Though it only launched in July 2016, Salcombe Gin has a decidedly precocious head on its shoulders, like a 13 year old graduating from Oxford or the entire cast of Bugsy Malone. History – both near and far – has played a significant role in the development of Howard Davies and Angus Lugsdin’s gin, though their main driving force was nothing but a genuine passion for a good G&T.
The duo met some 20 years ago, when they were in their late teens and working as sailing instructors in Salcombe, Devon. They’d spend their days on the water and their evenings at the yacht club, toasting a hard day’s work with a Gin and Tonic. Though both grew up and away from Devon, they kept in touch, and when they moved back in 2014 their first port of call was to meet for a drink.
Lugsdin explains: “The conversation got onto our desire to start our own businesses. I had a passion for distilling born out of a love for single malt whisky, so was keen to get into it. We both had a love of Salcombe and Gin and agreed that the two were a match made in heaven, so decided to build our own Gin distillery in Salcombe.”
Seeking advice from Burleigh’s creator Jamie Baxter and the late Dr John Swan (aka ‘the Einstein of whisky), Lugsdin and Davies sought to absorb as much knowledge about distillation as possible, even pulling stints at the Springback Distillery in Campbeltown and the Kilchoman Distillery on Islay.
Taking Salcombe Gin from inception to production was a two-year process, 18 months of which was spent developing the recipe. They also used this time to build a distillery, which – by coincidence alone – is built on the site of the boat repair yard that used to belong to the sailing club Davies and Lugsdin met at. As a result, theirs, they proudly proclaim, is one of the few distilleries in the world that can be reached directly by boat.
Both Davies and Lugsdin were particular about what sort of gin they wanted to design. They set Tanqueray 10 as their benchmark and set about developing a recipe that placed fresh citrus front and centre. They also established a Salcombe Gin committee, wherein they’d invite friends to sample their efforts and provide feedback.
The citruses do more than add flavour to the gin; they also tell the story of the Salcombe Fruiters, copper bottomed boats that were responsible for importing over 80% of fresh citrus fruits that landed in England in the 19th Century. These boats were not only built in Salcombe, they were crewed by local men and make up a large, yet largely forgotten, part of the town’s history. The Salcombe Gin team, realising just how well this story would tie Salcombe’s history in with their desired flavour profile, set to work tracing the old trading routes, and now – where they can – source their citrus fruits from countries on the map.
That propensity to look back meant that Davies and Lugsdin never considered anything other than a London Dry method when it came to making Salcombe Gin. Theirs is a one shot spirit, produced on a 450l Holstein still (named Provident). The still is charged with a mixture of English grain spirit, Dartmoor water and the thirteen botanicals, which have been weighed and measured ahead of time. The citruses are peeled just ahead of maceration to retain as much freshness as possible.
A less usual addition to the mix is a helping of the tails from the previous run. “The tails contain the majority of the earthy notes from Angelica that provide such an importance backbone to our gin,” Lugsdin explains.
Salcombe Distillery is, in fact, ever so geeky about the hearts, heads and tails. “We cut from heads to hearts according to the recipe and distillation process we have developed,” he told us. “There is a fine line between capturing enough of the volatile citrus elements and avoiding collecting any harsh notes. Our cut points are based on temperature, alcohol level, flow rate and – most importantly – taste.
“We collect between 220 and 230 litres of hearts before making the cut to tails, again based on temperature, alcohol level, flow rate and taste. We want to capture some of the earthy notes but leave out the woody flavours that develop towards the end of the still run.”
In total, the distillation run takes around nine hours, producing enough liquid to fill 600 70cl bottles. The hearts cut it transferred to a blending tank, where it is allowed to rest for a couple of days before more Dartmoor water is added, bringing the spirit down to its bottling strength of 44%.
While the majority of runs are performed by Salcombe Distillery’s Master Distiller, Jason Nickels, Davies and Lugsdin perform the occasional run, and each batch is signed off by at least one of the co-founders, who tests it against the previous batch and an earlier reference sample.
Salcombe Gin to taste…
Soft, sweet roots dominate the nose, joined by a resinous juniper and huge, bright citrus. There’s a hint of cubeb and coriander spice if you spend time nosing it neat, but they’re not sharp or burning, more deep and nuanced. As far as aroma goes, Salcombe Gin is comfortably classic, with the Gin trifecta (juniper, angelica and coriander) putting in long, loud appearances.
The 44% ABV is soft in the mouth and pleasingly intense. First, there’s liquorice and chamomile sweetness, joined quickly by bright lime peel and a fruity, peppery cubeb heat. The more juicy, tart citrus peels follow on not so far behind. The whole taste is underpinned by the angelica, which is earthy, rooty and lasting, giving the gin a dusty, spiced finish that puts it right at home with the most classic of “London” gins.
As such, it’s made for a G&T. Juniper takes the lead entirely, commanding attention from all angles and dragging the other botanicals in line. The grapefruit, lemon and lime dance a violent waltz with the quinine, filling the mouth with a loud, fizzing citrus punch that quickly gives way to a superbly ginny angelica and juniper hit. It’s not just a good G&T, it’s a great one.
Salcombe Gin‘s bottle has a very deliberate look. The racing flag on the front, the map on the back and the coordinates on the top speak loudly of its hometown’s nautical history. The foiling is a triumph. resulting in an inarguably expensive look that speaks of quality long before you pop the lid off the bottle. Many details are beautifully placed, so its a package that will give the holder something new to discover each time, from geographical details to the story of the Salcombe Fruiters.
