The fascinating story behind Forest Gin – the latest Peak District spirit sensation
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 October 2016 | UPDATED: 16:12 20 October 2016
Derbyshire Life meets the family responsible for creating this new small batch gin, produced from foraged Peak District ingredients, that is creating big waves in the UK and beyond
‘I prefer my gin neat,’ says Mr Bond. Karl Bond. We are sitting at a table in a quiet Peak District café, just a stone’s throw away from Buxton. It is well before the sun has reached its midday point in the sky over the glorious hills surrounding us and he produces a beautiful, iconic white porcelain bottle, glazed with a striking woodland design and bearing the name: Forest Gin.
Karl proceeds to pour a shot straight into a clean paper coffee cup, provided by amenable café staff. He pushes it towards me and then he nods expectantly. You sense suddenly that you are in the presence of something special on the gastronomic spectrum. There’s a palpable silence in the café and an air of expectation.
I swig. ‘It’s fresh and unusual. Heavens! It’s the Peak District in a bottle!’
‘Yes, we class ourselves as a Peak District gin,’ says Karl, ‘from a world renowned National Park and we are very proud of it.’
Karl and his wife Lindsay comprise the family company responsible for creating this new small batch gin that is creating big waves in the UK and beyond. Forest Gin is produced on the edge of the Derbyshire Peak District, in a distillery close to Macclesfield Forest and its distinctive taste derives from the quality ingredients, some of which are highly unusual, foraged from hill and forest.
For in addition to carefully-sourced traditional gin botanicals – such as organic juniper berries, coriander seeds, vanilla pods, liquorice root, cinnamon and angelica – there is included in the distillation wild bilberries, raspberries and blackberries, Peak District moss and ferns, bark, pine and a sprinkling of wild flowers, including gorse flower. Some other ingredients are yet to remain a secret.
‘A lot of our ingredients are from Derbyshire,’ says Karl, whose eight-year-old daughter Harriet is chief forager and fruit finder for the family company.
‘We are up and around Buxton, Castleton and Chatsworth all the time foraging for berries and collecting fern and moss from the dry stone walls. I don’t know of anybody else using moss and fern. The fern gives the gin its freshness and the moss gives it an earthiness which is very different to other gins.’
And although the product is uniquely home grown and production is small scale its market is distinctly sophisticated, finding a home on the shelves of exclusive stores such as Harvey Nichols and the Conran Shop (in London and Paris) and restaurants such as the Hind’s Head in Bray, owned by the celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal.
It is also the only premium gin served in the First Class lounge of Virgin Trains at Euston station, London. A quick Google search will reveal that it retails for around £50 to £60 a bottle.
The meteoric success of the Peak District’s first gin has left Karl, who classes himself as ‘a normal bloke’, in a state of amazement and disbelief.
In just their second year of production Karl, aged 38 and Lindsay, 36, have scooped two double gold medals at the 2016 World Spirits Awards in San Francisco.
‘I haven’t put the stickers on my bottles but this is pretty much the pinnacle of awards for spirits. It seems ridiculous to say it but it means it’s one of the best gins in the world. It’s crazy but we are really, really proud.’
The humble beginnings of the Forest Gin story already sound legendary. In 2014 Karl was working as a trader of IT products and his wife Lindsay worked as a beautician.
‘I was staring at a screen all day at £’s and $’s and part numbers. It was a good steady job. I’d done it for 15 years and it paid all the bills.’ But in his spare time, Karl had acquired a distiller’s licence and set about making one of his favourite tipples in the garage using recipes from library books and from the internet. Lindsay is a coeliac and as grain whiskies and beer were off limits, gin seemed a good option.
The early days of his experimentation in 2014 bore no resemblance to the product which is now highly rated as a top tipple by high profile food and drink critics. He said: ‘I was like a lot of blokes who make their own beer, except I was making gin. And it was pretty nasty stuff. I’d give it to my wife to taste each night and she would spit it out.’
But there was a Eureka moment and it was to change Karl’s home brew – and his life. ‘We live a foot away from the Peak District and at weekends we would go walking with the dog around here a lot and to Castleton, Buxton and Bakewell – all the nice places to walk.
‘My little girl would pick berries and stuff them into her mouth and bring them home to make jams and put in our porridge and it made sense to me to put a handful of them into what I was distilling.
