A passion for perfection.
Being an expert in air combat for the MOD might not sound in any way relevant to setting up a craft gin business, but Kate Gregory – co-founder of Dorking based Gin Kitchen – tells us she has put her engineering prowess to good use and has now got her gunsights set on reaching new heights.
It was just five years ago when Kate experienced what might have seemed to some like an Icarus impulse while on the way to Paris for a meeting, and called her best friend Helen to assert: “We’re going to start a distillery – from now on we’re going to make gin!”
In fact the pair were quite broadminded in their kitchen based experiments and also conjured up an absinthe during the early days; which indirectly helped them make their first big breakthrough in terms of distribution.
Kate explains: “We’d had a party where we’d invited a load of friends to try our gin and to suggest names for what eventually launched at Fortnum & Mason as Dancing Dragontail; but I’d also been talking to the butcher on Dorking high street and he’d challenged me to come up with a gin that would complement their jerked chicken – so I decided to give that a go also.
“The butcher’s recipe included ingredients such as coriander, ginger and Madagascan black pepper while I also threw in a strip of lime zest along with thyme and the juniper. Passing that around our friends they said it tasted like Christmas – so at two o’clock in the morning we were sitting round on the kitchen floor agonising that we still hadn’t come up with a name for the summer (Dancing Dragontail) gin and decided to make the winter gin we called Gutsy Monkey: and if it all went horribly wrong we’d pretend it never happened and start again with the original recipe.
“So coming up to Christmas 2016 we’d been trading for a whole two weeks – primarily selling to local pubs and shops – when Helen and I wandered into Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, fortified by a few shots of our absinthe, and asked where we could find the store’s spirit buyer. He was nearby opening some boxes, so we walked up and asked if he’d like to try the Gutsy Monkey which I produced from my handbag.”
They were duly ushered down to the cellars where, having sampled the 48% tipple, the buyer said it was really good – and would they like to be the store’s Spirit of the Month the following month? Unfortunately the deal required the partners to supply 90 bottles, where at that stage their previous biggest order had been a dozen, and they could only produce new batches on alternate weekends.
Despite having to decline the debut, Kate also invited him to try Dancing Dragontail – still without an identity – which he also liked and it was agreed for that to be the featured spirit in May 2017: meaning the launch would take place in what is arguably London’s poshest grocer.
As well as settling on a name, the founders had to decide on such issues as packaging and presentation: which led them to a trade exhibition where hundreds of different shape and colour of glass bottle were considered and dismissed. Then on the way out they spotted a manufacturer of porcelain bottles which, aside from the attractive appearance, appealed due to the lower energy involved in the production process and the fact that eventually the porcelain will decompose back to clay.
“Starting an artisan ultra-premium gin brand in the Surrey hills is like pushing on an open door.”
Another environmental saving was generated through their own know-how as Kate recounts: “Our first 40 litre production still was a little handmade Portuguese copper pot still, purchased when we got our licence, which we still use for the Ginger Cat gin. However, in 2018-2019 we wanted to scale up and created a 380 litre still.
“My background is in aeronautical engineering and basically designing a still isn’t vastly different from designing a rocket motor or jet engine. I therefore looked at the vapour flow characteristics inside those big elaborate copper stills and developed a more efficient and controllable way of obtaining silky smooth spirit.”
Impressively, along with the thermal efficiency of Bindy Bubblepop and the discipline of sourcing as many goods and ingredients from local suppliers, one infers sustainability has been baked into Gin Kitchen’s DNA. Meanwhile many customers return to the distillery with their beautifully decorated porcelain bottles for a refill.
The set up for the business, located in heritage buildings at Punchbowl Lane in Dorking, has lots to offer with a restaurant and facilities for gin-making experiences as well as corporate events. And although there are expansion plans, there is no danger of Gin Kitchen losing site of the founders’ original goals.
“Our market position is a top end, luxury brand and we have no intention of trying to expand downwards; we’ll never install automated production lines, and intend to maintain the passion for perfection; which is why we recruit people with passion rather than necessarily having any experience in distilling. The plan therefore is to expand geographically, and certainly export more.”
As a fan of the upper benchmark 57% spirit which the Royal Navy famously allowed aboard warships because it could not prevent gunpowder from being ignited, I inquired whether the business might add one of the wardroom staples to the range. The response was decidedly left field: vividly bringing back memories of my father talking about re-enlisting as an aviator in the RAF a couple of years after WW2, to discover his lumbering Hawker Typhoon had morphed into a supersonic Sabre.
Kate in fact revealed that the pair harbour ambitions to produce an 80% gin which many drinkers would probably classify as ‘rocket fuel’. One surprising aspect of this high octane aspiration is that Gin Kitchen would not be able to dispatch consignments to customers abroad using air freight, as such a dizzying ABV is considered too volatile to be safely carried. Still, there’s always the slow-boat to China.