Categorized | People

From Head-hunter to Gin Master – Living the Dream with his Sacred Gin


Ian Hart was a city headhunter specialising in Quants and risk people – his biggest client was Lehman Brothers.  Business had been dead since July 2007, and Ian Hart had a lot of spare time on his hands.

At first he learnt how to assemble surface mount microelectronic gadgets and designed such inventions as pocket held radar weapons detectors for police.  He was not making much progress in this (microwave electronics is a dark art), so decided to try another approach.

Very old Bordeaux wines had interested Ian since he was introduced to them by his grandfather, a scot from Aberdeen who loved the Margaux appelation.  During many years of  collecting and drinking clarets (Bordeaux reds) he noticed that there was a dramatic difference between wines from the same chateaux, but different years.  As he continued to study the reasons for this, it became apparent that by far the biggest influence was rainfall during harvest time.  Bordeaux growers know this, and often there is a gamble whether to pick slightly unripe grapes, because rain is imminent, or to take the risk and hope that the rain is light, or does not come, thus getting an all important extra few days of ripeness.

As you can imagine, watery years tend to produce unripe tasting wines (picked early) or watery wines (picked when ripe, but after rain has diluted the crop).  The idea, then, was to take some  watery clarets (ripe but too dilute) and remove some of their water, to find the higher quality wine within.  This is not easy to do without heating the wines, and spoiling them…

The solution he used was glass vacuum distillation apparatus, together with liquid nitrogen end stage cooling and a low pressure carbon dioxide atmosphere, provided by a two stage rotary vane vacuum pump, and a beverage quality carbon dioxide cylinder. This setup allows fractional vacuum distillation of these wines.  The aim was to preserve the freshness by achieving distillation at room temperature, and avoiding any oxidation by distilling under low pressure carbon dioxide.  A single water slice was removed halfway through the process, along with 13% of this water slice by volume of alcohol (to preserve alcoholic strength unchanged), and then the fractions were reassembled again.

This process actually worked, creating more powerful (not more alcoholic – richer) wine, in a process that resembled a post bottling application of what many Bordeaux “Garagistes” do to slightly wet grapes prior to fermentation.

It was hard work for the result though, and not commercially viable.  Better in the end simply to pay extra money for a good vintage in the first place!

Ian had always been interested in making a good London Dry Gin, and it was this that became his next project, almost simultaneously with Lehman’s bankruptcy in September 2008.  Now that this was going to be a full time occupation, he assembled many novel Gin formulas after distilling dozens of well known and obscure botanicals in his vacuum distillation apparatus.

After some months of trying – a breakthrough occurred, and his gin drinking/testing audience persuaded him that a new recipe created at the start of 2009 was a unique new gin style.  Luckily he had kept track of all his formulas on a computer, and was soon producing commercial quantities for local bars and pubs in Highgate and Hampstead, North London.

He now has his Sacred Gin available in over 20 outlets, and is adding about 2 or 3 new ones each week, including some high volume outlets in Highgate, Camden, and Central London, as well as the beginnings of a presence in New York, where the competition is very fierce.

One particular point about Sacred Gin relates to its authenticity.  There are many Gins in the market which have been created under contract, with the marketers behind them simply paying a distillery (typically not even based in London) to create a new gin, which they then select on taste grounds, and ask to be made for them.  In contrast, Sacred Gin’s botanicals are actually distilled by Ian Hart himself, in Highgate, in London. (Ian was born in London, and has lived in North London for most of his life).  It is very refreshing to see such a historical product associated with London actually being produced in London again – most dry London gins (with the odd exception) are distilled in Scotland nowadays!

Note from the distiller of Sacred Gin, Ian Hart:

Sacred Gin is a microdistillery gin produced in Highgate, North London just 100 yards from the summit of Highgate Hill, the highest point in London. It uses 12 different botanicals including Juniper, Cardamom, Nutmeg, and Boswellia Sacra (aka Hougary Frankincense) from which the product name is derived. It is the first microdistillery of its kind in the United Kingdom, with triple distilled grain spirit (alcohol) supplied by the Master of the Worshipful Company of Distillers.

“…after a soft, gentle start the palate is hit by a fantastic wham of aromatics.”

“…I really do think it is a very good product and I am delighted to see the seeds of re-birth of authentic London Gin.”

Desmond Payne (Master Distiller of Beefeater Gin)

May12th 2009 at “Distil” at the London International Wine Fair

The low distillation temperature contributes a fresh, creamy and aromatic quality to the finished product, whilst still being recognisable as a Juniper based Gin.

Reduced temperature distillation is achieved by distilling each botanical separately under a vacuum ranging from 1/12th atmosphere to 1/6th atmosphere. There is also a “negative activated carbon effect” from distilling the botanicals separately which can best be explained by considering the distillation of all botanicals together, in which the presence of just one single aroma absorbing element will affect the entire gin. If this hypothetical mix of botanicals were distilled separately, the single aroma absorbing element would be unable to absorb flavors from its neighboring botanicals, and hence the overall flavor of the resultant gin is enhanced. This reduced pressure/reduced temperature also means that the complex 3 dimensional terpenes such as limonene, geraniol, pinene, eucalyptol and terpenoids such as citral, menthol etc do not get the opportunity to stereoisomerise into their more “stewed” versions, which would be recognised as “marmalady” and bitter flavors so prevalent in gins distilled at higher temperatures.

The recipe is  based on a formula from the time of the Dutch Gift of 1660, when Charles II of England was returned to the throne after the English Interregnumthe Restoration. In the mid to late 17th Century, the Dutch spice trade was dominated by the Dutch East India Company and substantial new spice discoveries were documented by the Carmelite missionary Father Mattheus à St.Joseph. This resulted in Dutch dominance of the spice trade for some decades and the famous and significant botanical Encyclopedia, Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, was published in 12 large volumes at this time. Sacred Gin draws its botanical references from this work.

To appreciate Sacred Gin’s unique freshness I recommend that it is tried straight with no ice to start – and thereafter exactly as you like it!

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Thursday, January 18, 7:51 am

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