Conker Gin – a ‘community spirit’
Emily Mangles meets Rupert Holloway, the man behind Dorset’s gin distillery
Published in October ’15
In an old laundry behind red Victorian double doors, tucked behind a row of semis, in the suburbs of Bournemouth, something rather exciting is happening. Rupert Holloway, founder of Conker Spirits, stands in a bright, white-washed room where a small copper still is warming on a hot plate. However, this Victorian nostalgia belies the dynamism of the company. While it only started production this year, it already supplies restaurants and bars throughout Dorset, and beyond, from Lyme Regis to Winchester.
Conker Gin is the only gin made and distilled in Dorset. It was this gap in the market which encouraged Rupert to give up his job in chartered surveying, and take up the gin business. He’d tried living in London, but had missed the beaches and pubs of Dorset, and wanted to start a business which would let him stay there. Luckily, inspiration struck him while he was sat in a pub in Dorset: ‘I wondered why you could get a huge range of locally made beers, but all the gin was Bombay’. After returning home, a quick Google search assured him he’d been right, there was no Dorset-made gin on the market. He said ‘I realised, if I didn’t do it then, someone else would and I’d kick myself’. The gap in the market encouraged him to open his own distillery and produce Dorset gin.
He spent hours at his kitchen table developing a recipe. ‘The first few batches were pretty horrid’ he admits, but he made what he liked, and the final recipe includes ten botanicals creating a mixture of traditional gin tastes – such as citrus, juniper and spices – and flavours that represented the unique flavour of Dorset that he wanted literally to distil.
He focused on using local ingredients, and the three signature flavours are samphire, gorse and elderberries. He says the gorse gives it a fresh ‘yellow’ taste, yet surprisingly unfloral. The samphire, once distilled creates an aromatic tea-like scent, quite unlike its raw, salty taste. Elderberries were the last ingredient added to the recipe and they give it a rich rounded finish. These Dorset ingredients are hand-picked from the Dorset coast and then put in the still with New Forest spring water and wheat spirit. It is then barrel matured for a fortnight, before being bottled on site.
Involving the community is a huge part of the company’s ethos. After growing up in Dorset Rupert decided to create himself a job which allowed him to return to the coast. ‘I’m passionate about Dorset; the local food, the beaches, the amazing bars.’ He says he wants Conker to be a ‘community spirit’. He hopes to get local artists to decorate the distillery with murals, and local mixologists are queuing up to hold martini workshops there. A samphire martini is the Dorset take on a dirty martini: the olive and brine is replaced with a sprig of samphire which adds the salty taste, and the cool glass allows the flavours of the gin to take centre stage. Currently negotiating foraging licences, Rupert plans to hold foraging parties next year, where people can spend a day in the Dorset countryside, searching for ingredients.
His enthusiasm to involve the local area has been rewarded; all the gin he’s currently making is going straight to fulfil orders with local companies, although they have had interest from Selfridges. He says his plans for the future are to ‘Conker’ Dorset.
After leaving his job he thought of a lot of whacky business ideas, until he thought of making gin. When he texted his girlfriend to say he wanted to start up a distillery, he got a text back with the single word: ‘conker’. It turned out to be a fortuitous pocket (ie accidentally sent) text.
His girlfriend, a teacher, was in the habit of typing words into her phone to check that she was spelling them correctly, before writing them on the board, and her spellcheck of conker had accidentally sent itself to Rupert. It turned out to be exactly what he was looking for. ‘Everyone has memories of conkers, but it’s not a word we really use anymore (‘conker’ has just been removed from the Oxford Junior English Dictionary, along with newt and acorn) but it evokes ideas of fresh greenery and Dorset holidays, which is what I wanted the gin to convey’. ◗