We really weren’t expecting a new Gin to come along this year and fully capture our attention; after all, there are so, so many amazing spirits out there by now that we thought the only way our attention would be grabbed by anything new was if its creators ran us over with a clown car and poured the contents of their bottle over our broken bones. That’s why, when Sandhills rolled up to Junipalooza with their bright yellow bottle in tow, we were very, very surprised to be so surprised.
The first thing that caught our attention was the passion behind it; husband and wife team Tom and Jeanette Bird, alongside one of their oldest friends, Brian, are out and out Gin lovers. This love turned to an impossible-to-resist obsession when Tom went to Hong Kong in early 2018 and ended up in famed Gin bar Ori-Gin. He was wowed by the diversity on offer – amazed that his palate could travel to all corners of the globe whilst sitting in one room.
As soon as he returned from Hong Kong, Tom bought a three litre mini still and invited Brian over to begin experimenting. The idea to do this on a professional level came a wee while later – at first, it was just a keen interest.
Getting involved in the Gin industry in 2018 strikes us as a bold decision, but the Sandhills team weren’t deterred. They didn’t even realise they ought to be. Jeanette explains: “Perhaps it was our naivety, but we were excited rather than daunted. We believed we had got a great Gin that was exactly what we wanted to drink. We don’t think of other gins as competition – gin is a very personal thing and there is room for everyone”.
On appearances and botanical bill alone (we weren’t exaggerating when we said bright yellow), Sandhills comes across as something of an outlier. It’s bloody weird to look at, and even stranger to read about, but the mastery of the distilling process means that this is never a startling sip. Sure, Sandhills pokes its toes into curious botanical waters ranging from exotic yuzu and pepperberry back to hyper local gorse from around the distillery in the Surrey Hills, but it never, ever steps away from its Gin title. It’s smooth, perfectly balanced and tastes as though the G&T was designed for it, rather than the other way round.
“We wanted to create a gin that was sophisticated, traditional and complex,” Tom said. “A gin that was of its location, but not constrained by it.” The Asian influence brings yuzu in as the citrus influence, whilst douglas fir needles, pulled from the Bird’s very own garden, add a resinous note that seems to melt into mix, bringing all the aromatic fresh qualities one would expect from pine and in doing so, boosting the juniper.
What does Sandhills Gin taste like?
On the nose, it is the yuzu and soft gorse that lifts up. Gorse flower is a firm favourite for us; it brings a unique almost coconut-like sweetness to spirits and a layer of mystery that is almost impossible for the untrained nose to identify. Here, it’s given additional presence by the use of Surrey honey, while the herbal spice lingers just behind. It’s a layered nose, both with a clear oriental citrus as while as a vegetal depth.
To taste, it’s a similarly complex start. Spice marries with zingy citrus, leading into a more classic core and onto spice – namely the Tasmanian pepper-berry and it’s unique combination of mentholic cracked pepper. Once you factor it in with their use of smoky black cardamom that’s buried in the mix, you have an utterly beguiling gin.
It’s greatest success, though, is that juniper totally and utterly dominates the heart of it all. There is no question as to whether or not you are drinking a Gin as Sandhills have really nailed the balance, and while it undoubtedly has the strength to carry it through the plainest of G&Ts (no garnish or flavoured tonic necessary, really). It’s so smooth at 43% ABV too.
Team Sandhills are quick to point to their hybrid distilling method as one of the reasons for their perfectly poised gin. Using a blend of traditional copper pot and vacuum distilling, they fuse ancient methods with modern technology to craft a recipe that, in turn, fuses ancient flavours with a modern interpretation of Gin. In their case, they ensure that some of the botanicals (such as juniper and coriander) are placed in big copper pots so that the they are exposed to heat in order to extract the kind of qualities they are looking for. For others, it’s the cold vacuum technology that helps them reach the clarity of flavour they seek. It’s a symbiotic relationship that is known about yet underused in the Gin world, but even when we’ve seen similar, there’s something about theirs that seems to have been done with a little extra flair.
This hasn’t necessarily made the journey easier – they launched so quickly and at such a speed that it meant they were still running around like lunatics last Christmas Eve. “It was a little more manic than we would have liked,” Tom recalled. “Our bespoke bottles arrived on the Wednesday needing to be cleaned, filled and capped in advance of the Saturday launch.”
It was undoubtedly worth it – they had an almost instantaneous local fan base and have reached the point of expansion much quicker than anticipated (and planned…). Their diaries have been tapped out all year as they seek to attend and host events to bring more drinkers into the Sandhills family, so whilst they are undoubtedly thrilled that their bright yellow baby has stolen so many hearts, they’re also well overdue a sit down and a G&T.
Although that might not be quite yet. “We set ourselves the task in the first six months to achieve strong local representation, but we always had our mind on broadening our geographic reach,” Jeanette said. “With this in mind, one challenge is to secure national distribution. We were chosen by Fortnum and Mason as their spirit of the month in June and hosted sampling days across their stores in Piccadilly and St Pancras. We’re also available online, bringing Sandhills to a wider customer base.”
Between June and now, their presence has spread well, so we have little doubt that before long Sandhills will be something that’s established itself. It is so well deserved, and so reassuring to see as we always worry for newcomers as well as for the state of Gin.
Don’t quote us on this, but we reckon the bottle is due for a minor tweak or two. There’s nothing wrong with being bold, but the mad, Teletubby yellow suggests a mad gorse-tastic gin. Sandhills is a well-balanced, perfectly crafted spirit. Those seeking a wild explosion would be disappointed, and those whose tastebuds drive them towards a calmer spirit would possibly be deterred. It’s eye-catching, certainly, but perhaps not in quite the right way.
We just can’t help ourselves, we see people dream big and take the kind of gambles that most would find hard to swallow down just to follow their passion. We want each of these lunatics who go and make a gin to succeed.
What strikes us about Sandhills is that Tom and Jeanette are always trying to learn. They constantly look at their gin and what to do next objectively, while seemingly maintaining their ability to remain wild eyed optimists.
It’s a unique trait that will all but guarantee two things. The first is that they will be ringing in some changes based on the journey so far – not in flavour but in what works for them and how they go about ginsmithing as a whole. The second is that they will adapt to the times and to feedback, giving them an edge to finesse things and evolve as they go, an especially needed trait given there will be turbulent moments ahead for the Gin category.
So many newbie distillers think they have to lasso the moon and cram it into their bottles to get attention – the truth is that cream rises to the top. That those who are astute enough to learn while never losing sight of their core passion will eventually succeed.
They’re letting the product speak for itself, partly because they wanted to make a spirit that proudly waved the historic Gin flag, and partly because they are in no hurry to get anywhere big anytime soon. All three members of the Sandhills team still have their day jobs, and none plan on quitting anytime soon. The brand was designed with a gentle, slowing growth in mind.
Tom explains: “We look at what the gin would need from us to be to be in all of the major supermarkets and it’s a very different business. What’s important to us is that we stay close to the gin. That’s what we love, that’s where our passion is. We want a business that grows while still allowing us to be completely connected with the gin so that it’s not just a numbers game. In fact, we’re almost shying away from seeing it grow so big that it’s everywhere – we want to be connected.”
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