Considered one of the founding fathers of the craft gin movement, Tom Warner is as committed as ever to saving the world from mediocre gin – and the Warner Edwards Botanical Garden Honeybee Gin in June's Gin of the Month box is the latest remarkable spirit to come out of his still, ‘Curiosity’, in picturesque Harrington, Northamptonshire. Discover more about Warner Edwards and this spectacular summertime spirit here.
Every evening and weekend for a year, Tom and his team could be found sawing, hammering, planting and planning. He’d had the idea to build a botanical garden at the heart of his family farm, and he was determined to see it through.
“It nearly killed me,” he laughs now, on the phone from Falls Farm, the beautiful Northamptonshire farm where he grew up, and which he would go on to convert into one of the first and most successful craft gin distilleries in the United Kingdom.
“He built it all himself,” adds Tina, his wife and Partner in the Warner Edwards family business.
But all of the effort – the holidays spent with a hammer in hand, and the long nights willing plants to grow – have more than paid off. Because now Tom and Tina can spend the beautiful English summer in a botanical garden abuzz with bumblebees, butterflies and the incredible aroma of herbs and flowers.
As a tribute to Tom’s mother Adèle, a keen gardener, Tom and Tina’s botanical garden is a moving place overflowing with meaning and memory. But it serves another purpose for the master distillers at Warner Edwards: to inspire a whole range of amazing new gins, including the spectacular Warner Edwards Botanical Garden Honeybee Gin in June's Gin of the Month box.
The Seeds of Success
As a farmer’s son, agricultural college seemed a natural enough next step after school. But little did Tom Warner know that the straightforward decision to attend agricultural college would take his life in a new and amazing direction.
It was also here where Tom met his wife Tina, herself a farmer’s daughter whose interests and skills had taken her instead to the world of high finance. The pair met when Tom was visiting one of his classmates.
After graduation Tina toiled away in the City, while Tom worked all hours at a fresh produce importer.
“It’s a really hard industry,” says Tom of his life before gin. “I was bringing pineapples to the UK from all sorts of exotic countries and you want to work hard, but for yourself, so that was the entrepreneurial moment – we said, ‘Let’s start a company!’.”
Strange as it sounds, now that Warner Edwards is synonymous with the craft gin movement, distilling spirits wasn’t the first idea Tom had for the business. In fact, it wasn’t even the second. But at that time, Tina says, gin was barely on the map.
“There weren’t many gins you could drink neat,” she explains. “There were hints of growth, but nobody expected it to be as massive as it is now.” But, the more they learned, the more distilling gin took centre stage. And after a bit of research, they became convinced that making gin – or “the world’s best-tasting perfume”, as Tom calls it – was the way forward.
“The science of distilling isn’t that difficult,” Tom says. “Making a good gin is the challenge. We used to go to bars and order 20 gins, and try them all neat. Back in those days it seemed crazy, but that’s how we immersed ourselves in that world. We read books, researched the internet, visited distilleries and bought the best still that money can buy. The dream became to save the world from mediocre gin.”
Warner Edwards was the first UK distillery to bring a Holstein copper still, installing it in the 200-year-old stone barn where Tom’s father used to keep farm animals who had come down with a chill. During installation, a cat left tracks in the wet cement; and Tina’s brother suggested they name the still Curiosity: a thirst for knowledge and a wonderful object, and as the saying goes “Curiosity killed the cat, but Satisfaction brought it back.”
Tom says, “A great still really looks after you. Beyond that, it’s all about experimenting and building a relationship. These stills are killing themselves with each distillation – the copper degrades every time you run it. So they’re selfless bits of kit, and the heartbeat of our business.”
But Curiosity is no longer alone on Falls Farm. Recently it was joined by Satisfaction, a 10 per cent replica of the original Holstein still. In this smaller still, Tom and his team trial new recipes, craft special editions and innovate freely, often with botanicals plucked right from their on-site garden.
