What is ‘the meaning of life’?…A rather deep and soul searching question to start a gin blog with you might think. But stick with me here…
Sure, it’s a fairly broad and wide spanning question. And one that people around the world have tried to find a conclusive answer to since the dawn of time. But I reckon, with a little bit of ‘spit balling’, we can get to the bottom of it in this here blog!
Now. Having given the subject matter some deserved serious thought (the amount of time it took for the kettle to boil), I’ve come to a conclusion… ‘it depends really’! And by that I mean, in my experience, the meaning of life is something that has evolved over time…
When I was ten years old, I was a massive Spice Girls fan! This is a fact that would later come back to haunt me, via an alarming discovery made by my then ‘wife-to-be’…but that’s a story for another blog! The point is that I couldn’t get enough of 90’s Girl Power and, more specifically, the hit movie ‘Spice World’. I watched that video tape until the TV almost suffered screen burn! This was at the expense of my poor dad, who had zero opportunity to get to the TV and relax after a hard days work. Much to his pleasure, I’m sure.
Fast forward five years, and WWF Wrestling had taken over my life (I refuse to refer to it by its revised ‘WWE’ title, but rest assured that no pandas were harmed in the show I was watching!). Posters of ‘Scary’ & ‘Sporty’ were replaced by images of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson; it became an obsession. Unfortunately for my dad, these were the days before ‘multi-room’ technology, meaning that from 9pm-midnight EVERY Friday without fail, I would take over the TV. This would leave him perilously stranded with the option of either watching two long haired, sweaty blokes in leotards smack each other about a bit…or switch the TV off and sit in silence. I like to think that he was silently pleased about the situation.
A couple of years further down the line, with longer hair & a questionable fashion sense, music was now my life. If I wasn’t playing music, I was listening to it. And if I wasn’t listening to it, I was watching the ‘Alternative Rock’ music channels. Poor old dad…he never saw it coming. Left with a choice of watching emotional 30-somethings scream melodically at the screen, or sit quietly pondering when exactly a ‘multi-room’ viewing function would come in to play, I’m all but certain that he was smiling inside.
For one beautiful, all to brief, moment our worlds collided when my next life passion of football aligned with my dads own TV preferences. It was now my wife & mom who were left quietly seething (whilst also loudly making me fully aware of their displeasure).
But then it happened. My world changed. As I myself became a father. You could at this juncture make the sensible assumption that this is where my story ends; fatherhood is the meaning of life, right? Well. Kind of. You see, what I have found through this life changing experience, in an ironic twist of fate, is that I have now transitioned roles. Gone are the days of free and easy television viewing. Now, my life is punctuated by ‘Pepper Pig’ ‘Postman Pat’ and ‘Ben & Hollie’. Morning. Noon. And night.
This being the case, the only logical conclusion that I draw is that the meaning of life is: Dads aren’t allowed to watch TV.
That was, at least, until a recent meeting with a chap called Rob, who reliably informed me that the true meaning of life is actually ‘42’!…
For those not well versed in ‘A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ (welcome to the club!) you’ll have to take Robs word for it. But the fact that this tongue in cheek reference to his favourite movie was sufficient for him to decide that the new gin he was creating “had to be 42%” ABV is good enough for me. It’s also the best answer I’ve ever had for why a brand decided on their ABV; refreshing from some of the more technically bamboozing answers that can follow such a line of interrogation.
Allow me to introduce you to the new kids in town; ‘Hearts Distillery’.
Hearts Distillery; the low down
The irony that I was meeting Rob, founder of new Staffordshire based gin outfit ‘Hearts Distillery’, who are literally based in the heart of the country, at local Staffordshire craft centre ‘The Heart of the Country’ wasn’t lost on me…as confusing as it had become.
With coffees in hand (it was too early for gin to be ‘socially acceptable’!), we were sitting down to discuss the whys and wherefores of the Hearts Distillery story, how they came to be and where they’re heading. And it’s safe to say that there is no short term thinking here; Rob is a man on a mission, and he wears his ‘Heart’ on his sleeve.
I should start by saying that Hearts Distillery’s journey to fruition has been far from an easy one! An entrepreneur, who prides himself on “never having had a boss”, Rob embarked on an IT career that spanned 35 years. Having started out by selling video games from his parents shop, he ultimately became the director of his own IT business and software house. But after 20 years of, in his words, delivering “bags of fresh air” Rob was craving a change and had a real desire to create something tangible. He wanted to hold, smell and taste a product that he could put his name to.
