And it was just before the moment of impact that my life flashed before my very eyes…
You see, I had never been great at football. While my head tells me that I’m ‘Lionel Messi’, my brain to foot coordination ends up producing a display more befitting of a poor-mans Michael Flatley. Though it’s fair to say that my performance is more of a ‘River Drowning’ than a ‘River Dance’…
Still, with the much delayed and much anticipated European Football Championships currently underway at the time of writing, memories of childhood football pipe dreams have been on my mind as of late. And, for fleeting moments, I find myself asking the ‘what if’ questions of potential sporting career paths that were never truly explored. Could I have been the one scoring the winning goal at Wembley?!
I’m fairly certain that, that was the dream I was enacting when, at age 10, I hoofed a football from the driveway towards the house in a general direction I had been told on several (hundred) occasions I was under no circumstances to aim at.
As impact was made with the newly installed Sky satellite dish, there was a brief moment where I naively considered the scenario where I may have gotten away with it…it would transpire that this was a short lived fantasy, abruptly interrupted by the appearance of my bemused dad at the doorway. My appeals of innocence were sadly contradicted by the ball shaped dent in the little round dish that was looking a little disheveled as it hung from the wall. The irony of the fact that he’d been enjoying a game of football on TV at the time was not lost on me.
I sensed that ‘30 years of hurt’ may well be heading my way. I was certainly ‘Coming Home’…and I’d be staying there for two weeks. Grounded. Wembley would have to wait…
Some 25 years on, and I found myself staring at the ‘Sky’ once again. Though this time round my dad could rest easy! Have long since abandoned ambitions of lifting football related trophies, a rather special brand had ‘flown’ on to my radar, packing enough gold medals and awards to make even Jules Rimet blush! Whilst in one way I was ‘Waving’ goodbye to my own fleet footed ambitions, I was ‘Waving’ hello to a team who’s gins I had been anxious to try for sometime. So join me as I lace up my metaphorical boots one more time, and have a kick about with a winning team. It was time to throw my support behind Sky Wave Gin.
Sky Wave Gin; It’s Coming Home
Meet ‘team captains’ and co-founding husband and wife duo Andrew (Andy) Parsons and Rachel Hicks. I had the absolute pleasure of spending a socially distanced, and virtually facilitated, evening in the company of the pair to hear all about their foray in to gin, which isn’t your average tale. In fact Andy will quite happily admit that this whole new venture came about “almost by accident!”. And as we all know, that’s usually how some of the best stories begin.
Their earlier careers do little to give away any clues that a future in the creation of multi-award winning spirits was on the cards. Andy spent many years in the Army, serving in the Royal Corps of Signals, which even saw him captain the ‘Changing of the Guard’ at Buckingham Palace! While Rachel is a former BBC Radio reporter, journalist and news reader. Indeed, both still run successful businesses in parallel to their Sky Wave alter egos; Rachel formed ‘Rachel Hicks Media’ over 8 years ago to offer media training, with Andy working as a project management consultant specialising in IT & telecoms.
So how the heck do ‘Action Man’ and a showbiz personality (that’s right, I rub shoulders with celebrities these days don’t you know!) turn on their heels and start creating gin? And damned good gin at that I might add. It’s all down to their pursuit of excellence.
Having been life long avid gin drinkers, with a penchant for steering away from the mainstream and seeking out unique flavour profiles, the pair grew tired of their endless search for their ‘perfect gin’ that seemingly didn’t exist.
It was during a visit to a distillery gin school ‘make your own gin’ experience, to celebrate a significant birthday for Andy (the specific age and significance of which the team declined to comment), that all of the chips fell in to place. Andy & Rachel created a gin that quite literally became the talk of the classroom. Andy went on to explain that “not only did our gin impress the Master Distiller for the session…but the rest of the class wanted to drink our gin, rather than their own designs!”.
Beginners luck? Perhaps. But it was enough to plant a seed in the minds of our dynamic duo. On their journey back home to Oxfordshire, they decided that they had seen enough to do something with their resoundingly successful first attempt. And before they’d even set foot through the front door, a 2 litre Still was on order and everything was about to change…
The couples home in Bucknell, a small village just outside Bicester, soon became repurposed as a makeshift distillery. Up until the point that they ran out of room to be able to distill, bottle and label the required volumes in demand, Andy and Rachel worked from a number of converted and adapted rooms around the house to explore all the aspects of branding and production, as well as acquiring all of the necessary licences with which to run the business.