‘I added crushed bilberries, raspberries and blackberries to the recipe and what was produced was instantaneously better. It was blindingly obvious really. I realised the better the ingredients you put in, the better the product. If you taste a raspberry that you have picked out there and compare it to a supermarket bought one it is a very different thing. The varieties sold in supermarkets are for mass production and not like the wild stuff that grows in Derbyshire.’
The Bond family swapped their ingredients entirely. Karl bought in organic certified juniper berries, organic certified coriander seeds and premium quality liquorice root, vanilla pods and angelica. ‘It became a bit of an obsession really,’ admitted Karl, ‘to source the best we could.’
The pair also switched from using tap water in their recipe to natural soft spring water from the Peak District, sourced from close to Buxton on the edge of the Derbyshire border. The effect of this was to deliver a transformative smooth finish to the product now known as Forest Gin.
‘It’s the Peak District water which is the main thing that gives our gin that softness,’ said Karl.
Today these ingredients are ground by hand using a pestle and mortar, before being distilled. The alcohol vapour, obtained from organic grain spirit, and the oils from the botanicals then cool in a copper condenser. The resulting fragrant spirit is then blended with the spring water to produce the distinctively herbaceous craft gin.
Karl, who is a keen craft gin drinker, said: ‘At first it seemed such a small thing we were doing, making a recipe for ourselves, but we realised it was very good and started drinking it instead of our normal gins. We almost felt shy and sheepish about it but we started giving it to family and friends when they came round, and they pushed us into trying to sell it.’
In the early days of developing his premium artisan London Dry Gin Karl was still working full time with a long daily commute to Rochdale but on an evening began studying how to set up a business, investigating bottling, trademarks and logos.
There were errors along the way. On Christmas Eve 2014 a delivery of a palette of bottles arrived at their modestly-sized house. ‘We had no idea how big a palette was and a truck pulled up. I was at work and my wife and my sister had to carry 1,500 porcelain bottles into the house. It was so stupid. We hadn’t even thought where we were going to store them.’
But by January 2015 the Bonds had developed their striking bottles featuring the artwork of paper-cut artist Suzy Taylor, which have already become collectors’ items. They had created a website and social media was buzzing with interest.
Karl began sending out sample bottles to prestigious restaurants including Greens in Didsbury, Manchester, owned by the celebrity chef Simon Rimmer.
Immediately they clinched an order from Harvey Nichols – the buyer had been following them on social media and had flown up to Greens for a taste from the sample bottle. Heston Blumenthal followed suit with an order. ‘It’s all taken off through social media and word of mouth,’ said Karl, who has not spent a penny on marketing.
Karl and Lindsay had only just abandoned the garage as a workplace and were operating the business from their conservatory, which had a hygiene certificate and was sealed off as a sterile working area, when the BBC asked if they could come along to film a piece for Countryfile.
But the couple had no time to drink in the success of their product. By July 2015, just seven months into selling Forest Gin, they were exhausted. Both were working in the distillery past midnight each evening after work and had no time to spend with their families. It was a tipping point.
‘It was ridiculous trading in that way,’ said Karl. ‘We really didn’t have the time to do it. We either had to stop making it or I had to quit my job. I made that jump and to be frank it still feels terrifying. I’m still scared.’
With Karl a full time craft gin producer, the family found new business premises in Macclesfield and this summer Lindsay also gave up her job to concentrate on Forest Gin. Although they have been approached by a big supermarket – the couple has decided to keep the operation small.
Each batch of their gin fills just 80 bottles and only two batches are made each week – about 8,320 bottles a year. A proportion of this is now being exported to buyers for high end outlets in Germany and Switzerland. ‘We don’t want a gin factory,’ said Karl. ‘We want to keep things very small. We don’t want to mess with the recipe and the still size because this allows us full control. We know exactly what’s in our gin down to the last berry and this quality of product is not something that can be mass produced.’ The company is also keen to practise responsible foraging – which does not lend itself to large scale production.
So how does Karl see the company developing?
‘I’d like to make the first Peak District whisky and there are lots of other products we can distil and make.’
In the meantime the family company is actively searching for new premises in the Peak District. Karl and Lindsay aim to create an ‘open distillery’ and gin school where visitors could experience the process of gin-making or just relax with a gin and tonic, whilst drinking in a Peak District view.
‘If anybody in Derbyshire has premises they might think suitable for us or if there are any pubs, restaurants, farmshops, delis etc who would like to stock it, I would be grateful if they would get in touch,’ said Karl.
Contact Forest Gin by email at email@example.com