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Limited Edition Gin – Tarquin Leadbetter

Written by Gin Foundry

Each year, behind one of the doors of our Ginvent calendars is a custom made Gin, made both for those wee drams, but also, to encompass two things in particular.

The first is obvious but essential – to make something supremely tasty worthy of an exclusive. The second, is that the concept that surrounds the Gin is an area that will become more en-vogue over the year to come so that the release acts as a showcase for editorial trend forecasting. 

This year, the bespoke gin was made by Tarquin Ledbetter of Southwestern Distillery, whom we have caught up with to discuss the broader topics and trends it touches upon as a Gin, all without giving up too much detail as to what we’ve actually collaborated on…

As a general area, do you think it’s a natural progression for distillers to have gone from trying to ask what botanicals we can use, to being more concerned with how exactly we can use them (and what can we get from them)?

Yes! Gin distilling is moving quickly. Evolving, meandering and pushing the boundaries on all fronts. Creativity with botanicals has been stretched, and now arguably it is being refined. More important questions are being asked, including why and most certainly how.

The gin consumer is also a driving force behind this progression given the insatiable appetite for the new, exciting and extraordinary flavours. The market is extraordinarily reactive, with strong push and pull forces.

Do you think there are entire areas of flavour still completely unexplored, not because of the actual botanicals being used having not been discovered (some obscure seasonal botanical for example) but by how ingredients are being prepared and harnessed in the gin making process?

Yes, most certainly!

It’s important to remember that while counter intuitive, process has always been as important – if not more important- as the ingredients in distillation. Cut points, rates of distillation and length of maceration are some of the most obvious variables that spring to mind.

But there are a thousand of more obscure variables too. And diving deeper into these process, and alternative methods is where curious distillers can improve their skills – and continue to innovate. The mad scientists of this generation!

Foraging certainly has become mainstream over the past three years, certainly way more than it was when we did the Hedgerow Edition for Ginvent 2015 and presented it as an upcoming trend for the Gin industry. Do you think the hunt for the “hyper local botanical” has gone to far? Surely as a maker, it must be a pain to have to try and replicate the result no?

I am not sure if it’s gone too far. Though I’ve always thought that the market will eventually go full circle, with gin drinkers starting to cry out for very traditional juniper-forward London Dry Gins at some point. Of course, we not there yet!

Consistency is perhaps the greatest challenge for a distiller. Local wild botanicals can certainly pose a problem. I guess there are a few solutions… we have one in the form of a giant deep chest freezer! This holds flavour well, especially for our wild chamomile that we use in our Tarquin’s Rick Stein Gin collaboration, which is foraged once per year in the summer.

I would also say that from my experience over the past five years, juniper berries can be as volatile as any local flower or herb. It’s of course wild and the last few harvests have been pretty turbulent. And don’t forget that the berries change in flavour as they age.

One can always celebrate the nuance between seasons as small batch producers. Which we do with the handwritten tasting notes on every bottle!

As one of the themes of exploration this year, we’re looking at the shift in understanding about what the idea of terroir can be. From a gin maker’s perspective, do you think that there’s been a change in understanding that a sense of place is less about the literal ingredients and more about what certain flavours evoke, irrespective of their actual cause or provenance? 

We have a romantic approach to distilling. Our location is vital to the personality of our spirits, and everything we represent.

And yes, I believe this is an important reason for why people buy and drink our gins, perhaps even more so than the botanicals.

In my eyes, this collaborative limited-edition gin is terroir at its finest. Terroir is pretty much the botanical in this gin! The true embodiment of the wild coast of north Cornwall. In retrospect; Tarquin’s Terroir Gin might have been an inspired name! Though I do love what we have named it too though. And think the bottle, liquid colour, label and wax look stunning – perhaps our most beautiful yet.

And interestingly, that’s without having any real super local botanicals in the mix, it’s the process that’s created the embodiment of an idea. You’ve tasted this special edition that will be unveiled soon – do you think it speaks of a place, or a moment in that way – if so what does it bring to memory?

It immediately brings back the time on the beach we all spent prepping the terroir botanicals!

Olivier wading into the sea to collect water. Tom tearing up charred oranges over the toasted oak chips. The smokey fire, sand, caramelised citrus, and the sea breeze. Emile, Nik and myself all having a great time. Spurred on with a few free-poured G&Ts and the sounds of gently breaking waves and the pushing tide, while early evening darkness set in.

The soon to be released gin aside, Cornwall has always been an anchor point for you as a distillery. How conscious are you of trying to convey that in any liquid you make, or is the opposite, deliberately not wanting to make it a pastiche forced into everything?

It’s really important. We have ‘Crafted On The Wild Cornish Coast’ embossed on every bottle!

The original dream behind the distillery was for me to make a living by distilling gin the morning to then go surfing in the afternoon.

When it comes to the actual liquid. There are so many forces coming in to play. For our flagship gin our aim is to be light, fresh and bright. This feels very coastal in style, in a subtle way. And for me that is enough. You’re right, sometimes less is more.

In all the experiments and releases you’ve had over the years, and we’ve even seen you work with casks too, has there been a reason why there hasn’t been a Cask Aged Tarquin’s – yet?

We do have cask aged gin! And it has been patiently waiting in the distillery for over a year. It’s just not released yet, it should be something special when it is though!

As a sub-genre, do you think there’s been anything in particular that’s held it back from being more mainstream. Cask Aged Gins are now more popular but there’s a long way off from it being a style that’s widely appreciated…

It’s a little bit niche and might seem unusual to the average gin drinker. But I believe that there’s an occasion for every gin!

I remember drinking a Captive Spirits barrel aged Big Gin and tonic at the IWSC awards in 2014 – when we won our Gold medal for our flagship – and I thought it was fantastic. It’s rare that I try a gin and think it’s really excellent, and this was a defining moment for me in my view of the category. Once that I can still remember quite vividly. There’s definitely scope for growth, albeit from a small base.

It’s one of our favourite gins too. We’ve deliberately not chosen to work with an actual cask here, although we can reveal that for the limited edition there is something going on after distillation. Is the chemistry of charring and oak something you’ve looked at much in relation to the flavours it brings before?

I think the science behind barrel and wood ageing is fascinating. I can’t say I’m an expert! But I love a temperature and flavour chart. And I think we’re on the edge if not off the chart with this limited edition. And the results are remarkable!

Of course looping back to what we were talking about at the top regarding locality, do you feel that things like barrels, previous occupants and maturation help or hinder with the idea of provenance?

That’s a tough question! It certainly adds some complexity to the idea of provenance. But then nothing is simple, particularly in the spirits world. And the tradition of using used barrels from elsewhere has been going on for generations – take the Scotch whisky industry for example.

For me, transparency is the most important aspect of the spirits world. So long as there is transparency over previous occupants and maturation processes, then this shouldn’t undermine provenance.

and of course vis versa, the process and the cask also bring their provenance into the equation too, adding further value and new layers to a story. All are interesting areas in their own rights but before we give too much away by discussing it all further, we better stop to avoid the spoilers!

Thanks for talking with us, we can’t wait for everyone to see what’s been made!