Jeanette Bird – Sandhills Gin
This family run distillery caught our attention pretty quick with their brilliant botanical bill. From yuzu to gorse to fir tree, the flavours that promise to burst out of the bottle are fresh, bold and captivating. Just six months on from launch, we had a little sit down with the team to hear about the next steps.
You are a new distillery growing fast, who is the Sandhills team?
We are a team of three people: husband and wife Tom & Jeanette and long-time family friend and gin lover Brian. All three of us have shared a love of G&T having moved past the ‘isn’t it something your mum and dad used to drink’ label of a few years back and finally feeling that the world has caught up with our passion for all things gin.
And are you all full Sandhills gin-makers now or transitioning over?
All three have ‘day jobs’ but come together and spend an increasing amount of time making our gin and growing a community of customers. We love the interaction with people who enjoy our gin and also with other gin distillers who are a very inclusive and sharing bunch.
Where did the idea of making a gin begin for you?
We have been long time lovers of a good G&T but our gin shelf only has a handful of gins that we would return to time and time again. On a trip to Hong Kong, Tom visited a gin bar and experienced re-distilled gin and was excited by the possibilities. As soon as he returned he bought a 3-litre copper pot still and, with Brian, started experimenting.
The idea to turn it into a business came later but was fuelled by the belief that others would appreciate a sophisticated traditional gin.
There’s a lot of competition out there, were you daunted about the idea joining the gin industry or was it just a no-brainer for you?
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 and we don’t think of other gins as competition: gin is a very personal thing and there is room for everyone. We know who we are as a brand and its about getting our gin in front of as many people so they can make a choice based on their own preferences.
You’ve coined your process as being Hybrid distilled, in that you use both traditional copper and a rotary evaporator and combine the distillates. What made you choose that path for your gin?
We were introduced to a rotary evaporator when talking to the distiller of Stovells Gin which is vacuum distilled. Whilst heat is necessary to release the oils and flavours within juniper and coriander, we wanted to preserve the freshness of each of our other lighter botanicals and distilling them individually at 37 degrees makes such a difference. When you create the final gin blending copper pot distilled juniper and coriander with the other cold distilled botanicals you create a unique fresh light gin where the very nature of each botanical shines through.
Do you distil both parts or do you just focus on the cold-distilled elements with the Rota-vap and create those distillates, buying in a base gin from a contractor?
We have been keen to be involved in every step of the gin production and, having started with a3-litre copper pot still, appreciate the importance of consistency and quality. At our own location we distil each of the botanicals individually with the Rotary Evaporator. We have a relationship with someone who produces our juniper and coriander base (along with Orris Root, Angelica, Cassia and Cinnamon) to a recipe that works perfectly with our blend of cold distilled botanicals. We even distil juniper cold and add this to the copper pot as we get different flavour notes.
You’ve got a very interesting selection of botanicals – from yuzu to gorse and Douglas fir, there’s a huge variety. How did you pick them and what was the logic behind the flavour profile?
We wanted to create a gin that was sophisticated, traditional and with some complexity. A gin that was ‘of its location but not constrained by it’. We wanted a strong citrus note and our love of Asia made Yuzu an obvious choice – a cross between a grapefruit and a clementine – and we added some orange peel to bring more complexity. The Douglas Fir needles (grown in our garden) bring a lemony pine note which compliments the local honey and the local provenance is completed with the golden Gorse flower that gives off a lovely coconut bouquet in the spring mornings. We wanted a gin with a long spicy finish and that comes predominantly from the black cardamom and Tasmanian Pepperberry.
It’s a gin that we believe is good enough to stand on its own with no flavoured tonics, a gin to sip, enjoy and return to.
We can see you are using black cardamom not green – does the smokiness come through on the gin?
We believe that the smokiness of these larger cardamom pods (which are dried over flames to bring a smoky flavour) does come through – particularly on the finish of the gin where it compliments the spicy note of Tasmanian Pepperberry.
As a distiller, what are you most proud about having done? Was there a botanical that was harder to get just right, or is it more about the overall balance for you?
It has been particularly rewarding to create a new gin with its own brand and unique identity and to see it grow before our eyes! Whilst we are proud of our gin, its freshness, flavour and provenance, we are also really pleased to be part of our local community. We sponsor bee hives and have made some really lovely connections both with customers and the people who sell our gin.
The difficult thing with creating a recipe is the subtlety needed. When faced with natures huge palette of potential botanicals its easy to try too hard. “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad!”
You have a bespoke bottle – what made you choose to do that and could you talk us through some of the details in the design?
With so many gins, the bottle is important as it is often is the thing that sells the first glass! We wanted the bottle to stand out, be tactile and be part of the Sandhills story. The golden colour represents the Sandhills honey and golden gorse flower that are two of our important local botanicals and the bottle is opaque so that you can see the level of the liquid but also reflects light very well (a lot of our customers put lights in the empty bottles!).
It has some ‘measures’ on the side as a nod to the science of cold vacuum distillation. Above all, it is embossed with the ancient symbols for Alchemy which references our Hybrid Distilled approach of creating something which is new and different.
What has the first six months been like for you?
The first six months have been busier than we could have imagined. We had a really successful local launch and were still delivering on Christmas Eve! Our first week of production and sales were more manic than we would have liked with our bespoke bottles arriving on the Wednesday needing to be cleaned, filled and capped in advance of the Saturday launch.
We now have a loyal and growing local following and have got to the point of expanding our reach much quicker than we had planned. We now have a full diary of events so we are not easing off anytime soon.
The whole journey has been a huge learning curve in that we ‘didn’t know what we didn’t know’. We have a few more grey hairs as a result and still wake up with a 3am thought. We have learnt to sleep with a notebook on the bedside table!
What are you working towards this year – what’s the big milestone for the Sandhills team?
We set ourselves the task in the first six months to achieve strong local representation which we have done but always had our mind on broadening our geographic reach. With this in mind, one challenge is to secure national distribution. We have been chosen as Fortnum and Masons Spirit of the month for June and are really excited to host a number of sampling days across their stores in Piccadilly & St Pancras as well as being available online through them to bring Sandhills to a wider customer base.
Because of our Hybrid Distilled approach we are also launching ‘Bespoke By Sandhills’ offer which enables us to create unique gins for clients such as events venues, restaurants or even for that special birthday gift. Our use of the rotary evaporator means we can create very high-quality gins that can reflect the unique identity of our bespoke clients.
Lastly, do you have a preferred garnish in a G&T?
Our view is that the perfect garnish for a G&T should be simple, involve absolutely no seeds or other little bits that can get stuck in the teeth of us more mature drinkers and should compliment the botanicals in the gin. Our preferred garnish is a simple zest of orange and lots of ice. And absolutely no flavoured tonics…just a premium natural tonic water!
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