Blue Sky Thinking; botanicals…
When it comes to gin making, Andy has a philosophy; “don’t go in to the creative process armed with a rigid and predetermined list of ideas and botanicals – you have to have an open mind”. It was that logic that had helped initiate Sky Wave, and it’s an ethos he still strives to employ to this day. Indeed, for any distilling contract work that he takes on, Andy is at pains for clients to explain the experience they want to evoke for the drinker, and allow him to work his magic in finding the botanicals to match.
With this in mind, it took around 40 iterations, over 6 months and 300 different tasters to finalise the flagship gin recipe. Sky Wave’s Signature London Dry contains 13 botanicals, some of which remain a well kept secret known only to Rachel and Andy. But the team were willing to confirm that key ingredients include: Juniper (obviously), Pink grapefruit, Coriander, Cardamon, Lemon, Ginger, Orange, Orris Root, Bladderwrack (foraged under license from the Pembrokeshire coastline) and locally foraged Oxfordshire Blackberries.
Locality is a theme that comes up throughout the Sky Wave range, which we’ll come on to more later, opting to use local produce wherever possible. Raspberries, rhubarb, apples and blackberries are all picked locally (or exchanged with growers for gin!), with an integral part of all of the Sky Wave products being the use of Blenheim Palace Natural Mineral water, sourced less than 10 miles from the distillery and emblematic of the brands Oxfordshire roots.
Sky rockets in flight (afternoon delight)
So armed only with their tiny 2 litre Still, named ‘Tilly’ after the family dog (a puppy at the time), this is how they launched. Retrospectively admitting their own naivety in thinking “that would be enough”, for context a 2 litre Still produces 2 bottles of gin with a 2 hour distillation run to contend with each time. The pair would run themselves ragged hammering the Still to produce as many bottles as they could physically fit in to a suitcase (a true story!) before heading off to some major gin festivals around the country to try and spread the word of their burgeoning brand. Whilst impressed punters were none the wiser, the bottle labelling was often done in hotel rooms in the small hours of the morning in true ‘just in time’ fashion.
Eventually Andy and Rachel had to admit defeat to the rising popularity of their own product – victims of their own success if you will. Tilly just wasn’t going to cut it (although she remains a key member of the team as their development Still for new product R&D and bespoke creations). Nope, what the team needed now was a Still that would last them for the long haul…so they brought themselves a 50 litre Still. Rachel puts her hand to her head with a wry smile as she reflects that “we told ourselves that NOW we will never have demand to out strip our production capacity!”. In reality, it was a mere 6 months before they were reaching for the credit card once again as demand began to reach fever pitch.
Sky Wave Gin is now produced in a 200 litre Still called ‘Basca’, named after Andy’s loyal dog and true best friend who travelled the world with him during his military days. They can now produce an impressive 450 – 500 bottles of gin in a single run and could, if needed, kick out between 2k-3.5k bottles per week. Being a bit of a self proclaimed ‘maverick’, Andy played a big part in designing their Still, opting not to adopt the traditional windows and reflux plates and using a single column. But it’s these exacting specifications, and attention to detail, that play a significant part in producing the teams ‘quality over quantity’ spirits. A single shot method is used, and never produced from concentrate. For now, the team seem settled, and comfortable with production – and they insist there are no plans for imminent increases to their capacity. Though judging by the brief pause and accompanying smiles that appear when they say this, I’m not sure they even believe that themselves…
The Sky’s the limit…
Around 13-14 months after embarking on their journey, Sky Wave was named the ‘Worlds Best Contemporary Gin’ at the 2020 World Gin Awards competition, with the London Dry (at time of writing) accounting for 9 of the teams 15 medals won to date.
I often find myself in the camp of wondering whether awards really add value these days. When you look around the market, you will be greeted by a sea of shiny stickers on bottles, many from competitions that you’ve likely not even heard of. Where medals were once a USP and a hallmark of quality, I must admit that I have begun to go a little ‘snow blind’ towards them. But with Sky Wave, something is…different. As the team state themselves amongst some of their marketing strap lines “this many awards can’t be wrong!”.
