Kate Marston, co-founder of Puddingstone Distillery, on creating unique gins, award wins and the inspiration of a rare Hertfordshire rock formation
So, have you and your husband Ben [Puddingstone Distillery co-founder] always been gin lovers?
Yes, absolutely. A classic London Dry gin and tonic has always been our favourite alcoholic beverage. Having been lucky enough to travel to some amazing locations like the Masai Mara, we’ve enjoyed our best G&Ts sitting round the campfire or on special occasions like our wedding. We didn’t actually realise it was so out of fashion before it massively boomed!
What initially inspired you to establish the region’s first small batch gin distillery?
I’ve been a graphic designer for 26 years and have run my own business for 16 of those. Ben trained as a furniture designer and has since worked in design and marketing roles. His last role prior to setting up Puddingstone Distillery was as brewer and marketing for a local brewery. Separately we were both working and collaborating with other businesses in food production and local tourism. We wanted to take a new direction in our careers and realised that the region didn’t have a distillery. The gin boom was really only just taking off in the larger cities and we felt it would be a great addition to Tring and Hertfordshire.
Before launching, where did your research journey take you?
We did a lot of research into whether we should set up our own distillery and make the gin ourselves or whether we should have it contract distilled. It’s obviously much easier to have someone else make the product, but to us it was extremely important that we took ownership of the whole process – we therefore had to learn how to distill, how to navigate all the HRMC paperwork and find a suitable location and home for our distillery. We wanted the distillery to be a place for people to visit for tours and tastings as well as a production space for distilling. To our delight we found a suitable home on the P E Mead & Sons Farm Shop site, which is only 10 minutes from where we live.
During our three years of research and development both Ben and I sat the International Brewers and Distillers exam – going back in the classroom was a great shock to the system when we hadn’t taken exams for many years. Happily we passed!
What would you say was the most important part of that period?
Choosing the name Campfire Gin for our main brand came pretty quickly during our research stage. We wanted our gin to be a lifestyle brand, we wanted people to enjoy the outdoors and sitting round the campfire. It creates such rich conversations and friendships when good food and drink bring people together. Our initial research revealed most gins were promoted in the bar environment and not as something to enjoy at home in the garden or on a simple camping holiday. We wanted to stand out as something different.
During our research stage we also came up with the name Puddingstone Distillery. We wanted the distillery to have a different name to the gin brand, but it still needed to tie in with the outdoors and have a sense of place in relation to our Hertfordshire location. We came across Hertfordshire puddingstone, a rare local rock formation which was used for waymarking and in the walls of stately homes and churches to ward off evil spirits. We like to think only good spirits leave the distillery!
The last major stage before launch was our crowdfunding campaign. We’re extremely thankful to all the local people who supported our campaign and came on the journey with us through the distillery build and launch. Many still pop in today for a chat and a bottle of Campfire Gin!
It’s not long till your 5th anniversary. How do you look back on the early days of launching?
It all seems a bit surreal, we still can’t believe that we built Puddingstone Distillery and Campfire Gin from scratch. The first couple of months were completely mad, we were both still working our other jobs, in fact I still am until later this year, so we were distilling and bottling by night, working by day and selling at the weekend and on tour nights. We probably worked seven days a week during our research stage and the first year of opening.
What was the initial reaction like?
Our first distillations were 46 bottles each time. Once word got round and particularly because we opened early November, the run up to Christmas was flat out. We’d take pre-orders during the week and by the end of Saturday each batch would be sold out.
Why was your Campfire Gin different from the competition?
Our first gin was Campfire London Dry Gin, we’ve since added three more heritage gin styles to the range – Cask Aged, Navy Strength and Old Tom. The botanical selections for all our gins are unique to us: yes they are juniper forward because that is what gin must be to be classified a gin, but the other botanicals in the recipes and our distillation processes give us the distinct flavour profiles that shape our gins.
How do you go about creating your gins?
It took 18 months and a couple of hundred test distillations to refine the recipe for Campfire London Dry Gin. We tend to start by defining what we want the final flavour profile of the finished gin to be. Having distilled and worked with many different botanicals Ben has a good knowledge of which botanicals will produce the flavour profile we want to create. From that point on it’s a question of botanical ratios, the nuances with the distillation process and the desired alcohol strength all working hand in hand to create a well-rounded gin. Our exact distilling processes and botanical ratios are distillery secrets, but we’re always quite open about the full line up of botanicals in a recipe!
What would we find when visiting your distillery?
Firstly you would notice the aroma as you step into the distillery. Juniper, cinnamon, coriander seed, fresh peels of orange and grapefruit are just a few of the botanicals we use and that you might identify when visiting. You can see where we distil all our gins – the Campfire Gin range, PUD PUD Christmas gin range plus our limited edition gins as our gin stills, Isabella and Amelia, and the production area are part of the distillery shop. The shop is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays for gin tastings – pop along and try before you buy!
Congratulations on your recent recognition at The Gin Guide Awards and London Spirits Competition. What does this mean to you?
Thank you, we’re delighted to have received these new awards. With more and more gins coming to the market there is a lot of competition out there. The Gin Guide Awards attracted hundreds of entries from over 30 countries. For three of our gins to be category winners and one gin highly commended was a great achievement, but the icing on the cake was being awarded Distillery of the Year. That was truly amazing, we never expected it. It’s wonderful to have industry endorsement of our gins given the high calibre of entries in the competitions. The London Spirits Competition also attracts hundreds of entries from over the world and it was at this competition we picked up our first Gold Medals for Campfire London Dry Gin and Campfire Navy Strength Gin. Campfire Old Tom and Cask Aged Gins did very well too, receiving Silver Medals. We’re still very proud of Campfire London Dry winning the World’s Best Martini Challenge back in 2019 too! Martinis are definitely my favourite cocktail. Simple, elegant and refreshingly cold.
You have recently launched your Ultrasonic Gin. What can you tell us about it?
Ultrasonic Gin is our latest collaboration with Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust. We have partnered with the Trust since 2017 when we launched the world’s first Himalayan balsam gin raising awareness of the conservation work needed to address this invasive, non-native species. We would pick the balsam flowers, dry them and infuse them in a base gin Ben had distilled. The gin had the desired effect and each year there were less flowers to harvest, so while it was an amazingly popular gin we always knew it had a limited life-span and soon we’d need to create a new gin for the Trust. A brainstorming meeting led to the subject of bats and their importance as indicator species. They serve as a measurement of how well wildlife is faring and how well conservation efforts are working because they occupy a wide range of habitats and are sensitive to changes in the environment. Linking the gin to bats was perfect as Ben had just started experimenting with using ultrasound to extract flavour and aroma from botanicals in addition to the distillation process. To complement the juniper flavour we’ve selected botanicals that represent the British countryside – Bramley apple, mint and elderflower. It’s a delicious gin, serve simply with an Indian tonic water and a slice of apple. £2 from the sale of each bottle goes to Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust.
Finally, what’s next?
Well, over the last few months we’ve been busy extending the distillery into the unit next door to us and working on a brand relaunch of the Campfire Gin range. We’ve got new gin ideas for 2022, but in between all those activities our PUD PUD Christmas Gin range will return late autumn. This is a range of three gins whereby we distil locally made Christmas puddings and produce our regular PUD PUD Gin – warming spices and fruity notes. The other two expressions are PUD PUD Gin rested in port and bourbon infused casks and PUD PUD Gin rested in cask stuffed full of fresh local cherries. And, of course now that restrictions are starting to ease, we plan to resume our popular gin tour evenings. Keep an eye on our social media and newsletter for launch dates and more information on events!