Couple capture that campfire spirit

FOR many of us, a summer’s day in the garden might sound the ideal setting to enjoy a gin and tonic: clinking ice cubes, a generous slice of lemon or lime, beads of condensation forming on the glass…

Not so Kate and Ben Marston. For these Hertfordshire gin enthusiasts, the perfect place to savour the eager anticipation of that first sparkling sip would be with friends round a roaring campfire.

And what if it wasn’t just a case of pouring your favourite tipple, but actually distilling the whole drink, mixing your own botanicals, coming up with the perfect recipe?

Ben and Kate decided to set up the distillery after buying two books: Difford’s Guide to Gin and Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus. A holiday in Kenya sipping a sundowner cocktail round the fire and swapping tales with fellow travellers helped to cement their plans.

Back home, Ben had worked in a variety of creative design and marketing roles, including working at a brewery, and he saw the perfect opportunity to combine his own interests in exploring and creating too.

What better way for the couple to put their professional skills to good use than by producing an artisan gin of their own, blending unique botanicals to produce the perfect “spirit of the outdoors” that could be enjoyed with friends round that campfire?

Kate recalls: “It was a big step out into the unknown to establish the region’s first small batch gin distillery.”

It was 2014 that the idea started to take shape and the couple toured distilleries around the country to research the process and establish relationships with industry professionals.

As they finalised their distillery name and logo, it was a chance for Kate to put her marketing and graphic design skills to the test in the careful branding that epitomises Puddingstone Distillery and its products.

Puddingstone takes its name from a rare rock formation found in Hertfordshire and historically used in churches to ward off evil spirits, while Campfire gin, with its unique blend of ten botanicals, summed up the spirit of outdoor adventure which Ben was so keen to create.

“After 18 months of premises hunting across the beautiful Chiltern Hills, a chance meeting with a local farm owner who shared our vision of a destination for local food and drink producers took the distillery one step closer to becoming a reality,” Kate recalls.

Gin derives its predominant flavour from juniper berries and the name gin is a shortened form of the older English word genever, related to the French word genièvre and the Dutch jenever. All ultimately derive from juniperus, the Latin for juniper.

Once a medicinal liquor made by monks and alchemists across Europe, gin emerged in England after the introduction of the Dutch and Belgian jenever liquor, which was originally a medicine.

Its popularity exploded in the late 17th century after William of Orange came to the throne, when gin was actively promoted as an alternative to French brandy at a time of political and religious conflict with France. But the resulting “gin craze” of the early 18th century let to a succession of acts of parliament trying to control consumption.

Hogarth depicted a world of poverty and misery in his “drunk for a penny” Gin Lane portrait of 1851, and by the 19th century the gin shops had been replaced by thousands of glittering gin “palaces” where, despite the ornate fittings and gleaming mirrors, customers were expected to down cheap shots and leave pretty quickly, rather than lingering over a drink as they might do in a public house.

Nowadays gin is a much more sophisticated libation produced in different ways from a wide range of herbal ingredients, giving rise to a number of distinct styles and brands. After juniper, gin can be flavoured with a combination of botanical, herbal, spice, floral or fruit flavours.

The hipster tipple of choice, in the 21st century gin shrugged off both its grim “mother’s ruin” image and any stuffy colonial connections. A staggering increase in the emergence of artisan gins saw sales almost doubling between 2016 and 2018, with hundreds of different brands being launched by dozens of new distilleries.

That put Kate and Ben well ahead of the curve. After acquiring their licence to distil and launching a crowdfunding campaign to help finance their venture, the doors to their distillery opened in November 2016, the PE Mead & Sons farm shop at Wilstone Green, Tring, providing the perfect base.

The pair hit the ground running with their first delivery selling out in less than a week and a variety of awards following, their original Campfire creation being praised for its classic dry character: juniper, angelica root and coriander seeds being “elevated with subtle notes of florals, nuts and fruits”.

Situated next to Wilstone Reservoir, just five minutes from Tring, Kate and Ben were determined to create drinks of an “exceptional and inspirational nature, created with a mindfulness of community and environment”.

The success of that mission was reflected in awards, sales growth and the increasing popularity of tours and tastings – prior to the nightmare of lockdown restrictions, of course.

The distillery’s location also allowed it to team up with the neighbouring Hertfordshire and Middlesex Wildlife Trust for a rather special project involving an invasive plant which has proliferated in the area: Himalayan balsam.

Introduced to the UK during the Victorian era and notable for its pink orchid-like petals, Himalayan balsam has done rather too well at taking hold along the banks of local lakes, ponds and streams.

Nowadays wildlife trusts, backed by the support of volunteers, are setting about uprooting the plant to clear space for native species to grow – which seemed a perfect opportunity for Kate and Ben to step in to help, creating a rather special edition gin in the process, with money from the sales being donated to the Wildlife Trust.

So what does the future hold for the Puddingstone pair? Like all businesses, coping with lockdown restrictions has posed plenty of challenges, but while we may need to wait a little for the tours and tastings to restart, we can expect plenty of campfire cocktails and Christmas gift ideas in the meantime.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the local support from everyone who is shopping locally supporting us and other independent retailers. It’s been disappointing to have to postpone tours and events but our fingers are crossed for 2021,” says Kate.

“We’ve plans for a new gin in collaboration with the Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust and will continue to head out and about to markets and events where we are able to and to welcome customers to the distillery shop on Fridays and Saturdays.”

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