Douglas Blyde gets to know Chilgrove gin with founder Christopher Beaumont-Hutchings
Christopher Beaumont-Hutchings and I sip violet-tinged Aviation sours alongside positively fatty Scottish oysters at the Rib Room’s bar. The sturdy looking, brass and dark wood build of this old-school drinkers’ haven at the five-star Jumeirah Carlton Tower seems appropriately grand given there is cause for celebration.
Just five months after “World Gin Day” (June 14), when Beaumont-Hutchings officially launched grape-based gin, “Chilgrove” with very recent wife, Celia, he agreed terms for export to Quebec. The predominantly Francophone population has developed a mighty thirst for gin, where it accounts for no fewer than 10% of all spirits sales (imports of English gin account for over CA$ 36 million). The covenant was realised with the assistance of Red Johnson, ambassador of British craft products at his firm, “The British Bottle Company”, and son of wine writer and tree luminary, Hugh Johnson OBE.
A geologist by training, but until recently, financier by trade, Beaumont-Hutchings ably weathered professional economic uncertainties in the UK before heading for a new post in Australia where he became the youngest ever associate director at a merchant bank.
He shares two highs of his four years in the Antipodes. Firstly, Beaumont-Hutchings realised his aspiration to compete in the 630-mile Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, combating a brace of storms in his modest (41 footer) plastic craft. “We were hit by two southerly ‘busters’, which are unique to that part of the world,” he recalls. “The clouds looked like a nuclear storm!”
And secondly, he met wife-to-be, Celia Beaumont-Hutchings, a medical doctor. Although she originated from The Hague, it transpired the pair had – unawares – actually enrolled at Bristol University at the same time. Beaumont-Hutchings describes the latter stages of courtship. “After I moved back to the UK I would fly back to see her, racking-up more miles from here to moon…”
Turning to gin
Finally, with the pair ensconced in the UK, they began to hatch plans for a new gin. “After one too many G&T’s, sitting in the beer garden of the ‘White Horse’, Chilgrove’s only pub – indeed, only anything – we thought, why not make our own gin?” However, although the pair shared an attraction for eachother, and love for gin their preferences for style and serves varied. “I like my martini stirred, while Celia prefers hers, shaken.”
Two years of intensive research followed the fateful afternoon. “As our starting point we tried as many gins as possible, often clinking back through customs with samples,” says Beaumont-Hutchings. Undaunted by the substantial range of competitors, and benefitting from the advice offered by the “Institute of Brewing & Distilling,” Beaumont-Hutchings worked on a USP.
Experimenting with “test tubes and Bunsen burners”, they eventually decided that the best results occurred using neutral grape spirit as the gin’s base. This is actually at the heart of the distilling tradition, he says. “Climatically, northern European viticulture was knocked out in the sixteenth century, seeing a move to cereal and grain.”
The product – Britain’s only grape-based gin – is produced from Tempranillo, Airén and Bobal grapes sown in La Mancha – the largest single vine-growing area in the world. It is then re-distilled in England by eighth-generation Master Distiller, Charles Maxwell using spring water filtered through the South Down’s chalk strata. It features 11 botanicals including: signature juniper and sweet orange “for warmth”, says Beaumont-Hutchings, bitter orange “for length”, “clean lime”, liquorice “to stop it being over dry,” and wild water mint “for savouriness.”
Maxwell appraises the results as: “a big, powerful, complex gin.”
Although harnessing grape rather than grain increases his costs by “three-to-four times”, Beaumont-Hutchings is determined to hold Chilgrove at an “accessible” price – “ideally below £30, retail.”
As I help evaporate the last floral sips of my complex Aviation, I ask, with ever greater interest building in the gin, what might be next in Chilgrove’s story. “Terroir-driven tonic water,” reveals Beaumont-Hutchings, “made using the same South Downs water.” It seems, despite a spell in finance, that the geologist in Beaumont-Hutchings is still very much alive and well, a discipline which is helping him identify and convey the flavours of geography.