3 Norfolk gin producers that are making waves
- Credit: Archant
A G&T with ice and a slice is just about as British as it gets – and Norfolk is leading a gin revolution which has transformed this simple spirit into something rather special
From ‘Mother’s Ruin’ to the quintessentially English summer tipple of choice, gin has come a long way since it first hit our shores in the 18th century.
Trendy new spirits are popping up everywhere, from small kitchen table enterprises or as new ventures for major international drinks companies.
These are not just any gins. These are lovingly hand-crafted, delicately-flavoured, with real provenance – and we can’t get enough of them.
According to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association last year saw annual gin sales rise by 16%, with around 40 million bottles sold, creating a £1bn economy.
In Norfolk there are several specialist gin companies, each offering something new and fresh to the market. Where once in a bar you would have simply asked for a gin and tonic with ice and a slice, today you are faced with a vast selection of craft gins and a similar array of different tonics, all infused with an extraordinary range of unexpected, exotic flavours.
There are even specialist events and whole bars dedicated to the experience – such as the Gin Palace in Norwich which has over 180 different types, served with a host of accompaniments from blueberries to cardamom.
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But when gin first hit our shores some 300 years ago, it wasn’t the elegant taste experience being sold to drinkers today. In fact, dubbed the ‘gin craze’, it swept the nation and was blamed for a breakdown of social order.
Gin, which has its origins in Holland, became popular in England when Dutch-born William of Orange took to the throne. By 1730 it is believed around 10 million gallons of gin were being distilled annually in the capital alone.
Described as ‘opium for the people’, gin could be bought cheaply and became the drug of choice in over-crowded, slum-ridden London. It was blamed for misery, rising crime, prostitution, madness, higher death rates and falling birth rates.
The arrival of the drink also coincided with women being allowed to drink alongside men in bars for the first time and it was blamed for leading many women into child neglect and prostitution, resulting in the nickname ‘Mother’s Ruin’ – a label that has stuck for centuries.
In 1751, with public pressure growing, the Gin Act was passed with new licensing measures, which, combined with a series of bad harvests, saw the ‘gin craze’ gradually fizzle out.
1. The Norfolk Sloe Company
The Norfolk Sloe Company was set up near Fakenham in 2011 by husband and wife team Patrick and Sarah Saunders following a bumper harvest of their sloes.
Every year, the couple and their children made sloe gin for friends and family, but suddenly what was an annual tradition became a potential business idea, such was the volume.
Their first gin – Black Shuck Sloe Gin – achieved a prestigious Great Taste Three Star award – so they began developing their own Norfolk-inspired premium gin.
“In December 2015 after two years of recipe development and taste trials, involving gin loving friends and family, our dream became a reality and the first 1,000 bottles of Black Shuck Gin were sold within just four weeks. It always gives us a thrill to see it on the shelves and hearing customers rave about the taste.”
The gins are very much inspired by the landscape around them and the couple have drawn on the county’s history to create a brand with strong local connections.
“Its silky character echoes the sweeping beaches, meandering inland waterways and easy-going lifestyle. While its fresh lilac tones are reminiscent of the big skies the contrasting vibrant bursts of fiery orange reflect Norfolk’s timeless natural beauty,” she said.
“For those who don’t know, the legend of Black Shuck is synonymous with the Norfolk coast and is one with which we have grown up. Using the strapline Black Shuck Gin, Norfolk’s Legendary Spirit, seemed fitting.”
The company is very much a family concern, with everyone contributing different skills.
“Business meetings tend to be held over a big Sunday lunch with everyone contributing ideas and opinions. The Black Shuck image used on all of our products was designed by our daughter Leanne. When it comes to bottling and labelling it’s all hands on deck. With plenty of banter being exchanged and with an eclectic mix of music playing even the laborious tasks become enjoyable,” said Sarah.
Patrick and Sarah’s favourite cocktail - The Black Shuck Gin Genie – a tribute to David Bowie.
Fill a large balloon glass with plenty of ice. Pour over one measure of Black Shuck Gin. Add a generous splash of Elderflower and Pomegranate Cordial. Garnish with Pomegranate seeds and top with Prosecco.
2. Norfolk Gin
Jonathan Redding set up his gin making business from his kitchen table in Norwich – and despite bottling his first gin less than two years ago, his unique- tasting spirit with aromas of citrus, herbal and floral scents has become a firm favourite.
“I have no background in spirit making or the licensing trade but I suddenly found myself looking for work and at the grand old age of 54, having spent most of my life in the army, I discovered the work place was somewhat ageist. So I decided to try something completely new,” he says.
“I started reading more and more about people who had set up gin making businesses from scratch in their kitchens and decided to find out more. I discovered I could make it in small batches, it wasn’t too labour or capital intensive and if no one bought it at least it had a long shelf life.”
Jonathan spent two years researching the process and testing out recipes on family and friends before coming up with his winning formula.
“My local wine merchant took six bottles to see how they would go – and amazingly he sold four on the first day. More and more wine merchants locally began to stock it and have continued to do so ever since. In December I sold 1,500 bottles alone.”
“People like the cardamom in our gin and the depth of the juniper. It is a very robust flavour but it is also very smooth. Someone said I had “made gin interesting” which was once of the nicest compliments I have had.”
He says the support locally has been fantastic and is one of the things which makes the county so special.
“Before I even got my recipe, I knew I wanted to call it Norfolk Gin and for it to be sold in stone bottles. I think people love that association and connection to place. I was in the army for 23 years and lived all over the place, but we settled here in Norwich in 2004 and it is definitely my home. It is a fabulous city and I feel small local independent businesses really support one another and work together brilliantly.”
Jonathan’s favourite gin cocktail - The White Lady:
2 parts Norfolk Gin
1 part freshly squeezed lemon
1 part Cointreau
Shake over ice in a cocktail shaker and pour into a martini glasses. Sit in the sunshine and sip genteelly. It is a powerful but refreshing cocktail.
Peter Smith is head distiller at the Independent Gin Company in Norwich and has been making gin for just over a year.
“One of the key ingredients of our Norwich Dry Gin is the Tonka bean, which comes from Central and South America. Chefs often use it in desserts as a replacement for vanilla; it is a very unique but delicate flavour,” he says.
“Part of the fun of making gin is that you essentially start with a blank canvas. You obviously have to have the juniper – as that’s what makes it gin – but apart from that you can add whatever botanicals you like. It means on the way to work in the morning, I can stop at the market, buy some interesting spices and fruit and then play around with those flavours to see what I can come up with.”
The gin, which is part of the Bullards brand, is distilled at the Ten Bells Pub in Norwich and customers can come in and watch the whole process, while sampling the gin at the bar.
“Gin really is the drink of the moment. Everyone is either making it or drinking it. There are different ways of distilling. Our process starts with 96pc neutral alcohol, which we reduce down to around 50pc alcohol. We add the botanicals and it is left for 12 hours overnight to infuse and then it is distilled for 12 hours and we have our gin. The most time consuming part is bottling and labelling it by hand. As we always tell customers – if you have a bottle with a wonky label, then it was probably a very good batch of gin indeed as we have clearly sampled a couple of glasses,” he laughs.
The company currently has two gins on sale – the Norwich Dry Gin and the Hop Gin – and a third due to be launched this month.
“The Hop Gin reflects Bullards’ long association in Norfolk with beer. We started messing around with different types of hops to create this very unique gin which has a strong heritage.”