I always find it amusing when I hear people use the phrase ‘did you grow up in a barn?!’.
The general rule of thumb when this throwaway, semi passive aggressive, remark is dropped is that the perpetrator will have left a door slightly ajar or perhaps strewn an article of clothing askew on an armchair. In other words, a mild indiscretion that warrants little more than a ‘holier than thou’ tut and wagging of the index finger for besmirching the nearby surroundings and nonchalantly flaunting the rules of social etiquette.
But…what if you really called their bluff?! And by way of simple retort you suddenly replaced all of the family bedding with fresh bales of hay? What if an offer of making a cup of tea resulted in the communal family ‘trough’ being left to brew, and all of the fine china and the best cutlery set were to be replaced by ‘feed bags’? And as for the toilet situation?!…well, let’s not go there.
Ok, ok. So I didn’t ever personally go quite so far as that. But should ever the occasion arise, and I am presented by a perturbed inquisitor, I do take great pride in answering smugly ‘yes. I did grow up in a barn!’. Now, I must hasten to add that it was my parents barn conversion family home, rather than a case of neglect or having to grow up on the mean streets of the Midlands…
But to get in to such middle class detail only serves to get in the way of a much better sense of imagery and comedic response. If it makes you feel any better, the place was always sodding freezing and had spiders the size of small dogs all year round (I’m pretty sure one mugged me in my sleep once…).
But there’s a dynamic duo who have taken things a whole lot further than bales of hay and Alsatian sized spiders. And these guys mean business!
In turning their 200 year old Northamptonshire ‘Falls Farm’ in to a gin distilling HQ, they really have taken the biscuit. But as you’ll come to learn, Warner’s Gin don’t do anything by halves.
Having had the privilege to be involved in the live Twitter tasting of the Warner’s Gin & Gin Foundry collaboration for 2019’s ‘Farmed & Foraged’ edition, more on that later, I was invited to visit the team as a guest for a tour of the farm and distillery set up. I was pulling on my metaphorical wellies before I’d even had chance to finish my acceptance of the invitation; it was an offer I simply couldn’t refuse.
Old Tom and Tina Warner had a Farm (e-i-e-i-o!)…
Upon arrival at Falls Farm, my wife & I were greeted by our enigmatic hosts Ross and Marketing Manager Amy. Having opted to join the 10.30am Saturday tour, to gain maximum ‘parents day out’ time, we were also the first guests to turf up (spot the couple who don’t get out as much these days!). Now, at such an early hour of the day, and being the sole inhabitants of the visitors bar area, there was potential for awkwardness…though not for a second in Ross’s perfectly moustached company. If there was ever a sentence to break the ice, Ross had it down to a tee; ‘can I get you a gin and tonic?’ (well, he had it down to a ‘G&T’ then!).
We stared at the incredible lineup of 8 gins to choose from on the bar – it’s quite a sight to behold when you’ve not long seen off your first coffee of the day! But, as it was no doubt 5 o’clock somewhere, we eagerly obliged… I opted for the Harrington Dry, a 44% ABV juniper powerhouse which acts as the foundation for many of the other Warner Gin creations, whilst Mrs.B went for the Honey Bee G&T (a gin I’ve got A LOT of time for!).
But before we move on, let’s take a second to regroup. There was a lineup of 8 incredible gins! And that’s just the core range. Where the journey started with a London Dry back in 2012, Warner’s now have a veritable armoury of gins. Indeed, counting the current crop of limited edition variants available, they boast an impressive portfolio of no less than 11 gins!
And speaking of growth, if you want to meet the team involved, then head to the website and be prepared to keep scrolling! There’s an entire juniper army employed to keep the gin wheels turning; including Leia & Merlin, the distillery dogs! (or ‘Chief Morale Officer’ and ‘General Dogsbody’ if you want to go by their official job titles). I think what I find most impressive is that, despite the number of vital cogs involved in the operation, Warner’s still feels delightfully ‘small’ in the best possible way. The brand and the team feels approachable. They feel fun. There’s no pretentiousness or egos. It feels like they’re having a house (farm) party, with them as the life and soul, and we’re all invited!
Anyway. G&T’s in hand, we excitedly took our seats in readiness for a packed agenda. Albeit not a packed out audience… at the time of writing Corona Virus / COVID-19 was ramping up, taking its toll on all areas of life, including the gin scene. This had seen an expected crowd of 20 people depleted to a perfectly formed group of 8 gin enthusiasts. However, we were reliably informed that being in an establishment that produces alcohol that comes off the Still at 89.8% ABV, we were probably in the safest possible location! I’ll drink to that…
It’s good to talk…
Wind him up and watch him go! Ross is a fountain of knowledge, full to the brim with fun facts, history and anecdotes on all things Warner’s (and gin too…probably!). You not only get the feeling that he could talk about gin all day long, but also that you could quite happily listen to him do it! Throughout the morning we found his style to be the perfect mix of informative, yet thoroughly engaging and accessible.
