Spirit of España: Behind the scenes at Siderit

A beguiling blend of unique botanicals and a state-of-the art distillation method set Siderit, August’s Gin of the Month, apart in a country awash with competitors. Here Lucinda Beeman meets the old friends behind this extraordinary Spanish gin.

One fateful day, two old university friends sat chatting over Spanish gin tonics when an idea struck them. Sound familiar? It should – that’s how Craft Gin Club was born! But funnily enough, hundreds of miles and a number of years apart, that’s also how the friends behind Siderit Gin took their first steps into the world of spirits.

“The dream started that day,” says David Martinez Prieto, one half of the founding Siderit team. “Six months later we started working to make it a reality, and two years later we opened our distillery.”

David and Rubén Montero Leivas, who sat on the other side of the table that day, were old friends from the University of Burgos. After graduating, both had settled in Cantabria and become engineers. But after 10 years, the spirits boom in Spain was becoming too interesting to ignore for two men who loved all spirits – but especially whisky – with a passion.

“Gin in particular is an exciting spirit,” says David, “and it began to emerge across Europe in 2010. With the thousands of plants growing in our valleys, we decided that we had to investigate.”

A Green and Fertile Land

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The Spanish region of Cantabria is a far cry from the arid hills that spring to mind when you close your eyes and think of Spain. Tucked in the country’s northern curve, its moderate climate has given rise to lush, green pastures and glittering lakes. A happy accident of geology has placed Cantabria neatly in reach of both the sparkling sea and the Picos de Europa, one of the continent’s most beautiful mountain ranges.

It was in this picturesque place that David and Rubén decided to set up their distillery. In some ways it was a natural choice; having grown up in neighbouring regions, both men had settled there long since. But in other ways it was a strange choice.

“Cantabria is not a land of gin distilleries,” David explains. While the region had a rich history of distilling traditional brandies from pomace – the remains of fruit already pressed for juice – there was no traditional of distillation there. And, truth be told, its inhabitants didn’t even feel that particularly strongly about spirits. But Cantabria had other things to offer.

“It’s a very quiet place, with large mountains and many forests. We had everything we needed to open an artisan distillery,” David says.

David and Rubén opened Siderit in 2012, choosing the beautiful Cantabrian town of Torrelavega as its home. Their goal was to find a new way to make London Dry Gin, using unique Cantabrian botanicals and the rye alcohol that had formed the base of the original Dutch gins of the 16th century.

“Central to our philosophy is respecting the time it takes to make a high quality product,” Rubén says. “From the beginning of maceration to bottling can take four to five months; starting Siderit was part of a whole life change for us. Be close to home, enjoy more time with family, work on what we love – it’s all part of the distillery.”

With a clear philosophy and a distillery ready to go, it was time to start making gin.

A Cantabrian Classic

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Take a sip of Siderit and you’re tasting the perfect blending of two powerful forces: the perfectionism and precision of two engineering minds, and the glorious originality of the Cantabrian countryside.

As their first spirit, perfection was important when developing Siderit Gin; all told, it took David and Rubén two years to develop a recipe that pleased them both.

“Our recipe for Siderit Classica is number 139,” Rubén laughs, “and in particular version 39c. We’re both perfectionists, and overachieving engineers to boot.”

With a perfect methodology in place, it would be hard for David and Rubén to go wrong. But the ace up Siderit’s sleeve is the incredible range of botanicals growing in the mountains that surround them. One in particular is so important, in fact, that the gin takes its name from it: Siderit.

Also known as ‘rock tea’, ‘mountain tea’ or ‘shepherd’s tea’, what’s called sideritis in Greek is a flowering plant that flourishes in the high altitudes of Cantabria’s mountains. Its name translates into ‘he who is made of iron’, probably because of its sword-shaped leaves, though legend has it that the name refers to sideritis’ uncanny ability to heal wounds made with iron weapons.

David explains: “Siderit is endemic to our mountain ranges, and for over 400 years it’s given a special herbal touch to the pomace brandy we traditionally make here.”

In Siderit gin, this special botanical provides a long aftertaste and herbaceous note. “Just the opposite of a dry gin,” David notes, “which is supposed to be dry and short.”

Rubén adds, “For us siderit is very special. When we ship out the gin it’s like a little piece of our land goes around the world.”

But rock tea isn’t the only star in this remarkable bottle. As David explains, “Siderit Classica is a London neutral gin, with means it has the four botanical groups but none stands out above the others.”

