It’s early, the sun is peeking from behind the horizon, gently lighting the sky as it rises. We stand high up, looking out towards Conwy, the temperature barely reaching one degree and the wind whipping up around the exposed hills we stand on.
Chris Marshall from Snowdonia Distillery is stood next to us. He points towards Conwy castle and we follow his hand movement as he sweeps across the valley to the right and says. “Just where the river goes out of sight behind that hill is where the distillery is nestled.” This is just one area of Snowdonia Chris forages botanicals from.
After our early morning wake up, we head back off the hills toward the outskirts of Conwy where the Snowdonia distillery is based. They are housed in a newly converted barn. Inside it, two copper stills stand proud. One is brand new catching the reflections of the room all around, while the other is much more traditional with a mediterranean look to it. Chris informs us, “These stills are built purposefully for our slower distilling process.” The slower process is really important to how they produce gin. He explains “Our key ingredient is time. Our process is much slower than other distilleries, it spans weeks instead of hours.” This length in time gives the macerated botanicals longer to release flavours and the slow distillation allows the all the subtle notes to be captured.
Chris hasn’t always been in the drinks industry, he was an investment manager and before that a professional skier. But it was whilst drinking a local G&T in a bar in Bruges that the idea for Snowdonia distillery was born. He realised there wasn’t a gin from the Snowdonia region, there wasn’t even a distillery. So over the next few years he set about making the distillery a reality, bringing in the best botanists, sensory analysts, master distillers and master coppersmiths. Chris said, “Our aim was to find experts in their field and use their skills to achieve what we had in mind.”
The distillery was founded in Sept. 2015, the first bottle went on sale 2016, a yellow label “foragers gin”. This drink truly celebrates the Snowdonia region, the water for cutting the gin is from the mountains, the juniper is foraged from the side of Snowdon, sea buckthorn is taken from the coastline, the sweetness is created through local apple and elderberry and the lovely finish is created with gorse and heather which line the mountains. Chris said “It is so important that the botanicals for both our gins are all foraged from the Snowdonia region.”
In order to sustainably continue to use local juniper Chris has now acquired land near the distillery to grow his own, cuttings have been taken from the wild juniper on the side of Snowdon and they will be planted in the spring. He explained, “I don’t believe in creating a product that just tastes amazing if it can’t be done over the longer term, our product is directly related to the environment so we have to start thinking about how we look after our surroundings.”
Chris set out from the start to create something that was hand crafted, not automated in any way, so it would always remain fairly small. He said, “We had a romantic idea of a distillery without forklift trucks, without bottling lines or automated equipment and everything would be done properly by hand.” In front of us is the latest batch of Yellow label bottles, all sat up in neat rows, each batch produced is 100 strong, small enough to retain a good consistency and not too big that they have to bring in machines. The distillery currently markets two gins, a ‘yellow label’ at 43.9% and a mountain strength ‘black label’ at 46%. The ‘black label’ is one of only three gins in the world that uses two botanicals, juniper and sea buckthorn and after a quick taste it has to be one of the smoothest gins we’ve ever tasted.
In a busy drinks market it is hard to stand out, but while other brands were shouting and showing off, Chris and the team were focussed on producing the best gin they could. 57 formulations later they found a taste they were happy with, a taste that has now won awards and one that is totally unique to their region. This gin has care and attention running through every part of it, from the hand foraged botanicals to the human distilling and finishing process’. It is this focus on locality and quality that makes Snowdonia Distillery so exciting and the recent international award also shows that you don’t have to be a big name to compete on the worlds stage.