From an old Victorian Laundry on the backstreets of Southbourne, Bournemouth, budding entrepreneur and Conker Spirit founder, Rupert Holloway, has become Dorset’s first independent gin distiller.
Beginning the journey only 2 years ago, after losing the love for his career as a chartered surveyor, Rupert had the lightbulb moment of producing a beautifully crafted spirit representative of the Dorset landscape.
Refining the flavours and teaching himself the tools of his trade, Rupert arrived at a product that rivals the best in the industry.
We had a chat with Rupert and found out how he become a distiller, why he decided to open the 1st gin distillery in Dorset, the ethos of Conker Spirit, and how his gin is best served…
ABOUT BEING DISTILLER
Tell us about yourself – who you are, what you do, who works with you etc.
I’m Rupert Holloway and I am the founder of Conker Spirit, Dorset’s first gin distillery. Having been a one-man-band for the first year and a half of Conker, I was very pleased to have my old friend Fred Gamper recently join the team. With just 2 of us in the company, I’m a bit of a jack of all trades; head distiller one moment to chief bottle washer and delivery driver the next. It’s what I love about what I do.
How long have you been a distiller? Did you attend a distilling course or are you self-taught?
I have been distilling since December 2013, shortly after the gin-soaked light bulb landed to launch Dorset’s first gin distillery. I spent 6 months slowly refining the Dorset dry recipe sip by sip, during which time I learnt the craft of distilling through anything I could get my hands on, from books and websites, to distillery tours and masterclasses.
What does a typical week involve?
The great thing about what I do is not knowing what is next around the corner. We work hard to distill, bottle and distribute the Dorset Dry to meet the week’s orders, and while that’s all going on I find myself running G&Ts bars, writing copy (such as this!) and picking gorse flowers for the next batch of gin!
What are some of the things that inspire you in the work you do?
There is an endless need for creativity, whether this is designing the latest press release or working out how we are going to get over the latest seemingly show-stopping problem. When you work for yourself you are in total control and the buck stops at you – I find that very empowering and inspiring.
Can you share your thoughts on the importance of supporting British distillers…
Like every consumable or product on the planet, there are the mass produced, global brands and then there are the small independents trying the strip it back to the basics and do things right. In recent years we have seen a resurgence of the latter in the gin world. This is a great thing for the consumer – a choice that just didn’t exist 3 years ago. But it is very challenging doing what we do and on the scale we do it, so it’s so important that we support all our independent producers.
ABOUT THE DISTILLERY
Tell us about the distillery – location, size etc.
The Conker Spirit distillery is set in the backstreets of Southbourne in Bournemouth, Dorset. The building was an old Victorian laundry and when I looked around it in late 2014 and saw the old round the corner sliding door and crooked Victorian brickwork I thought to myself, ‘wow, this place is destined to be a distillery!’. Tucked behind the houses, this was the perfect setting for Conker. After all, I see gin as an urban spirit and one that shouldn’t be tucked away on some industrial estate or barn in the middle of nowhere.
What inspired you to start up the first gin distillery in Dorset?
The drive to do something for myself was born out of a deep unhappiness in my work at the time. It’s a bit of a cliché but life really is too short to spend your days doing something that makes you miserable. In my hunt for something else to do I stumbled across the fact that you couldn’t buy a local G&T, and yet there are a number of craft brewers in the county. I immediately had vivid visions of a premium quality yet grounded and down to earth brand such as Conker Spirit. I was totally sold and it was an idea I could never have gone back on, no matter how daunting it was!
ABOUT THE DISTILLING PROCESS
Can you walk us through the basic steps of distilling…
In essence the role of the distiller is to select only the purest part of the alcohol, what is called the ‘heart’ of the spirit. During the distillation process the first to come over the still are the more volatile parts of the alcohol known as the ‘head’, this is followed by the ‘heart’ and then the ‘tail’. Being able to expertly select the heart will make the difference between those spirits you are able to relish drinking straight, and those with a volatile harsh alcohol burn that overpowers any delicacy in the botanicals.
What role do botanicals play in the distilling process?
Core to creating a great gin is composing a well-balanced botanical mix in which each botanical plays an important role, without shouting over the rest, spoiling the show. The flavour profile is also very important. It must have a start, a middle and a long lingering finish, taking you on an interesting journey. Not an easy task, especially when you take into account that to be classified as a gin, the predominant flavour needs to be that of juniper berries.
Can you tell us what botanicals you use for you signature batch…
We use a total of ten botanicals in the Dorset Dry. Seven of which could be considered more traditional gin botanicals; juniper berries, coriander seed, angelica root, oris root, cassia bark, Seville orange peel and lime peel. We then have an additional 3 botanicals which are our Dorset inspired flavours; elderberries, marsh samphire and handpicked gorse flowers. These 10 botanicals are carefully balanced to compliment the subtleties of our spirit distilled from New Forest Spring Water and British wheat.
What kind of kit do you use to distill your batches?
We use a 30lt copper alembic pot still to create the Dorset Dry. This type of still has been used for hundreds of years and is capable of distilling spirits to a very high quality. Distilling on such a tiny scale allows for incredible quality control. However, it doesn’t come without its challenges; keeping the flavours consistent across batches and the need for a very hands-on approach, rather than the automated systems of the big gin brands.
ABOUT CONKER SPIRIT GIN
Tell us about the ethos behind Conker Spirit…
To put it simply, Conker Spirit is all about doing the right thing, without the fuss. Just top notch spirits without the gimmicks. When I set out on this journey to launch the Dorset Dry, I was determined to focus on quality without the shortcuts and the air of self-importance that is portrayed by many of the existing spirits out there.
How’s your gin best served?
Because we use lime peel in the botanical mix, when mixed with tonic, Conker Spirit Gin is bright, crisp and refreshing, removing the need for an elaborate garnish to make your G&T interesting. So we would recommend just a strip of lime peel to garnish your Conker & Tonic – and wallah!
Can you recommend a good food pairing to go with Conker Spirit?
Cold meats and Conker Spirit Gin cured fish like salmon gravadlax is an absolute winner. I’m also partial to drinking Conker straight from the freezer with some mighty strong mature cheddar.
Describe some of the ways you sell your gin?
Conker Spirit is sold in lovely independent wine shops, delis and farm shops across the south of England and into London. We also sell online via our website.
What’s next for Conker Spirit?
Our next target is, just to survive Christmas! Because we produce such tiny batches our main challenge is supplying the increasing demand. Our next big news is the launch of our half size 375ml bottle in the next month – what a perfect Christmas present!
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT CONKER SPIRIT