We love a good story here at Craft Gin Club, so September’s Gin of the Month does not disappoint! Wessex Alfred The Great Gin pays tribute to one of Britain’s greatest kings, so if you are sitting comfortably, we will beGIN…
Once upon a time, a great king toiled to defeat the Vikings and unite the five Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into one England. Pass through the mists of history to enter the world of Alfred the Great, and discover the gin inspired by the myths and legends of his lifetime.
Around 850 CE was a strange and stressful time to live in England. Divided into the five kingdoms of the Anglo Saxons – Northumbria, Mercia, Kent, East Anglia and Wessex – the land was constantly under attack from Viking raiders.
It took one incredible king to bring these kingdoms together and vanquish the Viking threat: Alfred the Great. An unlikely war hero, with crippling stomach problems but an unparalleled intellect, Alfred lived in a world where magic, mystery and medicine were all rolled into one.
In this oft-overlooked historical era, folk wisdom and fervent religion made sense of the chaos and pain of a war-torn world. It was a time of hopes and prayers, spells and enchantments, potions and alchemy, where the bounty of England’s forests and fields could mean the difference between life and death – and the Anglo-Saxons documented all their hard-earned herbal remedies in an ancient text called the Herbarium.
Inspired by this ancient text and awed by King Alfred the Great’s incredible journey, one master distiller set out to craft a gin that would pay tribute to this great man’s life and his turbulent times.
The Master Distiller
Many gin fans will already be familiar with the distiller of whom we speak. After all, he was the man behind another Craft Gin Club gin – albeit under a completely different brand.
As the founder and head distiller at London Distillery Company, Jonathan Clark opened the first gin distillery in London’s Square Mile for centuries – the first, in fact, since the gin craze of the nineteenth century.
“My original idea for that distillery was to add a bit of interest to a cocktail bar that I owned just off Fleet Street, says Jonathan. “But then I really caught the gin distilling bug!”
Indeed, City of London Distillery made quite a name for itself as the craft gin industry boomed, winning awards all over the world. The success suited the perfectionist in Jonathan, and he worked hard to fine tune and expand the City of London Distillery range. In September 2018, his Six Bells Gin was even selected as our Gin of the Month!
But all good things must come to an end, and after 40 years in the City of London, Jonathan decided it was time to move on. But the quiet life of post-retirement didn’t entirely appeal.
Jonathan laughs, “I wasn’t ready to turn my back on gin, so, as a family, we decided to start all over with Wessex Distillery – but with no cocktail bar to worry about this time!”
The Kingdom of Wessex
When Jonathan and his wife, Gill decided to start up a brand new distillery, a passion project just for them and their amazing family to run together, they wanted to make sure that they were taking what they’d learned from their first go around and applying it in a new way.
“With City of London Distillery, we very much enjoyed the benefits of being connected to a geographical location,” Jonathan says. “When we were thinking about this new distillery, we wanted the same connection.”
They started looking into their new home and, being England, there were many thousands of years to explore. But one historical era in particular stayed with them: Anglo-Saxon Britain.
Often overlooked in favour of the dramatic Tudors, the controversial Victorians and the allure of the Swinging Sixties, the Anglo-Saxon era was one of the most important in English history – though, in fact, it was before there was even an England at all!
When the Romans beat their retreat from the British Isles, they left in their wake five kingdoms. The southernmost was Wessex, which encompassed the modern-day counties of Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset. Once a great kingdom, those who have heard of Wessex today remember it mostly as the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom to resist one of history’s great invading forces: the Vikings.
At one time the only unoccupied Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Wessex – thanks to its incredible king, Alfred the Great – led the charge against the Vikings that would culminate in their expulsion, and the unification of five kingdoms into the great land we call England today.
It was intoxicating stuff. As Jonathan says, “With its fascinating history, myths and stories, the idea of Wessex caught the imagination.”
The time of Alfred the Great was one of great upheaval, and folk wisdom and religion played a huge role in binding the embattled Anglo-Saxons together and providing comfort and a sense of control. Herbal concoctions would have been used to heal physical and emotional hurts alike – not unlike a well-made G&T! A blanket of mystery and magic hung over the entire era, and Gill and Jonathan were keen to explore it further.
“We wanted to bring a bit of Wessex magic to the gins,” says Jonathan, “so we started exploring the plants and herbs that were around in the Anglo-Saxon era – not just grown here, but also what might have been brought in from overseas.”