Salcombe Gin, its worth noting, isn’t actually called Salcombe Gin. It’s called Start Point, a name which not only signifies this as the first of many gins, but which represents the distillery’s location. Start Point is the southernmost point in Devon and is a well-heeded nautical landmark, one observed and used by the Salcombe Fruiters.
If that was just the start, variants were an inevitability. The first to tumble out of the distillery is Finisterre – a sherry cask aged gin that comes in an outrageously exquisite package. It’s a presentation and a half, with a 70cl bottle of the aged gin sold alongside a bottle of the sherry taken from the very cask the gin was aged in. It’s symbiotically beautiful and very exclusive, with that Salcombe Gin foiling resplendent both inside and outside the box. At £95 for the gift set, it’ll set you back a pretty penny, but as far as gifting goes…. well, we’d be ecstatic to receive it.
The sherry in question is a 12-year old Fino from Bodegas Tradicion in Jerez. Lugsdin always had it in his head that Start Point Gin would age well in a sherry cask, so after introductions were made he headed over to Spain.
“Having selected Fino as the sherry style, we then set about finding the right cask,” he explains. “Working with the Cellar Master we picked out a 624-litre American Oak cask that was between 80 and 90 years old and still bore the original coopers mark. This cask held their 12-year-old Fino.”
The Fino was drawn from the cask and the cask shipped back to Salcombe, wherein the small amount of Fino remaining was emptied (so that the only influence was the wood, rather than any Sherry residue). A specially chosen batch of Start Point Gin was then watered down to 50% and placed in the cask to rest for three months. Interestingly enough, the wood diluted the gin farther, bringing it down to 48.5% ABV.
So why three months? Barrel aged anything is hard to gauge. One foot wrong and you’re left with a product so minimally changed that the effort was for nothing, or a product so hideously oaky that you may as well chew on a tree. It is a very, very fine tightrope. “To us it is always about balance, and the quality of the liquid is paramount,” said Lugsdin. “We wanted the cast aged gin to still be identifiable as gin, but wanted it to have taken on enough of the characteristics of the cask and its previous contents so as to complement our gin.
“We draw samples every two weeks to test the aroma and flavour. After three months we felt we were almost there, so left it for a further two weeks, checking every other day. After 14 weeks we made the call to draw the contents of the cask and bottle it.”
Salcombe Gin – Finisterre to taste…
There’s a soft sweetness to the nose, with citrus zest and cask vanillins resulting in a lightly lemoned drizzle cake sensation. The wood is present but not suppressive, bringing a toasted mellowness to proceedings – perfect nightcap fodder.
This is an entirely gentle spirit, with the wood placing a delicate film across the tongue that allows the gins botanicals to attack with a certain muted nature. The citrus is strong and fresh, while the cubeb and coriander are much more pronounced, bringing a chest warming heat.
It actually makes a decent G&T too, which is quite a surprise given how poorly wood and tonic tend to interact. Enough of the gin’s heart remains to make this work, and with a little dilution, the juniper rises up to fill the senses. As far as aged gins go, this is up there with the best of them and is conclusive proof that the Salcombe Gin team are on the right path to making a portfolio of gins that is of the highest quality.
The distillery is taking an undeniably methodical approach. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, it’s good business to play safe, but this is a world swimming in Gin and even though Salcombe’s branding and offering is on point, we’re still keen to see a lot more from them, and for the team to through caution to the wind.
There are literally hundreds of distilleries in this tiny country alone, so doing something to stand out is paramount to success. Each new brand to emerge out of this boom should note the explosion that caused it. Craft brands have expanded the spirit, brought it out of hibernation and made it something people can get not just excited about, but want to shout about and really get into. They’ve done this by embracing the strange and risking their liquid on bold endeavours.
Salcombe Gin has got all facets covered; the detail is all there and immaculately placed – not just in the bottle either, but in the marketing collateral and wider distillery experience. Their flagship gin is really, really good, but it’s not something that doesn’t already exist a hundred times over. Technically accomplished, sure, but it’s missing that soul stirring je ne sais quoi. The Finisterre takes it up a notch and both show impeccable attention to detail but neither hit that mark of being completely unique, of decidedly different.
If that sounds harsh, please understand that our pernickety comments only come as a result of seeing just what this brand could achieve in the long term. Few have the level of attention to detail and branding this distillery has, and it is because of this we feel (and are placing a higher bar for critique) that Salcombe have the potential to be a major player.
The flagship is a gin that will suit juniper-seeking palates to the ground and the wider offering is solid enough to have lots to engage with. It’s an absolute workhorse, perfect in classic cocktails and superb in a G&T. On taste alone, it’s a winner and the packaging speaks of the quality they are able to deliver. It’s great to see they’re starting to twist away from safe, and Finisterre is a brilliant example of the good that is set to come from these guys. Expect quality, expect tasty, expect classism. Hopefully, in time, expect a little bit of something new and something a little bit more adventurous.
There’s a lot to enjoy and a lot to look forward to. Like the fruiters of old, make haste and discover it for yourself, as this is a Start Point worthy of beginning your evening on.
For more information about Salcombe Gin, visit their website: www.salcombegin.com
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