Had it not been for unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances in his other ventures, ‘Hearts’ could very well have appeared on the gin scene some four years ago. Indeed, Rob had been one of the first clients through the doors at Nelson’s Gin School and had been diligently learning his craft from great brands including Warner’s (then Warner Edwards) in readiness. An interesting fact is that, had that come to pass, the gin may have actually appeared under the name ‘Chase’, given the proximity of the famous Cannock Chase landscape, pipping the current holders of the famous title to the post!
Whilst ultimately you’re left to wonder what might have been, had the gin surfaced in a very different market, the important thing is that as of September 2019 it is now here. And the team have some catching up to do…
With this in mind, my first line of questioning was on the brand name; what’s it all about? Well, a lot…as it would transpire!
First, there’s the obvious geography. Rob is Staffordshire born and bred (a man after my own ‘Heart’!) and it was important to him that his roots were reflected within his brand. But what I really admire is that they have opted not to pump for a regional or city based naming convention. Whilst there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing so, we discussed the potential restrictions that can arise when a product is named after its postcode. Now, I must state that this isn’t always the case – there are many gins who are named after their City of conception who are winning over fans across boarders very successfully; York Gin being just one that springs to mind. You can learn more about York Gin in my previous review here:
The point is that such a move can come at a risk, with inter-city rivalries and bias potentially imposing limitations on target audiences. Being bang smack in the middle, or ‘Heart’, of the country made for a clever alternative approach in the teams thinking.
The second reason behind the name (told you there was lots to it!) is courtesy of ‘Gin Distilling 101’. Through his introduction to distilling, Rob learned the three part process that results in discarding the ‘Heads’ and ‘Tails’ of the spirit, to keep the middle sweet spot for his gin. The ‘Hearts’.
Lastly, but probably the most important factor, is his family. Rob has found himself outnumbered by the fairer sex, 4 to 1, with his wife and three daughters ruling the roost. Though he is quick to state that he wouldn’t have it any other way! These family ties and the literal ‘Hearts’ on display around the home are a constant source of inspiration.
What very quickly becomes apparent during our conversation is that the family unit is very much the ‘beating heart’ of this operation. Whilst Rob is the frontman at the helm, his wife heads up the Marketing side of the business. Then each daughter has a job title, with an accompanying snazzy business card;
. Chief Creative Officer; the eldest daughter, in charge of the social media account
. Chief Smile Officer; the middle daughter, in charge of maintaining the humour
. Miss-Chief; the youngest daughter…say no more!
Whilst their young ages currently restricts the majority of their responsibilities to labelling & hand tying the wooden hearts on to the bottles, the future ambition is for them to become an integral part of the business.
A health heart beat
This is more than just a ‘quick buck’. It’s the start of a legacy. Rob talks passionately about wanting to still be here in 25 years time, come what may with the much debated impending burst of ‘the gin bubble’. The long term vision is that Hearts will look to produce an English whiskey. But with that aspiration being a good 7 years down the line, this is part of a long term business plan to deliver high quality, classic, grown up spirits.
And I’m pleased to say that the impressive consciousness doesn’t stop at the name alone. The branding here is on point! Now, it would be a fair and correct assumption on your part to expect that a heart would appear on the front & centre of the labelling. But a really nice touch is how they’ve managed to link the imagery back to the Staffordshire knot. It’s another subtle nod to their proud heritage.
Rob had fancied himself as a makeshift artist in the early days, and created a logo that he felt was a sure fire winner with the masses. He was so certain of his artistry that he devised a test to pit his logo design against a number of alternatives, asking visitors to his wife’s home based personal training studio to select their favourite…literally no one picked Robs logo. Not one person. Ah…
Not taking it to ‘Heart’, it was back to the literal drawing board. Luckily, Lichfield based agency ‘PHd Design’ were on hand to draw up something quite special – and this time it was backed up by 85% of the market research audience!
There’s a crisp and clean simplicity to the look and feel of the design, with the bold font against a backdrop sea of blue and white offering a cool and collected confidence. The engraved wooden heart, hand tied to the neck of the bottle, alongside the sturdy wooden stopper give a rustic and crafted feel. It’s all designed to complement the classic nature of the gin inside.
And it’s there that we now turn our attention. Hearts flagship gin is made up of a humble 5 botanicals. When experimenting with recipes at home, using a small Still, Rob agonised over the number, ratio and balance of botanicals to use. So he took a step back and returned to the basics of blending juniper, coriander, angelica, orris and orange peel. And that’s where he stopped. In realising he was happy with what he was tasting he thought “why make it complicated?!”. In aiming to create an old school classic gin for a proper G&T or (let’s be honest…AND) a Martini, Rob is confident this does exactly what it says on the tin…bottle.
The age old tale of HMRC Licensing and paperwork slowing down proceedings is a challenge that the team have been facing in to for sometime. And for this reason, the Hearts London Dry Gin recipe is currently contract distilled in batches of 200 bottles by the ‘Staffordshire Brewery’ in Leek.
