An Interview with Tarquin of Southwestern Distillery
So Tarquin, you have created Cornwall’s first gin in over a century. What was your original inspiration to undertake such a challenge?
At the age of 19 I trained as a chef in Paris and then went on to work in a number of different kitchens across France. I’ve always had a passion for developing, combining and balancing flavours. But somehow at the age of 23 I found myself behind a desk in the City of London doing a recruitment job that I had absolutely no drive for. I quickly realised my days doing spreadsheets were clearly numbered and that I had to get back to doing something that I had a real drive and motivation towards. I made a very short list of ambitions – firstly, I knew I wanted to set up my own enterprise. And secondly, I knew I had to return to my real creative outlet – working with flavours.
So I developed a few different ideas for food ventures, but for a number of reasons they became untenable. So I had a rethink and at the time the craft gin resurgence was really coming into its own. I became fixated on this world and the incredible creativity and complexity that a spirit like gin offered to distillers. I also have a love for surfing, and being from the west Country myself the thought of moving back to the Cornish Coast to surf in the morning and distil in the afternoon seemed pretty inviting. So that’s exactly what I did – at the age of 24 I opened, along with the help of my sister, the first distillery in the South West for over 100 years, since the inception of Plymouth Gin. I then began to consume every and any piece of information about distilling I could get my hands on and self-taught myself how to make gin. I made batch after batch. Mistake after incremental success. I distilled any botanical I could get my hands on. I knew I wanted to make a gin that celebrated by the incredible surroundings I found myself in – our micro-distillery is perched on a hilltop overlooking the Cornish Cliff tops and Atlantic Ocean beyond – so provenance and flying the Cornish flag were big inspirations.
4 years on and the distillery, our product range, our volume and our ambitions continue to grow pretty rapidly. But still we are true to our initial ethos – super old-school distilling techniques, tiny batch production and everything done by hand. Let’s just say I rarely get to have a morning’s surf anymore.
Similarly to our ethos at Morpheus, your company has a clear aim and vision and has seamlessly translated this vision into a tangible reality. How did you go about this goal?
If the perception is of a seamless transition then we are clearly doing something right with our marketing! Starting any venture is littered with fluctuations and obstacles that could never be foreseen, but I guess this is actually the real enjoyment with any start up – knowing and accepting that some things will never run smoothly, but that it is exactly these challenges that have been the most constructive sources of learning and development.
I think we did have a very clear goal, a vision and a set of incremental objectives that we wanted to achieve. And crucially we stuck to them. We fully believed in our methods and our motivations. We created a product that stayed true to our number one requirement in everything that we do; to be 100% authentic in our process and put flavour first. We’ve then grown our (still tiny) team over the years to include people that also share this vision and passion for craft distilling and developing a brand that speaks true of its message. Then we just work really hard – there’s no surer way to better your chances of success than that.
At our recent event at Ashberg House which you supplied, you served dry gin with grapefruit and thyme to our guests. Evidently this was a fantastic way of further enhancing the taste of the spirit, but what other flavours do you believe best compliment Tarquin’s Gin?
Grapefruit and thyme work particularly well with our gins when served as a G n T. We use a lot of fresh citrus peel (orange, lemon and grapefruit) in the distillation process, resulting in our Tarquin’s Gin (42% abv) being very fresh and citrus heavy. Grapefruit is so crisp and refreshing that it cuts right through the astringency of a G n T. Then we love our drinks on the savoury side, which the thyme delivers on.
In terms of complimentary flavours, I guess it all comes down to personal preference, palettes and moods. Different drinks for different strokes; the time of the day, the weather, the company you keep, the seasons will all play their part. At the distillery we’re very partial to the classics; a negroni, a martini with some rose vermouth and orange blossom bitters, a French (or Cornish 75) with a dash of home-made Cornish elderflower syrup. We wanted to make a classic London Dry Gin, with a contemporary twist that could be used as a beautiful base to get creative with. I think our spirits can be taken in many different directions in the right creative hands.
You recently won Double Gold and World’s Best Gin at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2017 for your Navy Strength Gin “The SeaDog” (57%abv) and previously won Gold at the International Wine & Spirits Competition – IWSC in 2014 for your flagship Tarquin’s Gin (42%). Not to mention also winning Double Gold for your Cornish Pastis (the UK’s first ever commercial Pastis) and in the process beating all other French Pastis in the competition. What does it mean to you to be so highly recognised in the industry?
To be honest, it’s completely overwhelming. We never set up this distillery with the intention or anticipation of winning medals. That was neither the drive nor what we believed to be our marker of success. We simply got a battered old pot still, used some traditional techniques, bottled some juice and hoped the market might like what we were all about. The reaction that we have received over the years has been beyond our wildest expectations. We are completely indebted to everyone that has supported us as we continue to grow, to the industry for embracing and celebrating our somewhat maverick, unconventional approach to distilling and humbled by every little gold medal we’re lucky enough to be able to put on our bottles. There’s so much incredible competition out there and so many fantastic micro-distilleries producing delicious products, that we know we have to continue our hard work and honest approach to remain towards the top of the tree.
At Morpheus we constantly strive to improve our designs and the process through which we reach them. How do you pursue excellence at South West Distillery in the creation of your products?
Hours upon hours, years upon years of very manual, very labour intensive processes. We like to think we are still in the relative early stages of our learning curve. There’s so much more we have our sights set on – all of which will require new development and practice. We believe that if we keep authenticity and a genuine commitment to handcrafted process at the core of all we do then we will hopefully see continued positive growth. Excellence might still be a little way off. We’ll settle for pretty tasty spirits for now.
What is next for South Western Distillery? Is there anything in the pipeline that we should be keeping an eye out for?
We’re always trying to move forward, always trying to innovate, to get creative with ideas for new products and to continue to spread some Cornish Gin love to new markets. We love to collaborate with local industries and see what we can come up with; be it a brewery, a chef, a restaurant, a tea grower, a seaweed forager or the Eden project. It allows us the chance to re-visit that ‘blank canvas’ approach that we began with when we first set up the distillery. We continue to be motivated by the process of sharing ideas, celebrating the diversity and creativity of Cornwall (and the South West) and our love for drinking delicious gin has only got stronger.
As we continue to grow we will be faced with the same wealth of issues and opportunities that all ambitious, independent companies come across – fulfilling a growing demand while remaining true to our initial values and ethos. We can only hope the next 4 years of our story is as fun, fulfilling and challenging as the first.
All images copyright of Southwestern Distilleries.
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