We’re delighted to interview Duncan Fox from Sly Gin about Sly Gin Lemon Verbena, one of the most exciting new gins we’ve added to our gin shop and events.
Hi Duncan, can you start by telling us the story behind Haven Distillery?
I’m a chartered engineer and also a chartered IT consultant and for quite a long time I’ve been working on a freelance basis while my wife, Alex, has been running a herb nursery. She’s very knowledgeable about growing herbs and plants while I'd been working away, quite separately, on my own business.
And we’ve always said, wouldn’t it be nice if we could think of something that combined our interests, abilities and passions and do something together.
And then it suddenly struck me, gin would be the perfect thing. I’ve always been very passionate about gin and Alex is passionate about growing herbs. So we combined those.
I decided I would discover what’s required to build a distillery and learn how to do it and here we are.
We’re very small, a proper cottage distillery. We work from home, in Herefordshire, towards the marches, which is the borderland between Herefordshire and Wales. I’ve got a converted out building which we’ve made into a distillery building and we grow half the herbs that we distil in the garden.
Wow, that’s a lovely story. Where does the name Haven Distillery come from?
We live in a hamlet called Haven. It’s a hamlet of around 12 houses based around Haven Farm.
And Sly Gin?
My name’s fox, which kind of leads onto sly. I like the idea of saying, it’s a sly gin. Plus, it’s craftily made.
So Alex, grows the botanicals for the gin in your own garden then?
We have 2 gins, a Premium London Dry and our Lemon Verbena. In the London Dry there are 12 botanicals, plus the juniper, 6 of which we grow: angelica root, lavender, rosemary, bayleaf, lemon thyme and apple mint.
What about the Lemon Verbena?
In the Lemon Verbena there are 7 botanicals, plus the juniper. 3 of those are from the garden; angelica root, lavender and lemon verbena.
So, tell me more about the gins?
Our premium gin is where we started. I wanted to make a juniper fronted, complex but balanced herbal based gin. The first taste is juniper which leads onto a complex herbal mid-tone. Lavender and bay are quite prominent and then the finish is quite long with lemon-thyme and grapefruit.
The original sings with a sprig of lemon-thyme or rosemary, it adds to the herbal notes that are in the gin.
The Lemon Verbena has soft rounded juniper up front but then, following the juniper, you get a delicate herbal complexity of the lemon verbena, which has a distinct sherbert lemon flavour, citrussy coriander and the orange peel.
We like the lemon verbena with strawberries and tonic, particularly Fever-Tree Mediterranean. Or, in the winter, we just serve it with a wedge of lemon.
We proof both gins with Holywell Spring water from Malvern as it’s naturally filtered through granite so it's perfect for gin.
Why create a lemon verbena gin?
Lemon verbena is a really lovely flavour, it’s a natural sherbert lemon like flavour, not like a citrus lemon at all. When you distil it, you get this very distinct sherbert lemony flavour.
I hadn’t thought about making a separate specimen botanical gin until someone tasted my single distillate and they said, this is really amazing, you’ve got to make a gin out of this.
It was a simple process because it’s such a good flavour that it just really locked onto everything else and worked well, I think.
In fact, we now sell more of this than our premium gin. Plus, it won the Craft Distilling Expo, Specimen Botanical Gin of the Year.
Can you tell me more about how your engineering background has fed into becoming a distiller?
Everything except the juniper, so the herbs and flowers, I distil in a rotary evaporator which allows me to distil at lower temperatures.
Can you just explain how that works?
In a conventional still you put your botanicals in the alcohol, or suspended above, and you then boil the alcohol at 78-80°C for about 4 or 5 hours to make your gin.
One of the properties with that is that if you take something which is a delicate flavour and boil it for hours at a high temperature you reduce those flavours down, you turn orange into marmalade.
If you can boil at a lower temperature then you can keep all those bright, fresh flavours there.
The way that you distil at a lower temperature, is you suck all the air out. You distill at a near vacuum. So I distil in glass, not copper, and the whole set-up is attached to a vacuum pump.
If you say that atmospheric pressure is a thousand millibars, I’m distilling at around 75 millibars. So the whole distillation never gets above 20°C, which preserves the delicate flavours and gives you truer flavours.
However, I didn’t like the juniper distilled that way. I wanted it to taste more traditional. So I distil the juniper separately in a vapour infusion still.
What’s a typical day like for the two of you?
We don’t have a typical day but we have a rough routine. Monday and Tuesday we’re distilling. Wednesday we’re bottling. Thursday and Friday we’re catching up with paperwork, delivering and marketing. That’s our week.
What’s the best thing about what you do?
Been able to work together on a business is the best part.
How did you get into gin?
I don’t know. I’ve been drinking gin for such a long time that there was no real eureka moment. I think, like everybody, I started off on Gordon’s, and then suddenly there seemed to be more and more gins appearing and so I started to try them and discover a whole world of gin out there.
That was the point where I discovered there’s so many gins and so little time.
What are some of your favourites?
Tanqueray 10 I like because it’s a big gin, keeps the flavour well with tonic, which I think is important. With many gins, tonic kills them, I like a gin you can taste through the tonic. Martin Millers is another in that category. I’m quite fond of Gordon Castle too, as a gin and tonic it’s very refreshing.
So is a G&T your preferred way to drink gin?
It is. I’ll occasionally have a dry martini but gin and tonic is my favourite.
What’s next for Sly Gin?
I’m developing a pink grapefruit gin which is nearly ready to go into production.
We only make 100 bottles a week at the moment. We have the capacity to double that without getting bigger premises or more equipment so we’d like to get up to 200 bottles a week and see where we go from there.
Have you been to a Gin Festival, what did you think?
I thought it was great. The problem I personally had is, I should have been writing down notes. After the 8th gin I was thinking..which one of those did I really like again? But it was very enjoyable.
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