There are some food memories so surprising, so unexpected, they are hard to shake. One of mine was in the fall of 2012. I’d managed to find my first “proper” job in journalism working at a British politics magazine. One afternoon I found myself hurrying up to Highgate to collect a few cases of gin for a work party that evening. Expecting the address to lead to a pub or shop, I was puzzled to arrive outside a lovely Victorian row home.
Greeted by Ian, the founder of Sacred Gin, which he runs with his wife Hilary Whitney, I soon discovered the pair had converted their home into a micro-distillery. A sculptural mess of glass stills and rubber tubing filled what had once been the living room. Jumbo-sized bags of juniper and coriander were strewn about. It felt like stumbling upon Willy Wonka’s secret booze factory but, with just half an hour to head across town, I had little time to linger.
But the image stuck – and years later, I came back to find out more. Meeting Ian again in 2016, I discovered a methodical, energetic man with a serious geek-streak that’s led him to collect and experiment with alcohol for years. It turned out Ian had evacuated the financial world (he once worked on Wall Street) and began making his own gin using a unique vacuum distillation process, which, thanks to a lower boiling point, helps hold a deliciously fresh taste. Near the end of our talk I learned operations were outgrowing the house, and sure enough Sacred Gin now have a second distillery above a nearby pub. But whatever becomes of this magical place, it’s an origin (gin!) story that won’t be forgotten.
"The best part of distilling at home? It’s a very short commute"
I’ve been interested in distilling, well, ever since I was about 11. Although back then I distilled things like nitrogen oxides or chlorine oxides – unusual gases, rather than gin! It’s a very satisfying process, turning muddy liquids into crystal clear distillates – and if you can make something that tastes good, that’s even better.
Sacred Gin is a unique vacuum distilled gin that has been made in a residential house. However, Sacred as a business is now so much more than that. We produce nine gins, plus one for the Tate and one for the Churchill Hotel; two vodkas, three vermouths, rosehip cup, which we like to call the English interpretation of Campari – it’s fruitier and less bitter – and a bottle aged negroni.
Back in the late 1980s, my natural sciences degree was originally leading me in the direction of a career in medicine, but being on a hospital ward didn’t suit me. I found myself running a cellular telephone company in my spare time, just as the industry exploded. We were selling 25% of all cell phones in London in 1989. But when the recession of 1990 took hold, a number of my larger trade customers went bust and, as a result, so did my company. So I went to California to study business at UC Berkeley, after which I worked on Wall Street. Eventually I returned to London and became a headhunter for the financial sector.
However, as we all know, from the end of 2006 the global banking system steadily became a vast train wreck. No one was hiring and I quickly had to find another way to make a living. I have always been interested in distillation, and, as I have a large collection of Bordeaux wine, it occurred to me to use vacuum distillation equipment to remove water from some of less successful vintages to create a richer wine.
Technically it was a very successful exercise, but it was also very time consuming and at the end of the day, it was someone else’s product. However I really enjoyed the distilling process and, as I’ve always appreciated a good gin and tonic, I thought I’d try my hand at creating my own gin – something a little bit different. And as a Londoner, I also liked the idea of producing what is traditionally a London product actually in London.
"It’s a very satisfying process, turning muddy liquids crystal clear – and if you can make It taste good, even better"
I was the first person to create a commercially available gin using vacuum distillation. Vacuum distillation means that air is sucked out of the glassware with a vacuum pump which reduces the pressure, so that distillation occurs at a much lower temperature (95-105°F) than pot distillation (180-200°F). Because the temperature is dramatically lower, the distillates are lusher and fresher – think of the marmalade flavour of cooked oranges versus fresh cut oranges. Our recipe, which is a closely guarded secret, is also unique as is one of our distillates, Frankincense Boswellia sacra (otherwise known as Hougary Frankincense – hence the name, Sacred Gin) which is supplied by the Sultan of Oman.
"As a Londoner, I liked the idea of producing A Traditional Product actually in london"
Gin is certainly having a bit of a revival. I think the last I heard there are now over 2,000 gins on the market. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, like anything, drinks go in and out of fashion – we tend to eschew what our parents drank, and it’s currently gin’s time in the sun. Secondly, I think consumers are just becoming much more interested in what they are drinking and its provenance, and there are so many interesting gins to try out there. There are more and more consumers who will go into a bar and ask for their favourite gin rather than just accept the house pour, or will ask the bartender to suggest something new.
What’s the best part of distilling at home? It’s a very short commute. The distillery itself, was, for a while, quite well contained. It was only times like the run-up to Christmas when things could get tricky, and we have had to use extra rooms for temporary storage – sometimes piling bedrooms 7ft high with stock, gift boxes, outer cartons, bubble wrap etc. Once, about a week before Christmas, we got back from a tasting in Selfridges in Manchester on a Sunday evening with 120 online orders to fill and our local post office almost refused to take our sacks (25 of them).
I wouldn’t say I come from a particularly foodie family, but I’m a very keen cook and do all the cooking in our household. My first food memory is making cheese straws at primary school and taking them home in a brown paper bag. I’m particularly interested in the quirks of different cuisines. For example, there is a certain branch of Indian cooking where they do not use any garlic or onion at all, they just use asafoetida – that sort of thing fascinates me.
Personally, my favorite gin-based drink would be a Sacred martini, served by Alessandro Palazzi at Dukes Bar in Mayfair, London. And my recommendation for a cocktail made with Sacred Gin? A pink grapefruit gimlet – half an ounce agave syrup, an ounce of fresh squeezed lime juice and two ounces pink. Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.