When on Honeymoon in 2008 in Bagni Di Lucca we went into a small independent drink shop, all they sold was Grappa and while looking around I saw on their top shelves a display of small stills. They cost between EU100 and EU300 and I quite wanted to buy one, but with the problems of getting it home undamaged in airplane stowed luggage I decided against it. When we got home I looked on the internet for a small still but kept putting off buying one for a couple of years, in fact I never bought on myself, I put it on my Christmas list in 2012 and my wife bought me one. It’s a small half-litre still made out of beaten and burnished copper, it came with a small spirit burner as a heat source, it’s such a pretty thing.
The first thing I distilled was Cinzano bianco, it’s 15%ABV in the bottle but I had no idea what %ABV was coming out of the still. The instructions said something along the lines of “up to 85%ABV” so I bought a alcoholometer from everyone’s favourite shopping site thinking I better see what I’m up against before I poison myself, as it turned out I had extracted 60%ABV from the Cinzano. I was doing science!!
One thing worth mentioning before continuing… a lot of people seem to think that distillation is some kind of magic and it creates alcohol. It doesn’t. All distillation does is to remove the alcohol from something already containing alcohol, just in a concentrated form. Also not all alcohol is “good” alcohol, yeah, some of it is really bad for you. When distilling homemade wash the one of the first alcohols that comes off is methanol, this is the stuff that makes you go blind if you drink enough of it long enough and if you carry on after that, it will kill you. Once the methanol has finished the ethanol come off and this is the good stuff, we can drink it – we let ours out to 42%ABV after the final distillation.
Every now and again I would distil something, red wine, port, bourbon, white wine, anything that was in the back of the cupboard, I seem to remember distilling Midori once, it was erm.. "interesting". After a while my distilling output was getting up to 80%ABV but didn’t really taste of much so I started picking herbs out of the garden, muddling them and letting them steep in my distillate for a day or so then redistilling it, the results were mostly not good, but it was fun and I was learning, the good results were surprisingly good, however the bad… yeah, it was pretty grim.
I’ve was never a gin drinker, the smell of it wafting around on airplanes always assaulted my nose (I even got it when I flew on Concorde from New York to Heathrow that one time…), the perfume of it and the smell of it on people’s breath was horrid and I was never really into the whole colonial thing. My grandmother drank gin, I mean really, how nice could it be?
I won a 1 litre bottle of Bombay Sapphire at work, unsure what to do with it I put it in a cupboard at home until one Friday night when there was nothing else to drink I took it out. There was no tonic at home – why would there be, I don’t drink gin! – and searched on the internet for gin cocktail recipes. And so it started.
Because I had vermouth for making Manhattans the obvious choice for a gin cocktail was a classic Martini, the first one was odd and not enjoyable, too much vermouth is the death of a good Martini, less vermouth is definitely more. I soon progress on to Gimlets, French 75s, Pink Gins, Gibsons and so the list continues..
My brother in law Brendan Dawes and I got a gin sampling set from Master of Malt and started to discover a whole other world of flavours, textures and botanicals. We had Bathtub gin, Hendricks, Boxer and others. I like gin! In fact I like gin so much I wanted to give up my day job, make my own gin and I wanted set up a distillery to make it commercially.
A half-litre still wasn’t going to be sufficient for my plans so I spent £90 and got myself a 20 litre pot still from Amazon, it came from China and wasn’t a quality product but once I straightened all the bent bits out and after much research I started experimenting. The first several products were drinkable but not particularly palatable, they made for an ok cocktail at best, but I persevered, no one went blind and things got better. I was surprised at what small amounts of botanicals are needed to infuse a base spirit to make a tasty gin, and the handfuls I had been chucking in were very much overkill, so I used less and tried different combinations documenting everything and trying to pick out the most pleasant notes and trying to combine them with others to make a quality product that I was proud of.
Bren put it perfectly when he said “the niggles still fester though”. I’m my biggest critic, and realised I’m not the best person to critique my own product, fortunately when it comes to free alcohol there’s always an army of willing testers.
One thing I realised early on about giving away alcohol is some people say nice things because they want more free alcohol, these were not the people I wanted on-board to help progress my dream so I started giving out a short questionnaire to complete and return after tasting, I doubt I even got a quarter of these back and most didn’t really offer anything of value, now it was time to deal with disappointment, not something I’ve ever really had to deal with in things I’ve tried to do in the past, maybe because none were important enough that I couldn’t just shrug my shoulders and move on. This was my dream, my way of getting off the hamster wheel, my retirement plan and things were getting in the way so I removed them.
I gathered a small force of gin drinkers, people who drink gin rather than anything else, people who like gin and who appreciate gin and started testing again. The results were mostly positive and the negatives didn’t disappoint, they helped because were constructive, they gave me things to consider, ideas about things I could change and so I continued until I had a viable product which after one last tweak became Forgan Gin which is when a whole load of things became apparent that I had managed to avoid thinking about. The business.
Thankfully when you know and associate yourself with like-minded people who believe in themselves and you, you can draw on their expertise and knowledge and put it to use. I wanted my own distillery, and I wanted my own commercial business, I wanted to sell Forgan Gin but the business side of it and all those things was daunting. My brother in law who set up his own business some years ago was brilliant, he offered help, guidance and encouragement and one of the most valuable things I learnt from him is to always have a notebook and pen to hand, writing things down means less things to keep you awake at night!
One frustration which at the time which I thought to be the biggest frustration was dealing with HMRC. When I applied for my licensing, it took them weeks to get back to me I think 6 weeks was the longest time, and they were always wanting more and different information, but in reality I think it was just me obsessing about not knowing if they would say yes or no. When they said they wanted more information I was able to supply it within 48 hours, but not knowing was driving me a bit crackers. They’re actually really nice people to deal with, you just need patience. I was granted my licence on August 6th 2017.
On August 7th 2017 I ordered 200+kg of ingredient to start off my first commercial batch of Forgan Gin, I can sell it, people can buy it. I hope they do. I visited many independent drinks shops, bars and pubs in Southport, because this is a truly local gin there’s been a lot of interest. There are of course other local gins but mine has a unique selling point, I ferment my own wash, most if not all of the others whilst being "made" locally are not crafted locally. The base spirit for those is made in the Midlands and transported up here before being infused with the specific botanicals for each outlet and bottled, I make my own base spirit from water, sugar, grain and yeast for a truly authentic locally produced gin.
Forgan gin is triple distilled on modern equipment for a unique taste and smoothness.