In their explorations of this time long past, Gill and Jonathan came across the Herbarium. This text, almost like a modern cocktail book, is a careful catalogue of herbs and all the concoctions that can be made with them, along with their medicinal properties.
As Jonathan explains: “This Old English text focuses on herbal remedies, and catalogues more than a hundred plants, their healing properties and how to use them. We’re using the Herbarium to help us find the Wessex twist for each of our gins.”
It’s through the Herbarium that Gill and Jonathan learned that watercress, when put up the nose, prevented hair loss; chamomile, if picked before sunrise, was used to ease eye pain; hibiscus, pounded with lard and laid on the painful spot healed gout; and lukewarm blackberry juice dripped into the ear lessened the pain of earache.
Within the Herbarium’s pages, Jonathan and Gill also saw a treasure trove of potential botanicals. It was this inspiration, combined with Jonathan’s existing knowledge of classic gin botanicals that led directly to Wessex Distillery’s first adventure: the Alfred the Great Gin in our September Gin of the Month box.
As Jonathan says, “Our first priority was to create a new London dry gin with a Wessex twist. That’s what we’ve done with Alfred the Great Gin.”
King of Gins
With so much experience and success behind him, it was crucial for Jonathan to make Wessex Distillery’s flagship gin as spectacular as the life of the man who inspired it. He also wanted this first gin to reflect his own palate, and the kind of gins he most enjoyed drinking in his downtime.
“Our paramount aim has always been to achieve a clean, crisp, well-balanced gin,” says Jonathan. “We like the juniper to dominate, and to use a variety of citrus flavours to add a bit of zing.”
To get the ball rolling, Gill and Jonathan convened their crack tasting team: gin-loving friends and family, who would gather periodically to taste different alchemical elixirs as Jonathan and Gill tweaked and perfected their gin.
“Many hours were spent developing this gin,” laughs Gill. “The high points were when we started to see a good gin emerging, and the low point was washing up all the glasses!”
Wessex Distillery’s Alfred the Great Gin is a citrus-led gin – a nod to Jonathan’s palate – and the supporting botanicals have been selected to pay tribute to its namesake. This includes the classic gin botanical of juniper, which is notable in this spirit for its power.
As Jonathan says, “Alfred battled the Vikings throughout his entire reign, and this is reflected in the big thump of piney juniper.”
Peppery coriander, almost enlightening on the palate, represents Alfred’s love of learning and passion for scholarship. The citrus notes that pick up at the finish denote his close link with Italy, where the Pope blessed him as a child in Rome. And the faintly aniseed-tasting herb chervil, used in Anglo-Saxon times to soothe the stomach, is a nod to the tinctures Alfred would have surely consumed to soothe his chronic pains.
“It doesn’t stand out as a distinct flavour,” says Jonathan of chervil, “but we think it adds something to the taste of juniper.”
All told, Wessex Distillery’s Alfred the Great Gin is every inch as triumphant as its namesake. Bright, hopeful and with a powerful burst of piny juniper, it’s excellent in cocktails and mixed drinks alike.
“We love it in a gin and tonic,” says Jonathan. “Apple and juniper are delicious, or a twist of orange zest.”
It’s a fine start for a new distillery – and it’s just the beginning for the Clark family, too.
A Great Lineage
Like the great Anglo-Saxon dynasties of old, the Wessex Distillery is very much a family affair. Jonathan himself works at the still, hand-crafting batches of Alfred the Great Gin and tinkering with new recipes inspired by the Herbarium, looking for new ways to bring the ancient alchemy of the Anglo-Saxons back to modern Britain.
“We’re experimenting with some fruity gins at the moment,” says Jonathan. “We’re not quite ready to say what we’ll be offering, but we’ll make sure it tastes great!”
Gill herself works on the business side, managing the website and finances. Even their children are involved; son Chris, a recent university graduate, helps out behind the still, manages the warehouse and makes sure sales and deliveries all go smoothly. Meanwhile Amy, Gill and Jonathan’s daughter, has taken the lead in organising Wessex Distillery’s appearance at local events.
As Jonathan says, “We have great ambitions, but to start with, we’re getting out to country shows and farmers’ markets in the general area that was once Wessex.”
It’s an exciting time for the Clark family, and like King Alfred’s reign, it’s only up from here!
“We’re looking forward to running the distillery with our family,” smiles Jonathan. “And we’re so excited for people to enjoy the clean, crisp flavour of our gin and keep the bottle!”