Andy explains that Sky Wave exclusively enter competitions of the highest calibre that are blind tasted, ensuring that the gin is left naked and to be judged solely on its taste and the quality of the product. It was also an invaluable way of gathering validation for their efforts in the early days, where huge marketing budgets weren’t available.
The certificates pay homage to their hard work. Since starting out, a whole plethora of awards have come flooding in. To their credit, there are actually too many to list! But to name a few, to provide an insight to their achievements that saw them become one of the most medalled English gin distilleries of 2020;
. World’s Best Contemporary Gin, World Gin Awards 2020
. England’s Best Contemporary Gin, World Gin Awards 2020
. Double Master Awards, The Gin Masters 2020
. Double Gold Medal Winner, CWSA 2020
. Gold Medal Winner, WWSA 2020
. Silver and Bronze Medal Winner, LSC 2020
. Bronze Medal Winner, World Gin Awards 2021
. Double Bronze Medal Winner, IWSC 2020
. Finalist, World’s Best Master Distiller, Icons of Gin 2021
. Finalist, World’s Best Craft Distillery, Icons of Gin 2021
And that’s excluding the recently announced results of the IWSC 2021 competition, which has seen the teams ‘Orange and Madagascan Vanilla’ gin scoop a silver medal, as the highest scoring orange gin in the competition, whilst their limited edition cask aged gin brought home the gold!
The fact that they would likely now have to purchase larger bottles to display every sticker speaks volumes…To see even a selection of these incredibly hard fought victories adorned on the teams bottles has sent my opinion full circle; it reads as a hugely impressive accomplishment and colours me more than a little intrigued in the liquids in question.
Sky Wave Gin; Name in the Sky
‘Sky Wave’ was chosen as a name for the brand to inspire adventures.
In speaking with Brand Development Manager, Simon Pettit, he explains that “Sky Wave captures that sense of escape. It also represents all that Andy and Rachel’s experiences have covered – adventures across the globe, climbing mountains, diving in oceans, rallying across deserts, wing-walking on aeroplanes and so on, as well as referencing their respective previous lives”.
The technical meaning behind ‘Sky Wave’, as a long range radio signal, is also a clever callback to Andy’s time in the Royal Corps of Signals, and Rachel’s time with the BBC.
Sky Wave Gin; Waving hello to a new home…
The Sky Wave name, and the sentiment behind it, is also particularly poignant in relation to the brands new home at Bicester Heritage, where they moved their operation to earlier in 2021.
It was formerly RAF Bicester and home to a training site for the Blenheim Bombers during WWII, where agents were sent to be trained as radio operatives. The distillery itself is actually in sight of the Radio Control Tower for the airfield – I mean, you just couldn’t make these kind of coincidences up!
You can see the passion in the eyes of the team, clearly besotted with their stunning new location, as they talk about how the area has been beautifully restored by Bicester Heritage, becoming home to more than 40 businesses and the main UK hub for historic motoring. Try wiping the smiles from their faces – I’ll bet you can’t!
Sky Wave Gin; ‘Spirit’ in the Sky
It’s fair to say that for a relatively young brand, the Sky Wave range is impressively well armed! The range currently includes the London Dry, Liberation London Dry, Navy Strength, Orange & Madagascan Vanilla, Raspberry & Rhubarb, a Spiced Apple Gin Liqueur, as well as a limited edition cask aged expression.
But the strength in depth that the team now find themselves with has grown naturally, rather than it being an aspiration at the outset. Andy and Rachel even admit that some expressions, like the Orange & Madagascan Vanilla, have come about quite by accident by picking up on what consumers tell them at gin festivals that unearths new and innovative ideas to explore. And it’s fair to say that it has been blowing people away.
The Liberation London Dry, as well as paying homage to the 75th anniversary of World War 2, was also specially created to celebrate another significant birthday (this time for Rachel, though the team again declined to comment on the specifics of how significant).
But perhaps most excitingly is the teams cask aged gin. Aged in a very specific Spanish Rioja based vermouth cask, that took 12 months to source, rather than the more common French/Italian options, it is thought to be the first of its kind made to these specifications. And with only 400 bottles ever produced, and remaining supplies now dwindling, I’m already being hit hard by the FOMO! Something tells me that it would make a knockout Negroni…
Sky Wave Gin to taste; Looking to the Sky
In having explored the brands background, the why’s and wherefores, and with expectations set high by the creaking shelves of their enviable trophy cabinet, it was time to pop the corks and find out just what it takes to build a gold standard reputation.
