Emily Robertson – Roundwood Gin
Gin is so big and loud now that new brands must feel as though they’re lighting a match in the middle of an explosion. Their efforts, no matter how big, can from the perspective of those doing it, feel slight compared to the surging storm. It takes a lot to stand out these days, and it takes even more to stand out without being completely absurd, but – quietly, confidently and with a fantastic eye for design – stand out is exactly what the makers of Roundwood Gin have done. Looking on from the distance, we think their match has sparked brightly. We sat down with co-founder Emily Robertson to get the full low down on this elderberry treat. Grab a cuppa (or a G&T) and settle in, she’s full of advice.
You are a relatively new brand emerging into a busy, exciting category – what’s it been like getting involved so far?
Emily Robertson: Since our launch, we have been astounded by the appetite for our product. Drinkers are really appreciating the craft spirits scene and are certainly more educated about their choice of gin. Attending events and running tastings have been vital to our business so far – people love the opportunity to chat through the process or discuss botanicals.
We are very glad that we took the risk and invested the time and money in setting up the distillery ourselves. Our customers seem to have a real thirst to find out more and it’s great to be able to invite people to see exactly where and how our gin is created. By being so involved in every aspect of the process (from distillation to distribution), we can really talk about Roundwood Gin with passion.
And what’s your feeling on where Gin is going in the next 12 months?
The huge flexibility in available botanical combinations and gin production methods means that the potential variations in different flavour profiles is huge. I have a feeling that the number of slightly more novelty “gins” might start diminishing, but there will always be a place for a really decent dry gin.
We merely comment from the sidelines, but what was it like in the lead up to launching a new gin? There must be so many facets to consider and so much to be excited and nervous about.
Launching the brand was a complete rollercoaster. It took us 15 months from idea to launch, which we’ve since learnt is fairly quick to set up a distillery – but it certainly felt like a mammoth journey.
The most stressful, but also most amusing story, was the difficulty we experienced with delivery of our bottles. After having our delivery date pushed back a couple of times, we were getting dangerously close to our launch event. We psyched ourselves up for a couple of late nights to get the gin bottled before the event, but then the news came that they weren’t going to be arriving at all. After weighing up the options, we eventually convinced Rupert’s brother to head over to France in a pick-up to fill it with as many bottles as possible. It resulted in many (retrospectively) funny stories, including joining a queue of lorries outside a factory (in a car), a rather optimistic French fork-lift operator and a significant game of bottle-box tetris – but miraculously no breakages!
Insane to think that’s what it took to get it all over the line, and we’re glad you didn’t wait! Was it a tough choice picking the still and the type of set up around it? Why did you choose the one you have?
We spent a lot of time researching types of still and speaking to different manufacturers. Whilst attending the Craft Distilling Expo in London, we met with the guys from Kothe, who made quite an impression.
We were certain that we wanted a relatively traditional copper still, but with the added column to ensure the spirit is super-smooth. There was a lot of back-and-forth with drawings, but we eventually agreed on a design.
Ten months later, the still arrived from Germany, bringing with it ‘The Beast from The East’. Unfortunately for us this meant that the pipes were frozen in our cold and empty distillery. We ended up filling up the still’s water bath with buckets of water that we lugged 100 metres across the yard from the neighbours’ bathroom! It was worth the wait, however; the still is beautifully built and makes a wonderfully smooth, aromatic spirit.
Couldn’t catch a break art that point! Where does the ‘Roundwood’ name come into it?
Our distillery is in the district of Huntingdonshire in Cambridgeshire, famed for its vast woodland and the prevalence of the native Elm tree. Rupert and I are lucky enough to live one side of a 180-acre section of thick woodland, whilst the distillery is set the other side. We spend our lives walking the dog round the wood, or driving round to the distillery – hence Roundwood.
We wanted our gin and brand to reflect elements of this surrounding woodland and represent the less well-known, rural side of Cambridgeshire. We had a lot of different potential names floating around, but something about Roundwood just seemed to work.
It certainly does. What were you both doing before being gin makers and what inspired the move into distilling?
Before distilling, I was working for a multi-national tech company as a software developer. It was a job I had slightly stumbled into post-university but enjoyed nonetheless. After only several years, I got itchy feet. I’d had enough of the desk life and long commute, craving a drastic change of lifestyle. As well as personally distilling every bottle, I’m currently wearing many different hats at Roundwood. It still makes me laugh when I get an enquiry asking to speak to the ‘marketing team’ or ‘accounts’ – urmm, that’d be me!
Yeah we know the feeling! How about Rupert?
Rupert works full time as a manager on the country estate where we now live. He admirably manages to juggle gin and what we call his ‘real job’ but is roped in every evening and weekend to attend events, run distillery sessions and do the odd delivery too.
We’ve certainly never worked as hard, but distilling is incredibly rewarding and we’re loving (nearly) every minute. We’re now lucky enough to be building a team around us that share our passion and ambition.
That and having running water and bottles to fill…! A few months in and a few months wiser, what’s the best advice you could give a new distiller and what was the best advice anyone gave you that’s helped you over the past few months?
My best advice would be to get organised, go with your gut and do your research. It’s a minefield of legal stuff so try to make sure you get things right from the start. Also, lists – I love a list. In the past few months I’ve also come up with my own method of dealing with stress – ‘agree to something even more stressful, and the first thing seems easy’!
We realised pretty early on how important it is for us to attend as many tastings, markets and shows as budget and time allows. Someone told us at the beginning ‘say yes to everything and work out how to do it later’.
We’re always full of admiration for those who battle through it, be it in moments of genius or a labour of love. Was it plain sailing or did you ever have moments where frustration just took over?
I certainly can’t claim that it was plain sailing – It took us over 9 months to commit to a recipe. I took a really methodical approach to recipe development. By getting my hands on around 90 different botanicals and distilling them individually, I was able to start understanding the complexities of each flavour. After building up a library of botanical distillates, I could start blending and experimenting with different combinations and ratios. I think the art is actually knowing when to stop, in my opinion, less is definitely more. After several rounds of blind tasting sessions, our blend was decided. We’ve gone with a fairly fruity line up of botanicals, the inclusion of elderberry in the blend really lifts the dry juniper.
What was the most memorable point when you started honing the recipe?
The first really memorable moment, was when I first tasted something and thought ‘ooh, that’s actually palatable’. Obviously, things have improved since then, and my proudest moment was during a blind tasting when people rated our gin favourite in a line-up.
And now that’s it is all less alien and more intuitive, what’s your favourite part of the distilling process?
My favourite thing about distilling is the overlap of science and creativity. Essentially, the science behind distilling is really quite simple – heat, evaporate, condense. What fascinates me are all the other variables that can make such a big difference to the outcome.
Everyone’s got a number they are working towards and their own milestones in their own times, but in the next 18 months, are you feeling excited or super stressed about where you’re hoping to be?
We’ve already exceeded this year’s expectations after only seven months, so our goalposts are moving on a monthly basis! I think excited and stressed in equal measure sounds about right. We’re setting ourselves ambitious targets and have a lot planned for 2019, including some new avenues to explore… watch this space!
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