Inspired by seafarers and distilled just steps from the shore, the elegant spirit in your February Gin of the Month box is as smooth as the calmest sea. Meet Start Point, the flagship spirit from Salcombe Gin.
Whether shining under the summer sun or whipping up foam in the tempestuous February wind, the sea at Salcombe is one of the most beautiful in Great Britain.
Angus Lugsdin and Howard Davies met on these waves, teaching children to sail at the Island Cruising Club. In their late teens at the time, after a long day at sea they would decamp to the local yacht club, for their famous large gin and tonics.
“It was always our go-to drink,” says Angus, now over 20 years removed from those days teaching sailing. But gin and tonics by the harbour are still a ritual – only now, the old boat repair yard that used to belong to the Island Cruising Club has been converted into the headquarters for Salcombe Distilling Company, and the gin in their glasses is their own.
City to Sea
For Howard and Angus, the start of childhood summers meant one thing: heading down to Salcombe for a summer spent messing around on boats.
This beautiful harbour – as famous for shipwrecks and sailors as it is for the luxury seaside lifestyle it has come to represent – has been an escape from reality for generations of British staycationers. With calm waves and stunning views, it’s not hard to see how Salcombe has become one of the most sought-after addresses on the south coast.
The siren call of Salcombe is difficult to ignore, and while Angus and Howard parted ways as they grew older – first to go to separate universities, then to pursue different careers – something kept calling them back.
After careers in New York and London, respectively, Angus and Howard both found themselves back in Devon, pursuing the dream of a quiet life by the beach. But Angus, a keen whisky drinker, wanted to go one step further: he had dreams of opening his own distillery.
He’d spent years researching the art of distillation and watching the craft distilling movement develop in the US, visiting his favourite distilleries to learn their secrets. But it was on an Easter business trip that he got serious.
As he explains, “I was at a turning point in my career and had time on my hands to really think about what I wanted to do next in life. I wrote down why I wanted to start a distillery and a list of names of people who could potentially help me, and I set myself a goal that by Christmas this business would be heading in the right direction or I would forget about it entirely. Howard’s name was on that list.”
Howard and Angus spent a year putting together a detailed plan with a view to start a whisky distillery, but as they looked around their seaside town, researched its history and revisited their own idyllic summers, another spirit seemed like the natural fit: gin.
As Angus explains, “It was perfect. We couldn’t believe that no one had thought of Salcombe Gin before. The two were a natural fit!”
The issue was settled. Salcombe Distilling Company was born, and gin would be its first endeavour.
A key question remained: what kind of gin would Howard and Angus make?
Angus says, “We always knew, right from the outset, that we wanted to create a citrus-led, London Dry gin.”
Not only was this the style that Angus and Howard preferred, but it also linked in with a key piece of Salcombe history.
While Salcombe is now known as a holiday spot for the well-heeled and for its famous crabbing industry, in the 19th century it was on the map for very different reasons. Salcombe was home to the Salcombe ‘Fruiters’, the beautiful fruit schooners that were built in and around Salcombe, and crewed by local men. With copper sheathed hulls to aid their passage through the water, these vessels were some of the fastest of their day. Sailing with the hatches open to keep their cargo in top condition, the Salcombe Fruiters could make it back to England from warmer climes in record times – and every second counted, since their primary role was transporting exotic citrus fruits.
Angus says, “You can still get a hold of some of the old cargo manifests, so we looked into their history. I had heard of them but didn’t know much about them. They were amazing vessels, and the vast majority were sadly lost at sea.”
“They were the fastest vessels of their day,” Howard adds, “setting amazing record times – 10 days back from the Azores. The Salcombe fruiters are very much the inspiration for our gin recipe, and we use fresh citrus and spices from some of the same trading routes once served by these magnificent sailing vessels.”
Over the next 18 months – with a lot of patience and a little help from industry stalwarts – Angus and Howard tinkered with a whole range of botanicals inspired by the Salcombe fruiters’ cargo manifests.
They started by developing very small batches on 2.5 litre stills, which are now used by students at the award-winning Salcombe Gin School, before moving up to a pair of 60 litre, flame fired, traditional copper Alembic stills. Angus and Howard named their larger stills Provident and Hoshi, after two of the Island Cruising Club sailing vessels on which they spent many summers sailing to the Channel Islands, France and beyond.
“Our initial recipe was actually pretty good, but we knew there was room for improvement. For months, we made no progress,” Howard says. “But then, after a few months of daily blind tastings, we would make a significant leap forward. This process repeated quite a few times before we felt that we had nailed it.”
The gin in your February Gin of the Month box is an impeccably smooth spirit, rich with the flavours of juniper, citrus and spice. And, as the flagship spirit of Salcombe Distilling Company, it needed a very special name. It was clear to Angus and Howard what that would be: Start Point.