I would be sampling the teams flagship London Dry, to get to lay of the land, followed by its ‘bigger brother’ in the Navy Strength. The ‘Wave’ of anticipation had been built to maximum height, and I was excited to get involved.
Now I make no apologies for the fact that, from a distance, I ‘thought’ I wasn’t a big fan of the aesthetics of the label and bottling design. I can’t really put my finger on why; whether the colour scheme or the font wasn’t to my personal liking?! Either way, I didn’t feel ‘sold’.
However, I’m pleased to say that my first impressions (only ever made from a distance) were unfounded and have done a 180 degree turn.
The blue, turquoise and purples of the London Dry and Navy feel slightly nautical, as a nod to the coastline, whilst also providing a vibrant and fun depiction of a summers skyline. The scroll font labelling, brand emblazoned cork stopper and aforementioned award stickers, provide a feeling of assured quality.
The story and the people behind the brand only serves to make me warm to it even more; the gin begins to become far more than just a liquid. It becomes a drinking experience that makes a connection.
Sky Wave London Dry Gin:
From the off I can tell you immediately…this is a bit of me…
On the nose, I Instantly detect rich, oily juniper. It’s a plump, ripe and pungent pine aroma that carries an almost tangible thickness across the nostrils. It’s a profile that is matched by lashings of citrus. Vibrant and zesty notes of pink grapefruit, and pithy lemon peel drizzle from the rim of the glass. It really is the perfect start for this ‘fan boi of the classics’!
As I investigate further, other points of interest begin to emerge. The inspired use of blackberries and raspberries amongst the botanicals brings a subtle sense of red fruit jamminess to the back notes, elevating my eyebrows as much as the character of the gin.
There is a beautiful vanilla like creaminess to the neat spirit, with no pushy alcohol hit to the vapours. With a slight earthiness to the warming and refined finish, it really is a welcoming liquid.
On the palate it’s much the same story. The mouth feel is rich and indulgent, carrying a continuity of the smooth and creamy texture. The juniper is prominent. Hell, it’s dominant! And exactly how it should be. Citrus, namely oranges and lemons to my taste, come in at a welcome second place to deliver an ultra classic and sophisticated neat spirit.
That said, those blackberries and raspberries deliver a nice element of the unique, just enough to add a special bit of ‘va va voom’ without tipping the balance, with a hint of red forest fruit becoming more evident on the back of the throat as the gin evolves.
The earthiness detected on the nose enters more classically herbaceous territory to taste. Namely coriander, with a delicious kick of cardamom spice.
The finish is elegant yet forceful, carrying far more longevity and weight than the 42% ABV would have you expect. The richness of the botanicals coat the tastebuds, lingering long after each warming sip, with a crack of white pepper spice whispering to you to return to the glass.
Sky Wave Navy Strength:
On the nose, the Navy Strength expression takes the London Dry recipe and notches it up to 11. And plasters a huge Cheshire Cat grin to my chops! Massive juniper, massive citrus, massive enjoyment.
To taste, the neat spirit is uber smooth – even surprisingly so, given it’s navy credentials! It carries just enough of the stinging pleasantries you’d expect, without ever overwhelming the palate or the senses.
The juniper reaches a ridiculous level, with the citrus really coming alive and bursting on the taste buds. Perhaps most notably, the cardamom feels elevated, bringing a beefed up rich spicing.
Everything here is ratcheted up a level, to the point that I feel short of superlatives to provide the complements that this gin deserves. So allow me to leave you with this…
It’s one of the best Navy Strength gins I’ve had the pleasure to drink. Simply put; I love it. I bloody love it. It’s excellent.
As a Gin & Tonic:
As a G&T, the London Dry is absolutely delicious! Absolutely NOTHING is lost within the longer serve – it’s an incredible feat and everything to me that a near perfect gin demands.
Blue and purple tones of juniper hum from the glass, with bright zips of yellow and pink citrus flashing from the lemon and grapefruit. It carries a strength and poise against the mixer that exudes a confidence demanding that it not be lost or play second fiddle. If anything, the citrus is amplified by the addition of tonic, with the sharper red fruits also stepping forwards a notch in the longer serve.