The basis of Siderit, of course, is juniper – David and Rubén collect theirs in the mountains of Cantabria. Tangerine peel imparts a delicious scent on the nose, while coriander and angelica root lend just a touch of dryness. Raw Marcona almonds make the gin creamy, while cardamom and bitter orange peel contribute towards mouth feel and cinnamon lends its intoxicating aroma.

Pink pepper and hibiscus flower, David says, lend a certain delicate sweetness. He explains, “Hibiscus gives us a slight aroma in the nose and floral taste in the mouth.”

All of these myriad botanicals are bound together by orris root, the central axis of Siderit’s blend. But the complexity and beauty of Siderit would not be possible without a pristine base upon which to build, and David and Rubén, in true engineer fashion, spared no time or expense finding that perfect starting point.

Siderit’s base spirit is distilled from rye, a once popular spirit that fell out of favour following the crop’s decimation by disease in the early 20th century. David say, “The rye provides us with an alcohol body without any cloying touches. It’s perfect for a London Dry.”

The base spirit is made using spring water, free of bicarbonates or any metal. Its purity is its strength, and preserved throughout the distillation process by a very special tool: Siderit’s glass still.

According to David and Rubén, using a glass still is the only way to ensure that no foreign flavours or aromas make their way into the precious gin being distilled. These stills are also cleaned using pure alcohol, leaving no unwanted traces to seep into the batches of gin. Siderit has five such stills in use today, the first of which is called Princess.

“After the first one we lost the romanticism,” David laughs. “The rest are just called numbers one through four.”

The process of making a batch of Siderit – whether in Princess or one of the numbered stills – is complex and precise. The botanicals are macerated for 48 hours before the distillation process even begins. When distillation does begin, quantities are limited to 25 litres at any one time, and proceedings are always undertaken with the ethos that brought David and Rubén to the distillery in the first place: no rushing.

Rubén says: “Once we’ve cut the ‘mother gin’ with spring water, we let it stand until it’s stabilised. We don’t used heaters or forced stirring. We always aim to let the spirit decide for itself when it’s ready to be bottled.”

The bottle itself is a testament to Siderit’s process and ethos. In timeless black and white, the label – designed by Antonie Josep Pascual – is a beautiful illustration of an iris flower, source of the orris root that binds each of Siderit’s unique elements together.

“Of all of our botanicals, that’s the most important,” David says. “Without it the merger of the others would not be possible.”

Slow and Steady Success

In a country that is absolutely obsessed with gin – “In Spain there are more than 1,600 gins for sale,” David explains, “creating a completely unsustainable level of competition” – Siderit is one of the standouts.

This multi-award winning gin was a double winner at the 2014 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and took home silver and gold at the International Wine and Spirit Competition just last year.

Siderit London Dry Gin isn’t the only award-winning spirit on Siderit’s roster. Their milk vodka – Vodka Siderit Lactee – won gold at the 2014 San Francisco Spirit Awards. Distilled five times and produced by fermenting the lactose sugars found in milk, it’s a truly remarkable spirit in an equally remarkable bottle inspired by the Milky Way.

Rubén says, “Our first gold medal at the San Francisco Spirits Awards in 2014 was our proudest moment. It was recognition of years of work, and winning was such a great satisfaction – also, we now have a great track record on both sides of the Atlantic.”

But the story isn’t over – long-time whisky fans David and Rubén’s first batch of the spirit is ageing, even now, in oak barrels.

With all of this success and recognition coming their way – and so many exciting ideas to try – it only makes sense that the Siderit team would look to expand their operations. And that’s exactly what David and Rubén have planned. Construction is currently underway on a new, larger distillery in the town of Puente Arce.

“We’re a few months away from opening the new facility,” David says, “so we’re all nerves. It’s an exciting time but also makes us a little dizzy! But our whole team is eager to get started.”

Based in a town 10km from the Cantabrian coast with just 3,000 inhabitants – including David and Rubén themselves – their Puente Arce distillery is both a step into the wider world and a recommitment to the region they call home.

A fitting one, too, as Siderit is Cantabrian to its heart. And also, of course, Spanish.

“The rock tea is our mountains,” Rubén says. “Almond, tangerine and orange are the Mediterranean coast, rye is the fields of Castilla, and the pure water, with lower mineralisation, is unique to the Iberian Peninsula. All of these things combine to make Siderit, a Spanish product with a uniquely Spanish character.”

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