Tarquin’s Southwestern Distillery

I saw his face drop, to punctuate an awkward silence, as soon as the words had passed my lips. It was a look that signaled both annoyance and despair, a difficult balance to strike but in this case masterfully executed. But you know what stung the most…the genuine sense of disappointment. Ouch!

So what had I said to meet such a frosty reception? We had been on a family holiday to the Lake District, and were ambling through the quaint cobbled streets admiring the ferocity of the sideways rain that was making a mockery of our waterproof attire.

In a moment respite from the weather, sheltered in the doorway of a charity shop, an 11 year old ‘me’ had taken the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity for a random line of inquisition. I looked up at my dad and asked ‘how far away from the Lake District is Cornwall? They’re pretty close aren’t they?’.

A simple ‘no son’ would have sufficed. Though I seem to remember a slightly longer response, which was capped off with a disparaging remark on the quality of my high schools standard of Geography teaching. Now, I’m not sure how many high school Geography lessons my dad has taken in, in recent years. But in my personal experience, far more attention was paid to mountain ranges, cloud formations and agricultural processes around the globe than studying the A-Z road map of the UK. Come to think of it, ask me anything about volcanos, irrigation or tectonic plates; I’m your man! Just don’t ask me for directions…

So fast forward some 20+ years, and I find myself holidaying in Cornwall, with a young family of my own. A kind of ‘righting of a wrong’ in some ways I guess. And as with many of my holidays these days, gin wasn’t going to be far from the agenda. I was going to be paying a visit to the local hero’s of the South West; I was heading to Tarquin’s South Western Distillery.

Tarquin’s – Life’s a beach

Tarquin’s are one of those teams who I consider to be rockstars of the industry and have been behind some of my very favourite gins. Smashing it out of the park with both their stunning core range and mind bending array of limited edition collaborations (can I get an ‘Amen’ for the Tan Ha Mor & Treth Ha Mog #Ginvent collabs produced with Gin Foundry over the last two years?!) this is a brand who use innovation to push the boundaries of what the category can be. I mean, I may as well have posters up on my walls of these guys! (way to play it cool Matt…).

So I’m going to level with you. In knowing the opportunity for a visit could be on the cards during my trip, I had actually been speaking to the team at Tarquin’s to get myself booked in for a tour before we’d even found our accommodation for the week! As I’m sure you can appreciate, it’s important to have your priorities in order… And having secured a private tour, I moved at pace to book our stay in the seaside town of Falmouth, for maximum efficiency and ease of travel on the day. There was just one problem. Tarquin’s Distillery isn’t in Falmouth. I got it completely wrong. It’s in Wadebridge. Some 50 minutes drive away. Yes – Geography had let me down once again!

Tarquin’s; the journey

With my own cross county journey completed, arriving at the Wadebridge based distillery – just a stones throw from the beautiful town of Padstow – it was time to learn a little more about the journey Tarquin’s has taken over the last 8 or so years.

I was heartily welcomed by the beaming team of Marc Ramage (Head of UK Sales), Sophie Warren (Visitors Centre Co-ordinator) and Lauren Blunsdon (Marketing Executive), who between them boasted all of the effortlessly cool ‘surfboard chic’ that you’d be hoping for from the Tarquin’s brand. And I was greeted with the sentence that will never cease to bring a smile to my face at 10am on a Wednesday…or any other day for that matter…”could we get you a G&T?”. I’d love one.

Drink in hand, we moved in to the first stop of the tour; a modest sized room that in a former life had acted as some kind of shelter for livestock. It’s at this stage that I should point a few things out…

Despite the reputation of the name, the volume of the range and scale at which the brand operates, Tarquin’s Distillery is not the ‘glitz and glamour’ HQ that you may have been expecting. On arrival, you’re not going to find large marble walls, fancy signage or trappings of grandeur. You could perhaps even be forgiven for not realising that there’s a gin distillery on site at all. Case and point? I drove past it on first approach, claiming that the Sat Nav must be wrong! (and that’s rich coming from me, questioning the directions of high tech technology).