Contract distilling isn’t necessarily a dirty word, when it is done well with transparency and honesty. Particularly in this case where ‘needs must’. But I am ‘heartened’ to hear that plans are already underway to bring the creative process ‘in house’. A Polish 100litre Still is working its way to the Staffordshire shores as I type, with the family garage space being converted to accommodate its new house guest – though Rob has been left to wonder if this whole thing has been an elaborate ploy by his wife to get him to clean the garage out!…
And with that, it was time to taste the spirit that has been four years in the making. Lid off, gin poured and pen primed, it’s time to get to the ‘Heart’ of this story.
Hearts Gin to taste
On the nose, there’s quite a ferocity to the initial neat vapours. It feels bigger than its 42% body, as it stings the nostrils.
Given time, it does start to calm, the heat of the alcohol giving way to a balance of juniper pine, with a fiery herbaceous coriander and the pithy scent of orange peel. So far, on smell at least, it lives up to Robs promise of doing ‘what it says on the tin’.
Theres an unexpected earthy depth on first taste. There’s a dark rich liquorice feel, oozing a sweet heat across the pallet. The orange and coriander combine to deliver a citrus fizz on the tongue, giving a real sense of spice which warms the back of the throat. To my taste, the spice is perhaps amped up a little too high and I’m left wanting the orange notes to shine a bit brighter. However, I’m left very satisfied by the mellow juniper hum that washes across each mouthful.
The initial zing on the tongue subsides and is replaced by a really nice longevity, with a generous warmth remaining long after each sip.
So how do you serve such a classic gin? Well, in a classic cocktail of course!
In a G&T, with a light tonic and a twist of orange peel, this gin is far more at home. The power of the neat gin ensures it doesn’t get lost within the mixer, whilst the garnish twist helps to pull forward those orange citrus flavours I was longing for. The serve provides some additional sweetness, which is much to the benefit of the drinking experience.
I can well imagine that a Martini serve could work well here, given the stripped back nature of the botanicals at play. Though for me, the suggestion of ‘neat over ice doesn’t work’ as well. The heat and spice of the gin are far better suited to a longer serve, were the raw power can be reigned in and complemented by the mixer.
With Negronis growing in popularity, and being my personal serve of preference, I was eager to see how such a classic mix of botanicals would fare in the equally classic cocktail. I’ll admit to having had reservations, based on the spiced tendencies when tasted neat. But I’m thrilled to report I couldn’t have been more wrong. When pitted against the sweet vermouth and bitter Campari, the gin is in its element. The juniper is allowed to shine, underpinned by a more subtle heat of the coriander. The orange notes work well in the classic short serve, supporting an over all velvet smooth mouth feel. It is absolutely delicious. Very, very enjoyable!
The future; taking heart
Now freshly on to their second batch, the hard work of getting their name out their begins. ‘Knocking on doors’ has perhaps been the hardest part of the journey to date, with sales admittedly not being in the IT startups comfort zone! “It’s the no’s’ and rejection that get you”, tells Rob. But with a strong start to their journey in to gin, the hope is that this is a product that will begin to speak for itself.
Breadth and depth will soon become the focus, with irons already in the fire. Plans are afoot to add two more gins to the armoury in the near future; an ‘Earl Grey & Pomelo’ and a ‘Pomegranate & Basil’ edition, both of which will use the 42% London Dry as their base. The aforementioned label design and artwork will remain in tact, with only the colour scheme adapting to the variety on show. Ultimately, there’s an ambition to have a core range of 3-4 gins, whilst still having scope to explore speciality batches for events like Christmas and Valentines Day (I mean come on, they have to right?! ‘Hearts’!).
There are initial eyebrow raising suggestions that the London Dry may remain as a contract distilled gin, with the rest of the future range of flavoured varieties being created directly by the Hearts team. But for me, if part of the operation is to move ‘in house’, my personal preference and hope would be to see the full portfolio receive the ‘hands on treatment’. This clearly comes with a learning curve, requiring some experimentation and potential tweaks in the end product. That will need some careful management and focus to ensure that consistency is king. But if they can nail that, then it will be in keeping with the family ethos and crafted feel, which is such an important part of this gins story and exciting future.
After all, ‘home is where the heart is’.
Huge thanks to Rob from Hearts Distillery for his time and the free miniature samples of the London Dry Gin.
Follow the exciting story, and keep your finger on the pulse, on Instagram @heartsdistillery and via their website http://www.heartsdistillery.com
And don’t forget to stop by @theginshelf across all social media platforms for more blogs & event updates. Stop by, say ‘Hi’ & chat gin!