Imagine, for a moment, sipping a gin that didn’t just smell like a garden, but smelled and tasted like your garden. Well, such a thing is now possible thanks to The Cambridge Distillery, a micro-distillery that specialises in tailormade gins (from £400). For a fee of around £5,000, distiller William Lowe will plunder your garden for flowers, herbs and barks to make a gin that tastes like home.
But he distills other things too. The Nordic Food Lab collaborated with Lowe to create a gin from red wood ants, which ended up being served at Noma (the formic acid the ants produce has a citrusy character similar to lemon).
The Cambridge Distillery also created the world’s most expensive gin, Watenshi (The Japanese Angel), which retails for £2,000. I’m a big admirer of Lowe’s work, but even I balked at this. Whisky is expensive because it spends a long time ageing in cask. But how could an unaged gin be worth £2,000? The answer lies in the way it’s made.
Unlike most gins, which are distilled in a copper pot still, Watenshi is distilled in an ultra-low-pressure, low-temperature vacuum, allowing Lowe to capture top notes “that would normally just float out of the distillery window”. It’s painstaking work: yield is just three teaspoons a day, or six bottles a year. Despite my scepticism, I was dazzled by this gin. It had a high-definition quality to it that made me gasp. “I want it to be like waiting for a train that your fiancé is on and having it rush into the station,” says Lowe.
Watenshi’s botanicals include yuzu, sansho pepper and nutty-sweet sesame, but it was the beautiful scent of shiso that had me breathing deep long after the glass was empty. I’d wear this stuff if it didn’t cost 13 times a bottle of Frédéric Malle. And it wouldn’t look out of place on a dressing table, either. The bottle is by Swiss designers Loris&Livia and jeweller Antoine Sandoz, who has also designed for Tom Ford and Chanel.
The Cambridge Distillery HQ is in picturesque Grantchester, just a stone’s throw from the River Cam. It’s here, among the Meadows, that Lowe forages the hawthorn, lemon balm and stinging nettles for his twice-yearly seasonal gin.
His latest project, though, is in a townhouse in the heart of Cambridge, not far from the college where Lowe’s father was a fellow (and I, by coincidence, did my degree): Corpus Christi. The Cambridge Gin Lab – described by Lowe as a “science museum for gin lovers” – offers in-depth tastings, distillation masterclasses and a shop where you can blend your own gin. “You could come in and create a gin for your dinner party that night,” says Lowe. Which sounds fun, but while there are distillers like Lowe around, I’m inclined to leave it to the experts.