If you can’t make it to a distillery right now, why not let the distillery come to you? A few weeks ago, MoM participated in a virtual gin tasting and tour hosted by Warner’s Distillery co-founders Tom and Tina Warner on their picturesque Northamptonshire farm. Expect cows, bees, and plenty of gin…
“Seven years, seven months and 18 days ago, we launched one of the first craft distilleries in the world,” says a triumphant Tom Warner, half-yelling into a microphone disguised as a trowel. He and his wife Tina are in the middle of a field on Falls Farm, besieged by cows. “We’re the old guys now – we’ve kind of built the blueprint for what craft is, and we’ve done a lot of firsts for the categories.”
“Our dream at that point in time was to save the world from mediocre gin,” Tina beams. The cows have been joined by dogs; all are roving in and out of shot. “But now it’s so much more than that, guys. We like to think that we unite and inspire through farm-grown flavour and the wonder of nature. And it’s all about celebrating the natural ingredients, hard graft and just epic passion that go into every bottle of gin that we make.”
It’s a fun introduction to the idyllic countryside farm, which is located in Harrington, a village in the middle of Northamptonshire. The site encompasses six acres of botanical gardens, a 200-year-old stone barn-turned-stillhouse, and, as we’ll find out later, millions of bees. But first, it’s time for a G&T – “the perfect serve of our firstborn, Harrington Dry,” says Tina – made from one of five miniature bottlings we’ve been sent as part of the pre-tour preparations, along with Fever-Tree mixers and a Get Growing Kit comprising wildflower and lemon balm seeds.
“It’s a beautiful gin,” Tom says as he talks us through the serve, which combines Harrington Dry Gin with Indian tonic water and a slice of orange. “It was a different world when we launched the distillery in 2010. I grew up on the farm, went to agricultural college, worked in coffee buying in East Africa, and then imported fruit from all around the world. In 2009, I decided to look at farm diversification and come back to the family farm.”
Two of the farm’s fields are scheduled monuments, having been identified as a former monastic fish pond, and the terraced gardens of a mediaeval manor house. Much like a listed building, there’s very little the Warner family could do with the space. Initially, they were going to buy a perfume still and create essential oils using botanicals grown at the farm but quickly realised distilling would be a far more exciting – though admittedly challenging – proposition. At the time, “it was an industry dominated by global giants,” Tom reflects. “We’re talking about multi-billion-pound international organisations with all the marketing power and sales teams and expertise in the world. But all the brands they owned were absolutely soulless and value-engineered to death. The industry was “wide open for independent producers to come in and put a focus on quality rather than quantity; on passion, on ingredients, on experimentation.”
We press on, over the gate and through to a courtyard that houses the ancient stone barn. A former tack room, garden shed, and animal ‘hospital’ – “if any of the animals got a cold out in the hills, my dad would put them in here to get better,” says Tom – the barn is now home to bespoke copper stills Curiosity and Satisfaction and also functions as a bar for guests to enjoy a post-tour tipple.
Inside we meet master distiller Lois Gaultier, who proceeds to make a fresh batch of Warner’s Lemon Balm Gin live on camera, right before our eyes. The lemon balm is sourced fresh from the botanical gardens nearby, and harvested and distilled within the hour, along with botanicals lemon verbena, lemon thyme, juniper, coriander seed, lemon peel, angelica root, liquorice, bee pollen, pink peppercorn, grapefruit, cinnamon and lavender.
For certain flavoured gins in the range, once the team has distilled its chosen botanicals according to the London Dry style, the liquid is reduced from still strength using a technique dubbed ‘the Harrington Process’. “Instead of water, we use fruit juice,” says Gaultier. “For our Rhubarb Gin, our Raspberry Gin, they are cut down with rhubarb juice and raspberry juice. We add a little bit of sugar to balance with the acidity of the juice.”
Of any given gin bottling in the Warner’s range, 99 per cent of the ingredients are from the UK and the remaining one per cent are imported out of necessity, Tina explains. Of the British-grown botanicals, an impressive 25 per cent are hand-picked from one of the farm’s three botanical gardens. “Environmental sustainability is at the heart of everything we do,” she continues, directing viewers to beds of rose, lavender, chamomile, strawberries, lemon balm, lemon verbena, and more in Botanical Garden Two. “We try to be as self-sufficient as possible, and we’re working on that as we go.”
