Tarquin Leadbetter – Southwestern Distillery
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 Tarquin Leadbetter ahead of the exclusive Ginvent collaboration – Tarquin’s Hedgerow Edition Gin.
Gin Foundry – It’s been a while since our first interview… Older, wiser and way more gin under the belt now… but let’s rewind for those who haven’t trawled through the Gin Foundry archives to read about your history (if you want to, click here to read the early interview). How long have you been distilling and what made you choose to start your own distillery?
Tarquin Leadbetter – Yesterday we distilled our 300th batch! And I worked out that I have spent almost three thousand hours distilling – the equivalent of 125 days straight, in the last few years. We sold our first bottle back in July 2013, and I spent around 18 months prior to this working out how to set up a distillery and make booze…
This involved playing around on a 0.7 litre still in my kitchen. While crunching numbers, eyeing up copper stills. And most importantly, dreaming of a different life to the one I had mistakenly ended up in – working behind a desk.
It quite a change and if anyone is looking for more on the early years, click on the link here. You make a Pastis as well, but what got you into Gin in particular?
I always think of gin as a pure expression of flavour. A harmony of the essences of various fruits, herbs, plants and spices. And at the same time it is completely tangible and something that you can enjoy – drink! Add to this the refreshing bitterness, extraordinary complexity and multi-coloured history of the juniper berry (or rather, gin since the 17th cent.) and I think you have something really quite romantic.
How long did it take you to create Tarquin’s Gin and did you set out to achieve something in particular when you began?
Total research and development – which included trying as many different gins as I could get my hands – took around one year. I knew that I wanted to create something light, vibrant and balanced. But it was only as time went on that I started to get a clearer idea of flavour.
It can be surprisingly difficult to settle on your gin’s identity – something that will likely shape the rest of your distilling career. But by the end of my ‘apprenticeship’ I felt confident in my decisions. I didn’t create a recipe using focus groups or anything like that – everyone has a different opinion.
Flamed fired copper stills and 12 botanicals… Could you describe some of the process behind how you distill Tarquin’s Gin?
From ignition to the last drop of tails it takes around 9 hours… depending on how cold it is in the distillery. In winter it gets very cold, and of course it’s also too hot in the summer!
I use two flame-fired stills at the moment: Tamara and Senara. Both sit on gas burners, with the heat source controlled manually – three nozzles twisted by me throughout the run.
Tamara’s thermometer broke about a year ago. And Senara’s is inaccurate to about 10 degrees. So with temperature gauges out the window… things are pretty much down to sight, feel and smell. I know that sounds mad. But I suppose once you’ve done the same thing 300 times, it becomes almost like second nature. And judging flow rate and subtle temperature changes of the condenser is just instinct, of course proof is in the smell.
We do have a new fancy high-tech still too from Italy, called Ferrara, and she will go into production in 2016. Very different to our current processes, but we feel it’s a part of the natural evolution of Southwestern Distillery, and are looking forward to the new challenge.
It’ll be an exciting evolution for the distillery for sure. For those who haven’t tasted it, could you describe your flagship gin?
Light, vibrant and balanced! It is a floral and citrus led gin, with lovely fresh pine and mellow spice notes. It is very delicate in style, so soft on the nose and palate (a one-shot gin). Thinking outside the box, I’d say its counterpart in the wine world might be an Old World pinot noir (Burgundy), and in the beer world perhaps a fruity session IPA.
We collaborated together to create Tarquin’s Hedgerow Edition which we’ve covered in a separate article (due live soon). What was the project like from your perspective?
Really cool! The whole experience was great fun: from foraging and experimenting, to just working with other gin nuts. I had previously done all the distilling and product development on my own – so to get input from Olivier and Emile was excellent. And even better is that both guys are even more crazy about gin than I am! So I knew we were going to have fun and create something pretty interesting at the very least.
Collaborations keeps things fresh for everyone involved. Distiller, blogger, retailer and consumer. And are important for a little distillery like us, to stretch our craft and push boundaries.
We’re still kicking ourselves about not having made a bigger batch (who knew Ginvent would go so crazy this year!) but there’s always something down the line. Do you still think the Hedgerow Edition’s white label looks better than your original?
Haha! Don’t tell my brand designers that!!
To be fair, we still like the black so it works both ways. You’ve started doing other limited editions like the Electric Daisy Batch- is that a part of the plan for you as the distillery grows?
Definitely. I suppose we’re sort of copying the craft brewers in a way. But it gives us the chance for experimentation. And of course, it’s a nice opportunity for our most loyal customers to try something different (the guys who snap these up these limited creations the fastest!)
We all love a tipple or two so other than your own creations, what other gins do you enjoy? Are there any that you particularly like?
I like Sipsmith a lot. I love the story, branding and ethos behind Ferdinand’s. And Sacred too, as an original pioneer. While I am getting a bit tired of contract distilled brands, I still get excited to try new gins. But naturally, look out for real small-batch, craft gins.
What’s the best part of your job? Do you have a favourite moment when you distill?
My favourite moment is when I am transitioning between a finished batch, and preparing a new one. This is a special time of the day, because it’s late, I’m the only one in the distillery and I can blast our ridiculously loud music on the distillery sound system. The kind of strange thing that you can only do when you work for yourself, and I still find amazing.
What’s your favourite way to enjoy your gin? Straight off the still?
An Aviation or a Corpse Reviver #2 using our pastis.
50ml Tarquin’s Cornish Gin
12.5ml Maraschino Liqueur
12.5ml Lemon Juice
6.25ml Crème de Violette
Shaken and strained. Garnished with a maraschino cherry.
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