So, sitting comfortably? Let’s get started then.
The story begins with a boy called Tom and a girl called Tina. Although Warner’s Gin is 7 years old this year (2020), the idea for the brand (formerly ‘Warner Edwards’) had formed some 18 months before the gin operation really started in earnest. Ross explains how his best friend Tom (Warner) has always been entrepreneurial. And like all good ideas, Warner’s Gin was dreamed up over a beer, in a pub!
In taking on the family farm, Tom was keen to look in to diversification. But even more than that; he wanted something he could pour his heart in to. Inspired by his mothers passion for gardening, the idea had originally been to grow and extract the essential oils from crops and flowers for the London perfume houses. But in thinking about what else the distilling kit could be used for, booze clearly jumped to the top of the pile! Suddenly they couldn’t remember why they’d been talking about flowers in the first place?!
As I’ve already paid tribute to, the growth of the brand has been rapid! Warner’s produce gins that not only lead the way in the category…in many ways they have shaped and reshaped it, continuing to challenge the status quo and what it really means to be a ‘gin’.
Allow me give you a few examples. The Warners Elderflower Gin is seen by many as the first of the ‘flavoured gins’ to really grasp hold of the market. Given today’s vibrant and colourfully stock shelves, that’s quite a shift change to have innovated. And speaking of ‘colourful’, the Warner’s Rhubarb Gin is credited with having started the ‘Pink Gin’ craze that still has the UK in its grips. Indeed, Gordon’s have openly admitted that their ‘Premium Pink’ was launched as a direct response to the Warner’s Rhubarb!
But what the team are at pains to emphasise is that everything they produce is done with integrity at its core. You’ll find no essences or colourings. No nasties or hidden ingredients. Nothing synthetic or fake. Everything is natural, and taken only from the named botanicals. Want to hazard a guess as to why the Rhubarb Gin is pink? Well…because the fresh rhubarb juice used is pink – simple! It’s a point of pride and unwavering principle, and an ethos that underpins everything that Warner’s do. You’ll find no candy stripes or infused unicorn tears here…
Warner’s are now the largest independent distillery on the scene, exceeding the likes of both Sipsmith and Chase. Their Rhubarb Gin is the 4th best selling gin in UK. And their gins are currently available in 23 markets across the globe! Not bad for a little farm in Northamptonshire ey…
You are what you drink
‘Welcome cocktails’ quaffed, with our thirsts for knowledge equally quenched, it was time to throw our coats back on and follow Ross out in to the beautiful village of Harrington. More specifically, we were off to see ‘the falls’.
So what are ‘the falls’ then? I’m glad you asked. Previously the old botanical gardens from the villages manor houses of times gone by, you can see the grounds ‘falling’ away and stepping down through the fields from the main high street. The grounds themselves are grade listed, prohibiting any plans for building directly on to them. However, it’s what’s underneath them that’s important; the water!
The village of Harrington sits on an aquifer, with natural springs located within ‘the falls’. And it’s this water that Ross explains is essential to the making of all of the Warner’s gins; the better the water you use, the better the quality of the spirit you can create. Luckily for the Warner’s team, they now have a borehole in to the spring, rather than having to transport it directly from source each time they want to distill (a backbreaking operation I’m informed)!
The tour didn’t venture in to the fields, partly on account of the attack minded herd of cows blocking the way, and partly to avoid ‘the white lady of Harrington’ – the ghost of Jane Stanhope (Countess of Harrington in 1755-1824) who killed her gardener with shovel and now remorsefully haunts ‘the falls’. With the story being that if you spot her knocking about the fields then it’s supposed to be the premonition of your own imminent demise (bad times) it was time to move on sharpish!
We meandered back to the farm and headed up to ‘Botanical Garden 2’ to spend some time geeking out over some of the core fundamentals of what Warner’s Gin is all about.
You could be forgiven for looking at the modest size of the garden beds and wondering just how the heck Warner’s can create so much fun from so little?! It’s worth noting that although ‘Botanical Garden 2’ started its life as the lemon thyme patch, it is now more of a show garden for the tours and a development plot for future plans.
