Silent Pool gin distillery isn't your normal distillery.
Firstly, there's the location.
But more on that later.
Secondly, there's the Master Distiller, Cory Mason. California-born, New York City renegade and now, champion distiller of the Surrey Hills, Cory is quite unlike anyone else we've ever met. The mustachioed mixologist certainly knows his stuff, having learnt the ropes at Herriot-Watt in Scotland, but more than that: he lives, eats and breathes botanicals, experimentation and "thinking outside of the box".
So when we were given the opportunity to go on a 'Gin Hike', led by Cory through the beautiful Surrey countryside, well, we were hardly going to say 'no'.
What followed was a secret 'gin' bush, poisonous berry eating, a drowned woodcutter's daughter and the sounds of a non-existent steam train...
GIN HIKING & FORAGING WITH SILENT POOL DISTILLERS
We started our trek at Newbury Corner, overlooking the rolling hills of the English countryside, on a surprisingly warm afternoon. Perfect gin drinking conditions.
But before the drinking, came the walking. And with the walking, came an education.
This is wild English juniper.
BUT, it's pretty rubbish stuff.
So whilst Silent Pool are keen to locally source many of the botanicals for their gin, the juniper used is in fact Macedonian and Bosnian, and far superior to these shrivelled little berries we spotted on our hike. Pollution, deer grazing and climate mean that these little guys can't even begin to compare with the oil-rich flavours of the juniper berries of Europe.
Ever one to experiment, Cory frequently heads out of the distillery and his 'lab' into the English countryside to find inspiration for new flavours and potential new recipes. Giant juicy sloes, rose hip, lavender, chamomile and blackberries are all pointed out as potential additions for new gins and gin liqueurs that he's currently working on.
There are certain berries however, are a no-go.
These bright red fruits are poisonous to humans, and Cory warns not to touch them.
And then proceeds to eat one...
Turns out, that whilst Yew tree berries are highly toxic, it is only the black seed that is a real cause for concern. Turns out the red fleshy outer part of the berry is edible after all. Phew.
It just doesn't taste very nice...
It is at this point that Cory dives into a bush, wrestling with a few branches, before emerging victorious with a "here's one I hid earlier" triumphant expression. From a back-pack he pulls cups, ice, Fever-Tree Tonic and of course, a bottle of Silent Pool gin.
Not that there are just random Silent Pool stashes hidden in bushes across Surrey.
At least, not that Cory remembers...
As the adventure hits pause, we all enjoy a tipple in the sunshine before heading off into the fauna, descending to the distillery.
Situated deep in the Duke of Northumberland’s Albury Estate in Surrey, the Silent Pool distillery sits on the edge of a medieval pool; the source of the crystal clear water used to distill Silent Pool gin.
Like Scotch production, Silent Pool gin is based on the natural habitat around the distillery, and relies on the natural resources in order to make the spirit. 100,000 litres a day of spring water from the bottom of the downs flows through the pool, and the ice cold water is pumped into the distillery through a UV filter to ensure it is biologically sterile.
Zapped by bright light, it is then held in a holding tank, where a reverse osmosis filter sterilises the water further, so that there’s absolutely no contaminates.
There's also the small matter of the Silent Pool Legend (no, not bearded 'Head Distiller' Simon...) The Silent Pool is linked to a folklore tale that accuses evil King John of abducting a woodcutter's daughter, who was then forced into the deep water and drowned. According to the legend, the maiden can sometimes be seen eerily above the water at midnight... Not that we waited around long enough to confirm or deny either way.
However given that the lake is icy cold, and the eerie silence (where are the birds?) it's quite easy to believe that you're sipping beside a haunted hotspot.
But there's nothing scary about Silent Pool gin. Unless you count the the rather scary sounding four-stage process behind every beautiful bottle.
First up, a portion of the botanicals, including juniper berries, liquorice root, cassia bark, orris, and bergamot are bruised and macerated in a base spirit before being transferred to the copper still. These give depth and mouthfeel, with richer and heavier flavours.
The lighter botanicals such as rose petals, kaffir lime leaves, linden and elderflower are macerated separately in a process that Cory has christened the ‘Gin Tea Infusion’. This adds the oils and aromatic compounds to the distillate, which provide the gin with the ethereal high notes of perfumed lime and floral essence.
The final touches are included in step three, the gin basket infusion, which hangs in the neck of the still. Fresh citrus peel, dried pears, more juniper and angelica, to name but a few, balance the final spirit. Here they are integrated with the other botanicals to create the unique harmony found in Silent Pool Gin.
The distillation process is completed using the rather fancy sounding “multi-chambered fractioning column”. Through a series of plates and cooling pipes, Silent Pool separate the exact flavour needed from each botanical ingredient. Wetter vegetal notes are sent back down into the still and only aromatic notes are kept.
What all this means is that they have to use three times the amount of ingredients compared to the traditional pot distillation method, to ensure the carefully chosen flavours are realised in the finished product. The gin comes off the still at 96% proof, and is then brought down to 43% ABV using the ice cold Silent Pool water.
So we've covered the poisonous berry eating and the woodcutter's daughter, but what of the mysterious toot-toot sounds of a steam-engine locomotive, but not a train in sight?
Well, that would be The Major.
Lit at 7am every morning, the inefficient but sustainable power behind Silent Pool Gin is an old steam boiler, 'The Major'. Resurrected from the Liverpool docks and complete with own whistle to help let off the steam, it's an incredible bit of kit that adds to the middle-
The wood is cut down from the estate and trees replanted, meaning the distillery boasts a neutral carbon cycle and proper craft mechanics. The Major powers the steam jacket of the still, meaning it's possible for Silent Pool to make gin in the event of a National Grid outage (or apocalypse). So no fear, there'll always be gin here.
After all that walking, learning and gin-making, it called for a little sustenance.
Sat beside the pool, the BBQ was lit and as the sun started to drop, Silent Pool gin tasted better than ever...