But I can’t help myself but to return to the point at which I started. The juniper. It is ever present on every sip. Deliciously huge and larger than life. Just superb.
But what of the Navy Strength in the G&T serve you ask? Oh my… it is everything that I’ve said above. But amplified. The juniper is crunchier. The zesty citrus is zestier. The warmth of the earthy spice is…earthier? (yes, think that still sounds right). It is nothing short of brilliant.
As a Martini:
As a Martini, stirred down over an iceberg of ice and served with a lemon twist, Sky Wave is full throttle!
I should go on record at this stage as stating that I would happily sip both the London Dry & Navy expressions neat. But given that, that isn’t a serve that is going to please the masses, a Dry Martini is as good as it gets.
I initially opted to use the Navy Strength, and have no regrets. Ok fine, the ABV is big – but it’s forgiven on the mouthfeel.
The juniper alone tells you this is a fantastic martini. Add the citrus in to the mixer and wow. Enjoyed ice cold, it’s bloody fantastic.
Whilst I usually find Navy Strength gins too hard hitting in this classic cocktail (somewhere in between 40-50% ABV is usually the sweet spot) in this case I find the Navy is actually superior to the London dry. Both make fantastic drinks – but I find that the extra navy oophf of the juniper & citrus and power of the gin just lifts it to whole new levels!
As a Negroni;
As a Negroni, I tried each gin side by side for an ‘apples with apples’ comparison (well gin with gin. But you know what I mean). In both variations, Sky Wave creates a warming and delicious take on the short serve classic.
The juniper remains punchy and large, whilst the citrus becomes a little more bitter as it breaks through the bold flavours.
Weirdly, the red fruits take on an odd cherry-like profile against the burnt orange of the bitters. It’s an absolute delight.
Conversely to the Martini, I find that the London dry is superior in the Negroni – the lower ABV reigns the cocktail in to an easier drinker, whilst losing none of the juniper & citrus character.
Sky Wave Gin; A Sky full of stars
This is everything that I love about gin making. It is damn near faultless and appeals to all of my personal preferences; the juniper is larger than life, the citrus is vibrant and there are some unique points of difference that will keep gin enthusiasts entertained for hours. Best of all, the London Dry and Navy Strength expressions that I tried for this review carry an impressive versatility that allows them to work expertly well across all of the classic serves.
Whilst winning a European Championship trophy in the world of sport can never be guaranteed, it is easy to see why so many awards have come flooding in for Sky Wave. And I have a sneaky suspicion that they’re not done yet…
With ambitious plans to widen their national and international reach, there are already some exciting partnerships and collaborations in the pipeline. There’s even a brand new gin for 2022 ready and waiting to go, reflecting a famous Oxfordshire Landmark. Though despite trying on three separate occasions, in slightly different lines of questioning, Andy and Rachel refused to divulge any further details on their newbie at this stage (sorry guys!).
In all of the excitement of looking ahead to the future, the pair also accidentally let slip that they ‘might be’ (so obviously are!) producing for a prestigious outlet in the very near future. Unfortunately, getting any more detail from their grips proved to be an impossible challenge! So I guess, for now at least, it is a case of watching the horizon…
With a continuous eye on opportunities to expand on their distillery, the team have already initiated a ‘Distillery Experience’ (they they refrain from calling it a ‘tour’ based on its current modest size). And undeterred by the constraints of COVID and lockdown, Andy and Rachel have become connoisseurs of running virtual tasting experiences for corporate clients.
And whilst no firm plans are in the pipeline just yet, there was an interested twinkle in Andy’s eye when the topic of ‘No/Lo alcohol spirits’ came up. I would say…watch this space.
Suffice to say; exciting times ahead.
With all of this in mind, if it is indeed ‘coming home’, all I can hope is that this is the gin that’s sat waiting for me to toast victory with. It’s certainly a winner for me.
With huge thanks to Andy Parsons, Rachel Hicks and Simon Pettit of Sky Wave Gin for the samples of their London Dry and Navy Strength expressions, and their time and energy in our catch up! Make sure you keep up to date with their exciting next steps on their website and across social media!
And don’t forget to stop by @theginshelf across all social media platforms for more blogs & event updates. Stop by, say ‘Hi’ & chat gin!