The Spirit of Fresh Starts: the makings of Conker Gin

Rupert Holloway was just a few months off his 30th birthday when he realised the life he’d built wasn’t the one he wanted to live. He decided to start fresh and, just a few years on, has transformed his own life – and the world of craft gin, along with it by creating September's Gin of the Month: Conker Gin.

Every week, Rupert Holloway and his team pile into a truck and drive deep into the New Forest. It’s a long journey from Dorset, where they live and work, through winding roads lined with richly-leaved trees and crossed, at random intervals, by the packs of wild horses that roam this otherworldly slice of England.

Rupert makes his weekly sojourn for one reason only: to find the New Forest spring water that he considers the best in the world: it’s fresh and pure, free of chlorine and fluoride, rich with vitamins and minerals. He pumps it into his tanks a thousand litres at a time, then takes it back to Dorset. There, combined with the finest British wheat spirit and hand-gathered gorse flowers that grow wild by the southwestern sea, it becomes the liquid that’s transformed Rupert’s life, along with the entire craft gin scene in the United Kingdom: Conker Dorset Dry Gin.

Quarter Life Crisis

rupert holloway conker gin dorset dry

Even just a few years ago, it would have been unimaginable for Rupert to picture himself as the distiller of a universally beloved, multi-award-winning gin.

“Before Conker I was a bit sad,” he says. “From leaving school at 18, I had ploughed through a degree, a Masters and seven years of training to become a chartered surveyor, only to find that I’d completely lost my spark for work. I found myself climbing a career ladder that made me miserable.”

Rupert was dreaming of a way out. He would text his girlfriend his latest inventions, brainstorm business ideas, plot hundreds of possible paths from his dreaded desk job to real passion.

He says, “It was a good six months, and numerous not-so-feasible business ideas, on from my early mid-life crisis revelation that I landed on the simple question: why in my local can you buy Dorset ales, and yet no Dorset gin?”

It was an idea he couldn’t let go of. He worked out how he would source water locally, and use the wild plants that grew around his childhood home for botanicals. He could build his distillery right there, where no spirit had been made for hundreds of years. “This ‘Dorset Dry’ I had visions of creating would be dry and juniper-forward, but with the bright, fresh, herbaceous notes of Dorset-foraged botanicals.”

For Rupert, a born and bred Dorset boy – who had grown up with his toes in the sand, whose ambition was to create something new in the place where he lived and loved – it was clearly the perfect idea. There was just one problem: while he knew Dorset like the back of his hand, he had never distilled a spirit in his life.

All Change

conker dry gin dorset

His complete inexperience in the world of distilling turned out to be less of an issue than Rupert once thought. In fact, the excitement of finally settling on a business idea – to build Dorset’s first distillery – proved to be just the push he needed to make that big change.

As he explains, “Knowing we could potentially be the first distillery in Dorset was a massive driver for me in building up the courage to hand in my notice at my old job. I was so driven by the thought that if we didn’t do it, someone else would.”

It took a year and a half for Rupert to get his first bottle of gin out the door. For six months, Rupert juggled his day job with an intensive self-taught crash course on the art of distilling. Even when he was able to work on his passion project full time, it took an entire year of recipe development to come up with a winner. Crouched over a stovetop still, he experimented with different botanical blends.

A fan of the classic London Dry, he at least had a starting point – and his total inexperience gave him the freedom to experiment with no notion of right and wrong. “Ignorance on a subject can be a real benefit when you’re trying to create something new and exciting,” he says. “I’m a strong believer of ‘anything can be learnt’, so I set out to do just that.”

Freed of expectations and anxiety, Rupert worked diligently through 38 recipes. He may not have thought he knew what he was doing, but he knew what he was looking for. “It was essential for me that the Dorset Dry gin I was creating be well-balanced, with no single botanical shouting above the rest, spoiling the show. I also wanted the Dorset botanicals to play a proper role, rather than having them there as a marketing gimmick.”

All of this learning had to happen alongside the day-to-day of creating a business: sourcing funding, finding a building that would work as a distillery and then building it, getting licensed, knocking on doors and trying to get the word out that a new gin was coming to town.

And then, of course, there was the hardest part of all: naming Rupert’s new gin. But the strange whims of autocorrect took care of that: one day Rupert was texting his girlfriend, moaning about how horrible his day job was, when she accidentally responded with the word ‘conker’.

As Rupert says: “After being slightly bemused for a few seconds, I realised what a great word Conker is. It was British and nostalgic – it was perfect!”

But, two years in the making and named by a fluke, what was it about the remarkable liquid featured in September's Gin of the Month box that made the whole world of craft gin sit up and take notice?

Conkering Spirit

conker dorset dry gin

In early 2015, Rupert introduced Conker Gin to the world. He made his first batch on a 30 litre pot still jokingly named Aunt Fanny; just six months later, she couldn’t keep up with demand, and Rupert had to add Pumpkin, a second 30 litre still, to keep up with demand. But these days, even their combined efforts aren’t enough. Rupert retired Aunt Fanny and Pumpkin, and now works with two 60 litre stills.

Rupert can’t keep up with demand for one simple reason: the Conker Gin in September's Gin of the Month box is a cracker.

Rupert says, “Because I wanted the Dorset Dry to be classic in style, I first set out to make a cracking London Dry. From there I trialled Dorset-grown botanicals to add the flavours of the county to the gin.”

The classic gin botanicals Rupert chose were juniper berries, coriander seed, angelica root, orris root, cassia bark, bitter orange peel and lime peel.

And as for the Dorset botanicals? “I landed on gorse flowers, marsh samphire, and elderberries,” Rupert says, “giving bright, fresh, fruity and herbaceous notes to the juniper-led classic foundation of the gin.”

The resulting gin, which has been racking up medals at international competitions since its launch, is a classic gin with a touch of added complexity. Gorse flowers, Rupert explains, distil into a bright nectary sweetness, while samphire lends a green tea flavour with just a hint of caramel. As for elderberries, the last botanical to gain a spot on the ingredients list? It gives the whole spirit its cool, fruity notes of blueberry.

With a twist of lime, to bring out the lime peel in the spirit, this gin is a real wonder. It was designed specifically to be enjoyed without too many bells and whistles; the lime peel in the botanical blend ensures that a classic gin and tonic, with a twist of lime, is all you need to make this spirit sing.

And, as one of the first truly craft gins to come onto the market, it represents a new era in the world of gin.

rupert holloway conker gin dorset dry

“Being one of the first distilleries is the gin renaissance was a huge advantage,” Rupert says, “but the novelty of being first doesn’t last. We don’t rest on those laurels.”

Rather, Rupert strives to stick to the founding principles of Conker Spirits. He does everything – from foraging for local gorse flowers and bottling, to signing each and every bottle that leaves his distillery – by hand.

“We don’t buy into flashy marketing,” Rupert says. “We let our authenticity and provenance do the talking.”

That commitment is as clear in Rupert’s gin as it is in the bottle of obsessively engineered coffee liqueur in September's Gin of the Month box. You can find out more about his amazing new addition to the Conker roster here, but just one taste will tell you that this is no mere copy of common coffee liqueurs.

And there’s more to come from Conker.  

“Conker Spirit is alive and growing,” says Rupert, “Every day is a bit of a battle – juggling, fighting fires, long days – but it’s working! We’ll keep perfecting what we’re doing and welcome tomorrow with open arms.”