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Distinctive taste of unique and special gins

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 14, 2013

  • Jilly and Jonathan Meyer at St Columb-based Elemental Cornish Gin. Right: Tarquin Leadbetter and sister Athene tasting their Southwestern Distillery gin Picture: Emily Whitfield-Wicks

  • Tarquin Leadbetter at Southwestern Distillery, St Ervan, near Wadebridge

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Mention gin in the Westcountry and your thoughts naturally turn to Plymouth, where the spirit has been produced at the Black Friars Distillery for the past 220 years and has protected geographical indication.

But over the Tamar, near Wadebridge, two independent family-run businesses are now distilling gin in Cornwall for the first time in hundreds of years.

For the artisan distiller, it is a complicated and time-consuming process. Both Tarquin Leadbetter, the man behind the Southwestern Distillery, and Jilly Meyer, who has created Elemental Cornish Gin, went through extensive research, trials and tastings before they were satisfied with the results. Although their products vary widely in taste and style, the two businesses share a passion for the quality of their gin and are proud to offer customers an alternative to the generic brands on offer behind many bars.

The Greeks and Romans used juniper berries for all sorts of things: medicinal treatments, athletic vitality, even – with some other ingredients – as a contraceptive. Nowadays, the spicy, aromatic seed cones are best known as the predominant flavour in gin. Tarquin sources his juniper from Kosovo, while Jilly's is from Croatia. An exotic line up of other botanicals from around the world give the gins their distinctive tastes, including orris root, coriander seed and cassia bark.

Artisan gin is created by steeping the botanicals in warm spirit overnight before distilling over the following day. The first and last of the distillate, known as the "head and tails", are discarded until only the "heart" remains. This is then diluted down, with both Jilly and Tarquin choosing to do so with fresh, Cornish spring water – hers from Bodmin and his from Boscastle. What you get is very different from the astringent harshness often associated with spirits; indeed these gins taste quite pleasant sipped neat – let alone with some good quality tonic and a wedge of lime.

In 2011, Tarquin had a good, solid job as an emerging markets analyst in London, yet increasingly felt a calling to "do something more rewarding". Having studied cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu and worked as a cook in France before university, he said: "I've always been enthusiastic and inquisitive about food and drink but until then had never looked at developing it further. I left my job and went to work at a Thai restaurant, where I had the opportunity to get behind the bar and receive wine training. I'd never realised the extent to which most brands are owned by a handful of multinational companies. They have consolidated the market. If you look at beers there is a great regional and local variety available and it is a shame that the same isn't true for spirits. It got me thinking about making something with more integrity."

Having grown up in South Devon while his father worked in Truro, Tarquin also felt it was time to return to his Westcountry roots. Shortly after establishing the distillery in the countryside near the village of St Ervan, his sister Athene was persuaded to join the business and now plays a big part in the operation.

Tarquin's Gin is made in a flame-fired (as opposed to electric or steam heated) copper pot still that he bought from Portugal. During the repetitive bottling process the siblings rope in their parents to help. Luckily the batches are small, around 220 bottles each time, though each bottle features a handwritten tasting note by Tarquin on its own distinctive character. He uses fragrant hand-picked Devon violets from the garden and fresh orange zest to create a gin that is clean and vibrant with a delicious dry finish.

Just down the road near St Columb, the Meyers have also made gin-making a family pastime. Jilly and her husband Jonathan have had a passion for the spirit since trying their first martini 30 years ago and were inspired by the micro-distilleries in London and the USA into creating their own. Jonathan's career has been in high tech electronics – which meant a lot of travelling and time away from the family – so it has transformed their lives.

"We wanted a new challenge together," said Jilly. "Jon wasn't convinced at first but I put together a business plan. Gin making isn't cheap – you have to spend a lot of money before you even have a finished bottle that you're happy with – but I absolutely love it.

"When you're making gin you really are making something unique and special. Generic gins are bland and often smell of chemicals. This is something in a completely different sphere."

The couple and their three children moved to Cornwall 18 months ago after searching out a house in the area with outbuildings and land that could be used for the business. Their daughter Alice has taken over the social media and son Jeremy pitches in all over the place – including taking the dramatic photograph of Treyarnon Bay that features on the gin's label.

Elemental is a full bodied London gin with a long, spicy finish. It was described by tasters at the Craft Distilling Expo as a "contemporary transatlantic" gin – a description Jilly, with her love of the American artisan distilling scene, was delighted with.

But even with this nod to the States, the Meyers were firm about creating something entirely rooted in the Duchy. Jilly said: "We chose the name Elemental because gin production is an ancient process dependent on the alchemical elements of copper and water, both of which are also strong symbols of Cornwall. Our logo incorporates these traditional alchemy symbols, celebrating the heritage of both gin distillation and Cornwall's industrial past."

The first batches of both gins went on sale within a couple of months of each other this year and have both been very well received. Tarquin's Gin won a BBC Good Food Bursary Award and 4.5 out of 5 from the influential Difford's Guide, while Elemental has been placed on the December tasting menu at the prestigious London Gin Club and has just received "Made in Cornwall" status from Trading Standards. With many a household stocking up their liquor cabinets, it is just a case of keeping up with demand.

Visit cornishgin.co.uk and southwesterndistillery.com for more information.

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