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Meet The Maker: The River Test Distillery

June 11, 2020 by Jonathan Paxley

In these testing times, World Gin Day (taking place this Saturday 13th June) could not have come soon enough.

Our nation loves gin after all, and the number of new gin brands that come to the market annually, is frankly astonishing. Making the grade is tough though and it takes something special to establish and build a credible drinks brand that cuts through with the consumer.

The team at The River Test Distillery have been quietly crafting a sublime gin in rural Hampshire. So sublime in fact, that they were awarded one of the highest accolades at The World Gin Awards – Best London Dry Gin in England.

We are lucky enough to have spoken to Sarah and Jonathan Nelson this week about how they launched the brand, tips for budding distillers, and what it means to win such a brilliant accolade.

Can you tell us a little bit about The River Test Distillery and the team behind it?

Our distillery launched in August 2019 and it was 2 ½ year-long journey before we were finally up and running. The distillery is situated in a beautiful part of Hampshire, on the River Test, which is internationally renowned for its fly-fishing and ‘gin-clear waters’.

We are fortunate to live in such an idyllic location and this helped spark the passion to create a product we could be proud of.

We are a husband and wife team, which brings inevitable tensions, but our roles have naturally evolved and mostly we think we complement each other very well.

Jonathan does the distilling and I do everything else!

What made you guys take the plunge and start distilling?

Jonathan had worked for 5 years as a Headteacher and felt he had achieved many of his ambitions in education, and so was thinking about what the next 25 years might bring.

From my perspective, there was a strong desire to get back to work after raising our four daughters, having also had a career in education.

We were at a bit of a crossroads or more simply put, we were in the beginning of a mid-life crisis!

We didn’t jump in blind though and knew that there would be huge challenges if we were to start a distillery. For many years we had watched the growth in local artisan produce and we admired those that had taken the plunge.

In launching a distilling business from scratch, it meant we had creative control over all aspects of the business and, of course, we could make and taste a lot of gin, which was a big plus!

What sets the gin apart in such a saturated market?

Once we had taken the plunge to go for it, it was terrifying watching gin after gin launch, with ever more invention, and we decided that one aspect we couldn’t ignore was the bottle.

So we worked hard with some brilliant designers to create a bespoke bottle that did our brand story justice. We were very aware of the importance of grabbing the customer’s attention and having shelf-presence.

‘The customer buys with their eyes’ was at the forefront of our minds the whole time. This inevitably delayed us, and in that time, it seemed that new gin brands were distilling with even more wonderful botanicals as they too looked to differentiate themselves.

Our feeling though was that some of the explosion in gin was being driven by the high quality of the mixers, and we felt that we wanted to create a gin that complemented the tonic but was not overpowered by it.

It probably sounds counter-intuitive, but the ambition was to simply create a gin that went beautifully with the tonic; to make a simple but great G&T.

There are two further elements that possibly help set us apart though. One is the pure chalk-filtered water that we take from the aquifer that feeds the River and the second distinctive element is the Meadowsweet flower that we pick at the end of July and use as a key botanical.

The bottle, purity of our water and the beautifully delicate flavour of the Meadowsweet seems to be a winning combination.

We believe both elements combine to help give the gin a distinctive and refreshing taste with an exceptional smoothness.

The River Test Distillery London Dry Gin won “Best English London Dry” at the World Gin Awards – an incredible achievement. Tell us about that?

The original plan was to enter the Awards for our bottle design, so I was a bit grumpy with Sarah for entering us into the Taste category as well!

To be honest, I was really pleased with the feedback we had been getting when people were tasting our gin. But having just launched, I felt if we came away without a medal my bubble would burst!

I didn’t want the knockback to be frank. When news of the Award came through from Sarah, I was at work and I couldn’t make head nor tail of what she was texting me.

I hadn’t even allowed myself to contemplate us winning any medal, of any colour, and I didn’t even know there was a ‘Best’ category. It was (and still is) very hard to process the magnitude of the win, but it does feel really great!

Now the gin has been recognised on the world stage what are your plans for the brand over next few years?

The first ambition is for as many people as possible to taste the gin. With the “Best in England” accolade, we would like to grow a loyal customer base beyond Hampshire.

We love seeing and reading people’s positive reactions and we now have repeat buyers who seem evangelical in sharing how much they enjoy our gin. This has been hugely rewarding and surpassed our early hopes and short-term ambitions.

Naturally, over the next few years, we would love to invest further to expand the brand and grow the business.

How has the industry welcomed you as a new brand?

We have loved every aspect of being involved in the distilling industry and enjoyed many parts of running our own business. The industry is full of warm and generous personalities and this has made the journey hugely enjoyable.

Where we have needed help, people have offered it, and this has been a real eye-opener. We both largely enjoyed our careers in education, but on balance we are enjoying this second career more than our first.

What advice could you give to a new brand that would help them achieve the same success as The River Test Distillery?

If they are completely new to business and distilling like we were, we would advise them to take their time. There is so much to learn that it can be overwhelming trying to do too much too soon.

This can be daunting when others seem to be enjoying success, but we wanted to grow the business organically. The contacts and relationships we have formed to date are some of the most enjoyable aspects of our journey.

Our advice would be to keep asking lots of questions, to seek out help and expertise where you don’t have it, and learn as much as you can from others.

Finally, we would recommend developing your palate.

Try lots of different gins, and what better excuse to start exploring than World Gin Day!

Buy a bottle of The River Test Distillery London Dry Gin.


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