A Spot of Scavenging on Snowdon
Sourcing his botanicals on the slopes of Mount Snowdon, Chris Marshall at Snowdonia Distillery has created the really rather good Forager’s gin
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
The explosion in craft distilling has reached the slopes of Snowdon. Founded in 2015, Chris Marshall has been producing Forager’s Gin at the Snowdonia Distillery since the start of 2016 but already has a loyal band of fans. Having lived in Wales his whole life, he was aware that the area around Snowdon was famous for its spring waters, and thought, “surely there were other local botanicals and ingredients that could be used?” This thought, matched with a desire to create the perfect base for a summer gin and tonic, proved the spark for Forager’s gin.
Working with a local botanist, Chris and his wife Naomi experimented with various local ingredients and mixtures. As he points out, wild juniper grows on the slopes of Snowdon itself so the primary ingredient is readily available. There are two resulting gins, Forager’s Yellow and Black labels. The Yellow label is Chris’s answer to the ideal summer GnT base – delicate and floral. Black label is very clean and crisp – as he laughingly puts it, “it’s Yellow label’s evil brother!!” Given his desire to have two very different basic strands of gin – one floral and one crisp – Chris realised there were always going to have to be two basic offerings, as it would be impossible to balance such diverse threads in one spirit.
The Yellow label is delicate with six botanicals in it; as well as the juniper there is sea buckthorn, apple and elderberry for a hint of freshness alongside gorse flower and heather. Chris operates a three and a half week maceration period for the botanicals for this label, “the slow process makes for a smoother gin” he maintains. At the other end of the scale, the Black label has only two botanicals, juniper and sea buckthorn. Very crisp on the palate, it is certainly a distinctive gin. “This was very tricky to distil” says Chris, “we had to do a lot of experimentation and be exceedingly accurate in how we marry the two botanicals.”
Snowdonia distillery does not use a large still; the distillation process is slowed down at eight hours. Following that, the distillate is cut with water from their local reservoir – there is no need to source spring water. As Chris explains, the local area is granite-based so the resulting water is very clean. He only uses a carbon filter, “come to think of it,” he smiles, “we should probably shout about the quality of our local water a bit more.”
From the beginning Chris was determined to keep everything on a human scale. The foraging is certainly time consuming. Sixty per cent of the botanicals are hand-picked locally, and there is a constant need to monitor stocks of the ingredient – especially juniper – to prevent over picking. From next year, he plans to take clippings and begin a planting and conservation programme to ensure a sustainable crop and that the local fauna remains balanced. Inside the distillery, there is no automation and all bottles are hand-labelled and numbered. The batch sizes are kept very small: between 100 and 50 batches of each label is produced every year. Whilst this is done to ensure the sustainability and properly hand-crafted nature of the spirit, Chris is not unaware of the pleasing side effect of exclusivity that this brings, but, “this has almost come by accident rather than any design!”
Chris is a newcomer to the craft spirit scene. Having been a member of the GB junior ski team growing up (Chemmy Alcott was one year above him in the squad), he started his career at HSBC before moving onto a number of independent investment houses – he still consults to one. Having a passion on the side in the shape of the distillery he finds, is exceedingly useful – the transferable skills and business understanding he has found benefit both his roles, “it’s also something to restore my soul after corporate life!!” he laughs. His wife Naomi trained – and still works – as a dentist and so bought a useful science background to the project. Chris certainly feels that he has always had a creative side that he is now able to explore – Naomi, he smiles, is the organised one. Alongside the two of them, there are only two other members of the Snowdonia distillery team – a tight knit group indeed.
As a new brand, Chris is working to develop and advance the online store whilst working with a small number of stockists, bars and restaurants around the UK. Given the batch limitations Chris has, this is limited to 35 outlets. He wants stockists the distillery has met and knows, “we want people who are a good fit for us – who understand the process and exclusivity that we find we have” Chris comments. The restaurants who stock Forager’s generally have an AA rosette or more. Chris currently deals with two bars in London, 214 Bermondsey and Merchant’s House.
One such relationship that has flourished is with Bermondsey Tonic Water (BTW), created by Nick Crispini, the 214 Bermondsey bar owner. Made to a natural, Victorian recipe, the resulting tonic has an amber hue, smooth and crisp without having the overpowering taste that many commercial tonics have. With their shared focus on a natural product – “too many tonic waters are too bitter and can overwhelm a delicate gin” – Chris strongly suggests BTW as the perfect serve with Forager’s. Indeed, Snowdonia Distillery has become a Welsh distributor for the brand and a number of stockists now also take in both brands as a serving package.
Given the botanicals in the gins, Chris – agreeing with the rule all garnish should complement and bring out flavours in the spirit – suggests apples with the Yellow label and juniper berries in the Black. Alternatively, “and I know it’s controversial!” he laughs, the Black label can be drunk – given its two botanicals and very crisp taste – with nothing…
What does the future hold for Chris and Forager’s gin? Given the success of Forager’s, Chris has already had inquiries about distillery visits. With his desire to keep everything on an intimate level, he didn’t want to offer large, impersonal group tours. As such, he is refining a private tasting session for no more than four people at a time, because “people increasingly want a memorable and exclusive experience. Keeping anything very tight and small means we can put forward a premium offering.” This is also why, unlike several distilleries who have done it with success, Chris does not want to offer gin-making lessons as he wants to maintain control of the product coming out of the distillery, keeping the batch sizes small and maintaining the sustainability he so seeks.
Chris is also considering producing Special Reserve Black Label limited runs, probably of around 10 to 12 bottles. Having chatted with local artisans, they would also be presented in bottles with the distinctive Forager’s decoration of Snowdon’s contour lines silver gilded.
Away from gin, Chris is looking at launching a liqueur, rum and whisky, “in my eyes a craft distillery is one that can turn its hand to more than one spirit.” The liqueur is likely to be first on the list, also using local botanicals, “as it about shouting about Snowdonia”. Both this and subsequent spirits will follow the limited batch and release ethos employed thus far. There are also plans to team up with local adventure firm RAW Adventures, specifically their Climb Snowdon team. Playing with the idea of “gin-ventures”, Chris is thinking about melding Climb Snowdon’s hiking experience with a crafted foraging tour – showing interested enthusiasts the botanicals and local fauna that goes into the final product: Snowdon’s very own, home-grown gin.