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Jon Hillgren – Herno Gin

Jon Hillgren Hernö Herno Swedish Gin Interview
Written by Gin Foundry

Hernö was Sweden’s first gin-only distillery when it opened in December 2012 and it quickly made a name not only for itself, but for its country as an exemplary producer of the spirit. Since then, Hernö distiller Jon Hillgren has added width to the category by releasing many brilliant variants, including his delicious, honey-infused interpretation of Sloe Gin. We caught up with him to find out all the details on this most festive of releases…

What been was the most memorable part of 2016?

It’s been a great year and a lot has happened in 2016. If I had to choose just one thing, I would have to say being named the world’s best gin for a Gin and Tonic by the IWSC.

How was your annual bartender’s competition this year?

The Hernö Gin Cocktail Awards 2016 were very special. For the first time we invited ten of the best bartenders in Sweden for the competition up to visit us in the northern parts of Sweden. The competition was held outdoors under the northern lights. Simply an amazing evening with great cocktails. Just watch the movie at www.cocktailawards.com.

What was the criteria and who won?

They didn’t know much at all before the competition. When the bartenders arrived we sent them up on a mountain with a ski lift and they were given a knife with which to collect the ingredients they wanted to use for their cocktails. The only ingredients they were given except gin was sugar, water and a couple of lemons. With those ingredients they found they could do anything they wanted. Tom Surma from Restaurant Familjen in Gothenburg won with his cocktail.

You’ve released a couple of new limited run gins this year – could you tell us a little more about them and how they came about?

We have been experimenting a lot this year, it’s a time consuming process but also a lot of fun! First we released Hernö Sipping Gin, Box Whisky Cask 152. It’s based on the same recipe as Hernö Gin but we matured in a ex-whisky cask from our neighbour distillery, Box Whisky Distillery. The cask was used to mature a peaty whisky and then we filled it with our gin for 21 days and bottled it at 48,1% ABV. It’s a great gin with just a hint of peat.

For Hernö Gin Cocktail Awards we released a terroir gin, with all botanicals picked by hand in the world heritage area, the High Coast, which is also where our distillery is located. For this gin we had to think differently… you’re not going to find black pepper, lemons or vanilla growing in the northern parts of Sweden. We used juniper berries, meadowsweet, lingonberries and rowan berries and the result is a truly powerful gin with a taste of the Swedish forest.

What makes your Sloe Gin unique?

As always gin crafting is about finding the best botanicals. We use the base for our London Dry for our Sloe Gin and then let it rest with the sloes for three months, with the infusion it’s important to let it take time. After the infusion it’s important to hit the right level of sweetness and use the best sweetener, our local honey.

Where do you harvest the sloes?

Our sloe berries are harvested in Poland and as always with our botanicals they are 100% organic.

How much testing went into finding the right balance of sweetness and botanical intensity?

When experimenting with new recipes the process usually takes about three months in total; with the Sloe, it was different. The infusion with sloes takes three months, so final tasting is at least three months apart. We do several tastings with different ABVs and different levels of sweetness. You don’t just decide to release a Sloe Gin and get it ready in a couple of weeks…

You are one of the most established distilleries in the Nordic region today – do you feel like craft distilling has grown a lot in the past three years and in your opinion, do you feel like it is set to continue growing?

Yes, it’s growing. And it’s happening rapidly. New gins are released like never before and the interest for tastings in our distillery as well as at fairs is growing. This year I hired our 2nd full time employe to be able to handle the increasing interest for tastings. We are seeing cocktail bars (and gin bars) popping up in Sweden as well as all over the world.

Do you need to shut down in winter due to your location? You must get snowed in at this time of year no?

This morning I was up at 4 AM shovelling snow. The last three days it’s been snowing at least one meter. Some days we have to start a bit later due to the amount of time it takes to get in to the distillery, but until now we haven’t been forced to shut down, luckily.

What’s the milestone you are working towards for 2017?

Hernö Gin Cocktail Awards 2017. We will invite bartenders from all over the world. We are going to have national qualifying competitions in UK, Denmark, and a few more countries. The final competition will take place here, in the northern parts of Sweden. I’m not going to reveal it all right now but the things we are planning are great! This will for sure be our big thing during 2017.