Whereas ‘Botanical Garden 1’ is smaller still, and is Toms moms original garden that was taken over to support the creation of the herbaceous offering of ‘Melissa Gin’ (the first of their ‘Botanical Garden’ range) which focusses on the inclusion of ‘Melissa Officinalis’, a lemon balm member of the mint family.
The scale of the Warner’s operation now demands a sizeable 6.5 acres of botanical gardens across the farm – the largest area being 4 meters wide by 65 meters long, situated at the bottom of ‘the falls’. There you can find the bulk of the botanicals that help create the full range of gins, including raspberries, rhubarb, apples, lemon thyme and lemon verbena. I think it would be fair to say that Tom & Tina have had more than a hand in reinstating the botanical gardens in to the village of Harrington then!
For me, this was a really unique part of the experience and a highlight of the tour. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in distilleries (just ask my wife!) and I promise you that seeing the botanicals still growing in the ground and awaiting harvest is not a common sight! In a lot of cases, when you ask to see what goes in to the gin, you’ll be presented with a bucket of ingredients that are ready to throw straight in to the Still.
Now don’t get me wrong – there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING wrong with that. Not everyone has 6-7 acres of land at their disposal! Warner’s also freely admit that they don’t grow everything they use themselves. They source their citrus from South Africa & their juniper from Macedonia for two reasons; those botanicals are tough to grow in the UK & the quality of ingredients from those countries is considered to be the best! Nonetheless, what I am saying is that it is both impressive and heart warming.
Sustainability and social consciousness is the key here. They’re some of the guiding principles upon which the brand has been built – and it’s magical to see first hand! Allow me to offer you a examples as case and point…
The ‘Honeybee Gin’ has led to the addition of multiple beehives to the Falls Farm base, with their very own on-site beekeep & distillery manager Jonny (affectionately known as ‘Jonny Bee Good’). The gin is a perfect example of business & conservation working together, with a percentage of each bottle of ‘Honeybee Gin’ sold going towards the fantastic work of the Royal Horticulture Society.
You can read more about Warner’s Honeybee Gin here, in my write up of their 2017 launch night:
As Ross explains, with the exception of juniper, every botanical grown relies on bee pollination – it is therefore critical to look after the striped workforce! That’s why each bottle of ‘Honeybee Gin’ also comes with a packet of wildflower seeds to encourage drinkers to plant their very own bee-sustaining botanical gardens! While you’re at it, why not pick up a ‘Bee Hotel’ to let the little guys thrive in style?! Though I can’t see Lenny Henry advertising those particular stays… (as a side note, the beer mats made with wild flower seeds inside them, meaning flower beds grow as a result of littering, is a stroke of genius!).
In a similar vein, the ‘Raspberry Gin’ supports the ‘People’s Trust for Endangered Species’, with a particular focus on the British Door Mouse. The reason? Well if these hedgerow dwelling critters are in trouble, so is the hedgerow that we all rely on for not only the botanicals they harvest, but for the countryside at large!
Perhaps the best example of putting source and provenance at centre stage, nurturing the land to harvest the ingredients for a gin, is 2019’s Warner’s Gin & Gin Foundry collaboration for ‘Farmed & Foraged’.
The idea was to create a gin that would only use botanicals that were located within ‘a bee’s flight of the still’ – roughly a three-mile radius. It even resulted in Tom & Tina planting three juniper trees, imported from Italy, which were proudly on show next to the gardens. Is it weird that I was a little star struck by the trees?! (the answer to that question is yes. Yes it is weird).
You can read all about the gin, and the massive amounts of effort and complexity involved, in my fuller write up on Farmed & Foraged Gin here, but suffice to say that this was one of my top gin finds of 2019; it is simply stunning:
As we headed away from the gardens, to the penultimate stop of the tour, Ross used a phrase that sums all of this up perfectly; ‘tread lightly on the ground & give back more than you take’. It’s about making the best quality product, whilst always looking to do the right thing – it’s the Warner’s way.
Curiosity killed the cat…
As we entered the engine room, the home to the teams main Still of five ‘Curiosity’, Ross makes a bold statement; making gin isn’t hard…
What he means by this, he goes on to explain, is that banging a set of ingredients in to a giant kettle and switching it on is easy. The difficult bit, and the bit that Warner’s do really well, is the recipe creation and quality control to deliver the highest possible standard of end product!
