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You don’t get much more ‘cottage industry’ than Ian Hart, who makes gin, vodka and vermouth from his home in a leafy street in Highgate, north London. Now selling direct to around 50 bars across the capital, the craft distiller is producing 1,000 bottles a month, and has started shipping his spirit to the US. Having spent much of his career in finance, on Wall Street and in the City of London, his new-found success in the spirits world has come as something of a surprise.
Ian Hart admits to having been “completely naive” when he started distilling and infusing botanicals to make a gin. In fact, he’d only really been mucking around with equipment that he’d been using to ‘re-engineer’ his vast collection of fine wine. It was only when a group of G&T ‘guinea pigs’ in his local pub, The Wrestlers, gave it the thumbs up that he realised he had a viable commercial operation from the crude still he’d set up in his living room.
That Ian found himself playing with his wine collection at all was merely the latest manifestation of a series of wacky inventions and experiments that he pursued in a bid to forge a new career for himself. Caractacus Potts-style, he envisioned tapping into – no, creating! – new markets for products that people didn’t know they yet needed. From portable radars that the police could use to detect knives to creating a low-cost source of wireless electricity, his pursuits betrayed the presence of a fantastically intellectual mind and a struggle to create something tangible following an ultimately unsatisfactory career in the world of financial services.
After studying natural sciences in the 1980s at Cambridge, Ian began his life in the real world running his own mobile phone company. This was back when phones were huge, brick-shaped – and only just about mobile – status symbols. At one point, the company was selling 25 per cent of all the cell phones in London. Unfortunately, amid the recession of the 1980s, the under-capitalised, highly-geared company went under and Ian thought that if he was going to pursue a career at all associated with business, he had better get some solid financial knowledge under his belt.
He decided on an MBA, and in 1992 headed to the University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco, where he majored in ‘financial engineering’. Today the city is home to a number of respected craft distillers, but back then it was better known for its craft beers, though he gave little thought as to its potential impact on his later life. “I remember being impressed with its micro-breweries – Sierra Nevada was beginning to be something and Anchor steam was quite small. I remember the brewing equipment being on display in bars. But I’ve been a wine collector since I was 18 and I think I thought if I ever exited the financial world, it would be wine, not beer, and I never imagined I would be in spirits.”
While some of his fellow graduates went on to academia, or to start wineries in nearby Napa, Ian headed back east, settling in New York as a trader on a hedge fund on Wall Street. “It was great fun,” he recalls. “There we were, a lot of young, fun, intelligent guys playing with large amounts of money, sometimes as much as $500m – a bit like Gordon Gekko I suppose.”
His expertise in a world of government bonds, exotic options and credit derivatives saw him return to London in the late ‘90s, headhunted to work as a trader for a Japanese bank, trading using practices now outlawed as unacceptably risky. “Everything we were doing then has just been banned. I left way before the problems but even then I knew what exactly was going on and the management didn’t always know the huge gambles people were taking. We all had many dicey moments. The most I lost in a day was £2.5m, though others would not know when to quit and on occasion you would see someone’s desk taken over and find out they had lost £25m or £30m. It was very disturbing and that’s why I left trading in the end.”
He continued in finance for the next four years, through to 2007, when the recession began to bite and found himself out of a job, and it was then that he decided he needed a new career unconnected to the cyclical uncertainty of the world of finance. Returning to his family home in Highgate, the inventor inside emerged, and he began to tread what looks like a decidedly strange path towards the world of alcohol.
First was the world of Tesla coils – the means to ‘broadcast’ or transmit electrical power. At this stage it was more a question of experimentation for its own sake, not quite knowing where it would take him. He recalls assembling a coil that created an 11kW field – when he switched it on, all the bulbs in his house began to glow. One can only imagine how Ian’s neighbours regarded his experiments – perhaps something like Doc Brown from Back to the Future?
Next came his idea of using microwave electronics to develop a hand-held ‘knife radar’ for police that could detect pieces of metal between 5cm and 15cm within a 20-30m range. He taught himself to make circuit boards but realised his level of engineering was not good enough. Unwilling to return to university, he looked now to the collection of wine he had accumulated over the years.
Looking for inspiration to the garagistes of Bordeaux – a group of innovative wine-makers who endeavoured to create less tannic wines that were palatable with less aging – he set about attempting to re-engineer his vintage wine, breaking it down into its constituent parts and then carefully reassembling it. In particular this was about reducing its water content.
“I had a hunch that there was something that could be done,” he says. “The garagistes were using vacuum apparatus to evaporate water off wet grapes prior to fermentation, and arguably 99 per cent of wine suffers from this.”
Assembling a refrigeration conditioning pump, a crude vacuum chamber, automotive vacuum tubing, an argon gas canister and a £15 aquarium pump, he assembled a crude still (“I had never heard of rotavaps,” he says) where he could separate out methanol (which carries the bouquet of all wines), ethyl alcohol, other vaporisable aromatics and the water from 20-plus year-old wine.
“It had the most amazing result when I tried it with sweet white wine (Sauternes) and vintage port. From a 750ml bottle of wine you can take off 200ml of water, then recombine the bouquet and alcohol and the syrup left in vacuum chamber. It was absolutely stupendous.”
Again, however, he hit a brick wall and couldn’t work out how to make the operation commercially viable. More out of blind curiosity than anything else, he began playing with neutral spirit and some botanicals that he had accumulated. Just when he was not expecting it, and through a process of trial and error, he happened on a formula for gin that proved popular.
The unique selling proposition of Sacred Gin, and the inspiration for its name, is the inclusion of frankincense among the botanicals. “I can’t quite remember when exactly it came in to the mix, but I recalled its fantastic fragrance from church services. It wasn’t deliberately gimmicky or anything, I just found it an uplifting fragrance and flavour, a perfect resinous note balancing juniper and citrus.”
Having won the approval of his fellow drinkers at The Wrestlers, the landlord put it on the back-bar in late 2008 and Ian, realising how he might have finally created a new career for himself, began working through a list of about 30 venues around London that he thought might take his gin.
“This was just before the recent gin craze really took hold,” he says. “Sipsmith were only just setting up for instance. We got the cold shoulder from quite a few places, so we were totally surprised when we walked into Dukes Hotel and Alessandro Palazzi agreed to take a bottle off us. We’d never been to Dukes and didn’t really know about its Martini history. And we didn’t even order a drink. But a week later, he rang back and asked for six more and has been a great supporter ever since.”
Having taken soundings from Beefeater’s Desmond Payne and others, [including CLASS’s Simon Difford], Ian adjusted the pricing of his premium product, dropped the inverted magnums he had been making for his pub buyers, stuck to regular-sized bottles and concentrated on creating a wholly more premium brand.
He acquired the bureaucratic necessities needed to work his still at home – duty stamps, a compounder’s licence and a warehouse owner’s licence and a municipal safety certificate – and began operations in earnest.
All distillates and infusions are created from the living room at the back of his house, and all blending takes place here too. Initially he would distribute bottles himself, but now bottling is the responsibility of Thames Distillers or Hayman Distillers. Ian tends to hire a van and take batches of gin or vodka to them in 25-litre kegs.
Today, he produces 1,000 bottles a month from his Highgate house, where a daily struggle takes place in order that the family home is not totally obstructed with piles of cardboard boxes, labels and scientific equipment. His first shipment to the US is currently being distributed to 35 states.
“I know that some people would characterize me as eccentric, but I think it's only because I have the ambition to do things that other people have not done before - inventor, yes, but I have been studying sciences, alcohol and business for a long time. I look up to James Dyson, Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal for example! It’s that combination of engineering, technology and food and drink.”