Ian Hart – Sacred Gin
To get a better idea of life behind the scenes and the people who are at the heart of our favourite spirits – we decided to launch a Meet the Maker micro series. Here, we catch up with a pioneer in the micro-distilling world – Sacred Gin’s Master Distiller, Ian Hart.
Gin Foundry: How long have you been distilling and what made you choose it as a career?
Ian Hart: 7 years – and it was accidental. I had been working in finance and as we all know, from the end of 2006 onwards, the global banking system steadily became a vast trainwreck. No one was hiring in the financial sector and I quickly had to find another way to make a living. I have always been interested in distillation, it’s the sort of thing I liked to do in my spare time as a kid (although back then I distilled things like nitrogen oxides or chorine oxides – unusual gases, rather than gin!) and as I have a large collection of Bordeaux wine, it occurred to me to use vacuum distillation equipment to remove water from some of less successful vintages to create a richer wine. Technically, it was a very successful exercise but it was also very time consuming and at the end of the day, it was someone else’s product. However, I really enjoyed the distilling process and as I’ve always appreciated a good gin and tonic, I thought I’d try my hand at creating my own gin – something a little bit different – and as soon as I started distilling botanicals and creating different gin recipes, I had my heart set on it becoming a business. I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to do it, but I was always serious about it and, as a Londoner, I also liked the idea of producing what is traditionally a London product, actually in London.
What’s your favourite part of making gin?
The first mad rush of distillate when the air is sucked out of our vacuum stills.
You distil many different botanicals independently of each other – do you have a favourite one when it comes to that initial fragrant hit? We love coriander seed.
Pink grapefruit because I believe it is the king of citrus due to having a sulphur substitution for an oxygen atom in one of its flavour oils (like garlic and white truffle). It is fabulously fruity.
From a flavour perspective, what do you think makes your gin unique / stand out?
All the botanicals, including whole fresh-cut citrus, are distilled separately in glassware under vacuum so that distillation occurs at a much lower temperature than traditional pot stills. This means that our distillates are much lusher and fresher than distillates produced at higher temperatures – think of the marmalade flavour of cooked oranges versus fresh cut oranges. Also, another of the botanicals we use is frankincense, (Boswellia sacra – hence the name, Sacred Gin) which we buy from the Sultan of Oman, and has a delicate resinousness, which compliments the juniper beautifully.
How long did it take you to fine tune your recipe?
About a year. Every Sunday night we used to take our latest gin recipe into our local pub, The Wrestlers, for people to try – which was incredibly generous of the landlord, Martin Harley as of course, when people were sampling our gin, they weren’t spending any money! Then one evening in early 2009, everyone at the Wrestlers was unanimous that our 23rd recipe was a great gin – and, importantly – unlike other London Dry Gins and Martin said that if we bottled it, he would put it behind the bar. That gave us the impetus to bottle our first 2500 bottles.
With such a micro distilling set up, are you worried about scaling up as the brand grows? Have you got plans in place on how you’d approach it?
We can produce about 90,000 bottles per year at present – and currently selling about 34,000 so no problems for at least a couple of years – then we’ll see!
You’ve got one of the coolest, super bespoke setups anyone can possibly dream of, but do you get distillery envy when you visit other brands?
Gleaming copper stills are very beautiful, but it must get very hot in summer – poor distillers!
Given most readers would say they have the best job in the world, we’re not sure they’ll be getting much pity – hot days and flowing gin sounds like a dream to most! You distill under vacuum at much lower temperatures than in a typical still – does summer heat effect the way you distill?
No, what the temperature is outside doesn’t matter but barometric pressure – whether the atmosphere has high or low pressure – does affect the vacuum gauges which have to be adjusted accordingly.
Do you think many people underestimate what it takes to set up a distillery and survive as a brand in such a crowded market?
Looking at other brands I would say that few of them understand just how slowly sales grow outside your local market – you can do very well for a couple of months as a novelty and in your local area, but not enough to make a living. It is how you grow outside your home market that will determine survival. That takes luck, money, time, hard work – not necessarily in that order (we do things like stand in liquor stores selling bottles ourselves in suburbs of Chicago, Vancouver, Washington DC, New York etc). You also need to drive follow on-sales – being on a back bar gathering dust is not any good. You need good sized and regular repeated orders – anything less will not pay the bills.
You travel the world promoting and selling Sacred Gin but we’ve always thought that you were incredibly lucky not just because of the travel but because you get to do it with your partner Hilary. Did you both always intend to develop the brand together and has this made a big difference to the way you approach business trips?
Hilary was part of Sacred right from the beginning but initially she tried to juggle this with her career as a freelance journalist but eventually there were not enough hours in the day so she abandoned the writing to work full-time for Sacred. Business trips are, of course, on the whole good fun but they can also be very hard work so it’s good to have someone to share the load (literally – samples can be very heavy to carry around!) and whatever city you end up in, you’ve always got someone to have dinner with! Since we started Sacred we haven’t really had a proper holiday and I’m not sure that we’d know what to do now, if we went away and didn’t have tastings to do or customers to meet!
Those are probably universally true to anyone who owns their own business as well. Do awards and medals matter to you as a distiller?
One or two help customers buy in-store I believe, particularly when you are just starting out. And we are very proud of our Double Gold from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Do you think there should be clearly defined guidelines as to what constitutes a “craft” gin?
I think of “craft” as loosely referring to small, independent producers but there is such a broad array of different distillers now that it would be very hard to introduce clearly defined guidelines at this point.
What’s your favourite way to drink Sacred?
Copyright © Gin Foundry