Tom Warner decided from the outset that he wasn’t going to take the easy route; Warner’s don’t take short cuts, and they’ll go the extra mile, at extra expense I might add, because it’s the right thing to do (are you sensing a theme?!). All of their distillers have graduated with a very specific degree in their trade. They buy their neutral grain spirit from Hayman’s, to ensure consistency and quality. Warner’s were also the first distillery to import an Arnold Holstein Copper Still – it’s a little on the fancy side, sure. But when you consider that the Harrington Dry is a winner of the top prizes at both the San Fransisco Spirit Awards and the IWSC Awards, you start to see that they may have a point…
It’s at this point that Ross showed us the DNA of the Harrington Dry gin. And by that I mean a plastic tub filled with dry bits of fruit, plant and herbs… it was more impressive than I’ve made it sound! Established by trialling six recipes with friends & relatives over a long number of months, the resulting gin is the lifeblood of the brand and acts as the base to many of the core range. It even has a secret ingredient in its line up (it did have two secret ingredients at one stage, until Country File let one slip during an on air interview…oops!).
Keeping in mind that the contents of said plastic tub were previously in the ground only a few hundred yards from where we were stood, you start to get a real smile inducing feel for the ground to glass operation that’s at play. And the hard graft doesn’t stop there. Yes, we’ve established Warner’s are a growing concern. Their ‘Liquid Team’ (love that name) are based on the farm, whilst four miles away in one direction their HQ houses the Marketing, Sales & Finance teams and they have a Warehouse team in the other direction. But each bottle of gin is still hand bottled, wax dipped and labelled with the same amount of care as on day one!
If you consider the scale and volume of gin that is flying out of the distillery doors, that’s a lot of hand labelling! Where some smaller brands may distill once or twice a week, Ross barely flinches when he says that the norm for Warner’s is 11 distillations a week. In fact, there have been times where Curiosity has been running solid over 24 hour periods just to keep up with demand!
So it’s hardly surprising then that there are plans afoot to launch a new distillery space. In 2021, the plan is to add a 1,000 litre Still to the team, to work alongside Curiosity and the smaller but no less important members ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Ingenuity’. If Tom and Tina are reading this, I’m going to throw it out there that ‘Matt’ has a great ring to it for the naming of the new Still! (I’ve tried this with numerous distillers, with a zero success rate to date. Surely it’s only a MATTer of time no?!).
Like all good entertainers, Ross had the concept of ‘leave them wanting more’ down to a fine art…and with vague suggestions of a new gin launch announcement ‘coming soon’, which currently remains top secret, the excitement in the room was palpable. When asked if anyone had any questions, my contribution of ‘what’s the new gin launch going to be?!’ was met with laughter. I styled it out as a joke…but I wasn’t joking.
Well that’s pretty neat!…
We retired to the bar. By now it was pushing 11:35am, considerably late given the timing of our first beverage of the day, and we were all feeling slightly parched.
Good news then that the tour ends with a tasting of 5 gins from the Warner’s core line up. And the music to my ears was that, whilst serving suggestions are provided, the gin is served neat; guests are encouraged to sniff, sip and savour the samples (rather than shot them or drown them in tonic!). Hopefully, this review has served to pay homage to the incredible lengths that Tom and team go to, to quite literally grow their gin – the very least we as consumers can do is sit up and give it our full attention.
Working in reverse order of ABV Strength, I was going in…
. Harrington Dry Gin: First up was the Harrington Dry. At 44%, this is a juniper heavy power house, with a gentle heat to warm the back of the throat. It carries a luxurious mouthfeel, with a visible oil from the heady botanical mix that provides legs on the glass like a fine red wine. It is an absolute belter, and my pick of the bunch.
. Lemon Balm Gin: The Lemon Balm Gin is silky smooth on the nose, carrying an incredible freshness – it’s like a summer breeze in the glass! The menthol notes are green and vibrant, really harnessing its title of being the ‘botanical garden gin’. I’m also reliably informed by Ross that it makes a great Negroni…
. Honeybee Gin: The Honeybee is the most complex recipe in the Warner’s range, boasting some 29 botanicals! And it will come as no surprise to those who’ve heard me wax lyrical (no bee pun intended) that it is flipping lovely! It carries a liqueur like character, that comes across almost syrupy. The honey brings a subtle sweetness as a key differentiator, that harmonises with light citrus. As a G&T, with a Mediterranean tonic, it’s a stand out.
