Sometimes it’s fun to imagine how novel ideas must have been met when they first came out. The introduction of coffee strikes me as one- so we roast these beans, then grind them, then add hot water- yeah right. This can’t have been an easy sell.
I think there might have been a similar reaction to Ian Hart’s decision to pursue vacuum distillation at the core of his production at the Sacred Distillery near Archway in London. So while others are concerning themselves with angles of swan necks and bashing copper stills into form, Sacred is far more interested in getting chiller temperature right and pulling a strongly sealed vacuum to get the product that they want to see.
The difference between the two distillation techniques can be described very broadly as conventional distilling using heat to drive off vapour before condensing this into a liquid whereas in vacuum distillation the lowering of pressure pulls off vapour into the vacuum that is then condensed back into liquid.
It’s a really obvious first question but the compelling one for me – why pursue such a production method?
“I was involved in the finance industry when the crash happened around 2007. On leaving that industry I looked around for something else. I had a go at teaching myself how to create circuit boards but after seeing that maybe wasn’t for me I started to experiment with vacuum distilling some of my Bordeaux wines. I was amazed at some of the results I could achieve and that got me looking at this really seriously. I was able to take off bouquet, alcohol and other flavour complexes but leave behind water giving a really intense product- sort of the difference between beef broth and marmite. From there I started experimenting with botanicals and gin and when the landlord of my local tried it he loved it, from there I realised I had something commercial on my hands.”
So using this unusual production technique Ian has been able to grow his spirits business organically to around 50,000 bottles per year. In the initial days some deliveries were being made by hand to customers via the tube. These days there is export to around 17 countries and the first pallet of product has just gone off to Thailand. The Thailand connection was the result of a conversation on holiday- who says entrepreneurs can ever really switch off!
He has recently moved to larger premises at the Star pub and that has certainly taken some of the pressure off his home. It was not uncommon to have product stored 6 ft high on both sides of his hallway.
What is clear, however, is the passion Ian has for flavour. The base spirit for his gin comes from a specific grain and he understands both what this base is and why he believes it gives him the best starting point for his gins. Ian is keen to understand how flavour works and how different flavours interact. He does use some conventional distillation, on products such as his Christmas Pudding gin, but in the main his vacuum stills are used to pick up the fragrant notes in products such as his pink grapefruit or cardamon gins.
Looking to the future Ian is very clear about where he wants to sell and how his vision for the business can be delivered. While he remains concerned that HMRC can be overactive where smaller producers are concerned versus the risk that they pose he does acknowledge that in setting up his bonded premise they forced him to look and consider his business plan in more detail. However his concentration on the wine merchant and specialist shops he sees as the way forward for Sacred.
At the same time the business is taking on more staff with 2 apprentice distillers due to join the company in the next few weeks. To show how they are constantly innovating they have launched in the last few days a whisky liquor and their own finish of English whisky in delightful packaging.
With the energy on drive on show and a slightly left field way of working I’m pretty sure Sacred will continue to grown it’s presence in the super-premium area of spirits.