Located in Highgate, London, Sacred Micro Distillery is the ‘Breaking Bad’ of gin. Unlike a traditional distillery with copper pot stills, Sacred Gin is distilled under vacuum in glassware that resembles a chemistry lab gone crazy. The story of Sacred Gin is really a story of ingenuity, know-how and true British creativity – moreover, it’s the story of Ian Hart and Hilary Whitney, the distillery’s master distiller and co-founders.
Operating out of the back room of a residential house, with a vacuum pump situated in a wendy-house in Hart’s back garden, Sacred Micro Distillery was established in London in 2009 (at a similar time to Sipsmith). Prior to starting a micro distillery, Ian Hart was a city headhunter specialising in Quants with one of his biggest clients being Lehman Brothers. Post credit crunch, business was slow, leaving Ian with a lot of spare time in which he started researching and experimenting with the modern techniques of distillation. Having studied natural sciences at Cambridge, this seemed like the most natural fit. Beginning with wine, Ian removed water from clarets using a two-stage rotary vane vacuum pump to find the higher quality wine within. The idea behind doing this was to create richer wines from lesser vintages and whilst the experiment worked, it would never be commercially viable. Thankfully for juniper fans, his sights soon turned to creating a contemporary gin.
Sacred Gin’s recipe is based on a formula from the time of the Dutch Gift of 1660. In the mid to late 17th Century, the Dutch spice trade was dominated by the Dutch East India Company and substantial new spice discoveries were documented by the Carmelite missionary Father Mattheus à St. Joseph. The Dutch dominance of the spice trade lasted for some decades and the famous and significant botanical Encyclopaedia, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, was published in 12 large volumes. Working through some of the better known botanicals (or more commonly associated with gin) as well as the more obscure ones – Ian drew from the encyclopaedia to further understand how best to distil the flavour from each botanical. After some months of trying, a breakthrough occurred and his gin testing audience persuaded him that a new recipe created at the start of 2009 was a unique new gin style. The name Sacred actually comes from one of the botanicals used to create this gin – Frankincense (whose other name is Boswellia Sacra, perhaps making the “sacred” link a little more obvious).
The method of distillation is highly unusual as there are no copper pots, baskets or large bottling plants in sight; Sacred is distilled under a low pressure vacuum using relatively small rota-vap’s (minute in distillery terms, quite big for those who have seen them in science laboratories). If you are a science super geek – it might interest you to hear that not content with a regular rotor evaporator, Ian has slowly but surely been rejigging his apparatus and has, essentially, by reinventing parts, improving joints, vacuum seals and pressure retention – created his own bespoke distilling equipment. It’s quite a sight and illustrates the journey that he and the gin has been on, consistently improving as they progress. The detail that Ian is willing to go into to improving performance and maximising the potential at each stage is also true for the maceration of the botanicals, which happens in multiple stages.
Each of the twelve botanicals are distilled separately using English grain spirit and then blended to make the final spirit, which is then bottled at 40% ABV (only a few hundred at a time). Initially, each separate botanical was made with two or three fractions (i.e. distilled in two or three different ways). The initial fraction is collected under glass coils cooled with iced water (about 0°C), the middle is collected under a cold finger cooled to -89°C with dry ice (solid CO2), and the final fraction is collected under liquid nitrogen under a cold finger at -196°C. The separately distilled botanicals therefore produce 2-3 fractions each, which were blended as the final part of the process. This process can still be done but since the improvements to the apparatus, Ian has found there to be no need for the dry ice and so, has altered the process accordingly, changing the maceration times (botanicals undergo three different macerations with alcohol then a further two with water to get the very last bit out of each, before even being transformed into the final distillate!).
For those of a less technical disposition – the separately distilled, low pressure, low temperature distillation combination results in Sacred achieving bright, fresh notes throughout. Each botanical is as complex as it could be as a maximum amount has been taken from them and because of the low temperature, the flavours haven’t been cooked in any way (for example citrus can sometimes come across as marmaladey when in a pot still).
Whilst the scale of the production is possibly the smallest (for commercial gins) we’ve seen anywhere in the world – the gin itself is no shrinking violet. Fresh, balanced citrus and cardamom notes, Sacred Gin stands up to inspection. The juniper is clear but not aggressive and it carries well in a G&T and in a Martini, with a creamy texture that stands out. If you are partial to a martini, we strongly recommend you trying it in conjunction with their Dry Vermouth – created in collaboration with Alessandro Palazzi from Dukes Hotel Bar.