But, as Sophie explains, this has been a purposeful decision. Despite the fact that Tarquin’s are made up of a team of 45 and now serve gin to 50 countries around the globe, the settings remain humble and true to the roots of the brands origins. The visitors centre, distillery and offices span three units across a working farm, occupied by a number of other neighbouring enterprises. And the room in which we found ourselves kicking off the tour is where the story began.

Sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

In 2012, a self taught 24 year gin distiller, Tarquin Leadbetter, moved in to the one room premises (now Visitors Centre) to set up the first distillery in the South West in 100 years. But that’s jumping the gun a little, and doesn’t do justice to what this guy had accomplished up to this stage already…

Having grown up in Cornwall, a young Tarquin moved to Paris to study at the renowned culinary and hospitality school ‘Le Cordon Bleu’, with ambitions of becoming a chef. Ooo la la.

Opting to leave the chef whites in the kitchen, though presumably having acquired a skill set to knock up a mean ‘Le Beans avec Toast’, Tarquin headed back to England and studied economics in Bristol, before taking a job in a London bank. And it was during his time in London that the appeal of a career in booze gathered momentum. Having taken a job in a London bar, Leadbetter developed a passion for spirits, their versatility, make up and profiles. And when the Gin Act was repealed in 2008 (courtesy of the team at Sipsmith), changing the laws on small scale gin distilling in the UK, the timing couldn’t have been better.

The young entrepreneur was eager to see if he could return to his Cornish homestead to set up a distillery of his very own, hoping to surf during the day and make gin at night – which is exactly what he did in the early days!

Taking the skill sets and passion for flavours that he had developed through culinary school, a love for Cornish botanicals and an enjoyment for drinking good quality spirits (I mean, who doesn’t?!) Leadbetter set about learning the ropes of distilling on a 0.75 litre Still.

His interest lay in understanding how to extract maximum flavour and quality from each botanical, opting to create and bank individual distillates, which still sit proudly on display with their respective handwritten date labels providing an audit trail of the exploration. Mastering how to combine these flavours proved a difficult feat, and one which resulted in Tarquin almost quitting on at least four occasions! But on 31st July 2013 he had a product that was ready to go…

Rather than casting a net far and wide across the county, Leadbetter opted to put his newly created gin in to one pub, ‘The Gurnards Head’, located on the cliff edge at the very end of Cornwall, with the next stop being ‘Newfoundland’. (Note to Reader: whilst I’ve not had the opportunity to go myself, I’m told it’s a must visit, with spectacular views!). The verdict? They loved it! Within days, our intrepid hero was inundated with requests from bars and restaurants across Cornwall.

Photo Credit: The Gurnards Head

From this point, things really started to pick up pace! It became clear, VERY QUICKLY, that the volume of orders landing was going to require more than one pair of hands. In then stepped the family unit, with Tarquin’s mom, dad and sister entering the fray for the first 12 months of operation. His sister, a Chartered Accountant, took responsibility for managing the books – a role that she still holds today! Tarquin lovingly refers to her as being the brains of the business to balance his creativity! Meanwhile his mom hand wrote every single bottle label (and seemingly claimed the award for ‘neatest handwriting in the world’), while his father became the designated delivery driver. I’m told that to this day, you can still spot him filling up his boot with boxes of gin (but he is definitely no longer the delivery driver!).

So was it all worth it you ask?

Well in 2014, approximately 2 years after dipping his toe in to the gin scene, Tarquin Leadbetter entered two of his spirits in to the San Francisco Spirits Awards to see how they would measure up against the competition. Both his London Dry gin and his Pastis, the only one of its kind made in the UK and inspired by his time spent in France, walked away with double gold medals. This also made him the youngest ever recipient of the award. So not a bad start hey?!

