Gin hails from its namesake estate, which had fallen to ruin by the time Robin and Jane Cannon took it on in 2007. Built in the Jacobean era and lived in well through the rule of Queen Victoria, the estate has lived through more wars than we can even name. While echoes of its history still ran through the halls, it was utterly dilapidated by the time the Cannons got involved.
No, instead the duo rolled up their sleeves and took to restoration with gusto, starting with the grand house and working their way outwards, towards the gardens planted by former owner George Harbin.
The house was project enough; it is a Grade 1 listed building, so Historic England insisted on having a say in every single element of the restoration. It was no mean feat; with no heating, no roof and electricity in only one third of the house, there were a handful of very cold, almost attritional winters in the works. “In total,” Jane told us, “it took 10 years to complete the restoration and to breathe life back into the house to make it survive for another 100.”
Little signs from the past kept spurring the duo on, like messages sent from people who are long since ghosts. “We had a very special moment when we had to lift the floor in the main bedroom. One of the boards had some writing in chalk underneath. It read: ‘This board was laid in 1778, lifted and re-laid in 1796 by Thos Wills.’ It was a subliminal moment that brought our efforts into perspective and gave the house a humanity we hadn’t expected,” Jane said.
We’re not really here to talk about the house though, as fascinating as it is. This is a story about the garden, and the inspiration it has served in the gin they have created. When Harbin inherited the estate back in 1820, he set right to work on the land.
He planted a two-acre cider apple orchard (and built the corresponding outbuildings to house the apple crusher, press and barrel-making equipment) and a kitchen garden, the fruit and vegetables of which were even donated to the war effort in Yeovil.
A truly incredible amount of English history sits in that soil, which is what makes it all the more tragic that it was all left to rot from the 1960s onwards.
When the Cannons took it on, it was a mess. “The gardens were impenetrable, with a massed ensemble of self-seeded bushes, brambles, nettles and ivy,” Jane recalls. “Cobbled areas and paths had disappeared beneath soil and grass and cattle grazed on what had once been wonderful meadowland. The parkland fencing was half fallen and rusting away, the walls within the garden were invisible and brambles had successfully invaded what had previously been lawns, flowerbeds, vegetable patches, terraces and paths.
“The orchard, meanwhile, was full of fallen apple trees and there was no evidence of the former productive gardens.”
Luckily, another message (or two) from the past came through. While there was no sign of the former vegetation, metal tree tags had stayed in the ground, allowing the Cannons to replant those which had stood there a hundred or so years before. “Gradually,” Jane said, “the garden and grounds started to emerge from their deep sleep.”
It was only when trying to work out what to do with the outhouses that Jane and Robin considered creating their own take on the Somerset Gin effort. With a booze history, the outbuildings were perfect for the part, and with the garden now flourishing, ingredients were right at hand.
It took six months of tinkering before the Cannons had a recipe they were happy with. “We wanted a quintessentially English garden flavour to our gin. It could be argued that a peach is not native to our shores, but we know that in Victorian glass houses peaches were grown in earnest. And we too have discovered that they thrive under glass in the 90-foot long greenhouse that we have restored.”
Playing around on their still, they added and subtracted their way through dozens and dozens of botanicals, finally ending up with a finely tuned 12-strong recipe. The gin is distilled London Dry style, with all the ingredients added in the pot, and distilled over at the same time to a single shot methodology.
Newton House Gin to taste:
Five of the ingredients are inspired in the garden and actually readily grow there, but for the sake of consistent quality, and to ensure the gin remains the same year after year, they have chosen to work with suppliers to provide the ingredients.
The typical Gin flavours from the gin are obtained from juniper, almonds, liquorice, angelica and coriander seeds, while grapefruit, lemon, bergamot and orange bring a huge, oily, citrus flourish and peaches, mint and blueberries positively smack of an English country garden.
It’s an unctuous gin with a full texture to the mouthfeel. There’s a quick flurry of soft citrus that hits upfront, then the core of juniper and coriander hit, resonant and loud. They are complimented by the blueberry and peach fruitiness.
It’s not just ‘red fruits and berries’ in the same way so many people do when drawing on garden inspiration, it’s more nuanced than that. Here there are soft, fleshy fruits dosed in a way that allows for layers of complexity.
Gin is supposed to tell a story; to tell the drinker of its home, its inspirations, its makers. Newton House Gin does so beautifully. This is by far one of the most impressive restoration projects we’ve ever had the good fortune to witness, and the fact that gin is being used as a way of telling the estate’s story seems perfectly fitting.
As Jane herself summarises: “Our journey started with the idea of comprising romance, hope, ambition and aspiration to create a gin inspired by some of the plants grown in the newly restored gardens, and to turn around the decline here, which had almost turned to ruin. We wanted to salvage the dreams and memories of those who had lived and worked at Newton House for so many centuries.”
They have achieved this and more. With so much that’s made in this new era of Gin about either story or botany, it’s often understated just how difficult it is to reach a natural harmony between the two as producers.
To be swept up by the passion of an idea and the journey it takes you on, yet hard nosed enough to stop and create something fit for today. To let romance run wild, yet keep a cool head to ensure completion of critical tasks.
The Cannons have had to find this balance each step of the way, to re-piece where possible and to interpret where not to go with instinct when needed, and to compromise to safeguard history elsewhere. To have built what they have – and to have imbued it in the gin that they have made – is a fine accomplishment.
This combination, this modern lease of life excavated out of the bones of yesteryear is why there’s a sense that Newton House Gin is so familiar and ironically, it’s biggest challenge. It needs to be discovered and to be seen, yet when everything so far, from house to garden to gin has been seen to be as sympathetic to history, to have the humility to restore, not just create anew and where standing out is about fitting in (until you look closer and realise the modern subtleties) it’s a challenge that’s much more complex than one first realises.
So how do you shout when all you want to do is whisper? Well, you don’t. It might be a grand old building in sweeping surrounds, but it’s also a hidden gem. Go and look for this, Gin folks. You’ll see we’re not wrong, that it is delicious. You’ll be in on arguably one of the UK’s best kept secret of 2018 and while you drink some mighty fine gin, you will probably start to ponder quite what the builder wrote under your floorboards…
With a profile so tasty, set in a distillery so inspiring and created by people who have such respect for history, this was never going to be a gin you could let pass you by. But somehow, through magic, perhaps, Newton House is bigger than all that.
This is a gin that you absolutely should go out of your way to get hold of.
Copyright © Gin Foundry