With the method at hand, of course, there is room for playing around, so Hart has made use of his flavour library by making some flavour specific renditions of Sacred Gin. There’s a Pink Grapefruit heavy gin, a Cardamom-led gin… We had a chance to taste the Cardamom Gin and it was… well… cardamom-y. The pods dominate the nose, conjuring images of Indian desserts and sweet teas. It’s hugely fragrant, with juniper emitting tiny little radar pips to the surface intermittently.
We do suspect there’d be a hint of the Marmite effect here. As a team, we’re cardamom people so this floods our mouth with nothing but curried joy. If you like cardamom, you’ll love this. If you don’t like cardamom, you’ll spit it out with a certain fury. Tonic, incidentally, doesn’t lessen the impact of the seed – if anything, it increases the perfume accent, allowing the pods to stomp up and down on the tongue like stroppy elephants.
The “Open Sauce” kits that Sacred Micro Distillery create are as interesting as the gin. With twelve single botanical distillates available, it is possible to make your own gin at home, or simply add in more of a particular flavour to an existing gin to suit your palate. What they also offer, is a unique opportunity to explore single flavours apart from one another, allowing you the chance to discern which you like or don’t like. It is only by having the opportunity to do this that one can start to understand what each botanical brings to a gin and what one actually likes. Similar to the Bombay Gin Aroma Kit, empowering bartenders, customers and gin fans to explore the flavours within a gin (armed with some explanations as a guide) is a powerful tool and potentially a much bigger contribution to the gin category than just an individual product.
Where we feel these individual distillates have their biggest strength however, is when used by bars and gin fans alike to create signature serves. For example, cardamom distillate layered on top of a G&T will dramatically change the drink and serving a little bottle on the side for a customer to mix in when they feel like a change in flavour is something that could easily catch on. In 2013 Sacred took this idea one step further by introducing what we’ll call flavour gins, as there is no real term that accurately describes these products. Coriander Gin, Cardamom Gin etc… are available to buy and consist of a gin that has been heavily leaned towards that botanical. For example, Coriander Gin is almost 90% coriander. They are good examples of how people had been using the open sauce kits to date as there’s still a discernible juniper twang, but it’s no longer the dominant force and is incredibly refreshing when accompanied by tonic.
Sacred Gin’s ongoing partnership with Duke’s bar and the custom made gin created for the TATE gallery shows glimpses of what the brand is capable of and with a continued assault on the US planned for 2014, the year ahead could see awareness of Sacred Gin skyrocket to the next level. Already over the 24,000 bottle mark, it will be an interesting journey to watch as Ian and Hilary consolidate production and embed their new products. The Rosehip Cup, Sweet Vermouth and Sacred Gin gift pack has Negroni lovers the world over looking in with intent already, we wonder what will happen as these become available more broadly. The labels and overall look and feel of the brand image is continuously developing too, with improvements made at each time a new label and website change occurs.
Typical of the duo at Sacred however, they are attached to the small batch nature of creating their precious spirits. Talking about some of the challenges of doubling volume to the 50,000 bottle mark, talk of moving production to a different site or bringing in new members to help with operations were nowhere to to be heard. Instead, Ian points out that the main challenge he faces “is how to handle the macerating of large volumes of botanicals“, mainly as the buckets are heavy! He still lifts, stirs, sieves and decants each extraction himself, and in a nutshell, this explains the Sacred way. Both Ian and Hilary cherish small scale and value this above maximizing turnover and rapid expansion. The romance and hands on nature of creating their products is core to the entire operation. Sacred Gin will never be a large volume gin – no matter what the call for it to be that are. This ethos of slow and steady, matched with the aspiration that producing a world class gin is the end goal – not world domination and overflowing bank coffers is what makes Sacred so special.
Sacred Gin is a triumph, not just as a story of local production or one person’s ability to master various roles to create an award winning gin that is gaining momentum – but as an inspiration to all those who like to tinker. We hope that the story of Sacred will inspire others to make their own gin, or at the very least try and learn more about what they like in a gin and because of that enjoy it that much more. As a gin, Sacred delivers authenticity and elegance in a category increasingly saturated with distracting messaging and gimmicks. It’s a quality gin that we strongly recommend trying for yourself.
For more information about Sacred Gin, visit their website: www.sacredspiritscompany.com
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