I know what you’re thinking. Probably a fluke right? Or beginners luck? WRONG. 2016 saw the two spirits repeat their gold winning accolades. And In 2017 Tarquin went one better; the 57% ABV Navy Strength ‘The Seadog’ gin won double gold at the same competition and was also awarded the title of ‘Worlds Best Gin’. And let me tell you, that it one hell of an accolade.

Getting inside Tarquin’s Gin; Botanicals

With my thirst for knowledge suitably quenched, it was time to move the focus of the tour over to the tasting station. But before we got to the liquid itself, it was first time to understand the botanicals that go in to the gin. Cue Lauren to take us under the bonnet to understand just what it takes to make Tarquin’s so special…

Tarquin’s London Dry is made up of 12 core botanicals; cinnamon, fresh orange, grapefruit peel, lemon peel, green cardamom, coriander seed, bitter almond, violets, angelica root, liquorice root, orris root and (of course) juniper.

Now in some cases, the story would stop there. A nice array of ingredients that work well together to make a nice gin. But Lauren explains that there’s a little more to it than that with Tarquin’s…

Leadbetter wasn’t interested in making a base spirit; for that a neutral base is brought in, ensuring a consistent level of quality. This then acts as the blank canvas on which he paints, where each botanical has a purpose and a personal connection behind it. Take for example the violets. In the early days of experimenting, and for the first 12 months of production, Tarquin used violet petals from his Aunts garden to provide a floral character (though the scale of operation now dictates needing a new source so as not to decimate her garden!). The liquorice root has been used to deliver an elevated level of sweetness to the spirit, without the need for synthetics. Indeed, if you try the grounded powder it has a completely different flavour profile than you’d be expecting; a warmer sweet spice, rather than a dark earthy root. Though fair warning, once this stuff is on your palate, the next sip of G&T will taste super sweet! And once you’ve sampled it, you can’t fail to pick it out of the crowd, particularly in the ‘Seadog’ expression. But more than that – it’s also an ingredient that reminds him of chewing on liquorice root as a child.

Only the fresh peels of the citrus fruits are used in the gin, based Tarquin’s experiments with distillates, to give him the exact flavour profile he was looking for. And it’s enhanced through the use of the coriander seed, which provides a zippy lemon like tang when tried in raw form. Even the orris root (from the Iris flower), not known for bringing flavour to the party, is used with poise to glue together the more subtle notes from the cinnamon. Fun fact; 90% of the worlds supply of iris is taken by Chanel for their perfume – luckily they’ve left enough for the rest of use to drink!

For the vast majority of the Tarquin’s range, the Dry Gin is used as the base to work from. And when so much labour and love has gone in to its make up, that’s a pretty solid base to be working from. Like I said, flavour is a passion here. And it emanates from every single drop of gin.

Where the magic happens; Distilling Tarquin’s Gin

Having seen the botanicals beautifully laid out in their raw form, it was time to get in to the thick of the action and see the distillery at work.

A short walk across the yard to a larger unit, an ex-barn, and Sophie puts me under strict instructions that there is no photography allowed inside the distillery itself. At this stage I toyed with the idea of making some bold claims, impossible to substantiate owing to the lack of pictorial evidence. Something along the lines of ‘I couldn’t believe that Elvis Presley, very much alive and well, was manning the Still!’. But I won’t go there – I’m fairly sure you wouldn’t believe me anyway, with your ‘Suspicious Minds’. (I am so sorry).

But as it turns out, I was to be greeted by someone of a similar celebrity status within the gin sphere; Tarquin’s Operations Manager and Distiller, Nik Fordham.

Photo Credit: Gin Foundry; Nik Fordham

For those of you who think you don’t know Nik, you’re probably far more familiar with him than you think! His career in gin and spirits is massively impressive, though anything from straightforward! Having studied Biochemistry and Bioengineering, Nik started his working life with organisations like ‘Johnson & Johnson’, before branching out in to building houses in Bristol (as you do). But Nik explains to me how distilling ‘found him’ (rather than the other way round), taking a role as Distillery Manager at Beef Eater, where he worked alongside the legendary Desmond Payne MBE. Not a bad way to hone your trade then!

