Meet Your Maker – Conker Spirit

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Discover the Dorset distillery that’s using local and foraged flavours to produce a distinctive dry gin

A few years ago, Rupert Holloway was a chartered quantity surveyor, but gave up his ‘miserable job’ to make gin for a living. Not any old gin, either. After experimenting with flavours, he came up with Dorset Dry – a unique, locally distilled spirit, made with English wheat spirit, New Forest spring water and botanicals that you can find growing in the county. With the local connection, he believed his sipping gin would be lapped up by restaurants and bars in the region, and he wasn’t wrong – from River Cottage to Rick Stein’s restaurant in Sandbanks, Conker is proving to be a big hit. Not bad for a gin that has only been around since 2014.

 

You gave up your job to make gin in Dorset. With no prior experience, how did you learn to make gin? 
It was lot of research as it was all self- taught. I started buying a lot of books on the subject, and I was spending hours on the internet. Then I was visiting distilleries and buying lots of gin and sampling it. For six months, I developed the recipe at home in my kitchen. I got the kitchen license from HMRC as a distillery so we could develop the recipe and, bit by bit, I developed gin that was good enough to drink neat. It’s very smooth, it doesn’t have the alcohol burn you might expect from equivalent gins and has a very nice, light flavour.

Are sipping gins in fashion?
Langley’s No 8, another company based down here, have a gin that can be drunk neat. I want to take a different route with my gin, although it’s still a classic gin, as it’s still led by juniper. In saying that, it’s still a gin that you’d have neat because the last thing I wanted to do was a flavoured, gimmicky gin. So when I tell people about the flavour profile, I say it’s our take on a London Dry, so a little bit lighter, a little less dry, a bit more going on, a bit more flavour beyond just the dry notes of juniper.

Tell us about the flavours. You have 10 botanicals for example…
Our basic recipe is seven botanicals and three Dorset ones. The seven botanicals are found more traditionally in gin – things like juniper berries, coriander seed, citrus peel like orange and, quite unusually, lime peel. The lime peel is what punches through on a gin and tonic and makes it stand up on its own quite nicely. Then, over the top of the seven base botanicals, we have the Dorset flavours which are elderberries, marsh samphire and gorse flowers that are picked from The New Forest. Those are the three botanicals that come over the top and give the gin its brightness, give it lighter flavours beyond the dry flavours of the juniper.

How would you drink Conker in a gin and tonic? Any garnishes?
It generally doesn’t need it, so you can just have it with ice and tonic and it’s delicious. Obviously, garnishes are great, so we serve ours with a strip of lime peel – we say you don’t need the juice of the lime to make the gin interesting. Or a strip of grapefruit peel works really well, as does peel of a small orange, a clementine or something like that. It works with cucumber as well. As for tonic, we recommend a Fever Tree to let the gin do the talking. Fever Tree comes in 200ml bottles, so you need a double in there. If you were to have a single, I’d recommend no more than 150ml of tonic.

Does it also work with other cocktails? What’s your favourite to drink Conker with?
I’m a big fan of a Negroni, which is a very old, traditional Italian kind of gin cocktail. That’s with Campari and a red vermouth. Those spirits have strong flavours so you need a gin that punches above them quite nicely, which Conker does. The lighter notes of Conker come across the bitter notes of Campari and that works really well.

Does it work with food, too? The Highcliff in Bournemouth use your gin in their cured salmon dish. 
It does. There’s more and more cooking with gin these days. Gin is great for sweets and aperitifs, plus the curing of meats. The obvious one is salmon gravadlax. You can make gin and tonic jellies, sorbets, cakes, tarts. The Dorset Charcuterie Company do a Venison and Conker gin burger. They also do this form of ketchup with the gin in there which is amazing.

Do you ever make sloe gin with Conker? Do you have any tips for anyone doing it at home?
We do a bit of that at home, and we’re looking at other products for the New Year, but at the moment we’re looking to establish ourselves as Dorset Dry. I always freeze the berries so that you get a good stock with them, but it also softens the berries so you don’t need to prick them. I always say don’t use too much sugar and I think sloe gin is best drunk the following year to let the flavours develop. Recipes recommend 2-3 months, but I think the following year is even better. So if you leave the berries in for two or three months and then remove the berries and leave it for a year it’s perfect.

For more details go to http://www.conkerspirit.co.uk

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The Dorset Botanicals
Rupert tells us what each of the three Dorset botanicals add to Conker gin.

Elderberries
“The elderberry, once distilled, gives the gin a blueberry note although you can’t taste the blueberry in the gin (the idea being that you can’t pick out one botanical from the next in our recipe). But the elderberries are quite cooling, so they cool off the peaks of flavour, tone the gin down a bit.”

Marsh Samphire
“The samphire, although it’s quite salty when fresh, is actually quite sweet once it’s distilled, in fact it has these lovely green tea notes. So all you get are the green, grassy notes of the samphire, which people often pick out in Conker as these herbal, green notes.”

Gorse Flowers
“They don’t taste floral, they’re more like chamomile so it sort of gives a honey-like nectar sweetness. That gives Conker its brightness – it elevates it beyond the dry notes, the things like angelica root, orace root and juniper that’s in the gin.”

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