After a guided tasting of the Lemon Balm Gin, we’re transmitted around one kilometre across the farm to Botanical Garden Three, where Tom walks us through a wealth of botanicals – huge sticks of rhubarb, raspberries, blackberries, dandelion, blackcurrant sage, angelica, and lemon thyme, until we reach the elderflower orchard, which is to be the backdrop of the Elderflower Gin tasting. It’s pretty special stuff. Distilled just once a year, there are 300 flowers in each bottle, and all are harvested and distilled within a four-hour period. “At the moment we get all of our elderflower from the hedgerows on the farm,” Tom explains. “We’re growing a special cultivar that has dinner plate-sized heads. This year they’re establishing themselves and we should hopefully start to get harvests from them next summer.”
Our next virtual pit stop is at the apiary, where we meet conservation and sustainability manager Jonny Easter, who is also the beekeeper at the farm. Every bottle of Warner’s Honeybee Gin – our next tasting sample – contains honey collected from the beehives at Falls Farm, as well as from other local beekeepers, equivalent to five percent of the bottle. “In terms of bee effort, that’s a bee flight from here at the farm to Quebec in Canada,” he says. Honey is one of 28 total botanicals used in the recipe, which includes hibiscus, rose petal, blue cornflower, orange peel, fresh lime, fresh ginger, fresh quince, coriander seed and many more.
“Our Honeybee Gin really is a celebration of pollinators because 95 percent of the gin botanicals that we use and grow at the farm are pollinated by bees, with the exception being things like juniper, which is wind-pollinated,” says Jonny. “In each hive, you’ll have up to 60,000 bees and they’re all working away as a very refined unit to control the temperature, humidity, the amount of food that’s coming in, the health of the bees, the laying condition of the queen… It’s really quite complex. Bees in a colony will take different roles when they’re born. They start as nurse bees, and then as they get older, they will go out and forage.”
One of the biggest causes of bee decline is a lack of forage, which means food supply. The UK has lost 95 per cent of its flower-rich meadows in the last 100 years, Jonny says. In response, the team has cultivated more than five acres of wildflower meadows at the farm and encourages guests to plant their own (remember those wildflower seeds we were gifted at the beginning?). They also support ongoing conservation initiatives, with bottle sales going towards the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species, the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme, and more.
“Hopefully you start to see the feedback loop we’re creating on the farm, which is the relationship between us, the farm, the botanicals that go into our gins, the plants we’re growing that create flavour and biodiversity, which enables lots of pollinators,” says Tom, broadcasting from the distillery’s plant nursery. “It’s not just the insects that we’re creating an area for, but it’s also everything that feeds on those insects, everything that feeds on the things that feed on the insects. It’s a fantastic feedback loop.”
As we continue our virtual foray around the farm – to the distillery, to revisit the Lemon Balm Gin as it runs off the still; to the Tack Room Bar, glittering with Warner’s bottles, to learn about the label – you can’t help but marvel at the homegrown nature of the entire operation. “We like to say that when we’re making gin, we are cooking you dinner every single day,” says Tom. “It’s like inviting you around to our house for a dinner party, that’s how much care and effort and love goes into every single bottle of gin that we produce.”
The tour draws to a close in Botanical Garden One with a tasting of Rhubarb Gin, which was a ‘world’s first’ in 2013. It was launched as a limited edition bottling made with Queen Victoria’s rhubarb grown on a crown estate, but today Warner’s “no longer use the royal crop, because we need too much,” says Tom. One tonne of rhubarb makes 700 litres of rhubarb juice, which is used to cut the new make to bottle strength.
“No synthetics, no fragrance, no jiggery-pokery, no nasty stuff,” he continues. “All of our gins – and there are very few people in the world that can say this, especially in the flavoured gin sphere – are 100 percent natural. We use real organic material to make everything that we do. It’s a lot bloody harder to do. But it gives you a unique flavour profile that cannot be replicated in a lab.” And let’s face it – it makes for a way better distillery tour, too.