. Rhubarb Gin: I have long been an ambassador that the Warner’s Rhubarb is the best rhubarb gin on the market – and this tasting does nothing to change that stance! Whilst there are a lot of ‘Rhubarb Gins’ to choose from the shelves, Warner’s USP is that they cut theirs back with pure rhubarb juice. It’s bright, lively and very, very moreish. Though I’m still firmly in the ‘serve with ginger ale/beer’ as opposed to the recommendation of Mediterranean tonic…
. Raspberry Gin: Last up was the Warner’s Raspberry Gin. And we were finishing with a bang; grab your toast, because this is pretty much jam in a glass! It’s glorious. Big punchy notes of raspberry and cooked blackberries give this gin bundles of flavour, with a ‘sloe gin-esq’ profile. I raised an eyebrow at the suggestion of serving with (premium) lemonade?! But you know what…I’ll allow it! I’d buy this gin. And with Yorkshire blood running through these ‘Brummie’ veins, I can pay it no greater complement.
Exit through the gift shop
As we were exiting (yes, through the bar / gift shop!) Ross and Amy helped to send me packing with something pretty darn special indeed! To celebrate the 30 year anniversary of Warner’s close friends and neighbours, Joules clothing, the team have created the limited edition Apple & Pear Gin. I can confirm that it is as stunning to look at as it is to drink!
On the nose you get stewed apple sat alongside sweet, crunchy pear. There’s a spike of vanilla essence to the aroma, with the delicate spiced warmth of cinnamon (always a winner with apples and pears) but it’s all underpinned by a strong juniper spine.
To taste, there’s a candied sweetness to the silky smooth neat spirit. There is no simpler way to sum it up than by saying that it is absolutely delicious! The apples and pears are there in abundance, and deliver the sweet fruit kick that you would expect.
With a light tonic, the sweetness and booze is dialled down a little, allowing the spotlight to move even more so on to the name sake botanicals, with the apple and pear feeling fresher and more vibrant. But as with all of the Warner’s gins, this is drinking done right and it leaves you in no doubt of its thick and pungent juniper credentials.
Home to roost…
As we turned to leave, I had the great pleasure of bumping in to Tom & Tina as they returned from a dog walk (even ‘General Dogsbodies’ need walkies!). Elbow bumps exchange (Corona Virus precautions and all that), and our thanks given for the epic tour, we were on our way.
In reflecting on my experience of the Warner’s Distillery tour over a Lemon Balm Negroni (Ross was right, it’s a belter!) this really is must visit for any gin fan.
I’ve been saying for a while now that ‘Gin Tourism’ will be the point of difference that helps brands stand out when the inevitable ‘slow down’ comes. And Warner’s Gin Tours are on point! The level of detail and information is perfectly balanced with humour and sincerity. This is a tour that juniper nerds and casual drinkers alike can join and enjoy.
The tangible levels of enthusiasm runs right from the very top, with the utterly infectious (unfortunate phrasing given the current climate) personality of Tom evident across everyone in the Warner’s team – from Ross & Amy who made us feel so welcome, to Michelle in Customer Services who treated me like a friend on the phone when my planned trip was nearly hit by Corona chaos. There is a clear and shared sense of passion and drive behind what they do.
Oh. And a morning spent drinking some of the finest gin on the market is pretty damn good too!
Falls Farm is an incredible example a ground to glass operation. The phrase ‘craft gin’ gets banded about a lot these days. This is craft gin for sure, in every sense. But I’d go one step further to define it as a ‘graft gin’. Because to have an idea and principle is one thing…to make this kind of business run, to the level of success that Warner’s have achieved, is bloody hard work. And to get to see it all up close and personal is nothing short of an honour and a privilege.
Warner’s perhaps describe it best themselves;
“Saving the world from mediocre gin! It’s dirty hands, hard work, full hearts, and a deep love of the land. Real craft means graft. Real craft keeps you humble.
So, raise a glass with us: to CRAFT, to the LAND, to LAUGHTER and LOVED ONES. In the end, those are the THINGS that MATTER most!”
If you get the opportunity to go and visit Tom and the team in their Harrington home, I would urge you to do it. You’ll have a great time, and it is very much ‘The Gin Shelf Approved’.
With huge thanks to the Warner’s team for my complementary tour and bottle limited edition ‘Apple & Pear’ Gin!
Warner’s offer two types of tour; ‘The Curiosity Tour’ for £25pp, generally running at 10:30am, 13:00pm and 15:30pm for around 1.5hrs, and ‘The Curiosity & Cocktails Tour’ at £40pp. Both tours come with a £5 redeemable voucher for the on site bottle shop. Check the website for fuller details http://www.warnersdistillery.com
Make sure you follow the team across social media to stay on top of all the latest going’s on down on the farm;
And don’t forget to stop by @theginshelf across all social media platforms for more blogs & event updates. Stop by, say ‘Hi’ & chat gin!