Ever wondered where the word ‘gin’ comes from, why we call it ‘Dutch Courage’ and what sparked the massive gin boom of the late noughties? Well, you’ll know all this and more once you’ve been on the Henley Distillery Gin Experience.
The distillery has been accumulating awards since it began in 2017 when Jacob Wilson headed home with years of distilling experience at gin makers across the country and set up shop as a Master Distiller in his hometown. And now the long-awaited dream to build a gin school has been realised.
Located in a gorgeous timber-framed barn across the courtyard from the distillery, the gin school is a slice of sophistication – all dark teal walls, leather bar stools and copper accents to match in with the famous stills. There was piped jazz, a hubbub of get-to-know-you chat and fabulous cocktails… we could have been in Soho!
Well, Soho-on-Thames – the distillery occupies an old farm yard that’s a bucolic three-mile meander out of Henley. It’s definitely do-able by taxi from Henley or Reading station if you want to go for it on the tasting/testing front.
We all started the experience perched at the arced bar with Jacob as host in the centre, pouring ice breaker cocktails and comfortably holding court on the subject of distilling (he’s an affable host – his first venture, launched the year after leaving school, was a Henley cocktail pop-up called Molotov). Turns out there’s quite a bit to know.
A potted history lesson followed, which alongside anecdotes and amusing dives into etymology, got us off to a pretty good start about the origins of gin and the reason for its rising popularity in the last ten years. History lesson over (why couldn’t school have been more like this?) it was over the yard to the distillery and time for next period – chemistry.
With an artistic father who’s skills extend from carpentry to plumbing, and a culinary mother, who closed her business making exceptional cakes and now creates the syrups that are added to some gins post-distillation, it’s something of a dream team they’ve got here.
It’s certainly a family affair as Jacob introduces his grandfathers, Tony and Mac, now immortalised as his two copper alembic stills (shaped like giant Arabic hookah pipes) and each sat atop a powerful gas burner. Jacob’s grannies, Daisy and Pauline, are still boxed up and await unwrapping and installation in a move that will double production capacity to try to cope with the phenomenal demand on the team’s distilling skills.
Once Jacob has talked briefly through how the gin is made and the decisions he has taken (which almost all forsake cost at the expense of taste and quality), we were all left with a much better idea of what makes a decent gin.
The whole operation is there to see from the piles of packing boxes to the bottling hall, where the labelling and hand-written batch numbers are completed, to the benches where tasting and experiments are done. Anything can spark a new idea for gin, from a newspaper article to a holiday, and indeed it was the former that now means ‘long pepper’, a heritage variety of the spice, now appears in some Henley gins.
It’s back to the gin school for the hands on bit where we each had our own mini still, bottle of bonkersly high proof alcohol (no, readers, I didn’t), and an entire wall of spices, herbs, citrus, floral and fruits to bung in.
It’s all done with a huge amount of thought and it was telling that no-one had any questions about the process owing to Jacob’s thorough approach – it’s clear that the team (family) have put the same meticulous attention into the experience as they have the gin making, so all that was left was to get stuck into some creative mixing.
With a London dry gin as my starting point I then braved a bit of dried clover blossom (it smelled nice) and jasmine (it’s in my fave perfume), some Szechuan pepper, orange blossom, lemon peel and finally tonka bean (because it sounded exotic). That said, with over 100 jars to pick from, this was Hogwarts potion class heaven and when Jacob said to just pick what you liked, The woman next to me took this literally and selected tarragon and coffee. I had my doubts, but ultimately everyone made a clear and drinkable gin.
While the stills bubbled away, making our gins, we were invited to a spiced negroni or rhubarb collins, with mocktails for drivers (and a sample to take home and taste later), though the finest drink of that day had to be tasting our very own gin, before corking our bottles. I have to say, that I think my Muddy Gin 2022 is really rather superb… that’s Christmas sorted.
The damage: The experience costs £100 per person, which I think is superb value for the 3 hour experience with no more than 12 people, which includes drinks and the bespoke bottle to take home.
Muddy verdict: Not every maker can carry off the experience/workshop side of things, but these guys are both artisan and host, with every aspect of the experience thought-through. Despite the hip surroundings, the buildings are still draughty barns, so outside of summer, you need to wrap up. The best bit? If you really do like your concoction, you can order a further bottle or three because the distillery keeps a record of all of the gins made on site. Genius.
Good for: Would work equally well as a gift for someone to go alone (that’s Father’s/Mother’s Day nailed) as a date night or for a group. Because of the fun of the mixing process, it is surprising how as a driver I didn’t feel I missed out. I tasted tiny sips of the gins, drank a really fragrant and delicious mocktail and got plenty of samples to take home as well as an armful of new gin knowledge and, of course, my bespoke bottle.
Not for: This isn’t one for the 20-somethings in your life who’d wince at the cost of rural cab prices and are more into the drinking than the learning. Teetotallers also need not apply because a lot of the fun is in tasting (even in tiny amounts).
Henley Distillery Gin Experience costs £100 and is available on the 1st, 3rd and 4th Saturday of each month, 1-4pm.
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