Gin making. Is it an art or a science?
A blend of both, according to Mark Williams who describes his small-batch craft gin as having ‘a true taste of the New Forest’. Working from his distillery at the New Forest Enterprise Centre in Totton, he’s surrounded by warm aromas and flavours such as juniper, coriander, cardamom and sweet orange. Getting his blend of 12 botanicals and New Forest spring water just right has resulted in the award-winning Wyrd gin.
It didn’t happen overnight. Mark spent 18 months tweaking, tasting and perfecting, drawing on his 30 years in chemistry and food science, and keeping his long-term dream of owning a distillery bubbling near the forefront of his mind. Mark and his wife Kay had visited Oban distillery in Scotland 20 years earlier, and back then mused that ‘they should do something like this’. Finally, in 2018, opportunity presented itself. The Anglo-Saxon word ‘wyrd’ (pronounced weird) was a perfect fit for their new venture. ‘We loved the word as soon as we stumbled across it,’ explained Mark. ‘The term is used to describe the deep sense of personal destiny and connectivity to all those events and experiences around us, whether through fortune, fate or chance.’ A little of all three helped steer Mark to where he is now, as well as a lot of hard graft and a skill for balancing flavours. The distiller’s job of blending alcohol, water and botanicals is to create a rounded and balanced spirit that delivers great flavours. ‘You need to constantly taste the spirit as it emerges from the still, making sure only the sweetest part (known as the ‘hearts’) is drawn off, discarding the harsh ‘heads’ and the bitter ‘tails’ explained Mark. ‘While there is a science behind gin making, and my chemistry degree and experience in flavours in the food industry has come in handy, the actual distilling is an art. You can’t replace the sensitivity of the human nose with a machine. Even the ‘big boys’ (the larger gin companies) employ master distillers to ensure the product tastes as it should.’
Using a traditional copper still, and a vacuum still to distil the more delicate ingredients, Mark has created a classic dry gin with a flavour that ‘doesn’t hit you all at once but builds on the palate as you taste it’. Wyrd gin starts with a burst of citrusy notes, followed by hints of aromatic pine from the juniper, and finally a warming spice and peppery finish. ‘One of our ingredients is gorse from the Forest,’ said Mark. ‘Once it’s flowered it produces fresh, pea-green coloured shoots which add a slight minty/peppery note to the spirit as well. ‘And we distil our gin using New Forest spring water – produced at South Gorley in the west of the Forest.’ Each batch of gin takes around three to four weeks to reach readiness, which includes resting time for the flavours to settle and harmonise.
Despite only being brought to market in spring 2019, Wyrd gin has already won praise from customers as well as formal accolades for Mark and Kay’s trophy shelf. It scooped a Bronze medal in the International Wine and Spirits Competition 2019, and two stars (‘Outstanding’) in the 2019 Great Taste Awards – claiming its commendable position amid only a select few of the 600 other gins on the UK market.
There’s also a damson gin, infused with the fruits for around three months, to develop a beautiful colour and flavour. Mark and Kay are looking to expand their range of gins, including even more ingredients sourced from the New Forest area.
Batches are purposely kept small at around 200 bottles at a time. Each bottle is personally signed off by Mark and comes with the accreditation of the New Forest Marque – the sign of true local produce. ‘Being a member of the Marque is extremely important to us. It’s about building partnerships and supporting each other. You can’t do everything on your own,’ said Mark. ‘I love living in this area and we aim to support it and the people who work and live here. ‘I’d like to thank everyone who has helped us along the way with their support and advice. It’s been a really rewarding journey, made even better by the pleasure our customers take in the product we’ve created.’
Wyrd gin is stocked in outlets around the New Forest and surrounding area and at www.wyrdspirits.com