“All distillers want to do all day every day is make new recipes,” Tom laughs. “We want to make cool liquids! We don’t have to worry about selling a certain number of cases like the big boys do. We can make a flavour without focusing on shareholders or overheads – it’s about exciting ourselves and our customers, and giving people the best drinking experiences possible.”
Within months of releasing their signature London Dry Gin, the Warner Edwards team was already raking in the awards. But for the Warner Edwards team, it was perfecting the unique flavours – like the effervescent Harrington Elderflower Gin in June's Gin of the Month box – that gave them the most joy.
Four years, six gins and numerous gold medals later, it’s safe to say that Tom and Tina have achieved their goal of saving the world from mediocre gin. And the pinnacle of their achievement? It might just be the Honeybee Gin in June's Gin of the Month box.
What's the Buzz?
One sunny day, Tom was sitting in his newly built botanical garden, watching the bees buzz past.
He says, “We have an awesome butterfly plant in the garden, so there’s a huge number of bees and butterflies there. When you research it, bees are in so much trouble at the moment – humans need to get better at safeguarding our habitats and pollinators.”
But the more Tom followed this sad string of thought, the more it transformed into a spark of inspiration. Rather than bemoan the sad fate of honeybees, why not rally gin lovers across the UK to their cause? And why not use the amazing botanicals from his garden – itself a sanctuary for honeybees – to do it?
For Tina, it was a no-brainer. “My Mam had a beehive at home on the farm in Dublin,” she says. “Once they even swarmed up into the roof of the house! There was a connection there, and the idea just seemed to flow so well with the hedgerows on Falls Farm, and how everything we need to flavour all of our gins we owe to the work of bees.”
Just over the hill from the farm, a friend of Tom’s kept 11 beehives; with his encouragement, the Warners set up a few hives on the farm. When the honey from these hives started to meet the freshly picked botanicals from their home garden and the clear spring water sourced from the upper fields of Falls Farm in the belly of selfless Satisfaction, it was clear that something magical was happening.
Tom says, “I wanted to make a gin with a big citrus hit, to have the nectar interacting with the citrussy notes. It’s the craziest gin, and it was hard to distil because of the sheer variety of botanicals.”
With 28 botanicals – including dried grapefruit peel, chamomile flowers, lavender, cubeb pepper and even quince, plus one top-secret ingredient – Warner Edwards Honeybee Gin is a truly virtuosic effort of distilling. But, despite the complexity of its creation, it’s deceptively simple and silky smooth on the palate.
As Tom explains, “There are a lot of gins where people are trying to make statements, and they become a palate killer. Honeybee Gin is quite a big gin in terms of its citrus and floral notes, but we distilled it very slowly. That makes it fresh and drinkable – a zippy, light gin that’s a strong favourite for us over the summer.”
In its glorious golden bottle – etched with the botanicals and story, hand-dipped in wax and sealed with the symbol of a honeybee – Warner Edwards Botanical Garden Honeybee Gin doesn’t benefit from the hard work of bees without giving something back.
At the top of each bottle, Tina and Tom have included a packet of wildflower seeds. Plant them to create a bee sanctuary of your very own, and give these amazing insects a happy waystation as they spread summer flowers up and down the nation. It’s a gin with a message, and the Warner Edwards team means every word.
“There’s a lot of fakery in this world,” Tom muses, “and we don’t do that. The bottle looks good, the liquid tastes great and the message is real. It’s not just one element; it’s all combined.”
Just the second special edition in the Warner Edwards Botanical Garden range (it joins lemon balm-based Melissa Gin on the roster) will this Honeybee Gin be the last amazing flavour to come out of Curiosity? Certainly not – and with a gorgeous garden bursting with flavours and aromas to try, you can bet that the next Warner Edwards outing won’t play it safe, either.
“This is a family business on a family farm,” Tom says. “It’s real. And we always like to say: freedom of expression is the best garnish!”