And it would seem that the industry agreed! Not only did Nik go on to get a diploma in distilling, but he also achieved the Worshipful Company of Distillers scholarship award for excellence in 2011.

With a stint at Plymouth Gin also tucked under his belt, his time spent at Bombay Distillery is perhaps his most famous work, where he held the title of Master Distiller. It was here that Fordham commissioned the Still responsible for the creation of the ‘Star of Bombay’ London Dry gin. He also had a huge hand in all of the environmental aspects at Bombay Sapphire, a calling that is still hugely important to him in all elements of the distilling process today.

After a gruelling slog of 60-70 hour weeks, it was time for a lifestyle change. And whilst setting up his own distillery had an appeal, it wasn’t a viable option. But following a walk around the ‘Imbibe’ trade show, he met a team from Cornwall who stood out from the crowd based on their “balance, depth and flavour”. A direct phone call to Tarquin to ask whether he could come on board to be part of helping the young company grow was all that it took (with that CV are you surprised?!). And in September 2017 Nik joined the team to manage Tarquin’s production team.

Since then Tarquin’s has grown. A LOT. At the time of my visit, Fordham tells me that 16,000 bottles had been shipped the previous week. Around 50,000 bottles of gin was the expected volume for the month. Online sales have also been 50% up during the COVID-19 lockdown period. Wow.

When Leadbetter started out, he was following traditional distilling methods in making his gin in a hand beaten copper pot still, sealed with bread dough, creating 500 bottles at a time over a naked flame. You can still find ‘Tamara’ (the original Still) in the visitors centre – and having been used to create a quarter of a million bottles of gin, there’s a good chance you’ve been served by her at some stage!

And refreshingly, this ‘old school’ method of distilling is still very much in operation at Tarquin’s, though now across a larger number of Stills. However, the volume of gin required to meet the sheer demand dictated that new methods and processes were needed. One of Fordham’s key roles has been the commissioning of a new Italian 500 litre automated Still, where a ‘mass flow meter’ can be used to configure and store the make up on the gin being distilled. The really tricky bit? Translating the character and flavour profile of the original distilling method in to the shiny new world, without affecting the quality and consistency that the consumers have come to know and love. There is a whole different botanical makeup required between the two! It’s a feat that has been expertly achieved, though required a painstaking 3 month period of running the Still every other day.

But don’t get me wrong. Growth has done nothing to change the ethos of Tarquin’s or their desire for quality and consistency that you can trust. But how do they achieve that at such scale? Through an engrained ethos that I hear Nik say at least 10 times during my time with him; “touch it, taste it, feel it”. Whilst the mechanics and automation will give an indication of how far through the distilling process a batch is, key decisions on when to cut the heads & tails, to leave only the ‘hearts’ of the gin that go in to the bottle, are made through look, smell and taste at strict half hour intervals through each distillation. An impressive skill set to see in action!

I think one of the things I love the most is that when a Tarquin’s bottle tells you that it is ‘handcrafted’ in Cornwall, that is exactly what it means, with utter transparency. EVERYTHING is handcrafted and distilled in Cornwall. The gin is bottled at the distillery. It’s hand labelled at the distillery. The labels still don hand written batch and profile details (though Tarquin’s mom has since been allowed to retire the pen!).

Each bottle is also still wax sealed and stamped by hand, with the iconic wax drip work running down the bottle neck to represent the ocean (with the exception of the very neatly finish Navy Strength edition, opting for a different look to dodge probable lawsuits from a certain whiskey company who have a similar aesthetic red drip aesthetic).

And how is this hand waxing carried out? Via a collection of slow cookers, each containing almost magical looking pools of brightly coloured wax, ready for a sure handed dip. Whichever way you look at it, it’s better than using (and ruining) his moms best pasta pans, as he did in the original wax sealing experiment! You can still see the after effects sat proudly on display…

Sure, there are probably more efficient ways of carrying all of these processes out – but that’s not the point. It’s a personal touch and finish that represents the care and attention to detail that is engrained in to the brand and has continued from the nights that Tarquin crafted away on his own in the early days.