Angus explains, “There are two reasons: one is that Start Point is the famous navigational landmark around the coast from Salcombe, around which the Salcombe Fruiters would have had to sail to get back into their home port. Secondly, it was our starting point. That was it – it had to be Start Point.”
As Angus and Howard were finalising the recipe, they were hard at work on an equally massive project: building a distillery from the ground up on the site of the old Island Cruising Club boat repair yard.
Having a strong presence in Salcombe, Angus says, was a top priority. “There are a lot of brands that abuse the Salcombe name – they have nothing to do with Salcombe, but they want to hop on the bandwagon. We were very conscious of the fact that we didn’t want to become one of those.”
It was pure luck that secured Angus and Howard the harborside lot upon which their old sailing club repair yard once sat. Angus was in a shop when he overheard that the owner of the site was looking to redevelop it; unable to reach the owner by email, he sent him a letter mapping out their idea for a waterside gin distillery. After weeks radio silence, the owner called to express his interest.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Built in the style of a boathouse on Island Street, Salcombe’s traditional centre of boat building, The Boathouse, as its called, houses Salcombe Distillery Company’s beautiful copper still behind floor-to-ceiling windows.
This new HQ is also home to Salcombe Distillery Company’s stylish gin cocktail bar, where visitors can savour sundowners whilst enjoying the evening sunshine on the balcony overlooking the estuary. Across the courtyard is the Salcombe Gin School, completing a true brand home for Salcombe Distillery Company.
The Salcombe Gin distillery is must-visit – and the 22-strong team has taken a cue from an old-school seafaring tradition to welcome anyone who wants to grab a tour and a cocktail.
As Angus explains, “There’s something called a gin pennant, which is a flag that’s been flown by the Royal Navy and yachtsmen for years. It’s a symbol of hospitality: when it’s hoisted it literally means ‘please come on board and join us for a gin and tonic’. That’s the shape of our label, a core part of our identity, wrapping around our bottle like a gin pennant, and we have a massive one flying outside of the distillery.”
That gin pennant, whipping in the sea breeze, is Howard and Angus’s way of saying that gin lovers are always welcome at their distillery, whether to have a drink in the beautiful bar, with its day-long light and view of the estuary, or to catch a glimpse at where the magic of distilling happens: on Provident, the 450-litre bespoke Arnold Holstein still that works just steps away.
Provident, which takes its name from one of the 60 litre stills on which Angus & Howard distilled the first forty batches of Salcombe Gin, is a work of art. Delivered in December 2016, it made it through the massive warehouse doors on the first floor of the distillery by a matter of millimetres. But now safely installed, it’s in this beautiful machine that all of Salcombe Gin is distilled.
“In terms of the actual distillation,” Howard says, “we’re very traditional, and have an uncompromising approach to quality. We use the one-shot method and distil according to the London Dry Standard. We don’t take any shortcuts, period!”
While Angus and Howard developed the recipe and distilled the first few batches, Jason Nickels – a co-founder of the nearby South Devon Chilli Farm – has now taken charge of day-to-day distillation.
Angus says, “He has a love of botanicals that really shows through – his knowledge of flavours is fantastic.”
A distilling day starts with peeling citrus fruit. Ruby red grapefruit, lemons and limes, all organic and unwaxed, are peeled in the morning. The peels go into the still alongside angelica and orris root, liquorice root, and English coriander seeds grown in Sussex. The Salcombe team uses Macedonian juniper, famous for its classic flavour.
Howard explains, “We want our spirit to be a gin, not a flavoured vodka. It has that traditional gin kick, but is incredibly smooth and balanced.”
Also present are cinnamon, bay leaf and chamomile, along with green cardamom and cubeb pepper. Angus says, “Cubeb pepper is probably one of the ingredients we spent the most time playing around with, because it’s very difficult to get the balance right. We want some of that fruity warmth, but too much and it turns bitter.”
But there’s no bitterness in Salcombe Gin Start Point– and when these botanicals meet the naturally soft water from Dartmoor and English wheat spirit, a truly premium gin is born.
Howard says, “To us it’s all about balance. We wanted to create a gin that was really smooth – that’s one thing that always stands out when people talk about our gin.”
And lots of people are talking. Just over a year from its launch, Salcombe Gin Start Point has snapped up every prestigious award in the world of spirits, including Double Gold at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Gold at the World Gin Awards and Three Stars at the Great Taste Awards.
Along the way, they’ve racked up a cult following of bartenders and gin connoisseurs. “People ask what it’s been like,” Angus says, “and it’s just been a blur. I still get a little rush every time I go into a bar and my gin is behind the bar – it’s an enormous sense of achievement.”
Whether you crack open your Salcombe Gin Start Point by the brisk seaside or pour an award-winning G&T in the comfort of your own home this month, be sure to sit back and relax – this true Salcombe spirit is one to savour!