But the quality assurance of Tarquin’s gin starts well before the bottling process. Or even the distilling. In fact, it starts with the raw materials; it’s about getting things right upfront, to make the end product right first time. Each botanical is hand selected, based on their flavours and profiles. Whilst there are chemical tests that can help determine an ingredients suitability, it’s about ‘getting in amongst it’. Yep, you’ve got it, that old adage of ‘touch it, taste it, feel it’ again. All key decisions, through every stage of the process, are reviewed and agreed by a panel, which includes Tarquin himself, Nik and former St. Austel Brewer (now Tarquin’s Gin Distiller) Kim Buckenauer. A bit like the ‘X Factor’…but with booze.

Tarquin’s is also a gin with a conscience, with a big focus on supporting the environment. The ethos behind the brand is to “leave nothing behind but footprints in the sand”. And by that, they mean that nothing goes to land fill, whether that’s through recycling (with a particular focus on reducing cardboard), or turning waste in to bio gas. There’s even a focus on where ingredients, like the uk based neutral spirit, are sourced from to keep the carbon footprint to a minimum. It’s heartwarming to hear.

As I bid a fond farewell to Nik & the team to embark on the final leg of the tour, I’m left with a fitting closing statement that summarises the character and credentials of both the gin and the team who make it;

“Say what you do, and do what you say”. Perfect.

Tarquin’s Gin; you’ve got good taste

I find myself stood a gasp in front on what can only be described as, as a ‘wall of gin’.

From floor to ceiling, the colourful array of the Tarquin’s range assaults the senses in the best possible way. Even as someone who thought they knew the brand well, I’m bowled over by the amount of variations that the team have produced over the years – particularly in managing to retain their intimate and approachable vibe.

After a sommelier style overview, I’m helped to pick 5 gins to sample that would best suit my palate. It’s a difficult selection process! I mean, could you pick your favourite child if pushed?…of course you could. On to the tasting…

The Seadog Navy Strength:

Making a strong start, literally, I’d headed straight for the Navy Strength. Initially created as a limited run of 771 bottles, to mark the disbanding of the ‘771 Naval Air Squadron’, the Seadog expression is a firm favourite of myself and many others in the gin circle. And with its aforementioned ‘Worlds Best Gin’ title, it’s no wonder that it had to become part of the core range.

Here the team have raised the liquorice root, with a key emphasis on kicking you in the teeth with amped up juniper, citrus and a warming spice.

Whilst I sampled the gin with an Aromatic tonic and a garnish of orange and rosemary, making for a delicious longer serve to compliment the natural warmth of the gin, for me ‘The Seadog’ BELONGS in a Negroni! Those tall pine notes of the juniper work to devastatingly delicious effect in the short serve classic.

The ‘Holborn‘:

Created exclusively for the renowned London based restaurant, the ‘Holborn Dining Room’, Tarquin’s have gone full throttle by doubling up on both the juniper & coriander, providing a bolder sense of pine and a zingy citrus warmth. The addition of Cornish rock samphire brings a subtle coastal saltiness to proceedings, adding a beach based point of difference.

To my palate, this gin sits somewhere between the flagship London Dry and the Seadog Navy, best served as a G&T with a light tonic. It was great to be able to taste the Holborn exclusive, which is only available to buy at the restaurant or from the Tarquin’s Padstow shop.

The ‘Hopster‘:

Next up on the tasting rack was the ‘Hopster’, made in collaboration with Sharp’s brewery and created using three types of beer hops used in Doombar ale; Pilot, Cascade and Crystal.

I’ve been a fan of hops being incorporated in to gin making for sometime, and this is perhaps one of the best examples of it that I’ve had the pleasure of trying. Whilst there’s a boozy, tequila-esq, hit on the nose, it is exceptionally smooth to drink, with an incredibly big citrus hit across the taste buds.

Whilst happily devoured by many of the Tarquin’s team as a neat sipper, an apple slice in a light or Mediterranean tonic makes for a longer serve to savour.

The Eden Project Limited Editions:

The final two gins would not have usually been on my radar, based on my more classic preferences for juniper or citrus forward gins, but in learning that they were collaborations with the Eden Project I was extremely excited to have the opportunity to learn more… with polar opposite characters to each gin, the flavours have been designed to represent each of the Eden Projects bio-spheres.

Eden Project Mediterranean Gin:

Built on the core 12 botanical foundation of the flagship, the Mediterranean edition sees the addition of rosemary, thyme and sage, to create a big herbal hitter.

Whilst herbaceous gins aren’t always my ‘go to’ style, the balance of this gin is something to behold. There’s a vibrancy and freshness to the flavour that feels almost as fresh as the moment the botanicals were foraged. For anyone who tried and enjoyed the fennel forward edition created for Rick Stein…you’re going to love this.

Eden Project Rainforest Gin:

Fruit forward gins aren’t usually my bag. But the Rainforest edition is an absolute winner, and blew my mind. Introducing fresh pineapple juice and peppercorns in to the mix, this is a super fruity and invigorating direction, that just oozes ‘fun’. You’ll find nothing artificial or synthetic here. Just a flavoured gin that it’s an absolute pleasure to drink.

The perfect serve of Mediterranean tonic with fresh red chilli will leave you wanting more.

Tarquin’s Gin; Wax on, wax off…

After working my way through a good wedge of gin samples, it was time to end the experience by playing with a vat of hot wax and have a go at waxing my very own bottle of gin! What could possibly go wrong?…

I instantly became very nervous and lacked confidence in my ability to hold a bottle (a skill that I’ve been honing for a good few years now)! Whilst the act of accidentally fully submerging the entire bottle would certainly make for a unique souvenir, it wasn’t the look I was going for!

After an expert demonstration from a Lauren, I was up to bat.

And despite the pressure of the moment, I was pretty pleased with my first attempt! Quite how the team do this to perfection on a bottle by bottle basis is pretty mind boggling.

But if they ever need an, albeit slow, extra pair of hands they know where to find me!

Surf’s up; Yeghes Da…

With farewells said, and ‘air high fives’ exchanged (given the Covid precautions) I made my way home. But you just try wiping that smile from my face!

On the way back from the visit I turned to my wife, after spotting a road sign, and asked the question, ‘Penryn? I thought that was in the Lake District?’.

‘I think you mean Penrith Matt…’.

It was an ironic faux pas that wasn’t lost on me, as I quietly sank a little in my seat. But then I smiled as I looked at my Tarquin’s gift bag, thinking back to that drenched 11 year old that raised an innocently idiotic question all those years ago and imagined the eye roll that my latest navigational masterpiece would have evoked.

A map reader I am not. But if I can continue to find my way to such incredible teams of passionate gin making pioneers?…well, that’ll do me just fine. I’ll drink to that.

Yeghes Da! (that’s ‘cheers’ to you and me)

Contact us

With huge thanks to Marc, Sophie, Lauren and Nik for organising my complementary personal tour of Tarquin’s Distillery, for their time on the day and for my gifted bottle of Tarquin’s gin!

If you’d like to visit the distillery for yourself, head to the Tarquin’s website and check out the available tours at your disposal; http://www.tarquinsgin.com

And if you’re in Padstow and fancy grabbing yourself a slice of the Tarquin’s action then why not head to the teams brand new shop (7 weeks old at the time of my visit)!

There you can pick yourself up a bottle of some of the more exclusive offerings, alongside your firm favourites, sample the wider range and also take part in the newly launched gin school – check the website for booking details.

Be sure to stay on top of all of the latest Tarquin’s news over on the teams social media channels, searching for @tarquinsgin

And don’t forget to stop by @theginshelf across all social media platforms for more blogs & event updates. Stop by, say ‘Hi’ & chat gin!

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